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The Defenders – Take Shelter (Review)

The Hand are an unequivocal disaster, looming large over The Defenders.

To be fair, this an entirely foreseeable problem. When the Hand were teased in the first season of Daredevil, they were at least interesting. Largely carried over from the Frank Miller comics that were a major influence on the series, episodes like Stick and Speak of the Devil suggesting something uncanny lurking in the shadows behind Wilson Fisk. However, as the Hand emerged from the shadows, they became a lot less intriguing. As they became less mysterious, they become more generic. By the end of Iron Fist, the audience had enjoyed enough of the Hand to last a lifetime.

“I’ll tell you where to Stick it.”

A major part of this problem is the fact that the Marvel Netflix shows cannot agree upon a single unifying theory of the Hand. What is the Hand? What are their goals? What are their motivations? What are their methods? It seems like every other episode had a different idea of what the Hand could be, allowing what had been a fairly simple premise of a secret ninja death cult to evolve into something that could be everything to everyone. With every reversal and twist and reinvention, the Hand became less ominous and more frustrating.

As a result, The Defenders suffers from the decision to build its story around the Hand. Much like the series reveals of Manhattan itself, The Defenders is built on a rather shaky foundation.

Homecoming.

The Marvel Netflix universe owes a lot to the work of Frank Miller, the artist and writer who defined a “grim and gritty” era of comic books with his work on characters like Daredevil and Batman during the eighties. A lot of the mythology of Daredevil is carried over directly from Miller’s work, which means that it has bled downstream into the other shows in this pocket universe, particularly Iron Fist and The Defenders. Miller casts a very long shadow; he was the writer who imagined Wilson Fisk as a Daredevil baddie, and who introduced Elektra and Stick.

Miller also introduced the concept of the Hand, a cult of undead ninjas who were retroactively incorporated into Matt Murdock’s back story through their association with both his mentor and his lover. The Hand would become a fixture of the Marvel Universe. When Miller was asked to launch a solo Wolverine miniseries with Chris Claremont,  the pair decided to use the Hand as a set of antagonists. The Hand have inevitably become part of Wolverine’s mythos as well. Although not mentioned by name, they clearly inspired the antagonists in The Wolverine.

“I’ve had my secretary clear my afternoon for evil boardroom time. There’s an evil vending machine in the hall out there.”

However, the Hand have always been a murky and ominous set of antagonists. They lack the definition and history of other long-standing secret villainous organisations in the Marvel Universe like Hydra. When Ed Brubaker was writing Daredevil a quarter of a century after the Hand first appeared, he acknowledged how ill-defined they were:

“We’re going to finally get a clear idea of what it is the Hand actually does and where they came from without ruining the mystery that surrounds them,” Brubaker explained. “It’s the same thing Matt Fraction and I did with the city of K’un-Lun in Iron Fist. We tried to look at what was cool about K’un-Lun and highlight those elements. We explained enough bits and pieces so that what we set up what worked, but we wanted to make sure we left K’un-Lun a mysterious place.”

Another goal Brubaker’s set for the Hand is to reconcile the two distinctly different ways they’ve been portrayed; as a criminal enterprise and as a cult. “That’s the thing. They’re both,” the writer said. “You’ll learn more about how the Hand actually works. They’re a global organization. They have branches all over the world. They’re something that’s been around for hundreds of years or so as an entity they have to have a business aspect about them. They’re paid assassins. That’s what ninja are. At one point they probably had somebody they worked for and had a purpose but that’s long gone.”

In many ways, the Marvel Netflix shows demonstrate the tension created by that ambiguity, the difficulty in deciding what the Hand are and what the Hand should be. They are a nebulous evil organisation, but one so nebulous that they have no clear centre or anchor.

Non-evil boardroom time is much less fun.

Of course, it is very clear what the Hand are outside the narrative. They are an anonymous army of goons, designed to provide kick-ass action scenes for Daredevil or Wolverine. They look like ninjas because Frank Miller was fascinated by Japanese culture, because ninjas were popular in the early eighties, and because ninjas look visually distinctive. They were undead because that allowed characters like Elektra and Wolverine to use lethal force on these goons without straying into any ethically dubious moral-outrage-causing territory.

However, the Marvel Netflix series have struggled with this somewhat. The second season of Daredevil offered a fairly straight adaptation of Frank Miller’s version of the Hand, a collection of East Asian stereotypes draped in magic and mysticism. This didn’t work for a number of reasons, but it also demonstrated how poorly these clichés played in the twenty-first century. An army of stereotypical ninja looked pretty great in the early eighties, but it looked woefully out of date in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The Hand is choking the series.

As a result, later stories made a conscious effort to steer away from those overt East Asian stereotypes. Tellingly, the only time that the Hand seem like a collection of East Asian stereotypes in The Defenders is during the extended opening scene of Worst Behaviour, when the production team are consciously restaging the closing sequence from A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. While all those robes and candles and rituals fit with the clichéd version of the Hand featured in Daredevil, they seem at odds with the portrayal of the Hand as a multinational group in The Defenders.

However, once the production team stripped out these racial stereotypes from the Hand, they discovered that there was really nothing there. Iron Fist found itself forced to reinvent the Hand from scratch, twice within the space of a thirteen episode season. The first reinvention was a rather clumsy piece of retroactive continuity, revealing that the mysterious Madame Gao from the first two seasons of Daredevil had actually been working for the Hand all along. It was a puzzling creative choice.

“Oh no, the least valuable Defender!”

The first season of Daredevil made it clear that Nobu represented the Hand, and that he was not especially close to Madame Gao. Madame Gao represented a different sort of East Asian stereotype, the mysterious woman who knows more than anybody really should. In The Ones We Leave Behind, Matt broke up madame Gao’s heroin operation, discovering that she was branding her heroin with the logo of classic Iron Fist baddie the Steel Serpent. Many fans speculated the Madame Gao was Iron Fist antagonist the Crane Mother.

Inevitably, Iron Fist revealed that Madame Gao was another representative of the Hand, despite the fact that that there had been no suggestion of this in either season of Daredevil. At the same time, Iron Fist made an effort to tone down the stereotypical elements of Gao. Of course, there was only so much that a show about mystical martial arts could do; Gao still organised an elaborate tournament in Immortal Emerges From Cave. At the same time, episodes like Under Leaf Pluck Lotus presented Gao as a born-again capitalist.

Touching reunion.

Over the course of Iron Fist, the hand came to represent a collection of broad right-wing fears about communism, mirroring of the way that Hydra served as a warped reflection of Nazism. Gao represented the increasing economic threat posed by China’s flirtations with capitalism. Midway through the season, Iron Fist reinvented the Hand yet again, focusing on a South American division lead by Bakuto. Black Tiger Steals Heart presented Bakuto as a young and hip form of socialism; an embodiment of right-wing fears about the Occupy movement or Black Lives Matter.

The Defenders inherits this mess, and finds itself asked to make sense of it all. What, exactly, is the Hand about? Are they a death cult of retro ninja assassins? Are they the embodiment of western anxieties about Chinese capitalism? Are they a subversive social movement recruiting young people to demolish the system from the inside? Are the Hand all of these things? Are the Hand something different entirely? There is a lot of material to unpack there, a problem compounded by the fact that none of these interpretations of the Hand have really worked at all.

Getting on the same page.

Unsurprisingly, given that its showrunners were in charge of the second season of Daredevil, The Defenders ultimately opts to return to the idea of the Hand as an all-powerful ninja death cult. Of course, The Defenders strips out a lot of the unsettling Orientalism, so the Hand become a visually indistinct blob of antagonists with no real unifying theme or idea. Sowande’s division use guns. Gao and Bakuto’s soldiers use knives and hand-held weapons. Murakami is effectively a one-man army. They dress in clothes that are indistinct, and lack any real character.

After all, the strength and threat of the Hand has varied from series-to-series, often from episode-to-episode. Daredevil suggested that the hand were a pretty big deal, with Matt nearly dying when he went one-on-one with Nobu in Speak of the Devil. During the second season of Daredevil, it was revealed that the ninja could slow their heart rate to fool Matt’s hyper-senses. Nevertheless, the law of conservation of ninjutsu applied in earnest. Similarly, Iron Fist reduced them to a collection of generic mooks.

Station-keeping.

Daredevil and Iron Fist failed to build a sense of convincing threat to the Hand. There was always a sense that the Hand were precisely as strong as the plot needed them to be at any given moment, which is deeply unsatisfying from a plotting perspective. Matt set Nobu alight in Speak of the Devil, but the character was revealed to be alive in Seven Minutes in Heaven. It Stick unequivocally kills Nobu in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, It is revealed that he was just a lieutenant working under Murakami. Bakuto was killed in Bar the Big Boss, but returns in Take Shelter.

As such, it was very hard to take the Hand seriously as a threat. It often seemed like those characters couldn’t be killed, which means that there were no stakes in their conflicts. On the rare occasion that a member of the Hand could be killed, it was quickly revealed that they weren’t really such a big deal. It is incredibly lazy storytelling, one that retroactively invalidates a lot of the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist, making it seem like our heroes accomplished absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things.

“If Luke can pull it off, why can’t I?”

It also undercuts the stakes in The Defenders itself. The series works hard to assure audiences that this particular conflict really matters. “For the first time, death is a possibility,” Bakuto states ominously in Take Shelter. However, the audience knows that the production team can just change their mind. Marco Ramirez acknowledged as much when asked if this would be the last appearance of the Hand:

Well, in the Marvel world — and as Jeph Loeb, the Marvel TV head, would say — in the comic-book world, you can always find a way. The story finds a way, so who knows? But we definitely felt like we wanted this to be the end of this specific show, so while I don’t know if it’s the end of the Hand forever — who knows what will happen in the future — it just felt like it’s the end of this story in the lore. Particularly for Iron Fist, we wanted to close that chapter [of the Hand’s story]. I don’t know what the future holds. That’s a Jeph Loeb question [laughs] but for me and for the writers’ room, it felt right to end the story here.

It is a cheat of an answer, one that acknowledges how cheap this plotting can be. For The Defenders to have any narrative weight, it needs to be the end of the Hand. However, many of the plotting decisions leading up to (and even inside of) The Defenders reveal that the production team cannot be trusted to respect that simple narrative convention. If the production team feel it necessary, the Hand can be reinvented yet again.

A moment of light relief.

There is something frustrating in all of this, and not only because it teases the prospect of even more Hand-related nonsense in future seasons of the Marvel Netflix universe. It suggests that everything in these eight episodes could be washed away in a pen-stroke, if that becomes convenient. It demonstrates that the primary motivations driving this shared universe are not creative in nature, and certainly not in service of the best interests of the story that is currently being told.

There is a frustrating vagueness to the Hand as they appear in The Defenders, an inevitable result of three massive reinventions over two seasons of television. A lot of the more frustrating scenes in the second half of The Defenders are a result of this lack of a strong centre. Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes are populated by scenes of these characters bickering in nice rooms, but it is hard to invest in these arguments because there’s no sense of what makes any of these characters distinct individuals with distinct viewpoints.

Following blindly.

How does Bakuto feel about Gao’s craven capitalism? How does Gao feel about Bakuto’s new age posturing? Does Murakami care about anything? Why does Sowande get landed with most of the grunt work, like recruiting teenagers in Mean Right Hook or recovering Elektra’s body in Worst Behaviour? Are there ideological differences between the characters? Are there things that Murakami believes in that Gao doesn’t? To what extent do these five individuals work together, and to what extent do they form a hierarchy? It is all very muddled, with no concrete foundation.

The character of Elektra suffers a great deal from this. What exactly is “the Black Sky”? When the concept was teased in Stick, it seemed like a weapon of mass destruction; Stick and Matt discovered that the Hand was smuggling a child into the city, forcing Stick to kill the child. However, in the second season of Daredevil, it became clear that “the Black Sky” was essentially a “Chosen One” narrative. Elektra was destined to be “the Black Sky”, a weapon. Neither the second season of Daredevil nor The Defenders acknowledge the possibility of multiple Black Skies.

Keeping sharp.

Even accepting that Elektra is “the Black Sky”, what does that mean? The Defenders makes a big deal of Alexandra’s belief in the Black Sky. It is clear that Alexandra has invested a great deal in Elektra. “Our resources are depleted,” Alexandra explains to Murakami in Royal Dragon, which explains the stakes in The Defenders. Murakami makes it clear that he knows where all those resources went. “What of your Black Sky?” he asks. “The thing you spent our final resources on.” Alexandra responds, “More powerful than you could ever imagine.”

The Defenders repeatedly makes it clear that the Black Sky is important to Alexandra. However, it is never made clear why the Black Sky is so important to Alexandra. What is the deal with the Black Sky? Is the Black Sky just more powerful than the average member of the Hand? More skilled and more threatening? If so, this is very much an informed ability; Elektra proves fairly ineffective against the Defenders, repeatedly fighting Matt Murdock to a draw. The Defenders is aware of how unconvincing all of this is, even giving Elektra show-off scenes to off-set this issue.

Period of reflection.

If the Black Sky is supposed to be a singularly threatening weapon, Elektra is underwhelming. However, the way that Alexandra talks about the Black Sky suggests that perhaps there is an element of prophecy about the Black Sky. Certainly, Elektra’s arc in the second half of the season has the rough feel of a warped prophecy narrative, the classic “… will bring balance to the force” nonsense. However, none of that is ever properly articulated. The result is that all of this “Black Sky” plotting feels like needlessly overwrought mythologising of a fairly stock henchperson.

That said, The Defenders does offer its own version of the Hand. This is informed in some ways by both Frank Miller’s original ninja death cult and by the version of the Hand that appeared in the second season of Daredevil. Like those versions of the organisation, The Defenders suggests that the Hand are fixated on death. However, The Defenders insists that the Hand are not devoted servants of death. Instead, the Hand are villains because they fight so hard against death.

Showtime.

In Royal Dragon, Stick reveals that the Hand originated in K’un-Lun, the city at the centre of the Iron Fist mythos. Leaving aside this massive warped contrivance, Stick suggests that the origins of the Hand come from the mastery of Chi in K’un-Lun, and the way in which the monks used that power to heal. “But there were five heretics among them,” Stick elaborates. “People with darker intentions. They wanted immortality, power, to never face death; to regenerate themselves again and again.” This is what makes the Hand monstrous, according to The Defenders.

Alexandra is defined by her mortality. Her plot against the city is motivated by a diagnosis that comes early in The H Word. When she is teaching Elektra in the early scenes of Worst Behaviour, Alexandra explains that her primary objective is to avoid death. “What you saw on the other side,” she tells Elektra. “The darkness, the absence of everything. It’s horrifying, isn’t it? I’ve seen it too, more than once. And all I want in this life is to never see it again.” Alexandra represents monstrous immortality.

Mother of All Sorrows.

Take Shelter rather clumsily tries to argue that this pursuit of immortality somehow makes Alexandra even more evil than the other four fingers of the Hand. “You are afraid of dying,” Gao accuses Alexandra. “We want to live long enough to go home.” This is a practical distinction between the various characters, but it feels somewhat disingenuous as a moral criticism. After all, Gao operates an international drug business. She is hardly in a position to claim the moral high ground in such debates.

Still, in the context of The Defenders, this single-minded pursuit of immortality is what establishes Alexandra (and later Elektra) as the primary antagonist of the season. In The H Word, Gao seems positively hesitant about Alexandra’s plans to destroy New York in order to gain access to “the substance” that will prolong her life, suggesting a sorting algorithm of evil. Gao is reluctant to do such things to extend her own life, while Alexandra does them eagerly. Alexandra’s true evil is not measured in the bodies of her opponents, but in her rejection of natural law.

Gao, Gao, Gao!

This interpretation of the Hand is interesting, because it has very little basis in the comic book mythology. However, it does fit within another framework. Marco Ramirez made it clear that the basic story originated with Jeph Loeb:

The very bare-bones structure of it, I think Jeph Loeb has had since day one. He always knew what he wanted The Defenders to be in the end, he always had a broad sense. So when we initially took the job and when we initially started breaking the story down with the other writers, we knew the very broad strokes of what Marvel wanted to do, and it was our job to make that into eight cool episodes of TV.

Although Ramirez and Petrie were granted the freedom to improvise, Loeb “certainly had an idea of what was going to happen.” It was Loeb who pushed for the resurrection of Elektra as a major story beat.

The Devil you know.

Jeph Loeb is the head of Marvel television, overseeing the creative direction of that entire wing of the company. It is a massive responsibility. However, Loeb is also a comic book writer. In fact, Loeb arguably came of age as a comic book writer. Loeb has a long and distinguished history at both major comic book publishers. He is responsible for any number of massively successful and iconic stories; The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, A Superman for All Seasons, Hush, Superman/Batman.

Loeb is a massively influential figure in the world of comic books and comic book adaptations. For example, it seems like his work with Tim Sale was a major influence on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, particularly the way in which Loeb skilfully blended the trappings of the gangster film with a superhero mystery. While Loeb has attracted a great deal of criticism for his plotting and structuring, Loeb understands superhero iconography and is very effective at playing to the strengths of his artistic collaborators.

Boasting of his Hand-iwork.

At the same time, Loeb’s recent work is very much defined by a single event. Jeph Loeb lost his son in June 2005. Sam Loeb passed away from complications related to a three-year battle with cancer; he was only seventeen years old. Sam was an aspiring writer, well known to many of his father’s acquaintances. He worked with Joss Whedon on Tales of the Vampires, impressing him with his understanding of plotting. His plot for Superman/Batman #26 was adapted posthumously by a wealth of comic book talent. All the profits from that issue went to charity.

The loss of a child (particularly at a young age) is a horrific event for any parent to suffer through. It casts a very long shadow, and few people ever fully recover from such a tragedy. Understandably, the loss of Sam informs a lot of Jeph Loeb’s later work. There are echoes of it in the senseless violence of Ultimatum, but it feels more overt in stories like Captain America: Fallen Son or the emphasis on cancer and lost children in the opening page of Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates #1. He named the new legacy character Sam Alexander, perhaps in honour of his son.

Flat affect.

That tragedy casts a shadow over the Hand subplot in The Defenders, particularly when it comes to the handling of Alexandra and Elektra. Worst Behaviour establishes a warped parent-child relationship between the two, as Elektra is reborn. Elektra was murdered by the Hand in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, and resurrected through some grotesque dark magic. The second season of Daredevil heavily implies that she was reborn in a cask full of blood of children, to make the metaphor even more potent.

Take Shelter continues to develop that particular thread. Alexandra explains her own tragic back story to Elektra, revealing the loss of her daughter at a young age. “In my grief, people told me that she was too good for this world,” Alexandra relates. “I didn’t believe them.” However, Alexandra has come to see Elektra as a surrogate for her lost daughter, as a resurrected replacement. “I was never meant to raise her. I was meant to raise the Black Sky.” However, there is something weirdly genuine in the love that Alexandra feels for Elektra.

The fall of Alexandra.

Alexandra repeatedly covers for Elektra’s instability to the other members of the Hand, particularly when Elektra goes rogue in Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes. Even after Elektra demonstrates that she is not especially reliable, or particularly effective, Alexandra continues to support her. Part of this is undoubtedly an effort at self-preservation on the part of Alexandra, but there is a sense that Alexandra is just happy to be a parent once again. Sigourney Weaver does good work in these scenes, which represent the closest thing that the Hand plot has to an emotional core.

The Defenders fits comfortably in the canon of Jeph Loeb’s late work, a story of death and decay uniquely focused on the grief of a parent. From Alexandra’s perspective, The Defenders is the story about a parent who has done horrific things to resurrect a child. It is Pet Sematary by way of The Monkey’s Paw. It is telling that Alexandra is eventually undone not by her plot to destroy New York City or her plans to live forever, but by her grotesque attempts to resurrect a surrogate daughter using the blood of other children.

Get to the point.

The decision to kill off Alexandra at the end of Ashes, Ashes is certainly an interesting creative choice. Sigourney Weaver is by far the biggest name in the cast, and her performance is a surprising strong binding agent for a fairly uneven series. Marco Ramirez argued that it was an attempt to shake-up audience expectations:

Well, part of it was just about giving the audience a little something unexpected. Audiences I think sometimes expect that a major storyline or major character is going to end in the ultimate or penultimate episode so they go, “Oh all right, something’s going to happen here at the end of the story,” so it just felt like a jolt, and it was exciting to write. The second part was really in a way we introduced Sigourney’s character a little bit to highlight Elektra’s story. I like to think that we wrote a really fun cool character for Sigourney but really it was also a way for us to say this is the journey that Elektra is going on.

It would have been a much bolder storytelling twist if Luke Cage had not done something similar half-way through its own first season, killing off primary antagonist Cornell Stokes at the end of Manifest. It was a daring creative choice, but one that really hobbled the back half of the season, creative a narrative void that was never filled.

Natchios the woman Matt knew.

The death of Alexandra does something similar in the context of The Defenders, although the issue is mitigated by the fact that Alexandra dies only two episodes before the end of the season. As with Luke Cage, the death of this primary antagonist represents the loss of a dramatic heavy-hitter. Luke Cage lost Mahershala Ali, The Defenders loses Sigourney Weaver; both are among the strongest actors in their respective ensembles. It also throws the season structure into chaos, as the production staff rush to fill the void created with the loss of a primary antagonist.

Luke Cage decided to replace Cornell Stokes with Diamondback, trading a gritty prestige television gangster for a blaxploitation caricature. Diamondback was a great deal of fun, but he was not a character capable of supporting six hours of plot. Diamondback lacked the nuance and complexity that made Cornell Stokes so compelling, with ‎Erik LaRay Harvey chomping down on the scenery with reckless abandon. The second half of Luke Cage struggled to find a reason to sustain the plot, given the two-dimensional nature of Diamondback as a primary antagonist.

Giving it a rest.

The Defenders has a less severe version of this problem, given that Alexandra appears in three-quarters of the season, and is only absent for the two final episodes. However, the problem remains. Elektra is a character who is much broader than Alexandra. Elodie Yung is perfectly serviceable in the role, but she is not a suitable replacement for Sigourney Weaver. More than that, Elektra’s character arc has been choppy at best, full of meaningless repetitions and reversals. She cannot anchor an event series like The Defenders, even for two episodes.

After all, Elektra’s promotion to the status of “big bad” with her coup at the end of Ashes, Ashes brings back all the questions that have haunted the Hand over Daredevil and Iron Fist. What is her plan? What is her long-term goal? She clearly wants to live forever, but how is she different from Alexandra? Alexandra’s pursuit of immortality was somewhat nuanced, developed over six episodes through contradictions and back story. Elektra’s pursuit of immortality is grounded in little more than the fact that she does not want to die.

A high-wire act.

It is a simplified character motivation, which might work if The Defenders were trying to streamline its narrative heading into the big finale. Unfortunately, The Defenders continues to clutter things up. Elektra’s character arc in the final stretch of The Defenders becomes a dull retread of a character arc that already played out in the second season of Daredevil. Although that wasn’t the weakest part of a spectacularly weak season, it was not interesting enough to merit another exploration.

More than that, the murder of Alexandra six episodes into the season is a twist that would have had more impact five or ten years ago. Historically, television shows tended to kill of characters when outside events interfered, like contract negotiations or the unexpected passing of an actor. In recent years, television shows has become more trigger happy, more willing to kill off prominent characters as a way of jolting the audience awake. The death of Ned Stark on Game of Thrones was probably the trend-setter here, but the industry took note.

A tie-breaking vote.

Contemporary television is saturated with shocking out-of-left-field deaths designed to catch the audience’s attention. As Todd Van Der Werff argues, there is something very cynical in the way that most modern television shows employ this twist:

“The Walking Dead used to be the best suited to this, because obviously it makes sense to have characters die, but also it benefited from the turnover in its ensemble,” says the Atlantic’s David Sims, a TV critic I know who’s been particularly vocal about how unnecessary most TV death is. “But the problem now is it has this core of actually beloved characters and a lot of side characters. So it’s mostly offing these side characters. To me, it feels like the show is too fearful of killing off a big character except as some special event.”

Since it’s hard to simply force audiences to care about the deaths of extreme supporting characters, both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have increasingly turned toward sensationalizing the deaths that do occur, making them bigger and bloodier, with mixed results.

The problem only compounds itself if you survey television as a whole. In isolation, a death that is adequate, though not particularly stirring, becomes harder to take when there’s a whole wave of mediocre deaths around the programming grid. It gives off the appearance of a medium that’s turning, increasingly, toward desperation.

“I hate the argument that the audience needs to understand that ‘the stakes are high.’ There are so few examples of actually important characters dying. When someone dies, it’s usually because they are expendable,” Sims says.

The death of Alexandra is a perfect example of this cynicism. Sigourney Weaver is by far the most famous actor in the cast, but her death changes very little in terms of plot dynamics. The Hand still want to harvest “the substance” and will destroy New York in the process. The heroes still want to stop them.

Putting the Hand to bed.

As a result, this shocking twist only emphasises the emptiness of the Hand. In very real and practical terms, it makes no tangible difference who is leading the organisation. The plot seems like it would play out the same way whether Alexandra were alive or dead, which suggests that neither Alexandra nor Elektra have any real agency in the plot. It is a moment designed to appear shocking, but without any dramatic stakes attached to it. It is an empty confection, one that only underscores how little individual characters define (or add nuance to) the Hand.

The Hand are an unequivocal disaster. They are a fairly straightforward concept that are subject to ridiculously convoluted plot and character dynamics, reversals and twists that are designed to distract from the fact that the production team have absolutely no idea what this organisation is supposed to be. If a superhero story is only as good as its villains, then The Defenders is left sorely wanting.

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

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9 Responses

  1. “They’re a global organization. They have branches all over the world. They’re something that’s been around for hundreds of years so as an entity they have to have a business aspect about them. They’re paid assassins….”

    This is the most 90s-centric villain ever conceived.

    All it’s missing is a government conspiracy/something with clones.

  2. “Are they the embodiment of western anxieties about Chinese capitalism?”

    If you haven’t seen it, there’s a good “Shaun and Jen” video about Die Hard which explores some of that.

    It’s also a good reminder of why the Chinese don’t work as villains anymore.* Like the wise man said in X-Files (4×07), There’s no more enemies.

    *That all ended when Hu Jintao loaned us a trillion dollars for our stupids wars in the ME. Now Xi Jipeng gets to listen to our golfer-in-chief accuse him of currency manipulation. (Hilarious and awful.)

    • I don’t know. I think there’s still some anxiety lingering on the China front. Japan obviously less so, following the lost decade. Another sign of how outdated the concept of the Hand is.

  3. ” Marco Ramirez argued that it was an attempt to shake-up audience expectations”

    Ah, the Quesada school of narrative excellence.

    Assuming he’s telling us the truth, I can think of maybe two instances where it worked perfectly (Deepthroat and Jenny Calendar) and a dozen times where it killed the program (Matthew Crawley, Maid Marian, Carson Beckett, Don Schanke, Richie Ryan, whatever Kal Penn called himself in House.)

    • I honestly think he is telling the truth. I mean, it’s Sigourney Weaver. There is absolutely no reason to kill her off. Having a showrunner come out and say, “Because we thought it would catch people off guard…” sound legit.

      I mean, it also sounds incredibly stupid, as you point out. But I believe it.

  4. Do you know what bugs me about many reviewers (if not most, or all)? It’s when they say things like ‘what the audience feels’ or ‘what everyone thinks’, when they more likely mean themselves and just assume that ‘everyone’ thinks about something the same way they do, as if they think ‘well, this is obviously terrible so everyone else must feel the same way as well’ or ‘most’ at least, as if they know the mind of every single person who watched this. every. single. one. I for one enjoyed the Hand as a nemesis. I enjoyed seeing how much power they had, or when their members fight. You may think that ninjas in new york is outdated (even though tmnt is still popular. ok, bad example I know!), but by your definition daredevil itself is outdated. literally outdated by a few decades, so if ninjas invading new york is more of an eighties thing than that fits in a series with a 70s/80s feel.

    That said, I will admit that blunders were made with the Hand, mostly in this series. The first being the retcon to make them and the chaste fit with kunlan and iron fist. For one thing, that completely flies in the face of the origin stick gave in season 2, and is just somewhat confusing with the japanese look and feel the hand originally had. the second were the answers we never got, like what was the point of draining those kids of all their blood to go into the giant urn that kept Elektra’s body? And wasn’t she supposed to be what the hand was built around? Did they really expect us to forget that, and accept that only sigourney weaver wanted her, as as weapon? Also the whole immortality thing got confusing. sigourney weaver was dying, but why was that a big deal when the substance was kept them alive? but weren’t some people capable of coming back to life again and again unless their head was chopped off? And if the absence of the substance meant that they could die then why was decapitation emphasised as the only thing that could kill them? And if the substance was only meant for the fingers and only a few got immortality then why did it seem like all of the hand were brought back with the substance and they had no heartbeats weren’t they still capable of breathing as established before GAAAAAAAAAAAH!

    So yeah, mistakes were made, but on the whole I’m glad they featured the hand (I’d rather have daredevil fight ninjas rather than interchangeable thugs all the time!) even if the fingers were overall bland, but I will admit they run their course, and the only one I look forward to seeing more is madam gao.

    • In my defense, these are hardly “out there” opinions. I’ve seen them echoed quite a lot in other reviews and coverage. I’m not just speaking for myself.

  5. Oh I forgot to talk about the now multinational hand which either somehow despite being multinational was fixated on Japan (Is no one going to ask why someone from south america has a japanese sounding name, that translates to ‘gambler’?) or it’s martial arts were actually from kunlun (and this confusing of martial arts with two different countries is kinda worrying). Anyone else find it concerning that a once asian organisation became to be led by someone of caucasion ethnicity and american nationality?
    cough last samurai cough 47 ronin cough the great wall cough I’m pretty sure they’re more but if I was to list them them i’d probably die from coughing.

    oh I just realise! cough iron fist cough dr strange cough dr druid!

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