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The Defenders – Ashes, Ashes (Review)

As much as The Defenders is hobbled by the Hand, it is also handicapped by Iron Fist.

It is very clear that the production team heading into The Defenders intended for Iron Fist to be a springboard to the crossover, to move the last pieces into place before the big event miniseries. After all, Iron Fist was heavily marketted as “the Last Defender.” More than that, the series devoted pretty much all of its thirteen-episode runtime to fleshing out the Hand, the secretive ninja cult that would serve as the primary antagonists of The Defenders. There was a clear sense that the production team saw Iron Fist as something of an extended lead-in to The Defenders.

Sorry, Danny. But it’s true.

There was just one problem with all of this. Iron Fist was terrible. By all accounts, the show was the result of a rushed production cycle that explains some of the shoddiness in terms of practical effects and direction, but its biggest problems were more fundamental than that. Finn Jones was the weakest series lead of the Marvel Netflix series by a considerable distance. Scott Buck was the weakest lead writer on a Marvel Netflix series by a considerable distance. The result was a car crash of a television series.

Given that this car crash was intended to serve as the lead-in to The Defenders, this causes significant problems for the sprawling eight-episode crossover.

Luke is a real hero.

Finn Jones had a bit of a tough time when Iron Fist was released, finding himself in the middle of a maelstrom of publicity and debate. While it is hard to understand the level of scrutiny or outrage directed at Jones, it seems fair to concede that the actor did not always engage with the criticisms in the most constructive of ways. He picked arguments with fans on Twitter, shortly before leaving the platform. He was visibly defensive in interviews, unwilling to engage with any perceived criticism of his show.

Jones’ frustration is understandable, but it led to a number of misguided and ill-judged attempts to deflect criticisms of the show. He argued that audiences and critics were just using his show as an excuse to respond to the presidency of Donald Trump. He also argued that Iron Fist was a show intended for the fans rather than the critics. These were hardly convincing arguments, simply a way for Finn to avoid talking about the very tangible problems that existed with Iron Fist as a television series.

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to produce something as bad as Iron Fist.”

However, one of Jones’ more ambitious defenses of Iron Fist was the argument that it was never intended to encapsulate the entirety of Danny Rand’s journey:

I see it as kind of this journey where Iron Fist and The Defenders is like the complete first season of Danny’s journey. It’s really nice to play it back-to-back because Danny does go through this awesome huge arc, so the end of Iron Fist is like the halfway point… In The Defenders, he’s got a grasp of who he is and he’s trying to do something with it. It’s great to play that consistently over the year and not have that broken up.

It’s certainly a bold argument. Even if it isn’t true, it has the neat effect of pushing out criticism of the show until after The Defenders has aired, helping to relieve some of the pressure being heaped upon Iron Fist.

“What’s in the box?!”

In some ways, this is the logical conclusion of the Netflix model of television. The binge-watching model has increasingly moved beyond the idea of an episode as a unit of story, instead suggesting that a season needs to be approached holistically. Given Finn Jones’ argument about Danny Rand’s character arc over the course of Iron Fist and The Defenders, it seems like the season (or even the series) is no longer the single unit of story. Stories can now unfold across multiple seasons of multiple series.

Of course, if this is the case, if The Defenders is to be treated as the conclusion of a character arc that began in Iron Fist, then there is understandably some tension there. The first season of Iron Fist was overseen by executive producer Scott Buck. The Defenders is overseen by Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie. This sort of transition does not lend itself to organic storytelling. It is very hard to treat Danny’s journey as a single cohesive arc when it is managed by two different creative teams.

Tensions come to a head.

This is arguably why Joss Whedon made a point to focus on the lesser-seen characters in The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Whedon was sure to provide big moments for established characters like Iron Man or Captain America, but he made a point to reserve character arcs for the heroes who didn’t have their own separate film franchises: the hints of a relationship between Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner; Clint Barton’s family living on that quiet farm together.

Whedon’s logic was that characters’ individual arcs were best explored in their own film franchises, that Tony Stark should grow as a person in Iron Man, Iron Man II and Iron Man III or that Thor was best explored in Thor or Thor: The Dark World. Whedon instead focused his attention on those characters who had been “orphaned.” It is a very reasonable and fair approach, one that respects the integrity of the creative teams working on their individual feature film franchises.

Immortal beloved.

Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez were mindful of this approach when working on The Defenders, aware of the fact that they were playing with other showrunners’ toys:

Some of the similar but different challenges in Defenders was that these characters already existed. They were already casted. Their voices were already distinct. The actors certainly have really good senses of who they were. So it was a little different in terms of—I wasn’t creating Jessica Jones, or Luke Cage, or Danny Rand. They already exist on their own shows. I was just seeing where those voices fit into this world and how those voices sounded when they bounce off each other. So they’re very different.

On one hand, yeah, it was nice to have Daredevil Season 2. On the other hand, it was a lot of… I jokingly called it leasing the car. I lease Luke Cage for the episodes, and I had to turn him right back in to Cheo to go do season 2. I leased Jessica Jones so I could turn her back in and [Jessica Jones showrunner] Melissa [Rosenberg] could give her a great story.

Melissa Rosenberg is working on a second season of Jessica Jonesgoing into production before The Defenders was released. Cheo Coker is working on a second season of Luke Cage, promising “bulletproof dopeness.”

Grave problems.

This might explain why The Defenders does so little with the characters of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. These characters clearly “belong” to two other showrunners, who are working on their own stories and their own ideas. Trying to coordinate with those showrunners, without stepping on any toes, would be very difficult. As a result, it makes sense for Jessica and Luke to become supporting players in The Defenders, staying the background and having somewhat hazily-defined character arcs.

However, Matt Murdock and Danny Rand are two different stories. Ramirez and Petrie know exactly what is happening in the world of Matt Murdock; they were in charge of the second season of Daredevil and have already begun planning the third. As such, the producers know that they can give Matt Murdock an extended arc across The Defenders without disrupting anybody else’s long-term plans for the character. In many ways, The Defenders feels very much like an extension of the second season of Daredevil, looking at the characters and plot.

The Hand have great plans for this city.

The situation with Danny Rand is a bit more complicated. Scott Buck was in charge of the unmitigated disaster that was the first season of Iron Fist, but he has moved on to working on The Inhumans. Raven Metzner was announced as the new showrunner for the second season of Iron Fist in July 2017, but that was long after production had finished on The Defenders. As a result, Ramirez and Petrie inherited Danny as an “orphan” character, in a gap between showrunners. As such, they had a bit more freedom to play with Danny than with Luke or Jessica.

The Defenders is very much built around Danny Rand. After all, Danny is the “sworn enemy” of the Hand, which makes him the default protagonist of a story about a bunch of heroes taking down the hazily-defined nebulous evil organisation. Iron Fist did a lot of word-building with the Hand, which means that The Defenders is effectively forced to incorporate major supporting characters like Gao and Bakuto into its framework. Given that Gao and Bakuto have their own histories with Danny and Colleen, this then elevates their roles in the heroic ensemble.

Ain’t gonna Gao.

More than that, The Defenders consciously elevates Danny’s importance, understanding that the course has already been set by all of the mythology-building in Iron Fist. Danny is put at the centre of the story quite early in Mean Right Hook, when Alexandra deduces that the Iron Fist is a “key” that will open a mysterious lock that will allow the Hand to complete their ominous and (at that point) vague endgame. Much of the season is then devoted to Alexandra’s efforts to control the Iron Fist, most notably in episodes like Royal Dragon or Ashes, Ashes.

As a result, The Defenders is a story that is very much built around Danny Rand, to the point that it feels like he should be the lead character of this ensemble superhero drama. There is just one problem with this. Petrie and Ramirez seem aware of how godawful Iron Fist was, and seem to be willing to candidly acknowledge many of its limitations. The Defenders often seems to play with this idea, whether by trolling the audience by emphasising his important or by allowing the other characters to draw attention to Danny’s shortcomings.

Danny Rand is just the worst.

The Defenders mercilessly mocks Danny Rand. Even the pre-release publicity got in on the act, hoping to engender the audience’s goodwill by highlighting the sequences in which the other primary cast members ridicule Danny Rand. Luke sits down to lecture Danny on white privilege in Worst Behaviour. When Stick first encounters Danny in Royal Dragon, he labels the character “a thundering dumbass.” Even under threat of torture, Sowande is unimpressed with Danny, remarking, “You are the dumbest Iron Fist yet.”

While Matt seems more accepting of Danny, perhaps recognising his own traumatised childhood and indoctrination in the team’s other martial artist, both Luke and Jessica regard Danny as somebody who might be a danger to himself and others. Jessica ridicules Danny’s self-serious exposition and Luke wonders how he can eat so much in Royal Dragon. Danny seems completely oblivious to the fact that he has huge amounts of money at his disposal until Luke points it out to him in Worst Behaviour.

Danny hasn’t a prayer.

Most strikingly, Luke talks to Danny as if addressing a small child in Ashes, Ashes. “Why don’t you tell me again about how you punched a dragon and got your magic hand?” Luke asks, sarcastically. When Danny answers in earnest, Luke abruptly cuts him off. “I was kidding.” Danny looks sad, sulking like a small child. Luke softens a little bit, as if he has just told a child that Santa Claus does not exist. “Molten heart, eh?” Luke asks, trying to lift Danny’s spirit like any half-decent parent. “I bet that must have hurt.”

There are points at which The Defenders seems to be actively trolling its fans. The H Word opens the series with an extended sequence following Danny Rand and Colleen Wing following up on the cliffhanger at the end of Dragon Plays With Fire. During a fight with Elektra, Danny receives a slash across the chest. When he examines himself in the mirror, that cut runs diagonally through his distinctive “Iron Fist” dragon tattoo. It looks almost like a statement from the creative team, a promise that this will not be another Iron Fist.

A sharp rebuke.

Indeed, much of the second half of The Defenders is given over to the challenge of trying to tell a story that relies so heavily on the mythos of Iron Fist without having push actor Finn Jones outside his comfort zone. Jones is, by some considerable margin, the weakest of the four lead actors in The Defenders. He can do light and charming, but he struggles to convey emotional depth or complexity. Leaving aside issues of cultural appropriation, the biggest problem with telling a story about Danny Rand is that it inevitably relies on Finn Jones.

This is the central dilemma for the second half of The Defenders. How best to construct a story about Danny Rand but without pushing Finn Jones outside his comfort zone? Ashes, Ashes and Fish in the Jailhouse hit upon a rather delightful answer, turning Danny Rand into a macguffin rather than a character. The second half of The Defenders is much more invested in the idea of Danny Rand as a concept than as an individual. Danny spends most of Ashes, Ashes tied to a chair. He spends most of Fish in a Jailhouse tied to a gurney.

“Are you sure we can’t muzzle him?”

There is something quite satisfying in this decision, a creative way of writing around Finn Jones’ weaknesses as a leading man. The final two episodes treat Danny Rand as The Defenders‘ answer to Princess Peach. Matt, Luke, Colleen and Jessica have to storm Midland Circle to mount a rescue mission. At the same time, there is only so much that The Defenders can do to mitigate Finn Jones’ limitations. The final scene of Ashes, Ashes still features a cringe-inducing moment where Danny throws a temper tantrum as Alexandra has him wheeled away.

Still, this conscious effort to sideline Danny does create interesting storytelling opportunities. Whereas Iron Fist worked very hard to vindicate and justify Danny’s sense of entitlement, The Defenders suggests that Danny is a spectacular failure. Danny was raised to believe that he would fight the good fight and save the world, but The Defenders repeatedly insists that Danny simply isn’t up to that level of responsibility. Danny spends most of The Defenders whining about how things didn’t work out according to his plan.

Tie me up, tie me down.

In Royal Dragon, Danny is thrilled to discover that he has an army to lead. “The Chaste are my army?” he asks Stick. “How come no one told me?” Inevitably, the Chaste have been massacred; it seems likely that they needed Danny’s help while he was running around Cambodia. At the start of Ashes, Ashes, Danny has something of a breakdown when the team tries to bench him. “I dedicated my life to this fight,” he protests. “You need me.” He goes on something of an ego trip. “They want me on the side-lines, because I am the only one who can destroy them.”

Danny refuses to deal with situations as an adult, instead causing trouble for his colleagues. In Worst Behaviour, he shows up at Midland Circle to give the Hand a good telling off, only to kick off a major battle. (“I wore my tie,” he offers by explanation in Royal Dragon.) His refusal to listen to his teammates in Ashes, Ashes forces them to subdue him. This forces the team to split up, and arguably leads to a situation where Elektra is able to kidnap him and take him to the Hand.

Hanging tight.

To be fair, it is often difficult to tell how much of this is intentional and how much of it is bad writing. Most obviously, Alexandra repeatedly complains that Danny Rand has gone off the radar. However, the audience sees information directly contradicting that; he is flying in his private plane in The H Word, casually using his phone and his credit card in Royal Dragon. There is a sense that Danny is only as hard to find as the plot will allow. Still, even allowing for that, The Defenders is much more self-aware in its handling of Danny than Iron Fist had been.

The Defenders even goes so far as to suggest that Matt is forced to lead the team because Danny simply lacks the competence and temperament to do so. “The Iron Fist can’t lead ’em like you can,” Stick bluntly explains in Take Shelter. The implication seems to be that the team is so dysfunctional because Danny simply isn’t capable of filling the role that was intended for him. At times, it feels almost like The Defenders is engaging in meta-commentary, complaining about the lump of misshapen clay that the production team has been given.

Keeping an ear out.

To be fair, some good does come of all this. Most obviously, The Defenders asks Colleen to shoulder some of the narrative weight carried over from Iron Fist, perhaps trusting Jessica Henwick more than Finn Jones. When Bakuto reappears in Take Shelter, he is set up as a foil for Colleen rather than Danny. Their climactic confrontation in The Defenders is arguably one of only two big one-on-one fights in the finale, suggesting that Colleen is representing Iron Fist in this weight class in the same way that Matt is representing Daredevil.

In many ways, Colleen is part of the real team that forms in Fish in a Jailhouse and The Defenders, when the group organises a mission to rescue Danny. Matt, Colleen, Jessica, Luke and Claire all storm Midland Circle. It is a bit of a disappointment when Colleen is asked to remain above ground in The Defenders, so that the four title characters can all get their big collective hero moment together in the cave beneath the skyscraper. The climax of The Defenders reveals that there is only so much that the show can do to marginalise Danny Rand.

Luke will be incensed when he discovers what happened.

This is one of the biggest problems with The Defenders. The miniseries makes a valiant effort to redeem and rework the character of Danny Rand. However, there is only so much winking that the show can do while still baking the character into the foundation of the crossover. The Defenders is very sly and very knowing in its use of Danny Rand, but it still suffers from a lot of the same flaws. The scripts’ self-awareness doesn’t make Finn Jones a better actor, any more than focusing on Colleen makes Bakuto a compelling character.

The Defenders is unwilling to actually fix any of these underlying problems, instead winking and nodding at the audience who have pointed them out. The show will bend in such a way as to reduce the harm caused by these problems, but it won’t actually remove the problems that are causing this frustration. The show might allow Jessica Henwick to carry more weight going into the second half, but it won’t elevate Colleen Wing above Danny Rand. The show might tie him to a chair or a gurney, but it still forces the audience to sit through scenes with Finn Jones.

Say Chi!

Iron Fist is fundamentally broken. Given that Iron Fist amounts to at least a quarter (if not almost a half) of The Defenders, that is a very real problem. As hard as The Defenders might try to paper over the cracks, there is only so much that can be done without allowing for a full remodelling.

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

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2 Responses

  1. > Princess Peach

    That’s freaking hilarious, and not something I’d thought of before.

    Although it’s probably an insult to princess peach, I remember in the comic adaptation she loaded a pizza wagon full of bob-bombs and went Allah Ackbar on the koopalings. Danny is like whoever Madonna marries: just along for the ride.

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