After more than two years and four individual series (one of which has already produced two seasons), Marvel’s The Defenders finally provides the culmination of Netflix’s venture into superhero territory. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist were building toward a team-up series in which each of the four characters would band together against a common adversary. As excited as fans may have been about those initial four shows, this was supposed to be the payoff.
So does The Defenders provide that payoff? Was it worth getting through those previous four series and following their lead characters to get to this team-up? Well, maybe. Your impression of this series might depend on how you feel about each of these heroes and the shows that introduced them.
Personally, I think the bad reception for Iron Fist (and maybe the last four or five episodes of Luke Cage) killed some of the buzz for The Defenders. Rather than build toward a crescendo, Netflix’s fifth Marvel series felt like something of a reclamation. Fans and critics seemed to be hoping it would be better than Iron Fist, rather than get excited about the team-up. Suddenly, this didn’t feel like the climactic Marvel TV version of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk joining forces after their individual movies with The Avengers.
Iron Fist isn’t really redeemed in The Defenders. Danny Rand is still petulant with a purpose, aiming to fulfill his destiny as the immortal warrior of K’un L’un by vanquishing their sworn enemies, The Hand. (Really, the most interesting thing about Iron Fist is that he’s partnered with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a far more intriguing character.) He’s an important piece in this story, targeted by The Hand to help completing their scheme to unearth whatever power lurks beneath New York and ultimately destroy the city.
Besides that, Iron Fist largely serves to be mocked by his new acquaintances. Many of the jokes in the series come from Luke Cage and Jessica Jones making fun of Rand’s referring to himself as “The Immortal Iron Fist,” along with his talk of mystical cities and dragons. Rand takes himself so seriously and has so little awareness of how his explanations sound that it’s natural to poke fun at him. Many viewers were probably doing the same thing while watching Iron Fist. Co-showrunner Marco Ramirez insists the frequent jokes weren’t a response to that series, but obviously he, fellow producer Doug Petrie and the show’s writers picked up on the inherent ridiculousness of the character compared to the other three heroes.
Finn Jones seemed miscast as Rand during Iron Fist’s solo series, and considering that production on The Defenders started right after Iron Fist finished, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that he didn’t improve much as an actor during that span.
Jones still comes off as a brat, pouting that no one believes he is this great warrior who has trained his entire life for this very moment. Whatever sense of purpose or will he has in this series is instilled by the script, not by Jones’s acting. It certainly doesn’t help that the other three leads — Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter — are just better on screen than Jones. But Jones’s shortcomings are especially apparent when he shares scenes with Sigourney Weaver, who plays the villain of the story, Alexandra.
Fans of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones might be disappointed by how little they’re used, how incidental they seem to the overall story. Both characters have their entry points into the narrative through people they encounter, and the writing team does a good job of putting them on a path that will eventually lead to the other heroes.
But once the quartet finally gets together, Cage is mostly utilized as a bulletproof shield when bad guys with machine guns turn up. However, he is sort of the moral compass of the group, willing to see the good in people and feeling especially protective of the young black men in Harlem whom The Hand is using for their nefarious purposes. If only he had better chemistry with Rand to service the fans who enjoy Power Man and Iron Fist teaming up in Marvel Comics.
Jones is an acerbic quip machine whose superhuman strength makes her good in a fight. (One of her better lines is a crack about not having martial arts skills like Daredevil and Iron Fist against the trained assassins of The Hand.) But she doesn’t quite fit with the others, perhaps because she’s the most realistic and down-to-earth character of the four.
Early on when the heroes talk about teaming up for a common goal, she walks away. This isn’t her fight, so much as it’s a connection to a case that she feels guilty about not taking. As it turns out, Jones probably should’ve kept walking because it didn’t seem like the writing team quite knew what to do with her. Krysten Ritter does the best she can with what she’s given, but she’ll be far better served by a second season of Jessica Jones.
Daredevil feels most like the central character of The Defenders and that’s probably how it should be. Not everyone will agree that Daredevil has been the best of the Marvel Netflix shows, but he’s the only one whose show has gotten two seasons and is on its way to a third.
I’ll admit a heavy bias here because Daredevil has always been one of my favorite comic book characters, but I thought his story arc was easily the most compelling part of The Defenders. When the series begins, Matt Murdock has retired as Daredevil, having lost too much because of his vigilante lifestyle. But his need to help — along with some serious emotional and anger issues — is eating away at him. His pro bono work as a lawyer is fulfilling, but he feels he can do more. Or maybe he just likes bounding through alleys and rooftops, while getting to beat the hell out of people. That isn’t really explored here, but maybe Season 3 of Daredevil (which The Defenders certainly points toward) can address that.
Ultimately, that’s the problem with The Defenders. The individual characters are interesting on their own, and this show just increases the desire to watch these heroes in their ideal settings again. The premise never feels like it comes together as a whole the way it was likely intended. Maybe that’s intentional.
These aren’t The Avengers, who team up to save the world against bigger threats. This foursome is made up of street-level heroes who each have their own objectives and tight circles of friends. Though they do need to band together against a menace neither could handle on his or her own, it only seems to be pertinent to this particular story. The future for these characters will follow their individual paths. Honestly, they’re more interesting that way and if we do get more of these heroes (along with The Punisher, who’s next up on Netflix’s Marvel slate), let’s see them on their own shows where they work best.