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Josh Reviews Netflix’s The Defenders!

September 4th, 2017

Way back in October, 2013, Marvel and Netflix announced that they would be collaborating on four TV shows — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — whose characters would then cross over into a combined series The Defenders.  This would be a TV version of the approach Marvel had taken so successfully with their cinematic universe, releasing individual films that then crossed over in The Avengers.   I was excited by that idea, and bowled over by the excellent, adult-in-tone, dark and gripping first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones For those two seasons alone I am glad this Netflix Marvel venture exists.  I also quite liked Daredevil season two, though I felt its ending was somewhat anticlimactic.  Luke Cage had moments of greatness but was mostly disappointing, with a particularly dull second half of the season.  Iron Fist was by far the weakest of the series, with little characterization to speak of and a terribly miscast lead role.  And so it was with excitement but also trepidation that I approached the long-anticipated crossover series, The Defenders, here at last.

The Defenders is an enjoyable romp, and at only eight episodes in length it never over-stays its welcome, nor suffers from the way nearly all of the other 13-episode-long Marvel Netflix shows felt like they didn’t have quite enough plot to actually fill their 13-episode length.

The biggest pleasure of the show comes from seeing these characters on screen together.   Charlie Cox as Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, and Mike Colter as Luke Cage are all terrific.  I love those actors and I love those characters, and it is a hoot to get to see them bounce off of one another.  The best episode of the show is the fourth, “Royal Dragon,” the one that spends most of its time with the four main characters hanging out in a Chinese restaurant together.  I still think that Finn Jones is woefully miscast as Iron Fist, but he’s a little more tolerable here than he was in his own show.  It helps that all the other characters on the show (except for Colleen) seem to find Danny as annoying as I do!

Anyways, as I was saying, it’s a huge amount of fun to get to watch these actors and these characters play together.  The show wisely takes pains to explore their different perspectives and background, which result in their usually being at odds with one another.  This could feel fake, false drama or manufactured disagreements just to prevent the heroes from working together and thus defeating the villains too quickly or easily.  But as executed on the show, for the most part I felt that the characters’ disagreements felt right to who these people are and how they see the world.  I like that they didn’t immediately slide into being a team.  It’s fun to see them work through their differences and eventually find a unity of purpose.

I was also delighted that so many of the important supporting characters from the four individual shows appeared here in The Defenders.  We get to see Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, along with Stick and Elektra and even Matt Murdock’s priest from Daredevil, Trish and Malcolm and Hogarth from Jessica Jones, Misty Knight from Luke Cage, Colleen Wing from Iron Fist, and Claire (Rosario Dawson) who has appeared in ALL of the different shows.  By incorporating all of these characters, and referencing and continuing plot-lines and character-arcs from the individual previous shows, The Defenders feels like an important continuation and culmination to ALL of those shows (just as The Avengers so successfully did for the Marvel cinematic universe), rather than simply a stand-alone adventure outside of the continuity of the individual shows.

Along that note, I was pleased that the events of The Defenders look to have an impact on whatever future seasons we’ll get of the individual shows.  (I believe that Netflix has announced upcoming seasons of all four of the series.)  Without spoiling the ending of The Defenders, each of the four main characters is left in a different place from where we found them at the start of the series, and so I hope and anticipate that the future seasons of their individual shows will build off of that.

Where The Defenders falls down is in giving our heroes a worthy adversary.  I love that the Hand has been a major villain for these heroes ever since Daredevil season one.  But I have been continually disappointed at how the Hand has been depicted on-screen.  Rather than cool, unbeatable ninjas, the Hand warriors we have seen across these Netflix shows have mostly been disposable goons in regular street clothes.  This continues to be a problem here in The Defenders.  I do like the approach taken here of showing us the five “fingers” of the Hand, the true power at the center of the secretive organization.  Two of them recur from previous shows, Madame Gao from Daredevil and Bakuto from Iron Fist.  (It’s nice that the villains cross over, in addition to the heroes.)  The lead villain here in The Defenders is the new character of Alexandra, played by Sigourney Weaver.  The extraordinarily talented Ms. Weaver is a huge “get” for this show, and Ms. Weaver is absolutely terrific every second she’s on screen.  But despite Ms. Weaver’s compelling on-screen presence, after a few episodes it becomes clear that Alexandra doesn’t have much more of a defined personality, or any more of a coherent plan, than any of the other mediocre Hand leaders we have seen before her.  And in the end, she is easily defeated.

I wish that I could answer, at the end of The Defenders, any of these questions:  What did the Hand want all this time?  What has the organization been fighting for over the centuries?  (Sometimes it seems like they want to destroy the mystical city of K’un Lun, and other times it seems like they just want to get back there.)  What in particular did they want now, in New York?  If all they wanted was to get that “substance” from the dragon bones buried deep beneath New York, why couldn’t they have done that back when they took control of that big hole in Daredevil season two?  Why build a whole fake building on top of the hole?  Why would extracting the substance from the bones destroy New York City?  What did the Hand do to cause the huge Earthquake in the first episode of The Defenders?  I don’t understand any of this.

The show also makes a mess of the story of Elektra and the Black Sky.  This should be hugely dramatic: Matt Murdock’s true love Elektra has been resurrected by the Hand and is being used as their weapon against him.  This was a great story in the comics and it should have been great here.  But I don’t actually understand anything going on with Elektra on the show.  The mysterious “Black Sky” has been hinted at since Daredevil season one, and I was expecting to finally get answers here, but none are given.  What is the Black Sky?  Is that Elektra herself, or an entity that has replaced Elektra and taken control of her reanimated body?  Why did Alexandra think this Black Sky was so important that they should use the last of the “substance” that extends their lives to resurrect Elektra?  When Elektra kills you-know-who, why did she do that?  Why kill that person only to step into that person’s role as opposed to fighting against the Hand as she did in life?  Are we to assume that Elektra has come back to herself but has made the choice to be evil, or is she being controlled by the Black Sky, whatever that is?  Because we don’t actually understand anything that’s happening with Elektra, it kills what should have been the dramatic and emotional Matt-Elektra story-line running through the show.  And for goodness sakes, what happens to Matt and Elektra at the very end???

The Defenders would be a much stronger show if any of that plotting actually made a lick of sense.  It’s disappointing to me that the writers couldn’t have constructed a more coherent story, with more credible and dangerous villains to challenge our heroes.  (It’s no coincidence that the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones worked so well, while Luke Cage and Iron Fist didn’t, seeing as both Daredevil and Jessica Jones had fully fleshed-out, terrifying villains in the Kingpin and Kilgrave.)

Other thoughts:

* I loved that the Jessica Jones show paired up Jessica with Luke Cage.  The past decade-plus of comic-book stories written by Brian Michael Bendis have invested me heavily in the story of their relationship.  While I love Rosario Dawson as Claire, I was bummed that the Luke Cage show paired up Luke with Claire, seeming to ignore the Jessica relationship.  I was happy that The Defenders acknowledged the Luke-Jessica relationship and gave the two of them some nice scenes together.

* But speaking of Luke and Claire, when we saw Claire in Iron Fist it seemed that there were problems between her and Luke, and she held up a mysterious letter from Luke.  I’d expected that to be explained in The Defenders, but as far as I can recall that was totally ignored.  Weird.

* I loved that The Defenders gave Misty and Colleen — two wonderful female characters who are friends in the comics — several scenes together.

* I do wish this show had been able to involve Misty more in the action.  I was frustrated as a viewer the way the main characters kept her on the sidelines and refused to ever explain to her what was going on.  I was excited though to see her suffer an injury that has exciting repercussions in the comics.  I’m interested to see how that is explored in future Netflix shows…  (I do wish that Luke Cage hadn’t teased us by giving her a prior serious injury to her arm without actually following through on that.)

* The fights in this show were much better than anything we got in Luke Cage or Iron Fist, though nothing matched the hallway fight from Daredevil season one or the stairway brawl from season two.

* I liked the way different color-schemes were used to differentiate the scenes with the four main characters in the early episodes.  (Click here to read more about what I mean.)  But I was let-down by the lighting and the sets in the final episodes.  Setting a huge battle inside the bones of a dragon buried deep beneath New York sounds cool on paper, but as realized on-screen it was just a lot of people jumping around in murky darkness.  That ripply dark/water effect on the walls was ludicrously amateurish.

* Scott Glenn was once again fantastic as Stick.  I’m glad he was such a large part of the two seasons of Daredevil and now this show.  I am sorry to see the character exit the Netflix series.

* I also loved that we got to see Turk again!  (He’s a fun side-character from the comics, particularly Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, and he appeared in both previous seasons of Daredevil.)

* Nice reference to Maggie (Matt Murdock’s mom!) there are the very end!

* I like the series’ opening credits, which echo a subway map of New York City.  But — as is usually the case with me with super-hero movies and shows these days — I wish The Defenders actually had a hummable musical theme!

Overall, I enjoyed The Defenders, even though there are a number of aspects of the show that I wish were stronger.  It’s exciting to see this first “phase” of the Marvel Netflix TV shows come to a conclusion.  I am curious as to what will come next.  Will the upcoming seasons of the individual shows acknowledge the partnerships formed amongst the four Defenders, or will they try to ignore that?  Will the shows go off in their own individual directions, or will we get a Defenders season 2 at some point in the future?  I hope that subsequent shows can return to the impressively high quality of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  For now, I will continue to be along for the ride…

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