Episode Count: 8
Starring: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, and Sigourney Weaver
After 5 separate outings with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, Netflix’s tangential Marvel cinematic-TV universe culminates with first season of The Defenders, a quasi-Avengers team-up consisting of the Netflix Marvel superheroes.
The Defenders brings together the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen/Daredevil (Charlie Cox), super-strong PI Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Power Man Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and The Immortal Iron Fist, Danny Rand (Finn Jones), to defend New York City from the ancient shadow organization known as The Hand, lead by special guest actress Sigourney Weaver. Those familiar with the Daredevil and Iron Fist series will remember The Hand as the antagonists of those shows, but all anyone needs to know about them is that they are a group of heavily-funded ninjas who are a lead by 5 immortal Kung-Fu masters, hence the “hand” association.
The Marvel Netflix Universe (MNU) has held a special place in the heart of superhero fandom. Known for its darker content, the MNU has stood out from the typically light-hearted, family-suitable theatrical Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the other cable Marvel shows (Agents of Shield, Inhumans). Season 1 and 2 of Daredevil successfully delivered a kind grittiness and violence that countless superhero films and TV shows over the years have attempted to but failed to pull off. It also didn’t hurt that it not only redeemed a character whom had a infamous theatrical outing in 2003, but lead off the first complete production of many Marvel properties that had reverted back into Marvel Studios’ arsenal from a variety of movie studios. Next came Jessica Jones, which not only carried over the dark tone of Daredevil, but also offered a thoughtful allegory of rape politics intertwined with a captivating story with Marvel’s best on-screen villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant). Likewise, Luke Cage embraced its blackness and internalized themes of pacifism, brotherhood, economic hardship, racism, and police brutality in black communities in an endearing and tasteful way. With Iron Fist however, world building and lore took precedent over compelling characterization and good story, and suffered greatly for it.
Like Iron Fist, The Defenders too prioritizes the unimpressive spectacle in the form of The Hand and its lore over the innovative storytelling that made the previous solo series so special, although that’s not say anything that made those shows unique is completely devoid. Most notably, each of the four leads go through some kind meaningful character development over the course of the 8 episodes. Matt Murdock comes to terms with the fact that Daredevil is an essential part of who he is, even if it costs him his career as a lawyer, the company of his friends, or his love life. Jessica Jones, still shook by her experiences with Purple Man/Kilgrave, learns to swallow her cynicism and accept the company of others like her to fight for the common good rather than just for her personal investments. Like Jessica, Luke Cage realizes that even needs help from those more vulnerable than him and is willing to sacrifice his freedom in exchange for the well being of the community. Lastly, billionaire Danny Rand gets a rude awakening that he even though he houses the ancient power of the Iron Fist, he doesn’t need to punch his way out of every battle when he’s as rich and white as he is, although he still ends up having to punch his way out of trouble by the end of the show.
While the characters work on display in The Defenders is quite good, the story and the villains are notably underwhelming. The show opens almost immediately after the conclusion of season 1 of Iron Fist with Danny Rand and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) hunting down operatives of The Hand around the world, introducing the show as more of a direct continuation of the Iron Fist arc rather than a organic progression of every character’s distinct stories, save for maybe Matt Murdock/Daredevil. In that regard, Defenders positions Danny Rand as the main protagonist while Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are essentially along for the ride. This narrative frame would have been interesting enough if it weren’t for the botched depiction of The Hand. After season 2 of Daredevil and season 1 of Iron Fist, the threat of The Hand in Defenders should feel epic and formidable, but instead feels like a mere nuisance that Daredevil and Luke Cage could handle just the two of them. The Hand’s endgame, the reason they want to capture Danny Rand/Iron Fist so badly, is equally unspectacular, but I won’t spoil it here. Sigourney Weaver as the main villain and leader of The Hand is fun to watch and I do think she adds a sense of grandeur to the series, but she’s ultimately under-utilized as an expositional tool and a means for Elektra (Elodie Yung) to become central to the plot.
Speaking of Elektra, Defenders brings back many of the side characters of series past that fans have come to love. Daredevil’s martial arts mentor Stick (Scott Glenn) delights the screen once again with his snarky, badass attitude, this time with a substantially greater role in the story. Additionally, Daredevil’s Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) also appear to feed Murdock’s internal struggle. From Jessica Jones’ corner is floor-mate Malcolm (Eka Darville) and best friend and radio-host Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), though they have the least to do story-wise compared to other secondary characters. Luke Cage’s police officer acquaintance Misty Knight (Simone Missick) supports the team as a detective in the Harlem Police department and hence has a fairly large part to play. Lastly, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the connective tissue of all the Netflix Marvel shows, resumes her Luke Cage and Iron Fist roles as the loyal sidekick who, despite not having any powers, puts herself in the sights of ninjas and killers for the greater good. After spending a minimum of 13 hours with each MNU show, it’s nice to not just see each hero interact with one another, but to also see each hero’s inner circles merge together.
In addition to the exciting character interactions, Defenders’ fight choreography emerges as another positive to the show. Until Iron Fist, the intricate fight choreography was, for the most part reserved, for the Daredevil series, with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage depending more on story and mood. Considering Iron Fist being about a marital arts master with the ability to channel his chi into a fist, it was expected that the fight scenes in that show would be on par if not better than those in Daredevil. However, Iron Fist hilariously dropped the ball in that department, and virtually every other department. Defenders effectively corrects the ship in terms of fight choreography, especially for Finn Jones’ Danny Rand, whom seemed visually uncomfortable trying to pull off the fight moves in his show. Here, it shows that he’s been practicing; making his many fight scenes all the more believable.
At the end of the day, The Defenders is a must-see series for fans of MNU that more than makes up for lackluster villains and unimpressive story with satisfying character developments and interactions, as well as impressive action scenes that grant some kind thematic turning point for each of the four heroes, successfully setting the stage for new seasons of all the shows in the near future.