I won’t mince words. After stewing on it for a few days now, I think The Defenders is my least favorite of the Marvel Netflix shows. It’s not as flat-out boring as the Iron Fist series was but it completely wastes so much of the potential that it had that, even in the short eight-episode season’s handful of bright spots, I found myself frustrated that the show wasn’t better.
The main culprit here is the one-two punch of The Hand/Iron Fist storyline that has been sprinkled throughout the Netflix shows (most notably Daredevil and, of course, Iron Fist) but takes center stage as the event that brings Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand together. The members of the Hand have just never managed to be anywhere near as compelling as some of the other villains of the series (Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, and Cottonmouth, for example, were all far more compelling and interesting antagonists than the the 5-member organization that completely introduces three of its members here in the Defenders with largely little fanfare.
Prior to this series, we had been introduced to Madame Gao and Bakuto, who were at odds with one another throughout the Iron Fist, arguing to Danny Rand that they had opposing viewpoints for the direction of their organization. The Defenders rounds out the villains with Alexandra Reid, Murakami (who was apparently pulling the strings of Nobu from the Daredevil series), and Sowande. The latter two get almost laughably little in the way of character development. Even Reid, played by Sigourney Weaver, gets very little in the way of backstory or character depth and virtually nothing that explains why she is the de facto leader of the Hand above the others. We’re meant to find this group intimidating but they’re mostly saddled with in-fighting and just sending their faceless goons against our Defenders.
The series itself starts pretty slow with the first episode focusing on each of the four Defenders individually: more or less picking up with where we last left them. Murdock has been more or less in mourning since the death of Elektra, no longer donning the Daredevil suit and instead focusing on pro bono work, having driven Foggy and Karen away. Jessica Jones has been mostly quiet since her showdown with Kilgrave, not taking on new cases and even somewhat rattled by the trauma of the experience. Luke Cage has served his time and returns to Harlem to Claire, immediately inquiring about the state of Harlem. And Danny and Colleen Wing have been attempting to track down the Hand and discover the fate of K’un Lun.
These characters finally start coming together in the second episode and it’s fun to see them start interacting with one another. Jones and Cage are definitely taken aback by all of the ninja and kung fu-ness of the action from the Hand, having been used to brute forcing their way through their problems.As such, they get to serve a bit more as our window into this fantastical world where seemingly immortal beings have been walking among us for centuries waging wars in the shadows.
But the fact that we don’t get the full team fighting together until the third episode is a big pacing problem. With only eight episodes for this series, we spend the first quarter of it in the setup and bringing the pieces together. This would be as drastic if it were the first quarter of a film (like the Avengers), but The Defenders pretty runs through almost the entire length of the Avengers before the “heroes” even stumble into their first meeting altogether. It’s fortunate that the series doesn’t last the usual thirteen episodes because even with the eight they have here, there is a lot of slow exposition as the show takes way too much time introducing its core conflict to the audience and most of the characters.
Perhaps most disappointing is that I never really felt like the series surpassed the initial high of the team coming together for the first time. Which is made even worse by the fact that it was their first meeting so they weren’t even fighting TOGETHER so much as near each other. All four characters manager to independently find themselves at the bad guys evil lair at the same time, having to fight their way out. From there we never really get anything great in the way of the Avengers saving Manhattan hero action with the team working together as a well-oiled machine. In fact the middle half of the show has the characters constantly mistrusting each other, lying to one another, and even fighting each other. Again, this works fairly well in a more condensed movie runtime, but four hours of infighting and bickering, doesn’t leave us rooting for these characters to succeed.
Even the final episodes, when the team inevitably DOES start coming together aren’t particularly satisfying. I think a good part of this stems from the show trying to honor each of the series that led to this point. Many of the scenes involving Murdock are shot with Matt off to the side of a shot so that the focus is on the world around him that he is hearing, not seeing. Jessica Jones moments are given a bit of the noir feel of her series. Luke Cage has a bit of the hip-hop soundtrack underscoring some of his work. And Danny Rand has an emphasis on the kung fu. Yet none of these really come off as well as their individual series and the show never seems to finds its OWN voice, which I think translates to the team never really feeling like they came together.
Nobody really stands out performance-wise. Danny Rand is just as annoying and naively singular-focused as he was in his own series but that’s a fault of the writing, not Finn Jones’ portrayal. Getting to see Jones work off of Mike Colter’s Luke Cage is sometimes fun, as is the pairing of Charlie Cox and Krysten Ritter (Murdock and Jones, respectively). Most of the different combinations are fun among the main characters. A lot of the side characters feel more or less shoehorned in though and are sadly given the backseat to the new, bland villains.
Ultimately, I walked away from the Defenders associating it much more alongside DC’s rushed Batman v Superman team-up than the far superior team-up of when we first saw The Avengers come together. And it’s just disappointing more than anything because we’ve had so much time setting up these characters and this conflict that for it to fall as flat as it does here almost makes the literal days of episodes leading to this point feel a bit of a waste in retrospect.