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The Defenders – Worst Behaviour (Review)

One of the big issues with The Defenders is that it works a lot better as a weird cross-cutting fusion of four different television series than it does as a single cohesive narrative.

The H Word and Mean Right Hook feature a few small crossover between primary and supporting characters; Foggy and Luke, Misty and Jessica, a fight between Luke and Danny, a quick tease of Matt and Jessica. Otherwise, the four lead characters seem to operate in isolation from one another, continuing threads and themes from their own shows, even as they inch closer and closer together. Worst Behaviour and Royal Dragon finally bring the big four characters together, while still trading on the incongruity of this team-up.

Privileged information.

This tension provides the first half of The Defenders with a compelling narrative hook, an interesting set of internal conflicts between various genres and styles and conventions. In contrast, a lot of this tension evaporates in the second half of the season, as The Defenders figures out exactly what it wants to be in Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes, before devolving into a familiar and distracting chaos with Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders. The first half of the season is compelling, because it seems to be about more than wave-after-wave of generic ninja.

As the team begins to cohere in Worst Behaviour, worlds begin to collide. There is something sublime and ridiculous, as the audience comes to realise that a blind vigilante might coexist alongside a super-strong alcoholic private investigator, a bulletproof social crusader and a billionaire martial arts expert. It is weird, wonderful and jarring. The Defenders manages an interesting frisson in Worst Behaviour.

Lift off.

The Defenders is nominally a hybrid of its four constituent Marvel Netflix series; Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Of course, some of those four constituent elements come across stronger in the blend than others. Watching The Defenders, it very quickly becomes clear that this crossover will be favouring the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist over the first season of either Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. Matt Murdock and Danny Rand are in the driving seat, while Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are just passengers.

There are any number of reasons of this. Marco Ramirez and Doug  are showrunners on The Defenders, and they cut their teeth overseeing the second season of Daredevil. More than that, Daredevil was both the first Marvel Netflix series to be released and the only one to have a second season before going into The Defenders. This puts the series in an analogous position to Iron Man going into The Avengers, it was inevitable that Matt Murdock would be at least one of the more prominent protagonists going into the event miniseries.

Ironing out some problems.

It is perhaps harder to justify the gravity that Iron Fist exerts over The Defenders, save perhaps acknowledging that it is the most mythology-heavy of the Defenders miniseries and the last series to be released before The Defenders. The production team struggled to come up with a compelling hook for Iron Fist, so a lot of publicity material leaned on his status as “The Last Defender.” As such, it is positioned similarly to Captain America: The First Avenger. It also had the least distinct flavour, and so was easier to incorporate into the blend than Jessica Jones or Luke Cage.

This choice of emphasis is more than slightly frustrating, given that the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist are by far the weakest of the five seasons leading into The Defenders. The first season of Jessica Jones is easily one of the strongest, and the first season of Luke Cage easily has the strongest unique identity. More than that, both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have the advantage of coming into The Defenders from unique perspectives. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are actually about big and bold ideas like gender and race.

Wrapped up neatly.

As The Defenders continues, Jessica and Luke both find themselves marginalised within the group. This is understandable, given that these two characters have been entrusted to a creative team with no prior experience writing for them. Charlie Cox acknowledged the challenges facing the production team:

“I can’t even imagine what it was like for [Ramirez] to write this show with four characters, all of whom already exist, three of whom you’ve never written for,” Cox says in a phone interview. “All of those guys have other people who wrote their individual shows, and he has to try and find the voice that matches what was already filmed and put on screen. And then he’s got to try and tell a story involving all four of those people that remains true to everything that’s been done so far.”

Both Jessica Jones (and Jessica Jones) and Luke Cage (and Luke Cage) have unique voices, largely down to the influences of showrunners Melissa Rosenberg and Cheo Hodari Coker. It is very difficult to expect two outside writers with no experience of these characters to just step into the breach and try to write in that voice.

Tough to get on board with.

To be fair, it does not always work. There are quite a few moments in The Defenders when both Jessica and Luke seem horribly “off-model”, like watching a clumsy comedian attempt a complicated impersonation. In The H Word, some of the banter between Jessica and Trish tries way too hard. “You know what your problem is?” Trish begins. Jessica responds, “Sentences that start like that.” In Mean Right Hook, Misty confronts Jessica. “You got a mouth,” Misty observes. Jessica rolls her eyes, “You noticed.”

Similarly, The Defenders tones down some of the more interesting nuances of Luke Cage. One of the more compelling aspects of Luke Cage was its engagement with African American culture. The Defenders seems to boil that down to a love of hip-hop, ignoring how literate and well-read Luke was shown to be in episodes like Moment of Truth. In The H Word, he makes a joking reference to Claire’s plagiarism of Nikki Giovanni, but he never gets another moment like that. (He’s shown reading a newspaper rather than a book in Ashes, Ashes.)

Luke into it.

Still, it’s hard to complain too much about these small issues. For the first half of The Defenders, Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie consciously approach each of the four characters as protagonists in their own series. The first half of The Defenders feels like four weird mini-seasons running simultaneously, before the back half becomes dominated by the narrative baggage from the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist. There is something strangely charming in this, watching one television series that thinks it is actually four different television shows.

This is perhaps most striking in the way that The H Word and Mean Right Hook approach the characters of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, the characters who are most suffocated by the imposition of a house style in the second half of the season. Although the last few episodes of The Defenders reduce Jessica to the role of deadpan snarker and Luke to the role of really ineffective team conscience, the early episodes suggest that Ramirez and Petrie have both at least watched Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

Time for reflection.

This is perhaps most obvious with Luke Cage, the most visually and aurally distinctive show within this corner of the Marvel Universe. The sequences focusing on Luke in The H Word and Mean Right Hook are consciously stylised to evoke the show. There is a hiphop soundtrack to his introductory sequence as he walks through prison on his way to be a free man. His journey back to the city is consciously framed so as to mirror his departure from it at the end of You Know My Steez. Everything glows yellow in the nighttime Harlem scenes in The H Word.

Luke comes to The Defenders as the most socially conscious member. Misty asks him to investigate the recruitment of young black men into a criminal enterprise in The H Word. Claire discusses how many neighbourhood residents don’t have insurance after the earthquake in Mean Right Hook. Luke has an extended conversation with Danny about white privilege in Worst Behaviour. The first half of The Defenders pays at least cursory attention to who Luke Cage is as a character and what Luke Cage is a show.

“Please let me know when I can get changed back into my bland and generic ninja fatigues, please?”

Even Luke’s window into the Hand in Mean Right Hook feels like a nod to his own show. Luke stumbles across the ninja cult through a connection in Harlem, recruit young black men to operate as cleaning crews. This connection, “Whitehead”, is described by Turk as a “real deal African brother, too. White suit, panama hat, alligator shoes.” He is only glimpsed fleetingly in Mean Right Hook, but he feels very much like a nod to Luke Cage‘s blaxploitation roots. It is a shame that The Defenders never follows that up. Sowande drops that persona in Take Shelter.

There is undoubtedly something very well-meaning in all of this. Petrie and Ramirez seem to be trying to emphasise what audiences loved about Luke Cage. The conversation between Luke and Danny in Worst Behaviour is an important beat for both characters. It is important for Danny because Danny has spent most of Iron Fist being insufferable and self-obsessed with no appreciation of anything outside of his own narrow frame of reference. After all, Danny is an American dude who took the role of sworn protector of a foreign land, but ran off when he got bored.

“Luke, I have some questions about words I can say when I’m singing along with hiphop?”

However, it is also important for Luke because it demonstrates that he is fundamentally the same character who appeared in Luke Cage. As Marco Ramirez explained, it was about understanding that bringing these characters together was about more than just mashing up power sets:

“I think with any one of these characters it’s really easy to just think about their superpowers first, and when they meet, what does it mean when their superpowers clash,” Ramirez tells Vulture. He wanted to avoid that simplicity. “Anybody can watch and make action figures just mash up against each other and have a good fight, but actually having a good, emotionally satisfying fight was even more important.”

That said, Ramirez says he and the rest of the show’s writing staff weren’t out to make a big political statement after the backlash to Iron Fist. “It wasn’t like we were purposely trying to write a scene about race, or anything like that,” he says. “We just thought, Oh, these two are not going to get along with this thing. We were going to give them scenes where they go up against each other, and the best way to do that is to make them have actual ideological arguments.”

This is a very fair point, one that understands the thrill of playing archetypal comic book characters off one another. There is something inherently interesting in using familiar characters to highlight and contrast with other established characters, a way of exploring differences and similarities in an intriguing manner.

Dojo know what I mean?

The conversation between Danny and Luke might be the most compelling scene in the entire eight-part miniseries, largely because Luke refuses to mince words. The conversation inches nicely in that direction, particularly early in the conversation when Danny discovers that Luke’s powers were given to him in a prison experiment. “Was it voluntary?” Danny asks, which might just be the stupidest richest most privileged response that a person could have to that particular tale.

Luke lays into Danny for attacking a young black kid who had not committed a violent crime. The kid was helping to dispose of bodies, but was not a threat to a master of martial arts. “He needed a job,” Luke explains, trying to help Danny understand the lure of illegal activities to young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Danny, who has never wanted for money in his life simply responds, “That’s not an excuse.” It is a nice contrast between the two characters.

An unbreakable bond.

However, Worst Behaviour initially appears to take Luke’s side. “I know privilege when I see it,” Luke very bluntly informs Danny. “You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the moment you were born.” When Danny challenges Luke to explain the difference between them, Luke answers, “The difference is I live on their block. The difference is that I’m not a billionaire white boy who takes justice into his own hands and slams a black kid against a wall because of his personal vendetta.” This is all very clever and very fair.

It also fits with a larger pattern of The Defenders being rather brutal in its assessment of Danny Rand, acknowledging the (entirely deserved) critical drubbing that Iron Fist received. At the same time, as with a lot of the ways in which The Defenders tries to deal with the problem of Danny Rand, it feels like the show is talking out both sides of its mouth. There is a sense that all of this self-criticism and self-reflection is just a distraction from the decision to foreground Danny Rand as the second most important member of this four-person team.

Fist first.

Tellingly, even Worst Behaviour backs away a little bit from the harsher criticisms that Luke makes of Danny. This discussion becomes the set up for a literal punchline at the end of the episode, when Danny remarks on the ease with which Luke tears through a boardroom of baton-wielding ninjas. “It’s complicated,” Luke jokingly concedes. However, it is not particularly complicated. There is a huge difference between Danny roughing up black kids who aren’t fighting back and Luke wrestling with members of a ninja death cult charging at him with deadly weapons.

Similarly, Worst Behaviour follows that discussion between Luke and Danny with a scene between Colleen and Danny. Danny seems to be taking Luke’s criticism to heart. However, Colleen seems to exist to comfort Danny. “He doesn’t know what we’re really up against,” Colleen assures Danny. “He doesn’t understand how dangerous the Hand are.” Given that Luke spends the next six episodes fighting the Hand, while Danny doesn’t have to face his privilege again, The Defenders seems to agree with Colleen that Luke is making a mountain of a proverbial molehill.

“It’s okay, Danny. I think you’re cool.”

Indeed, as much as Luke might draw attention to Danny’s white privilege in Worst Behaviour, there is a sense that the production team do not take such criticisms in earnest. Even as part of the press circuit for The Defenders, Finn Jones denied that Danny had any white privilege:

“It’s a common misconception that Danny was ‘the Chosen One’ and he came from money. I know there’s a lot of talk about Danny being very privileged and this and that, but I do think it’s a common misconception that people are just seeing the character in very broad strokes. Danny, yes he grew up in a very wealthy family, but at 10 years old he was ripped out of an airplane, he lost both of his parents, and he had to grow up in a very desolate environment for 15 years. He had to train and work super hard to become the Iron Fist. It was never about him being ‘the Chosen One.’ He definitely didn’t live a life of privilege from 10 years-old onward. He actually lived a very difficult life,” Jones explained.

Jones has been notoriously prickly about criticisms of Danny Rand as a character, famously blaming the lackluster critical response to Iron Fist on the election of Donald Trump. All of this serves to make the scene of Luke explaining white privilege to Danny seem slightly cynical. Still, at least Ramirez and Petrie are trying.

Snap.

Similarly, the early episodes of The Defenders pay considerable attention to the world of Jessica Jones. The character is drawn into the story through the conventions of a familiar private investigator narrative; there is a client with a missing husband, a threatening phone call, a discover the escalates a missing prison case to something much more severe and mysterious. More than that, the early episodes of The Defenders are structured in such a way as to emphasis that Jessica is more than just a set of powers or skills.

Jessica gets to do a lot of stock private investigator stuff in Mean Right Hook and Worst Behaviour. She gets to trawl through the city records, snapping photographs with her phone to examine later. She gets to lose a tail, when Matt Murdock tries to follow her. She gets to turn the tables, and snap photographs of Matt Murdock in action. Ashes, Ashes retroactively reveals that Jessica has used her skills to piece together his life story. She even gets to go undercover and ply information out of an architectural firm using her bubbly persona from AKA You’re a Winner!

“I see everybody brought their batons to the board meeting. Good. You got the HR memo.”

However, these early episodes carry over more than simply the genre trappings of a private detective story. There are some very pointed narrative parallels used to draw Jessica into this larger narrative. Luke finds himself drawn into the plot of The Defenders by focusing on a story designed to play on his own sympathies, that of an exploited young black man who throws his life away because of a dearth of other possibilities. Jessica finds herself drawn into the story of The Defenders through a story of innocent lives destroyed by a corrupting force outside anybody’s control.

This is most obvious towards the climax of Mean Right Hook, as Jessica finds herself face to face with the subject of her investigation. John Raymond was a successful architect with a loving family, but all of that was destroyed when he came into contact with something more powerful that destroyed his sanity. He ends up threatening Malcolm with a gun, before turning the weapon on himself. “This is not me,” he promises Jessica. “I’m a good man.” Pointing to his mind, he warns Elektra, “You can’t have this.”

Architect of their destruction.

It is a sequence obviously designed to evoke memories of Kilgrave from Jessica Jones, the corrupting mind-controlling sadist that would force people to do things against their will. Kilgrave let a trail of broken lives in his wake, most obviously Jessica herself. In particular, the suicide of John Raymond at the climax of Mean Right Hook is clearly designed to recall the suicide of Hope Shlottman at the end of AKA 1,000 Cuts. Unable to escape Kilgrave’s control, Hope cut her own throat in front of Jessica. It was, understandably, a bit deal for Jessica.

The Defenders rather consciously echoes that story beat as a way to explain how Jessica comes to embrace this superhero team-up. Jessica is repeatedly shown to be skeptical about the Hand and about the complex mythology that surrounds the story. More than that, Jessica is arguably the member of the team least suited to playing well with other, even if she is decidedly less angsty about it than Matt in Royal Dragon. As such, it makes sense for The Defenders to provide Jessica with a more grounded and personal perspective on all this.

Some cheek.

To be fair to The Defenders, it does a fairly effective job of integrating these various strands. Petrie and Ramirez clearly understand the visual language of this shared universe, populating the early episodes of The Defenders with familiar markers and signifiers. Danny Rand and Luke Cage come together in Mean Right Hook, restaging one of the most iconic visual effects shots in the Marvel Netflix universe, the slow motion punch from Moment of Truth. Of course, it is a low bar to clear. Dragon Plays With Fire couldn’t even bother with a single shot of a dragon.

As such, it makes sense for Worst Behaviour to bring the four characters together with that most celebrated of Marvel Netflix institutions, the no-holds-barred hall fight. The extended one-take hallway fight in Cut Man became a signature scene for the first season of Daredevil. It demonstrated what these shows could do. Naturally, the second season upped the ante with extended hallway fights in both New York’s Finest and Seven Minutes in Heaven, one for Matt Murdock and one for Frank Castle.

Sharpened wit.

Although Jessica Jones did not feature an equivalent sequence, it became a literal hallmark of the shared universe. Luke Cage teased the idea in its opening trailer and allowed the inevitable hallway fight sequence to hang over the first two episodes of the show before finally playing it straight in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? Even Iron Fist managed a rather half-assed iteration in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. As such, it was inevitable that The Defenders would bring its characters together in a hallway fight sequence, and Worst Behaviour does not disappoint.

However, Luke and Jessica are consciously pushed into the background as The Defenders grinds on. As the mythology elements come to the fore, as the Hand come into focus, the series counts on Matt and Danny to shoulder the narrative weight. As tends to happen in these sorts of stories, the characters get smoothed out and reduced to archetypal roles on the team. By the time that things come to a head in The Defenders, Jessica is the sassy smart-talker, while Luke is the team’s moral compass. This feels very reductive.

Cutting the Hand that feeds.

Then again, this is understandable. These sorts of narratives inevitably favour certain characters over others, reflecting all manner of factors; the interests of the audience, the interests of the creators, the demands of the story being told. Most notably, The Avengers trampled all over the continuity of Thor. Thor ended with its title character trapped in Asgard separated from Earth, while The Avengers handwaved a way to send him into the action as quickly as possible. While Tony Stark got to bring a lot of his supporting cast, Thor didn’t even get a scene with his girlfriend.

(In some ways, Luke Cage is the most obvious parallel among the cast of The Defenders. Like Thor, Luke Cage ended on a fairly sizable cliffhanger for the main character that is neatly resolved at the start of the team-up so that he can get into the action as quickly as possible. Similarly, the character feels crowded out by his co-stars. While all the other heroes get to bring multiple supporting cast members over to The Defenders, the only guest appearance from a supporting character exclusive to Luke Cage is that afforded to Simone Missick as Misty Knight.)

Alexandra’s plan can be hard to get on board it.

The gradual shift of focus away from Jessica and Luke is a problem for The Defenders. While Danny and Matt provide a connection to the mythology of the crossover, Jessica and Luke provide a tangible connection to the real people in New York City. Although their story threads are transparently a way to fold them into this massive crossover, that doesn’t matter. The Hand never seem like a credible threat when they promise to destroy the entire city of New York. Instead, they feel tangibly dangerous when they threaten individual lives.

One of the big issues with Daredevil and Iron Fist is the level of threat posed by the Hand. A lot of that carries over to The Defenders. It is clear from The H Word that Alexandra is plotting to destroy New York City, but audiences have trouble grasping that level of abstract menace. Even when The Defenders reveals that the Hand is plotting to sink the city, the scale is too large to contemplate. It is very difficult to convey that threat on a television budget, which leads to lots of scenes of characters delivering exposition while using the definite article.

“Hey, aren’t we supposed to be toning down the Asian stereotypes after Daredevil season two?”
“Shut up, it’s a flashback scene. It’s allowed.”

In contrast, Raymond and Cole serve to put a face on a threat that otherwise seems too abstract and too removed.  These two victims are hardly the most developed or nuanced or characters. They are very simple plot functions designed to explain why Jessica and Luke would end up embroiled in a conspiracy so far beyond their frame of reference. However, there is also something inherently tragic about Raymond and Cole, and the price which they pay for getting caught up in this sprawling urban conspiracy.

Raymond comes from a comfortable upper-middle-class family that lives in a nice house in Manhattan, with a grand piano. Cole comes from a poor family, aware that he is being forced to work a job that likely killed his brother. these are two very different people, with very different lives, but both exist within the audience’s frame of reference. It is easier to empathise with Raymond or Cole than it is to emotionally invest in Danny. These are ordinary people, characters who would serve as collateral damage in scenes of urban devastation.

Well, I’m stumped.

The H Word, Mean Right Hook and Worst Behaviour work relatively well because Raymond and Cole allow The Defenders to demonstrate a very visceral and very immediate cost of what the Hand is doing. More than that, the show chooses to do this through Jessica and Luke, the two primary characters who are most distant from the mystical nonsense that drives all the cringe-inducing exposition later in the season. Through these small supporting characters, The Defenders suggests a very useful function for Jessica and Luke in the grander scheme of the show.

Jessica and Luke serve to tether The Defenders to the streets of New York, existing at a remove from cults of undead ninja who hold long boardroom meetings about the possibility of destroying New York City. Given how boring and frustrating and exhausting these exposition scenes can be, Jessica and Luke are perfectly positioned to serve as a welcome contrast. However, those ties are severed with the suicide of Raymond at the end of Mean Right Hook and the murder of Cole off-screen in Worst Behaviour.

Don’t worry, I’m sure that nothing bad will come from rebirthing a daughter named Elektra.

To be fair, the final half-hour of The Defenders is devoted to unravelling and disengtangling these characters from their shared narratives. As the show comes to a close, the characters are all allowed to drift back into their own separate stories and settings again. The worlds that intersected over the previous six episodes begin to disengage from one another. Foggy and Karen retreat to the familiar surroundings of the local church to mourn Matt. Jessica and Malcolm repair the damage done to Jessica’s office.

In those final moments, Luke and Jessica are allowed to be themselves again. Free from the threat posed by an army of undead ninja, Luke and Jessica are able to have a proper mature conversation at a bar. They are finally able to work through the baggage that they have both been carrying since they parted ways in AKA Smile. It feels very much like a coda to the season, and it is a very nice note on which to leave these characters. However, the fact that this big shared character beat is left largely untouched until the season epilogue speaks to how sidelined these characters are.

It was “Bring Your Daughter To Life” Day at the Hand.

Worst Behaviour marks the point at which Luke and Jessica begin to fade into the background of The Defenders, and that is the worst possible outcome for everybody involved.

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

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