And so after five seasons of Marvel Netflix superheroic shenanigans, from the highs (Daredevil Season 2, Jessica Jones) to the lows (goddamn Iron Fist), we come to the inevitable culmination: Marvel’s The Defenders, which sees our four street level vigilantes come together to take on – who else? – The Hand, the shadowy organisation of ninjas, zombies, and ninja zombies intent on taking over New York City.
The good news: it’s a damn sight better than the woefully misjudged Iron Fist. For one thing more care has gone into the production of The Defenders – it lacks the rushed, haphazard, undercooked feeling that marred poor Danny Rand’s first TV outing. For another, Danny (Finn Jones) is a much more appealing protagonist when he’s got other characters sharing the spotlight – especially when they’re a blind guy, a woman, and a black man who are all more than happy to tell the rich white kid when to check his privilege when the need arises.
It’s Danny who drives the plot engine, in fact; he and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) have been hunting down The Hand around the world, and it’s their crusade that brings them back to NYC and into the orbits of lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and ex-con Luke Cage (Mike Colter), none of whom really want to get mixed up in any kind of shadowy back alley war. Murdock has given up his Daredevil persona (shades of The Dark Knight Rises there), Jones is content to drink and take the odd PI gig, and Cage is focused on tracking down a Harlem teen who has gone missing after taking a mysterious job (again, shades of DKR). It takes a bit of maneuvering to get them all in the same place and punching in the same direction, but it’s worth the wait.
In the blue corner we have Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, the face of The Hand, pursuing a mysterious but doubtless world-threatening agenda. Weaver’s no stranger to genre fare – she’s Ellen Ripley, for crying out loud – and she’s never less than watchable, but seems a little ill at ease with the often portentous dialogue she has to get her mouth around. She’s also ill-served by the glacial, repetitive way that we’re introduced to her character, a series of brief scenes, isolated from the main story, that are determined to drop veiled hints at a character trait we’ve all guessed long before the show deigns to tell us.
Indeed, pacing remains an issue with The Defenders, even though it runs at a cut down eight episodes rather than the usual Marvel/Netflix 13 episode season. As has been the case with every series so far, there’s simply not enough story to stretch comfortably over the allotted hours. Happily, the character interactions are enough fun to keep you interested – at last we get the Luke Cage/Iron Fist meet-cute/punch up we’ve been waiting for (it’s a thing), and streetwise Jessica Jones telling Matt Murdock his secret identity isn’t much of a secret is never not funny.
We also get cameos from the supporting casts of every preceding series, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson (Cage marveling that Foggy lets people call him that is a riot). However, the key returning players are from Daredevil’s neck of the woods: Elektra (Elodie Yung), now a living weapon wielded by The Hand, and grumpy old ninja master Stick (Scott Glenn), who remains a curmudgeonly delight in every scene he’s in.
The action, when it hits, is pretty great – and certainly an order of magnitude better than Iron Fist‘s disappointing choreography. Part of the fun in these sort of things is seeing how the different characters’ power and abilities compliment or contrast with each other, so we get to see what happens when Iron Fist’s, er, iron fist, meets Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin, and how martial artists match up against opponents with super strength. For all that, the feeling remains that Marvel/Netflix are still chasing – and falling short of – the high watermark that is Daredevil Season 1’s hallway fight, but not for want of trying.
Perhaps inevitably, it lacks the thematic and narrative cohesion that defines the better works in the overall series, but based on the four episodes released for review, The Defenders does exactly what was promised, delivering the requisite action, quips and character interplay, but not quite managing to push into any new territory. Everyone already on board will be well satisfied, and newcomers should find enough to keep them engaged, too.