The Defenders Miniseries Review
Marvel’s The Defenders, the long-awaited team-up between Netflix’s Marvel properties of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist officially premiered this past weekend on the streaming service. All-in-all, it was a pretty hit or miss set of eight episodes, following our heroes as they met, teamed up, and eventually took down The Hand (the evil organization that threaded through both Daredevil and Iron Fist, but who wasn’t a major part of either Jessica Jones or Luke Cage). It isn’t easy to thread together four separate title characters, each with their own distinct story, sidekicks, and ambiance, especially when the people spearheading the story arc only really have experience writing for one of the characters (Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez were the showrunners behind season two of Daredevil, meaning they had extensive knowledge of his arc . . . and not much for the rest of the team).
The Defenders also suffered from the same thing that has plagued all Netflix series to date: streaming bloat, meaning that there’s just not enough story to justify the entire X amount of episodes. All four Marvel shows have fallen prey to its effects (with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage still managing to churn out solid seasons in spite of it, while Iron Fist was plain bad from start to finish), and it had been hoped that a shorter season (here, only eight episodes) would prevent it from taking hold of The Defenders. Alas, that was not the case.
Rather than spend this review opining about what could have been with this miniseries, let’s take a look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what was just plain awful about Marvel’s The Defenders.
- The stylistic direction of the show’s initial few episodes was a thing of beauty. Sure, it took our heroes way too long to assemble, but the work of S. J. Clarkson made those initial two episodes pretty gorgeous to watch. Giving each Defender a specific color (Jessica’s blue-tinged noir filter, Luke’s yellow tones, Daredevil’s rich red, Iron Fist’s . . . whatever color, because no one cares about Iron Fist) was smart, allowing for a smooth transition between characters and locales. It was nice to be able to recognize the color and then set my mind into that particular character’s world before jumping all the way into it.
- Giving Colleen, Misty, and Claire a chance to shine: There were a lot of sidekicks milling around that Bronx precinct, and most of them only had a throwaway line here or there (don’t tease me with Foggy or Trish and then leave them on the sidelines for episodes at a time, and don’t even get me started on that small cameo from Hogarth), so it was nice to see the three kickass ladies of color get a chance to participate in the big fight at the end. As someone who couldn’t make it through Iron Fist, I knew precious little about Colleen Wing, so I enjoyed getting to see her in action (and she makes a much better hero that Danny Rand). Misty was one of the standouts in Luke Cage, and it was great to see her take matters into her own hands (even if it resulted in her losing one . . . clearly setting up a major addition to her character for season two of Luke Cage). And good, dependable Claire finally got a chance to save lives in a tangible way after shepherding our four heroes over their initial series runs. Her role had been to be the glue linking these powerful people together, so I’m intrigued to see which stories she weaves in and out of moving forward (she’ll certainly be in Luke Cage, and her friendship with Colleen might lead to an appearance in Iron Fist, but I can’t really see her on Jessica Jones or Daredevil moving forward).
- Daredevil’s fight scenes: I’ll get more into the problems I had with the fight sequences in the next section, but props where props are due. Daredevil continues to have the best fight scenes out of all the Netflix Marvel shows. A lot of that comes down to it being easier to double Charlie Cox when he’s in costume (or has half of his face covered), but each fight was fast-paced and engaging. For a miniseries that relied so heavily on hand-to-hand combat, one would have expected to see spectacular fights across the board. But, alas, when it wasn’t Matt Murdock trading blows with an assassin (or Elektra), things were pretty rough.
- A reminder that we get more Jessica Jones next year: While we will have to wait at least another year and a half for more Luke Cage adventures (I understand the need to limit things to two Marvel shows per year, but it’s a bummer that it means we have to wait so long between outings of the two good shows), we will be getting more Jessica in 2018 (along with Punisher). While Jessica was woefully underserved in The Defenders, getting a mere taste of her sardonic wit and attitude made me hyped to get more time with Alias Investigations, Trish, Hogarth, and, as was revealed this past week, Kilgrave.
- The Plot: It’s no simple thing to integrate four separate characters into a single story, but it’s certainly doable. When I first saw The Avengers, I had never seen a Thor or Captain America film, yet I was able to follow the character beats and grasp the Loki-led arc. The story was accessible to people who weren’t major Marvel viewers. The Defenders could have done a similar thing, providing enough exposition to fill in the audience on characters, The Hand, and what the clash between the heroes and villains was about. Unfortunately, unless you were well-versed in season two of Daredevil and season one of Iron Fist, following The Defenders wasn’t particularly simple. For all of the time it spent rehashing the same several plot points over and over (yes, we know that Danny is the Immortal Iron Fist, we don’t need a reminder every episode), it failed to clearly explain what The Hand needed Danny for, why the team needed to keep him safe, and why they should even be working together. There was plenty of time for that, yet Petrie and Ramirez cared more about the Daredevil-Elektra romance than fully integrating Luke and Jessica into the story. And if we don’t understand why we should care, we simply won’t.
- Piggy-backing off the previous point, The Defenders squandered both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, the two most complex and interesting of the foursome, in favor of increased screen time for Danny Rand, who is just an atrocious character. Yes, Jessica is great at the quick quip, and having her as an audience surrogate commenting on the ridiculous nature of the plot and Iron Fist was a nice touch, but it was clear Petrie and Ramirez didn’t know what to do with her. Her PTSD from her last encounter with Kilgrave was only hinted at, with little time spent on deepening her character. Ditto for Luke, who existed to banter when needed, and to use his super strength when it was convenient to the plot. Moving forward, the events in The Defenders will have a major impact on both Iron Fist and Daredevil, changing who they were prior to the first episode in tangible ways. For Jessica and Luke, they can just as easily ignore the events and go on with their everyday lives. All The Defenders did for their stories was to introduce them to a few new characters. What a waste.
- The lack of specificity of everyone’s powers: Yes, we know Luke is strong and bullet proof. And that Jessica has super strength. And that Matt has heightened senses and some amazing martial arts training. And that Danny is the Iron Fist (which he repeatedly told us, over and over). But sometimes Luke could take a punch with no effect from the bad guys and sometimes they hit him hard. Sometimes Jessica could get the drop on a badie, sometimes she couldn’t toss them. Sometimes Danny could use the fist just once, sometimes more than once. Powers seemed to work when they needed to and conveniently fail when it worked best for the story. And don’t get me started on The Hand. Did we ever find out what Alexandra’s actual ability was? Because other than “leading” the group and bringing Elektra back from the dead, I’m not entirely sure why she was there.
- Daredevil’s pity party: Look, everyone knew Matt was going to put the suit back on and fight. But man, his friends were pretty awful at their attempts to get him to quit for good. If we’re to believe that Matt’s desire to be Daredevil stems from an addiction to fighting, having Foggy and Karen roll into the story from time to time to shame him into feeling guilty for trying to save people’s lives is not the way to combat his urges. He’s an addict and they should be treating him as such. Not just telling him he’s wrong for falling off the fighting wagon. And, really, the city is way better with him roaming the streets. If they’re so angry about it (and afraid for their safety), might I suggest they cut ties with him?
- Wasting Scott Glenn and Sigourney Weaver: When you are lucky enough to have actors of their caliber in your production, you need to give them an actual character to inhabit and a story arc to traverse. Sure, Glenn got in a few fun quips as Stick (I really loved him calling out Danny’s idiocy), but his sole purpose was to impede the story for an episode before deciding to kill Danny. If you’re looking for a great example of how awesome Glenn can be, might I suggest checking out The Leftovers? As for the dreck Weaver had to deal with. Wow. I still don’t really understand the purpose behind Alexandra. She’s the de facto leader of The Hand. So, how’d she get that position? What are her powers? Is she the only one with the fluid, which is why everyone listens to her? Is she actually a skilled fighter, but just doesn’t fight anymore? I was really excited to see her work her magic and show these kids what a real actor can do. Instead, she made speeches and creepily stroked Elektra’s face until Elektra killed her. Seriously? They couldn’t come up with anything better for her to do?
- Finn Jones: Now, Jones is a very good looking guy, but boy, he cannot act. I managed to skip almost all of Iron Fist, but I had heard how disappointed many people were with his performance. After watching The Defenders, I completely understand what they were talking about. I’ve gotten on the case of some actors in the past for giving poor performances despite being tasked with carrying most of a series (looking at you, Kit Harrington), but this might be one of the most disconnected performances I’ve seen on television in years. Jones has no charisma. He doesn’t connect on an emotional level with any of his castmates (most noticeably, with Jessica Henwick, his love interest). His delivery is completely wooden, and when asked to present emotional heft, it comes off like a whining child. I know the series leaned into the “Danny Rand is pretty awful and clueless” angle, but this is one of four superheroes Marvel wants us to care about. Trying to make up for the shortcomings of an actor (and, really, a character) by making him seem like a joke is not the way to go. Also, if I have to hear Danny Rand tell someone he’s “the Immortal Iron Fist” with no emotional tenor to those words one more time, I might scream.
- Leaning hard into Daredevil/Elektra: I think both Charlie Cox and Elodie Yung are good actors. And some of those Elektra fight sequences were really fun to watch. But in an ensemble piece, leaning so heavily into the relationship between Matt and Elektra was a mistake. First, for people who might not have watched all of Daredevil, it creates some serious confusion as to the depth of their relationship and just what Matt did that caused her death (as someone familiar with the characters’ comic origins, I didn’t have an issue following the sappy love story, but having not seen the end of Daredevil season two, I was at a loss as to why Matt’s guilt over her death was so overwhelming- a flashback to that would have been incredibly helpful). But, more importantly, the series took great pains to establish that Elektra was fighting to retrieve her memories of her past life, yet there was only one scene of her actively trying to regain them (visiting Matt’s way-too-expensive apartment). Everything about this relationship consisted of Matt telling Elektra to remember him and what they had (and then talking about his guilt, over and over). The cardinal rule of storytelling is show, don’t tell. This entire arc was flooded with people telling us things. Petrie and Ramirez could have crafted an arc that showed Elektra slowly regaining her memories and grappling with what happened and who she wants to be now. Instead, we got a partially brainwashed character fighting a suicidal hero who, for reasons never fully explained to us in this series, was willing to die trying to save his ex-girlfriend who only kind of remembered him. All to set-up his hero redemption story for season three of his own series. Completely disappointing.