Not even one of you is a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist?
by Thom Yee
So first of all, I’m not dead. Also, this site isn’t dead. But this past August in movies? So, so dead. For me, it started with Atomic Blonde, which I decided not to see (I’m not a big John Wick fan anyway). Then The Dark Tower opened, and I thought I could skip it (like everyone else did). I was looking forward to The Glass Castle, but who needs to see movies like that when they get reviews like this? And that’s when I kind of lost it, and what started with not really paying attention soon made its way into a full-on zone out as we didn’t review anything for the whole month of August. My staff writers kept up with their weekly updates, the loyal little underling/peons/unknowing hostages they are, which meant you had something new to read here every week, but a whole, full-fledged review? I just couldn’t do it with this year’s late summer movies. So I didn’t. But we’re back! For a few more months at least! So on to The Defenders. At least I could watch that from home.
As a concept, the Defenders we’re meeting in this first season are a much looser grouping of individuals than their big screen counterparts, the Avengers, a government sanctioned team embraced by the public and backed by a billionaire technologist. The Defenders don’t necessarily come together to save the world, protect our way of life, or even to perform a police action in foreign lands, they just sort of wind up together for a fairly random reasons, and even in their original comicbook incarnations (which differed significantly from what’s reaching your screens in this Netflix version), they usually didn’t stay together for very long, instead disbanding as soon as the threat was neutralized and reforming, sometimes with an entirely different lineup, only when another, too-weird-for-the-Avengers-to-fight bad guy showed up.
If you were to evaluate superheroes in terms of the threats they face, the Defenders are really the losers of the superhero world, the also rans and leftovers forced to look after their own blocks and neighbourhoods rather than their cities or worlds. As a series, the real beauty of a team like The Avengers is that it represents a conglomeration of huge personalities. No matter how well or poorly they may work together, the Avengers are an assemblage of the world’s top heroes, each the leads of their own series (plus Black Widow and Hawkeye), and it’s only world-shattering circumstances that warrant the level of heroes on the Avengers’ talent roster (again, plus Black Widow and Hawkeye). Where most stories have a clear hierarchy of protagonists, supporting characters, sidekicks, and bit characters, in The Avengers, they’re ALL main characters. They’re ALL the lead heroes. They’re ALL WINNERS. The Defenders? They’re not quite there yet. And they probably never will be.
What’s it about?
Finally, after years of infernal machinations and with the aid of the Black Sky (the resurrected Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung [from Daredevil season 2, natch]), the mysterious criminal organization known as the Hand, under the leadership of the equally mysterious Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), have everything they need to achieve their goals, goals which will, unfortunately, lead to the destruction of New York City! Standing in their way are the only super-powered beings street level enough to notice that something weird might be going on: The Daredevil of Hell’s Kitchen (Charlie Cox)! Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), superstrong, semi-alcoholic detective! Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the bulletproof hero of Harlem! And the Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones), the man with a glowing fist thingy whose show nobody liked! Finally together after seasons and seasons worth of individual adventures establishing who these people are and why we should care about them, they’ll… y’know, I’m sure they… they’ll win. They’ll probably win against the Hand. I mean, it is their show…!?
Though the comicbook Defenders team has been comprised of a number of different Marvel heroes over the years (the Defenders having existed in one form another since th year 1970), the most classic version of the team has usually counted Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Silver Surfer as its core members. In terms of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, those particular characters seem unlikely to be assembled any time soon if for no other reason than Namor has yet to be established in the MCU and the Silver Surfer’s movie rights (as part of the broader Fantastic Four package of characters) are still owned by Fox, but, even putting aside the fractured nature of their intellectual property movie rights, it seems doubtful that anyone at Marvel Studios ever had plans to put that version of the team together… that’s just a really weird team. None of them are natural leaders, all of them are too pigheaded, stubborn, or individualistic to get along or work together, several of them duplicate each others’ powers and, therefore, play the same role on the team, and, to be honest, the only reason these characters came together in the first place was because Doctor Strange’s comic at the time was being cancelled mid-story arc, and its writer, Roy Thomas, decided to then finish off the storyline by concluding it in a crossover with the other books he was writing at the time, The Incredible Hulk and The Sub-Mariner.
Perhaps even weirder than that version of the Defenders and even weirder than the legal lines that result in the version of Marvel history that we’re now getting in the movies and on TV is that, up until about three months ago and Marvel’s latest relaunch of the Defenders comicbook (meant specifically to coincide with the release of the Netflix show), there’s never actually been a team of Defenders made up of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist in the comics. Luke Cage and Iron Fist have long been on-again/off-again superhero partners and best friends, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones have been married for a while, and Daredevil, as a fellow street-level superhero, has frequently been involved in each of those heroes’ adventures, but the only time these four characters were all together on one team in the Marvel comicbook universe was actually when they were all on the Avengers during writer Brian Michael Bendis’ run on New Avengers. It’s Bendis who, in some cases popularized and, in Jessica Jones’s case, conceived of the modern interpretations of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage that we’re now getting, so it’s fitting that he’s also the writer of the current Daredevil/Jessica Jones/Luke Cage/Iron Fist Defenders comicbook that you can pick up and start collecting after watching the show.
Do you need to know any of this? Is any of this vital knowledge to have before watching The Defenders? No and no, but isn’t it kind of interesting? And shouldn’t you be reading comicbooks by now? They’re really good. You could start with The Defenders right here or maybe visit your local comicbook store. So go read some comics!
Is it any good?
…uh, it’s better than Iron Fist?
Seriously, people act like Iron Fist, the Netflix Marvel show that directly preceded and led straight in to The Defenders, was some kind of travesty when in truth it was just not very good and sometimes laughably bad. Don’t get me wrong, Iron Fist is NOT GOOD, but it’s not a travesty; it’s not Transformers: The Last Knight. It’s more like Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Some interesting ideas and some truly great sequences hampered by poor storytelling, unlikable characters, and way too many weird, self-indulgent moments by the director/showrunner. So the first thing I think you should know about The Defenders is that it’s definitely better than Iron Fist. In fact, if you’re one of the few who made your way through most if not all of Iron Fist’s entire 13-episode run, there will most likely be points in The Defenders that will strike you simply because of how much better they are than what happened in Iron Fist. You may even find yourself kind of liking the character of Iron Fist after watching The Defenders.
To be fair to the creative team behind The Defenders, though, I think it’s important to note that many of those striking points, particularly early on, aren’t just good by comparison, they’re genuinely good in and of themselves. There’s a moment when Alexandra, this series’ main big bad played by Sigourney Weaver (who’s definitely this series’ best and most seasoned actor), expresses her disgust at something she’s been told by an underling with the words, “That’s not helpful… or even what I asked”, and the way Weaver delivered the line made it instantly clear the type of unrelenting, expectant, take-no-crap character she was playing. The first moment we meet back up with Danny Rand’s Iron Fist and his consort, the swordswoman Colleen Wing, is more exciting than any single moment in the entirety of Iron Fist because it’s infused with the kind of intensity and mystery that his own series never even knew how to approach. There’s an extremely smart take on the team’s first coming together that’s facilitated by Rosario Dawson’s Claire (the one character who’s appeared in all of the Marvel Netflix shows and, separately, knows all of these heroes) when she quickly puts things together and then forces our heroes to talk things out rather than following the usual genre conventions of belabouring and prolonging their inevitable assembly with a series of false starts and good-guys-don’t-realize-they’re-on-the-same-side contrivances.
These are all the types of small storytelling moments that quickly made it clear that The Defenders was going to be a better show than the last couple of Netflix Marvelshows, but they’re also indicative of the positive effects of a shorter episode count, eight rather than the 13 episodes that all of Netflix’s previous Marvel shows received and all tended to misuse with their middle chapters. The Defenders simply doesn’t have room for that type of fiddle-faddle, it’s too short of a series, it needs to get its heroes together quickly, it needs to establish its threats quickly, it needs to get to the point quickly, and it doesn’t have time to waste on backstory elements we don’t care about or weird story swerves right in the middle of the narrative that severely derail the overall flow (I’m looking at you, Luke Cage). It’s that last point, wasted time, that seems especially important with the successes of The Defenders, because if we’re being brutally honest, I don’t know if the writers Marvel’s getting for its Netflix shows are good enough to examine these characters much more deeply than they’re examined here in The Defenders.
And that brings me to the show’s other great strength — finally seeing these characters together. Yes it’s a post-Avengers world we’re now living in (and very soon to be a post-Justice-League world too), and yes, the Marvel Netflix shows are following the same formula as their movie counterparts by telling individual hero stories that are also laying the groundwork for an inevitable and gigantic team-up, but I still felt a genuine thrill seeing Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist together, and that thrill made this show very easy to binge as these characters faced their demons together in a way and at a pace that mostly worked, especially for Iron Fist. The guilt Danny/Iron Fist feels over abandoning K’un-Lun in The Defenders was more real here than in his own series, and, contrasted against the vastly different backgrounds of the rest of the Defenders — Danny finding an odd respect for Matt Murdock/Daredevil, facing extreme skepticism from Jessica, and forming an unexpected friendship with Luke — it was surprising how much better the character comes across. The Defenders is even smart enough to directly address some of the major criticisms of Iron Fist, acknowledging and confronting the character’s privilege as a rich white man, finding ways to shoot around the actor’s weaknesses in fight scenes, and even going so far as calling Danny out as “the dumbest Iron Fist yet” by one of the series’ villains. There’s also a pretty great scene with Colleen Wing, Danny’s girlfriend/sidekick/actually his superior and a former member of the Hand who broke away from them when she learned what they were really planning, who worries that she’s failed both the few honourable teachings of the Hand she still holds onto and her duties to defend the world against them when she, for various reasons, sometimes can’t always keep up with the other, more super-powered members of the Defenders. It’s all handled in a way that’s almost unexpectedly meaningful and considered, and it helps the show’s themes resonate without making the character herself look weak.
But most of that is in the show’s first five episodes, and it’s the remaining three where this first season’s cracks start to show in a major way. Once all the pieces are in place and the Defenders have had their first major confrontation with the full forces of the Hand, I really started losing a strong sense of the plot specifics, something about ancient magic, serums, immortality, and dragon bones that was really hard to care about. As conveyed, it came across as the wrong mix of tell don’t show and something so mystical that it bears no relevance to reality, and, with that delivery, the manic thrill of seeing these heroes together dissipated much more quickly than it should have as the disappointing bigger picture came into focus.
It was also really disappointing that, but for a few specifics, the slow-boil threat of the Hand, a threat only cryptically hinted at in the preceding Netflix shows, turned out to be mostly empty and defeated far more easily than I would have liked. Especially in comparison to the hordes of Hand ninjas that attacked Daredevil and Elektra all throughout Daredevil season 2, the full forces gathered by the Hand leaders — Alexandra, Madame Gao (from Daredevil and Iron Fist), a returning villain from Iron Fist, and two heretofore unseen menaces, the African warlord, Sowande, and the Japanese ninja master, Murakami — come across weirdly small in number and reach. Plus Murakami really sucked as an opponent, more often than not easily defeated by our heroes, and (at least without looking into his CV) I’m convinced the reason the character always spoke Japanese is because the actor doesn’t speak English in real life (unlike the Chinese Madame Gao who was introduced to us in Daredevil season one speaking only Mandarin but has subsequently also spoken fluent English). The resurrected Elektra/Black Sky is the only one of the Hand’s key members that comes across as dangerous, but even then it’s a danger arrived at mostly by inconsistencies in the portrayal of our hero’s’ power sets, where Elektra is somehow able to hurt Luke or stand up to punches by Jessica, both of whom are characters with strength and durability levels that far exceed hers.
As for Alexandra herself… well, she never really gets a chance to shine. Sigourney Weaver carries herself with the appropriate gravitas as the Hand’s ultimate leader, but she rarely gets a chance to shine. Weaver exudes a strong sense of intimidation in the role as well as exhibiting an intimidating amount of wordly knowledge, but the forces she commands are few (in terms of sheer number of followers), her plans seem shallow, unambitious, and lacking in forethought, and I don’t think we ever see her in anything close to a real fight. Even the elderly Madame Gao seems able to summon some kind of superstrength on occasion, knocking doors and people down when her henchmen prove far from the equal of our heroes, but Alexandra never goes there. Another weird thing, and this is more a production issue than anything else, is that we quite often see her eating what’s supposed to be fine foods, but what’s on her plate always looks kind of cheap and poorly prepared.
So should I see it?
Even though I binged The Defenders within two days of its release, I’m glad I waited a few weeks to deliver my final review of the series, because the further I get from it the more inconsequential it seems. Of the Netflix Marvel shows, Daredevil is a strong showing of hard-hitting superheroics, Jessica Jones is probably the closest to approaching reality and mature themes, Luke Cage is so overtly stylized that, for many, it can overcome its obvious weaknesses, and Iron Fist is the type of bad that you can’t stop thinking about. The Defenders is great at first but not really worth dwelling on for too long.
Don’t get me wrong, The Defenders has many very strong points, some squee-level moments, some effective course correcting for the mistakes of past Netflix Marvel shows, and it has the type of thrill that can only be earned with the patient onscreen world building that Marvel’s mastered at this point, but its clunky in places, uninspired in its back half, like most of Marvel’s live-action products it fails to establish a strong or lasting bad guy, and ultimately it fails to rise above its trappings. By the series’ end it comes across as a superhero story first and a story second.
If you just want to look at The Defenders as a sprawling street-level superhero epic, it mostly works. Its eight-episode length makes it far more digestible than any previous Netflix Marvel show, if you find yourself digging what you see in the show’s first few episodes it never gets so bad that you’ll feel like quitting half-way through, and, even though this more limited run doesn’t leave as much screen time for individual development, it leaves each of our heroes changed after what they go through, especially Danny/Iron Fist who goes through a stronger arc here than in his own show. But once you’ve completed the show, and I would encourage you to do so, I doubt that you’ll feel like The Defenders was reaching very high or transcending the genre.
Thom’s The Defenders final score
On the Edge
- I stand by my statement from Iron Fist that Finn Jones should really have gotten some upper body muscle development going if he knew he was going to be shirtless so often.
- Good job stepping forward from the bus door before pausing to take in your freedom, Luke. You show those people it’s not cool to bask in your own glory at the expense of everybody else trying to get off the bus behind you!
- I am so sick of Luke’s baggy hoodies! Just stick with the tight yellow t-shirts!
- Especially with Sigourney Weaver in the cast, that earthquake really reminded me of Ghostbusters.
- TrishTalk looks like an extremely boring show that wouldn’t make it in even a small town let alone New York City.
- The Defenders has a weirdly down-beat closing credits song
- Everybody uses the same phone!
- Detecting a theme here. It looks like the good guys use Samsungs and the bad guys use iPhones.
- Just because you broke Jessica’s camera doesn’t mean you destroyed the digital image files, Matt.
- I get that this Murakami guy’s probably an expert at cutting into the things he hunts, but come on, he wears no apron and white dress clothes in the middle of his moonbear butchering?
- Plus that hand towel he wipes himself off with is filthy with blood! You’re supposed to wash that crap off in the sink, then wipe dry, not just cover your cloths in moonbear guts!
- Funny how the leftover stump of Stick’s remaining right arm after he cuts off his hand looks just as long as his whole, hand-and-everything left arm. Do you even practical effects, Defenders?
- Yup, Bakuto still sucks
- I can’t believe they never make any comments about beating on an old woman [Gao].
- Look, I know it’s a bit of a tonal mismatch, but was it really too much to ask for Frank Castle/the Punisher to be in The Defenders? Even just a bit?
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