By Mike Malpiedi
*Spoiler Warning! I talk about a number of plot points for the Defenders within this review, so if you haven’t watched it then I recommend you stop reading and check out the series for yourself first.
Besides season one of Iron Fist, Marvel’s Netflix series define what good comic book television is. Each series takes a relatable, street-level hero and pairs them against an incredibly real, captivating, and imposing villain, but the true hook is how these shows handle heavier themes. Jessica Jones is able to masterfully handle such traumas as sexual assault and confronting an unrelenting abuser; Luke Cage is able to tackle police brutality and how media narrative can work against someone of color; and Daredevil is able to dissect vigilantism, Catholicism, and corporate corruption.
Unfortunately, like the previously mentioned Iron Fist, very little of this can be said of Marvel’s Defenders mini-series. What was meant to be a monumental event a kin to the debut of The Avengers back in 2012 ultimately falls flat and feels more like a means to an end; a check marked off on a lengthy “to-do” list. There are fleeting moments of greatness spread here and there throughout, but overall the Defenders cannot defend themselves against poor writing, pacing, and an underwhelming villain.
Before trudging further into everything that is wrong with the Defenders, let’s first speak to the few things it does well. While the script for this series ranges from mediocre to dreadful to “camp that takes itself very seriously,” the various actors do a ton of good work selling it. This is likely the only reason the Defenders has any strength as a series. If the actors weren’t on their A-game here then this whole experiment would fall a part before it even started. The standouts are definitely Ritter, Weaver, Henwick, and Colter playing Jessica Jones, Alexandra, Colleen Wing, and Luke Cage respectively. Everyone else has their moments as well, including Jones’ Danny Rand, but overall their dialogue and particular arcs don’t equate to much. The Defenders also does an excellent job of teasing what is to come for our favorite New York heroes post war with The Hand. We get a taste of Luke and Danny’s budding friendship, a newly opened Alias Investigations, a tease for a Misty and Colleen team-up, and a Daredevil who is about to be “born again” (Google Daredevil: Born Again if you don’t get the reference). These glimpses are nice, but this all leads back to what is wrong with this show.
The biggest issue is that the Defenders feels quite similar to Age of Ultron. Like the latter mentioned film, the Defenders sidelines its importance as a self-contained narrative in order to set-up future plots for upcoming seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. For instance, one of the better moments of the series is when Luke Cage and Danny Rand have the opportunity to discuss the issue of white privilege, but this is only a blip within the mini-series as a whole. The theme of white privilege, and its effect on people of color, could be examined throughout the course of several episodes let alone this one scene. The next season’s of Luke Cage and Iron Fist will hopefully get deeper into these social issues as they work toward the development of Heroes-for-Hire, but the foundation for this relationship and thematic discussion should have been started prior to the Defenders.
And this why the pacing of the mini-series is so disjointed. The Defenders attempts to do seasons worth of character development for its heroes, villains, and side characters within just eight episodes. This is apparent from episode one as the show struggles to blend, and transition between, the style from each individual hero’s series effectively. It spends too much time building relationships between characters that should have been managed elsewhere. This mismanagement then boils down the dialogue to characters purely reiterating details about their flaws and personalities to each other. Prime example being when Colleen and Claire have the groan-inducing conversation about being “foundations” for others.
In between the hefty relationship building and people over-explaining things like “Immortal Iron Fist,” “K’un L’un,” and “the Hand does bad stuff,” there is little time to develop any sort of arc for the characters on display here. The only characters that show true growth by the end of the Defenders (at least that you care about) are Jessica Jones and Colleen Wing. Jessica comes to the realization that she enjoys helping others and reopens Alias Investigations while Colleen is able to defeat her nefarious mentor and recognize her strength. The rest of the cast remains pretty much the same by the time the last episode credits roll. Matt still feels guilt for Elektra’s death and wants to save her; Danny is the Immortal Iron Fist; Luke still wants to protect Harlem; and everyone else is just happy their favorite vigilante didn’t bite the bullet (well everyone except Karen and Foggy anyway). Oh! But Misty did lose her arm though finally, so here is to hoping that she gets to be a cybernetic badass in either Luke Cage or Iron Fist season two.
At the epicenter of this void of actual progression is the infamous, ultra-evil organization known as The Hand and its all-powerful leader, Sigourney Weaver. Yes, yes her character is actually a deadly, undying ninja leader named Alexandra, but honestly if it wasn’t Weaver playing the role then no one would care who she is. Alexandra is just an underwritten caricature used to represent all that is horrific and wrong with the world. Literally, the lead heroes can say anything bad they want about Alexandra and The Hand and it will stick. Kidnapping, murder, and extortion? Check. Hurt and constantly endanger the ones you love? All day, everyday. Kicking defenseless doggos? You better believe it!
And there lies the show’s villain problem, Alexandra and The Hand have no depth or motivations outside of just being pure evil and wanting to be immortal. There is nothing about any of the fingers of The Hand that feels human or relatable to a certain evil that might be found in reality. These mystical ninja-people are not the dynamic and multilayered villains we have come to expect in the wake of characters such as Fisk, Kilgrave, Cottonmouth, and Mariah. There is also not one, not two, but six main villains within these eight episodes that all receive little to no development since there is simply no time to do so properly. Sure, a few of these characters have already appeared as villains in season two of Daredevil and season one of Iron Fist, but their presence is arguably the weakest point of both seasons. Overall, The Hand just isn’t that compelling in its current television form.
And with what little build-up the notorious Hand leader receives in regards to her power, ruthlessness, and cunning, it is only fitting that this anti-climatic series give its big bad an anti-climatic end. I won’t go into details here, but it is obvious even before reaching the conclusion that Alexandra was never meant to make it out alive. Before she gets to do anything other than sit and stand menacingly, Alexandra bites the dust and serves as the catalyst for Elektra’s equally boring character arc. Elektra as a character also wasn’t dead long enough to truly justify her return so quickly. Her reveal at the end of the first episode feels incredibly lackluster since viewers have known for a while that Elodie Yung would be starring in the Defenders.
It would be nice to say that all the action sequences were fantastic, but this just isn’t the case. There is only one really great fight scene and that is the office fight in episode three. The rest tend to either be plain boring and uninspired or too dimly lite and chaotic. It is also quite difficult to believe Finn Jones is Iron Fist, an unparalleled martial artist, because he is just not good at selling fight scenes.
In the end, it feels like the Defenders was hastily thrown together in order to play catch-up with DC’s current television universe. The “Arrowverse,” as it is called, has already done several crossover events since The Flash was first introduced on Arrow in 2013. Besides Luke Cage appearing on Jessica Jones and Claire Temple appearing in every Marvel Netflix show, there hasn’t been enough hero cross-pollination between the four individual series.
The Defenders, as a whole, would have been a lot better off had Marvel given Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones another season each and allowed for them to crossover a bit in each other’s shows. This would have eliminated the need for these heroes and side characters to meet and learn about each other. This would have allowed the mini-series to hit the ground running with a team of heroes that knew they needed to join forces and who all have a basic understanding of how the other functions. The Defenders could have then managed the usage of its villain(s) better and focused more how the bonds between the heroes are tested. In its current form, the Defenders is a completely missed opportunity for Marvel. The overall poor writing, pacing, and villains squanders what could have been an epic crossover event had there been better planning and some patience.