Marvel’s The Defenders is a show about that age-old adage: The best teams are greater than the sum of their parts. In Netflix’s newest entry in its connected Marvel Universe, said parts include a woman with super strength, a man with bulletproof skin, a daredevil fighting machine, and a martial artist with a powerful glowing fist. If they can learn to work together, anything is possible.
But that isn’t the most interesting thing about The Defenders. What’s more compelling is the question of whether Marvel could tell a cohesive, fresh story while staying true to (and ideally improving upon) the 65 hours of television it’s already made around these characters: two seasons of Daredevil, and one season each from Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.
And though Defenders has its flaws, Marvel has accomplished most of that mission.
Helped along by its core heroes and the talented actors playing them — Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Danny Rand, a.k.a. the Iron Fist (Finn Jones) — The Defenders mines the fruitful storytelling territory at the intersection of the “band of outsiders” and “family of friends” tropes. It’s seemingly built on the idea that it’s never not fun watching your favorite — and sometimes not-so-favorite — heroes get together and beat up some villains for a common cause.
Here, that common cause is fighting an evil force known as the Hand (which has previously figured into Daredevil and Iron Fist), led by Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra —an icy, mysterious woman with a penchant for dramatic coats — alongside Daredevil’s bloodthirsty old flame Elektra (Elodie Yung). Alexandra, Elektra, and Defenders’ rogues gallery of villains are planning to bring New York City, the home these heroes share, to its grim end. The villains share an ancient secret — which I won’t spoil — that necessitates the heroes coming together to defeat an evil that’s bigger than anything they’ve faced on their own.
Smashing so many characters and plot threads into eight episodes means Defenders’ story is at times too crowded, and the dialogue often spends too much time explaining backstory or too little time building the relationships between the characters. But The Defenders is also more self-aware than Marvel’s four other Netflix superhero series, and there are flashes of humor that we rarely get to see in shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones. The show also manages to rehabilitate the disaster known as Iron Fist.
But most importantly, The Defenders seems to recognize the genuine, smile-inducing fun in seeing your favorite heroes get together to mess up some villains.
The first three episodes are a slog, but there’s payoff if you have patience
Let’s be real: The Defenders was never going to be a nuanced or understated work of art. It’s a superhero show first and everything else second. People are most likely tuning in to The Defenders because they want to see these four heroes band together and beat up a slew of faceless henchmen.
To get to that amazing moment, though, you have to make it through a couple of episodes that feel like needless table setting. The stories catching us up with the individual heroes — which employ a heavy-handed style where each character’s scenes are bathed in a corresponding color — aren’t necessarily bad, but getting to the point where they all finally meet feels like it takes forever.
But it’s all worth it once the Defenders actually do team up.
Seeing these characters’ fight styles work together is a treat: Jones and Cage are inelegant bulls in a china shop, relying on their superpowers to get the job done, while Rand and Murdock are acrobatic, elegant martial arts machines. The way these characters fight fit their personalities and stories.
The drawback is that the majority of the fight scenes are choreographed to look more like Iron Fist and Luke Cage than Daredevil. In The Defenders — with the exception of one fantastic rumble in episode four — jagged cuts, shaky-cam effects, and dark lighting define the majority of fight sequences. They’re fun, sure, but they may be somewhat of a letdown for anyone who loved the purpose and physical artistry of the fights in Daredevil.
But beyond the fight scenes, seeing these characters’ personalities bounce off one another provides an element of fun that’s mostly missing from their individual stories. The sexual tension between Cage and Jones will make you want to watch the first season of Jessica Jones all over again. The strange, winsome big brother/little brother chemistry between Cage and Rand inspires hope that it’ll be explored more in their future individual series. Watching Jones and Murdock circle each other as each tries to figure out the other one is tremendously entertaining. And everyone involved seems eager to take Rand down a peg or two.
The Defenders figured out what to do with Iron Fist
In the middle of the season, The Defenders lets one of its villains be absolutely savage to Danny Rand, sneering, “You’re the dumbest Iron Fist yet.”
He’s not wrong.
Iron Fist, which came out earlier this year, was the weakest of Netflix’s four Marvel shows. Its dodgy script didn’t do its actors — save Rosario Dawson — any justice. Danny Rand, its hero who’s anointed the “chosen one,” wasn’t someone you could root for. And its fight choreography was dull, an egregious mistake for a show that’s supposed to be about a martial arts master.
Instead of continuing in that vein, though, The Defenders takes Iron Fist in a new direction, giving the character some much-needed self-awareness. Instead of being the “chosen one,” now he’s the least street-smart hero in a group where his power, a glowing fist that only works roughly half the time, is overshadowed by those of the other three members, whose superpowers work every single time and are far more useful.
In other words, Danny Rand becomes a lot less special in The Defenders, and that shift in his character allows Jones to imbue the character with comedy.
In Iron Fist, Rand was a frustrating idiot. In The Defenders, he’s a funny idiot. He gets called out for his stubbornness. He’s reminded to laugh at his silly origin story. He’s the butt of jokes and eats a lot. He’s in awe of bulletproof men and super-strong women, looking at his cohorts the way tiny children look at cardboard boxes. By the end of the season, Danny Rand is actually sort of lovable. (Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but now I would be sad if he died, instead of the indifference I felt toward him at the beginning of the season.)
Getting to bounce off the cynicism and toughness of the other Defenders unlocks Iron Fist and allows Jones more freedom to do something compelling with the character. After that dismal first season of Iron Fist made me dread another series featuring him, The Defenders actually gave me hope for Iron Fist’s second season.
The show’s weakest link is its dialogue
The Defenders is one crowded show — possibly too crowded for its own good.
Not only are all of Marvel’s Netflix heroes here, but so are their love interests, their exes, their partners, their confidants, and everyone else they hold near and dear. There’s also a slew of villains from previous shows, like Madame Gao and Elektra, as well as some new ones like Weaver’s Alexandra.
With a cast this big, there’s a lot of time devoted to “how do I know you?” conversations. A lot of the villains’ scenes go something like this:
VILLAIN: Why haven’t we killed the heroes yet?
ALEXANDRA: We must be patient. Sure, they won, but we have Elektra.
VILLAIN: So? How can I trust you?
ALEXANDRA: She is a weapon. Don’t you know about the time we shared _______ (insert tidbit about their shared past) and were almost ________ (insert synonym for killed or betrayed or both) and then … [long speech about future plans].
*Similar scene repeats four scenes later. *
This sort of exposition helps remind viewers how far back these relationships go, but it also creates the sense that it’s just there to reveal tidbits and clues rather than giving viewers an understanding of the relationships between these characters. I know that the villains don’t completely trust each other because of their past, but I only know this because the villains told me they don’t completely trust each other because of their past. As a result, talent like Weaver’s is stifled, dulled into redundant expository flourishes. (I lost count how many times she called Elektra “my child” and explained who she is to her.)
These “how do I know you” conversations happen on the heroes’ side too, but they work a bit better because of the context provided by the previous four Netflix series. The references they cite to each other resonate with viewers who remember how emotionally evocative those shows (with the exception of Iron Fist) could be.
The Defenders will make you excited for the future of Marvel’s Netflix shows
By the end of the season, I found myself caught up in one of the most common complaints about Marvel entertainment: It was hard to tell whether I was genuinely excited about the eight episodes of The Defenders I’d just watched, or excited about how it set up future iterations of the four Netflix shows.
One common critique of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is that each movie functions more as a commercial for the next upcoming Marvel movie than as a standalone piece of art. What’s different in Marvel’s Netflix universe, though, is that we get 13 hours or so of each hero in individual, self-contained shows, rather than just more movies setting up future movies. While it may have been marketed or described as an Avengers-like team-up, The Defenders feels more like a bonus issue, or a special crossover, rather than an event series of its own, like the Avengers movies.
So while I wouldn’t necessarily mind another Defenders series, I’d be devastated if we didn’t get to see how what happened in The Defenders affects each of its heroes — even Iron Fist.