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Marvel and Netflix’s The Defenders (Review)

The Defenders stumbles in familiar ways.

The series is nominally a crossover between the four Marvel Netflix series, a small-screen version of The Avengers providing a point of intersection between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. In theory, this is the perfect opportunity to bring together four television superheroes to face a larger threat. There is something inherently cool in the idea of a crossover, in watching worlds collide and watching protagonists folded into a larger ensemble.

However, things are not so simple. The Defenders prejudices some of its constituent elements more than others. Most notable, it is overseen by Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, the producers on the second season of Daredevil. It also carries over several elements from that season, including the hole in the ground from Semper Fidelis and the death and resurrection of Elektra from A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. More than that, The Defenders carries over the mythology of the Hand and the Iron Fist from Iron Fist, putting heavy focus on Danny Rand.

From the outset, The Defenders effectively handicaps itself by leaning on the two weakest pillars of this multimedia empire. The second season of Daredevil was a disjointed mess packed with poor writing and stuffed with generic ninjas. The first season of Iron Fist was a collection of Orientalist stereotypes crammed into a cheap and poorly constructed origin story fashioned from whatever meat that Daredevil had left on the bones of the template that Christopher Nolan had established in Batman Begins. These are not foundations for an epic.

More than that, this emphasis on the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist comes at the expense of the three strong seasons of Marvel’s Netflix output. The Defenders never captures the emotional power of Jessica Jones, nor the street-level perspective of life in New York conveyed through Luke Cage. Even more basically, The Defenders never even tries to create the same sense of pulpy thrill that defined so much of the first season of Daredevil. Instead, The Defenders focuses on ninjas and mystical nonsense.

The central plot of The Defenders hinges on the revelation that the island of Manhattan has been built on a volatile foundation. The Defenders could just as easily be speaking about itself.

To be fair, there is a lot to like about The Defenders. Like the second season of Daredevil, it starts out relatively solid before (literally) descending into a pit of narrative chaos and repetition. The series seems genuinely excited to be playing with these characters in this particular sandbox, which carries it through the first half of the season. The show understands the art of the tease, slowly bringing characters together and then letting them play off one another in potentially interesting combinations.

Many of these moments are clever and small, minor beats in a chaotic piece: Danny and Luke discussing privilege in Worst Behaviour; Jessica and Matt going snooping together in Ashes, Ashes; Luke and Jessica finally talking to one another about their emotional states in The Defenders. Indeed, the best episode of the entire season does nothing more than lock the four characters in a confined space and watch them bounce off one another. Royal Dragon might also have been the cheapest episode of the season.

At the same time, there are lots of nice little moments where the show seems to understand even its supporting players. Early on in the run, there is a sense that Jessica and Luke might actually be used well within this epic ninja throwdown, providing a sense of human scale to the mystical narratives that encircle both Matt and Danny. In The H Word and Mean Right Hook, Luke and Jessica are drawn into this web of deception and betrayal by their desire to help people trapped in impossible situations. However, that focus is soon lost, suffocated by ninja battles.

Similarly, there are some nice early moments that demonstrate that Ramirez and Petrie have watched both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Several beats and scenes are structured so as to consciously parallel memorable iconic moments from those earlier seasons. When Danny strikes Luke in Mean Right Hook, it obviously emulates the memorable punch from Moment of Truth. When Jessica infiltrates the architecture firm in Worst Behaviour, she is very clearly donning the same ditzy persona that she used in AKA You’re a Winner!

However, as the show goes on, these character beats and character traits are gradually smoothed over and flattened out. Jessica becomes the deadpan snarker of the group, complimenting Matt on his helmet in Take Shelter or sarcastically referring to Danny as “Iron Lad” in The Defenders. Luke is just there for most of the climax of the series. His big character moment in The Defenders comes when he initially refuses to blow up Midland Circle, only to be negotiated down to killing no innocent people. Of course, he still leaves Matt behind at the climax.

Luke and Jessica are very much secondary characters in The Defenders, something that is readily noticeable from the outset. While the villains of The Defenders are largely drawn from Daredevil and Iron Fist, Luke discovers quite early in Mean Right Hook that his own archnemeses (Shades and Mariah) have absconded from Harlem. Although Davide Tennant will be (perhaps improbably) appearing in the second season of Jessica Jones, the character of Kilgrave is entirely absent from The Defenders.

Unfortunately, these absences create a vacuum. The Defenders decides to fill that vacuum with a collection of completely generic and forgettable characters. The worst part is that there is no real excuse for introducing many of these character. Bakuto was a bland villain who had been killed at the climax of Iron Fist, there was no need to resurrect him for The Defenders. Nobu had been killed off twice, in the first and second seasons of Daredevil, so there is no need to introduce Murakami as the generic ninja man behind the other generic ninja man.

There is something exhausting in all of this. Comic book narratives have rarely allowed characters to remain dead. The laws of comic book narratives suggest that any dead character is constantly inching closer and closer to resurrection; just look at Bucky Barnes or Gwen Stacey, characters who were dead for decades before their resurrections. However, there is also a sense that these sorts of resurrections are narratively cheap, and completely undercut a lot of the narrative weight of death in the first place.

Nobody in the audience cared about characters like Bakuto or Nobu. There is no earthly reason to resurrect them, whether literally or metaphorically. Neither Bakuto nor Nobu were charismatic anchors to their stories. Neither Bakuto nor Nobu popped off the screen. Neither Bakuto nor Nobu had any essentially emotional connection to any major character that needed to be exhumed. If The Defenders cannot let these characters go, then how is the audience supposed to invest in dramatic stakes? If even the mind-numbingly boring characters come back, why care?

This is a legitimate problem at the climax of The Defenders, as Matt and Elektra find themselves trapped beneath the collapsing Midland Circle building. The two embrace, like lovers caught in the atomic bomb blast. It is suggested that Matt is dead. A lot of people are very upset. However, the audience knows better than this. Elektra has been dead before, and that couldn’t even keep her out of action for a full season of Daredevil. Even before the final shot reveals Matt is alive, the audience knows he survived. Bakuto got resurrected, and he is much less compelling.

All of this feels very disingenuous. The Defenders works very hard to convince the audience that this battle has stakes and weight, that the Hand can be killed and defeated. In fact, several members of the Hand are decapitated over the course of the series, and a major plot point is the idea of immortality for members of the group. However, it seems arbitrary. What was the point of the second season of Daredevil or the first season of Iron Fist if the Hand were only going to be mortal once The Defenders went to the bother of identifying them as such?

As a rule, the Marvel Netflix shows have some of the most interesting live-action comic book supervillains. Part of this is down to casting, while part of this is simply down to having the necessary room to explore what makes these characters tick. Daredevil has Vincent D’onofrio as Wilson Fisk, who got his own focus in Shadows in Glass. Jessica Jones was practically a two-hander between Krysten Ritter and David Tennant. Luke Cage had Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard, exploring their character back stories in Manifest.

However, The Defenders inexplicably chooses to treat the hand as the show’s primary antagonist and to elevate the character of Elektra to the role of “big bad.” Elodie Yung does the best that she can with the material, but Ramirez and Petrie have never managed to turn Elektra into a suitably multifaceted and complex character. The Defenders implicitly acknowledges this by casting Sigourney Weaver as the mysterious Alexandra Reid, and allowing Weaver to carry that dramatic weight for six episodes before unceremoniously killing her off at the end of Ashes, Ashes.

This is a spectacularly ill-judged decision, if only from a structural perspective. Alexandra is hardly the most developed and nuanced Netflix antagonist, but Weaver has enough presence and skill to anchor a scene. Once The Defenders decides to kill off Alexandra in favour of Elektra, the series collapses into narrative anarchy. There is no longer a villain compelling enough to watch at the centre of the story, and our heroes seem to be thrown against wave and wave of stock antagonists.

Interestingly, the production team should know better. Luke Cage made a similar mistake at the half-way point of its first season, suddenly murdering the character at the climax of Manifest. It was a bold and striking decision in the moment, in particular because it seemed like a deft act of narrative substitution that would swap out Cornell Stokes for Mariah Dillard as the “big bad” on the show, trading out Mahershala Ali for Alfre Woodard. Instead, Luke Cage replaced Cornell Stokes with the goofy blaxploitation villain Diamondback. The show suffered immensely.

The Defenders compounds this downgrade from Alexandra to Elektra (and from Weaver to Yung) by effectively retreading well-worn ground from the second season of Daredevil. The big emotional arc that ran through the final two-thirds of that season concerned the love between Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios. Could Elektra ever be more than a killing machine? Was Elektra capable of more than just violence? Could Matt and Elektra find a way to love one another? It wasn’t the worst character arc, even if it suffocated under mountains of dead ninja.

The problem with foregrounding Elektra as the primary antagonist in The Defenders is the way that it serves to retread that emotional arc from the second season of Daredevil. There is really only tragic love story that can be told using Matt and Elektra, and the second season of Daredevil got there first. It might be something if Elektra had been gone for years, or if the audience had a chance to watch Matt move on and live his life, but it really just feels like The Defenders is repeating a story that was simply competent in its first iteration.

Although the choice of creative team made it inevitable that The Defenders would be rooted in the second season of Daredevil, the decision is still frustrating. The second season of Daredevil was a spectacular mess, with poor characterisation and clumsy plotting. It featured writing that mistook “things happening” for the art of storytelling. The decision to root so much of The Defenders in that misguided season of television represents a sizable error in judgement on the part of the production team.

However, that problem is compounded by the decision to root so much of The Defenders in the first season of Iron Fist. In fact, the first season of Iron Fist is the only season of Marvel Netflix that is demonstrably worse than the second season of Daredevil. Watching The Defenders, there is a sense that Ramirez and Petrie are enjoying the opportunity to pick on the low man on the totem poll. The Defenders spends considerable time mocking and criticising Iron Fist, pointing out its limitations and absurdities.

Luke gives Danny a much-needed talk about white privilege in Worst Behaviour. Jessica, Matt and Luke decide collectively that things would go much smoother if Danny were tied to a chair in Ashes, Ashes. When he finally gets out of that chair, the Hand effectively tie him to a gurney in Fish in the Jailhouse. In Take Shelter, stick effectively deputises Matt to lead the team because Danny simply isn’t up to the task. In The Defenders, Danny demonstrates this by allowing the team to fall apart the moment that Matt is gone.

More than that, The Defenders seems to understand how Iron Fist was fundamentally narratively flawed. Tellingly, The Defenders delivers on the most infamous broken promise made of Iron Fist. For a show about a guy who punched a dragon in the heart, Iron Fist featured surprisingly little dragon punching; just a tease of glowing eyes in Dragon Plays With Fire. Almost teasingly, The Defenders allows Danny gets to punch through the skeleton of a dragon at the end of Fish in the Jailhouse and the climax of The Defenders unfolds within its skeleton.

However, these self-aware touches cannot gloss over the fact that Iron Fist is a terrible piece of television and it makes absolutely no sense to treat it as the foundation stone of a gigantic crossover miniseries. The Defenders leans into nonsense around K’un Lun and the Hand, doubling down on the mystical mumbo jumbo and the laboured exposition. However, all of this just pushes The Defenders further and further from anything human or particularly engaging.

As with the decision to cast Elektra as the primary antagonist of the miniseries, Ramirez and Petrie consciously try to hedge against these limitations. Understanding that Finn Jones is (by no small distance) the weakest of the four leading performers, Petrie and Ramirez reduce him to the status of a plot macguffin in the second half of the season; Ashes, Ashes, Fish in the Jailhouse, The Defenders. In fact, the set-up for the series’ final action beat in Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders goes so far as to substitute Jessica Henwick into the line-up. It is an improvement.

However, these repeated attempts at damaged control by trying to insulate fundamental problems with the structure of the story only serve to emphasise how ill-judged those decisions are in the first place. Using Sigourney Weaver as a decoy antagonist only draws attention to how ineffective the actual antagonist is. Substituting Jessica Henwick for Finn Jones at every possible opportunity only reminds the audience that the producers decided that building a miniseries around Finn Jones was a good idea in the first place.

There are moments when The Defenders works, but those moments are often when the production team are most strongly resisting the pull of their two strongest influences. The Defenders works best when it wonders what a show building off Jessica Jones or Luke Cage might look like, only to trip up when it returns its focus to the second season of Daredevil or the first season of Iron Fist. To be fair, there is enough interesting material here to elevate The Defenders slightly above either of its two primary influences, but not as much as simply picking better influences.

The Defenders feels like its defeat comes as a result of spectacular own goals.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The Defenders:

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8 Responses

  1. I kind of thought the Hand was wrong for a Defenders Big Bad all along.

    The Netflix-Marvel shows were sold as showing the “street” side of the MCU, which is what their best seasons (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil Season 1) in fact do. The villains reflect that by being the kind of people you’d find in those stories – gangsters, predatory businessmen, corrupt city officials, or even just stalkers whose targets can’t trust the cops (Wilson Fisk, Cottonmouth, Diamondback, Mariah, Purple Man…) Something as fantastical as the Hand feels like it belongs in Marvel movies or on Agents of SHIELD.

    I don’t know exactly how to explain the distinction. The best I can come up with is that the Avengers, the Guardians, SHIELD, et al are fighting the James Bond and Indiana Jones villains of the Marvel universe. Whereas the Defenders shows, thematically, are more about fighting the Rockford Files and Magnum PI villains of the Marvel Universe. And the Hand definitely falls on the Bond/Indy villain side of that equation. (As portrayed, it’s basically the Asiatic counterpart to HYDRA).

    • “I don’t know exactly how to explain the distinction.”

      They’re Spidey villains, in a sense.

      It fits because I remember a criticism of the books at the time was when they rebooted Osborn as a kind of all knowing, life ruining corporate villain. It was commented that Peter is not hero who lends himself to that kind of mundane enemy, whereas Daredevil is a detective and could do more interesting things on that regard.

      • I’m not sure the distinction is that clear. After all, I think there’s a reason Fisk ported over to Daredevil so effectively.
        (It’s largely forgotten that Miller transformed Fisk almost as much as he transformed Matt.)

    • That Asiatic comparison is on point. If HYDRA are Nazis and (to a lesser extent) Communists, then the Hand is China and Japan.

      I can see wanting to use the Hand in a Daredevil story. But, after Daredevil season two, it really feels like the production team should have gone back to the drawing board. (Who would you use? I don’t know. The Hood? The Kingpin? The Maggia? I don’t know, but give me a few days and I’d probably come up with a better suggestion than the Hand, especially after two complete and unequivocal failures.)

      • Well, the problem is that the obvious villain is Wilson Fisk. It’s what they used to justify a similar team-up in Ultimate Spider-Man, and you can see why it works – you have all these street-level, neighborhood heroes who’re used to fighting crime and corruption, but Fisk is so powerful and so good that none of them can handle him on their own, hence all of them banding together.

        But they already used Fisk in the first season of Daredevil, and it’s hard to think of a figure that measures up.

      • That’s fair. I do think that D’Onofrio is good enough that you could get away with using him twice, close together.

  2. It’s great because Twin Peaks just introduced a cockney version of the Iron Fist. Just to show that you can get away from stereotypes.

    (Though it obviously had nothing to do with it, it’s just a funny coincidence. 🙂 )

    “Kilgrave is entirely absent from The Defenders.”

    Which is dumb. Krysten had an AmA over a year ago where she teased as a Kilgrave-Fisk team up.

    Looking back, it’s the only thing which would have saved this.

    • I don’t know. I think even Vincent D’Onofrio by himself would have been a good choice.

      Imagine Fisk crushing Danny Rand in a car door while the other three Defenders stand on watching.

      (Well, okay, maybe not that obvious, but Fisk-as-played-by-D’Onofrio has a lot of potential for a “oh, crap, he’s actually operating on this level!” moments.)

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