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The Defenders – Royal Dragon (Review)

Royal Dragon might just be the best episode of The Defenders. It is also the smallest.

Royal Dragon is in many ways the runt of the litter. It is an episode relatively low on action beats, particularly given that it is sandwiched between the closing scenes of Worst Behaviour and the opening scenes of Take Shelter. It also has a relatively small primary cast. There is no sign of supporting players like Colleen Wing, Misty Knight, Trish Walker, or Claire Temple. The episode also confines most of the four heroes to one location for the bulk of the runtime, even if Jessica Jones gets to take a breather. It could easily be the “bottle” episode.

Hero shot.

Royal Dragon is also an episode that accomplishes relatively little in terms of plot momentum or forward movement. There are no major revelations in the episode, with a lot of the exposition covering information that the audience already knows from the other four shows. In some ways, Royal Dragon feels like a void at the centre of the season. It does not tangibly push the season forward. In many ways, the cliffhanger is arguably just a retread of the ending to Worst Behaviour; these four heroes, standing together against impossible odds.

At the same time, Royal Dragon luxuriates in this space and this emptiness. It is an episode that essentially locks its four leads together in a confined space for most of the runtime, which affords the writing staff the opportunity to have the characters slow down and process what has happened to them, to bounce off one another. Royal Dragon allows for the first extended interactions between various combinations of these four players.

A taste of teamwork.

At its core, Royal Dragon is basically an extension of the “shawarma” scene that appeared at the very end of the credits in The Avengers. That scene played off an earlier gag in the movie, when Tony noticed a nice shawarma restaurant during the action-backed packed climax. It was a cute throwaway line in the heat of battle, but it paid off in a cute scene buried at the very end of the (rather long) end credits; after a scene teasing Thanos, after the “special thanks”, after the soundtrack listings.

The scene was short, but effective. As the owner of the shawarma restaurant is attempting to clean up in the wake of the attack, the eponymous team of heroes sit down to enjoy a meal together. There is no extensive dialogue, the beauty of the gag lies in its incongruity. These costumed superheroes have just saved the city and, still in their uniforms, have taken the time to enjoy a hearty meal with one another. This is the superheroic equivalent of going out for beers after work. The scene was added at the last minute, and even filmed after the premiere.

To scarf, and to scarf not.

Royal Dragon takes that charming little joke and blows it up to a full episode of television. In many ways, it is a reminder of the opportunities of working in television, the options available to a production team with a bit more narrative real estate and episodic structure. Royal Dragon is basically an extended conversation between the major characters in The Defenders, taking place over dinner in a small Chinese restaurant in New York. It is a “breather” episode, effectively an extended time-out between two big ninja-packed action scenes.

It would not be possible to do something like this in a feature film, where storytelling space is more valuable. There would be a much stronger urge to jump from one action beat to the next action beat, to avoid slowing down and potentially losing momentum in the middle of what would essentially by a blockbuster summer action film. If The Avengers had decided to fold the “shawarma” scene into its narrative, it would like have been a two-minute exposition dump, some regrouping between acts in which the characters would have made a plan and pushed ahead.

Matt won’t be a prawn in their sick game.

This is not an abstract comparison. Joss Whedon faced a similar issue when he was scripting Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the middle of the film, there is a sequence where the characters retreat to farm. Whedon acknowledges that trying to keep that sequence in the movie was like pulling teeth, the result of barter and bargain:

The dreams were not an executive favourite. The dreams, the farmhouse, these were things I fought [for]. With the cave, they pointed a gun at the farm’s head and ‘Give us the cave’. They got the farm. In a civilised way – I respect these guys, but that’s when it got really unpleasant. There was a point when there was going to be no cave, and Thor was going to leave and come back and say, ‘I figured some stuff out.’ And at that point I was so beaten down, I was like, ‘Sure, okay… what movie is this?’ The editors were like, ‘No no, you have to show the thing, you just can’t say it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, thank you, we can figure this out!’ You can tell it was beaten down, but it was hard won.

Whedon has talked about how exhausting it was to try and make a movie like Age of Ultron, which would mark the end of his creative collaboration with Marvel Studios. It is a shame. The larger Marvel Studio films have so many moving pieces that any attention paid to character is more than welcome.

“Yes, we’re here too.”

Royal Dragon feels like an episode built around such a scene, and a demonstration of how writing a television show like The Defenders is different from trying to build a movie like The Avengers. Of course, Joss Whedon is a much stronger writer of character and dialogue than either Marco Ramirez or Doug Petrie, but the fact that they could devote a full forty-odd minutes to four characters sitting around a restaurant talking to one another demonstrates just how relaxed television scripting can be.

To be fair, the Netflix Marvel shows have not always taken full advantage of the additional space afforded to them. Many of the Marvel Netflix shows suffer from poor pacing and awkward plotting, and could easily be reduced down by a couple of episodes. Jessica Jones devotes a lot of time and energy to repeated attempts to capture and incapacitate Kilgrave, to the point that the first two episodes build to the stunning revelation that the villain’s key weakness is anesthetic. Luke Cage spins its wheels in its second half. Iron Fist just spins its wheels.

50% of The Defenders is just characters looking incredulously at Danny Rand.

The Defenders has an abridged episode count, but even it falls into a holding pattern in the second half of the season. In fact, Royal Dragon lays the groundwork for that some of the more frustrating narrative elements of the second half of the season. Alexandra recruits Murakami, “the guy who pulled the strings behind Nobu.” It requires the audience to care about Nobu. Similarly, Alexandra teases the return of Bakuto as “the other one” from South America. This plot point is treated as a big reveal in Take Shelter, but it requires the audience to care about Bakuto.

The Defenders could easily shave two episodes from its runtime, mostly involving the politicking within the Hand in episodes like Royal Dragon, Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes. The result would be a more satisfying and coherent season of television, one that would feel less like it is treading water and running in place. This has been a problem with the Marvel Netflix shows from the outset. It is a shame that cutting five episodes from the season order did not lead to tighter plotting.

Sinking their teeth into the roles.

Similarly, the Marvel Netflix often suffer with the plotting of individual episodes. The series can feel like clumps of stories that run together, without any clear structure. It can often feel like episodes begin and end arbitrarily, based simply on the available runtime. As Todd Van Der Werff explains, the season is the new default narrative unit:

Netflix fundamentally doesn’t think about TV in terms of those episodes. It thinks about them in terms of seasons, and it encourages its creators to do so as well. I caught up with Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer, to ask him about this very thing, and he said the company increasingly thinks of its series not in terms of episodes but in terms of shows. He pointed to the slow-boiled Southern gothic family drama Bloodline — which drew criticism for being so slow when it launched — as being particularly exemplary of this approach.

“The first season of Bloodline is the pilot. It’s not like the first episode of Bloodline is the pilot,” he told me.

This is frustrating, as the best installments of these shows stand apart from the rest of the crowd, as distinctive units of story; Wilson Fisk’s origin in Shadows in Glass, Jessica and Kligrave playing house in AKA WWJD?, Kilgrave held captive in AKA Sin Bin, Luke’s origin in Step in the Arena, Cornell and Mariah’s origin in Manifest.

Table that for later.

It could reasonably be argued that Royal Dragon is the only episode of The Defenders that works as a single episode of television. The season either side of it is something of an amorphous blob of narrative. The three characters bleed together in The H Word, Mean Right Hook and Worst Behaviour. The Hand schemes and plots and backstabs in Take Shelter, Ashes, Ashes, Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders. There are clear divisions, of course; the two pairings of character at the end of Mean Right Hook, the coup in Ashes, Ashes. However, they bleed together.

Royal Dragon is an episode that plays like a distinct narrative unit that is very clearly built around a simple idea and which leads neatly from one point in the overarching story to another point in the overarching story. Hiding out in the eponymous restaurant, the lead characters all get on opportunity to get to know one another and to understand the situation that is unfolding. The characters bounce off one another in various combinations, working through their own neurosis.

Lucky Luke.

Most importantly, Royal Dragon represents a major character beat for the four lead characters. They evolve from a team assembled by chance at the end of Worst Behaviour to a team assembled by choice. This is particularly important for Matt, Luke and Jessica. These are four people who have spent years working on their own. Royal Dragon serves the narrative purpose of explaining how four lone wolves come together to form a pack. It is undoubtedly part of a larger story, but it is also a story of itself.

Of course, the execution is decidedly clumsy. In particular, there is something rather inelegant in the decision to have Jessica leave the restaurant and then come to an epiphany, before returning at the very end of the episode. It is feels like an awkward contrivance, and attempt to generate tension in the cheapest manner possible. It is equivalent to that moment in the middle of The Avengers where Thor seems to spend about thirty minutes trying to pick up his hammer because the plot needs to move around him. The audience knows how the beat must end, but it is still there.

Besides, Jessica has better booze at her apartment.

Still, Royal Dragon fundamentally understands the appeal of this sort of superhero team-up. It is great to watch the team kicking ass together in Worst Behaviour or Take Shelter, but is arguably more fun to watch these characters interact with one another. Fans have been following these characters for years, so they have a lot of expectations. Each of the members of The Defenders is arguably a broad archetype, and there is great fun in watching these broad archetypes play off one another.

It is fun to watch Matt Murdock have a near nervous breakdown when it becomes clear that he is in a superhero team-up. “I can’t,” he protests. “I’m doing this.” He elaborates, “This is too much already.” He promises, “I can’t be a part of this.” It is fun to watch Jessica roll her eyes at the ridiculousness of the plot. “They call themselves the Hand,” Danny explains, with a straight face. Jessica scoffs, “What are they really called?” Discussing his fist, Danny assures Jessica, “It’s Chi.” Jessica flatly responds, “It’s not.”

“Sure, Danny.”

The Defenders inevitably flattens out its lead characters into archetypes, and then allows those archetypes to bounce off one another. Watching these characters trade barbs and share viewpoints is undoubtedly fan service, but that is surely the point of a gigantic multimedia crossover. It has long been argued that comic books are essentially soap operas for boys, as writer Robert Kirkman contended in an interview with The Comics Journal:

I’m a firm believer that all guys who read comics are sissies that wish they could watch soap operas, but instead they have a medium called “comics” that wraps soap operas into fight book. I think the more soap opera-y stuff you put in, the more you relate to the characters. This appeals on a personal level to comic-book fans. I like fights as much as the next guy, but having two characters establish a personal connection, discussing important aspects of their lives … if you can make the characters real enough that people care, you can never have too much of that stuff in the book.

It is too much to describe the characterisation in The Defenders as complicated or nuanced, but it understands that the audience is there to watch these heightened interpersonal interactions. After all, there is a reason that The Defenders waits until almost the final scene of the final episode to resolve the lingering tension between Jessica and Luke following the events of AKA Smile. These interactions are as important as any of the fight scenes.

It’s difficult to wrap his head around it, if only because there’s already a scarf wrapped around it.

Royal Dragon is structured to give the audience as many of these interactions as possible, in a variety of combinations. Stick plays father to Danny and Matt, each playing a different sort of son. Luke and Jessica bond outside the restaurant, as the two strangers to this world. Matt and Stick talk about what it means that Elektra is back, and what they will have to do. Luke and Danny talk about their differing attitudes to fate and destiny. Matt and Jessica discuss their issues committing to the group. Interesting combinations, leading to interesting interactions.

This might be the only way in which The Defenders reflects the original comic book name. It seems like Marvel and Netflix chose to christen this team of street-level heroes as “the Defenders” as counterpoint to The Avengers. The name is certainly evocative, even if the team shares relatively little in common with any iteration of that particular group. The team assembled in The Defenders looks more like the team featured in Chuck Dixon’s Marvel Knights or Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers than the group that was assembled by Roy Thomas.

Taste of victory.

Of course, Roy Thomas did not intend to create a superhero team. He simply wanted to continue a story that he had begun in Doctor Strange #183, the last issue before Marvel cancelled the comic. So, Thomas carried the story over to Sub-Mariner #22 and then to The Incredible Hulk #126. With that, a rather unlikely team was formed, based on little more than the superheroes that Roy Thomas happened to have to hand when trying to wrap up a dangling plot thread. It is a delightfully surreal comic book origin, a team constructed by chance outside the comic itself.

Over the years, there have been various iterations of the Defenders, from various creators. The concept has been reworked and reimagined multiple times over the years, but has generally existed as something quite different than a low-budget alternative to the marquee Avengers titles. Steve Gerber did fantastic work on the title, pitching it as a superhero “encounter group”, a weird self-help group for people in capes that dealt with existential issues like lost identities and suburban woe. Matt Fraction built on that idea for his own existential grabbag Defenders.

“So… have any of you any experience fighting the deep-seated sense of existential dread?”

The Defenders is a lot more conventional than the various comic book iterations of the team, but there is still something compelling in watching a group of deeply dysfunctional individuals thrown together and forced to behave like a team. The Avengers did this to an extent, but there was only so much storytelling real estate. There was no room to explore how Steve Rogers reacted to Thor as god-like being, nor to dwell on the nuance of Tony Stark’s possible intrigue and contempt for Bruce Banner as another scientist who manufactured weapons.

The Defenders has a bit more room to unpack these dynamics. The writers can explore the fact that Matt Murdock basically renders Danny Rand redundant on the team, even if Matt would seem to be the substitute to Danny’s would-be all-star. Luke can sit down with Danny and have an extended conversation about how white privilege works in the Marvel Universe, something that the feature films would be unlikely to attempt. (After all, Thor is really just a “sufficiently advanced alien”, not a bona fides god.)

Red scare.

Indeed, The Defenders can even has the space to explore the dynamics between members of different supporting casts. If Worst Behaviour and Royal Dragon bring the lead characters together, then Take Shelter ties together the supporting casts; the scenes of supporting players in the police station feel almost like clusters of friends at a wedding. In The Defenders, the audience gets to see supporting characters from different shows share their stories; Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, Trish Walker and Karen Page.

Of course, a lot of this works because of goodwill carried over from the other Marvel Netflix series. The various conversations in The Defenders work because the audience is already invested in these characters, to a greater or lesser degree. The audience has spent at least thirteen episodes with these major players, and so can understand where each character is coming from. These dialogues and exchanges can be illuminating, shedding new light on existing characters, and forcing them to react to (and acknowledge) new ideas.

Nobody broods better than Matt.

Royal Dragon pays off sixty-eight episodes of set-up for these characters. To demonstrate the extent to which The Defenders is carried by two-and-a-half years of good will, it is worth looking at the other side of the proverbial coin. Royal Dragon is the episode that properly introduces the internal politicking of the Hand into the season, a thread that bubbles through Take Shelter and further into Ashes, Ashes. It is a familiar set-up, in that it mirrors the dynamic between the heroes.

The villains are a set of unique individuals forced to work together, despite the fact that they do not like one another. “That’s what families do,” Alexandra explains to Murakami, reinforcing a recurring theme that the Hand are one gigantic dysfunctional family. To be fair, Worst Behaviour set up this theme through the suggestion that Elektra was a surrogate daughter for Alexandra, something made explicit in Take Shelter. The idea of the Hand as a big broken family unit provides an interesting contrast with the recurring suggestion that the heroes are a “team” or an “army.”

“Talk to the Hand…”

However, there is simply no reason to care for any of this internal politicking within the Hand. Sigourney Weaver does really great work as Alexandra, but the material simply isn’t strong enough. Wai Ching Ho is reliably solid as Madame Gao, although the character was much more compelling as an enigmatic figure in the first two seasons of Daredevil than as a stock mystic drug baron on Iron Fist. Bakuto was even more frustrating in his appearances during the first season of Iron Fist, a stock caricature of a left wing activist villain.

The new characters are frustrating. Nobu was an intriguing minor character in the first season of Daredevil, an active irritant in the second; why should the audience care about his superior? Revealing Nobu was simply a lieutenant for Murakami doesn’t make Murakami any more impressive; it makes Nobu seem even more ridiculous as the primary antagonist of the thirteen-episode season of television. Not only did the second season of Daredevil spend a full year on a character Matt beat in a single episode of the first year, he also isn’t even the big boss.

“That’s not a knife…”

Sowande seems interesting when he is introduced in Mean Right Hook. The character seems like he wandered out of a blaxploitation film, making him a perfect foil for Luke Cage. It also makes him an incongruous choice for the leader of a group of international assassins. With his white suit and his panama hat, Sowande is visually interesting and distinctive in the context of the Hand, suggesting a much more colourful and interesting grouping than the inevitable (and interminable) council sequences reveal in Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes.

However, Sowande is quickly reduced to another generic lower-level boss. He changes his wardrobe in Take Shelter, and is promptly captured by Luke Cage and tortured by Daredevil. He gets to make a pretty impressive speech in Take Shelter, something that establishes him as more potentially threatening than any of the other three fingers, but that ultimately goes nowhere. Sowande is not particularly interesting, but he is the most interesting member of this rather generic bunch. Inevitably, he is killed off quicker than any of the others.

The man in white.

The audience has no investment in the dynamics of the Hand, and the show never bothers to make them compelling. as a result the audience has no interest in their petty scheming and squabbles. The conflicts within the Hand are incidental, feeling very much like padding designed to draw the season out to the mandated eight episodes. The heroes are inevitably going to have to face the Hand, but treating the Hand as an evil criminal organisation tied up in petty power struggles seriously undercuts the threat.

To all appearances, Danny does not need an army to defeat the Hand. All that he has to do is stand around and wait for the Hand to defeat one another. The Hand were introduced as a mysterious and ominous secret society back in Stick and Speak of the Devil, but they very quickly wore out their welcome during the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist. Even ignoring the ease with which heroes can defeat hordes of faceless ninja, the focus on the internal politics of the Hand repeatedly makes them look incompetent and unthreatening.

Elektra kinda sucks.
Sai.

Royal Dragon features several examples of this awful storytelling approach. The most obvious is the fight sequence between Sowande’s men and Elektra, an action beat that seems to exist primarily because the rest of the episode is given over to conversations and discussions. While Elektra is browsing a selection of deadly weapons, Sowande shows up to menace her. He points out (entirely accurately) that Elektra hasn’t had the greatest rate of success since her resurrection. She didn’t recover Raymond, she didn’t kill Danny, she didn’t do any damage at Midland Circle.

“Black sky,” Sowande muses. “Perhaps you’d be more effective on the battle field if you killed your enemies, instead of letting them escape.” He has a point, but he’s not savvy enough to understand that Elektra simply could not kill any of the title characters at the midpoint of the season. However, anonymous mooks are better sport, so Elektra handily dispatches Sowande’s two supporting goons. It is a scene designed to demonstrate Elektra’s effectiveness, to prove she is a threat. Instead, the scene wreaks of desperation, begging the audience to take Elektra seriously.

Bear with me.

Similarly, an extended sequence between Alexandra and Murakami seems intended to introduce the latter character as a credible antagonist being drafted into the fight. However, the scene stinks of cliché. Murakami is introduced gutting a hunting trophy, clumsy visual short hand for “this is not a nice person.” It is a scene that works if the actor involved is Charles Dance on Game of Thrones, but it feels hackneyed here. The dialogue does not help matters, with the sequence trying hard to make Murakami seem mysterious and ominous and threatening.

These awful extended sequences focusing on the Hand are the flipside of the scenes focusing on the dynamic between the heroes in Royal Dragon, demonstrating just how much goodwill has been accrued towards these characters (or at least three of them) over the course of the previous sixty-odd episodes of television. The struggle to make the Hand an interesting and credible set of antagonists demonstrates just how readily The Defenders is being carried by the work done in the earlier series.

Liver let live.

It is tempting to wonder how much more compelling The Defenders would be if it producing a set of antagonists that were as compelling as the heroes facing them. Imagine a series built around an alliance between Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave and Mariah Dilliard. Imagine how much more exciting their scheming and plotting and betraying might be. The Defenders does not seem to be particularly effective as a narrative on its own terms, working best when it coasts off the stronger elements of the earlier television series.

So much of The Defenders feels like elements incorporated from earlier shows, for better or for worse. After all, what is the climax of The Defenders but a retread of the war for Elektra’s soul that was already waged over the second season of Daredevil? What is the big twist ending of Ashes, Ashes but an attempt to recapture the shock of a power mid-season twist from Luke Cage? The argument between Matt and Stick have over the course of The Defenders is the same argument that they had over the first two seasons of Daredevil.

Putting the “rest” in “restaurant.”

Still, the frustrating scenes with the Hand only underscore the effectiveness of the scenes focusing on the eponymous heroes. Royal Dragon delivers upon the promise of The Defenders, throwing this familiar characters together so that the audience might watch the resulting explosions. Ironically, conversation over dinner proves much more compelling than a two-fisted punch-up.

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

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6 Responses

  1. “Lucky Luke.”

    I understood that reference!

  2. The Hand directly inspired the Foot Clan, which goes a long way to explaining why they feel so tired in this revival. It’s like trying to watch a Bond film after an Austin Powers marathon, you just can’t take it seriously when all you hear is Krang and Shredder bickering.

    • Someone should’ve told the writers of “Spectre” that.

      • I quite like the first half of Spectre, where it’s all weird and occult. Unfortunately, it’s only a short distance from that to the second half with it’s “I am the author of all your pain” nonsense.

    • Yep, that’s a very fair point.

      I mean, TMNT was overtly a parody/homage to Daredevil. Right down to the suggestion that they were born in the same accident.

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