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The Defenders – The Defenders (Review)

If The Defenders is fundamentally a story about New York, then it seems inevitable that it should return to the city’s defining tragedy.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the events of 9/11 changed the course of world history. They fundamentally altered the foreign and domestic policies of the United States, the world’s strongest superpower. Inevitably, they also changed New York itself. It could reasonably be argued that the twenty-first century began with the 9/11 attacks, at least culturally; the atrocity brought an end to the global peace and stability that had defined the nineties, ushering in a new world order.

“Um, Danny? Hero shot?”

The Defenders is a story very much invested in New York City, with characters repeatedly referring to New York as “my/your/our city.” Of course, each of the four series leading into The Defenders imagines a different city. Daredevil is set against the backdrop of an early eighties version of Hell’s Kitchen, one never tamed nor gentrified. Jessica Jones unfolds in a vast and anonymous and disconnected city. Luke Cage imagines Harlem as an ideal, a cultural hub. Iron Fist treats Manhattan as the stage on which familial conflicts might play out.

The Defenders is about bringing those separate versions of New York together, of integrating them into a single story set against the backdrop of a single version of the city. Inevitably, that version of the city is the city as it was defined at the start of the twenty-first century, a city united by catastrophe and destruction. However, there is more to it than that. The Defenders embraces the 9/11 subtext seeded through the first season and plays the idea out to its logical conclusion.

“What? Am I supposed to look serious doing this?”

The season culminates in a bizarre inversion of 9/11, in which our heroes lay siege to an empty skyscraper. They decide that the only way to save Manhattan is to demolish the building. Although the episode is edited in such a way that the audience never sees the collapse of the skyscraper in question, The Defenders is still structured in a way that evokes the most uncomfortable paranoid conspiracy theories about the events of 9/11. With the structure destroyed from the inside with architectural precision, this change to the New York skyline really is “an inside job.”

It plays almost as a grotesque and uncomfortable attempt to reclaim a traumatic image, to take ownership of the atrocity. It is an attempt to construct a heroic iteration of the terrorist attacks that forever changed the city, as if that may somehow provide an opportunity for healing and reconciliation.

Take it as red.

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The Defenders – Fish in the Jailhouse (Review)

The second season of Daredevil hangs over The Defenders.

This is not a surprise. Daredevil was the first Marvel Netflix show, and so it occupies pride of place in the line-up. It was the only series to get a second season before the release of The Defenders. More than that, the showrunners in charge of The Defenders are the same showrunners who oversaw the second season of Daredevil. It makes sense that Matt Murdock would find himself cast as the protagonist of The Defenders, and that the show would like a logical continuation of his arc.

Apparently the Dutch settlers made the mistake of building Manhattan on a load-bearing dragon skeleton.

In many ways, the story of The Defenders is the story of Matt Murdock. In fact, Matt Murdock is the only character to end The Defenders in a markedly different place than he began. He begins the show having retired his costumed life following the death of Elektra in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. Over the course of the show, he embraces his status as hero. He comes to don the costume again and to lead the nascent team in Take Shelter, just over half-way through the season. He ends The Defenders sacrificing himself to save the city, only to narrowly survive.

While the stars of Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are all returned to a position where their first and second seasons might flow organically into one another, The Defenders almost feels like a truncated blockbuster season of Daredevil.

“Yeah, Thor: The Dark World did this gag first, but let’s just go with it.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Defenders – Mean Right Hook (Review)

The shared universe is a feature of comic book storytelling that has gradually crept into the mainstream.

In some ways, it is a logical escalation of the concept of sequels, a way of expanding storytelling opportunities in a way that beacons in fans of existing properties. The shared universe is a prime example of modern pop culture’s investment in intellectual property ahead of personality, where the familiar concept behind a film or television series is often as attractive as any star headlining. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most successful example, spanning movies, novels and television shows all (in theory) set within the same fictional world.

It’s a big universe out there.

The shared universe has become the default mode for big-budget storytelling in the twenty-first century, a structure towards which studios aspire. The most obvious examples are the shared comic book universes from Disney and Warner Brothers, with another coming from Sony in the near future. However, there are countless other examples. Disney has begun constructing standalone stories within its Star Wars universe. James Wan has built up an unlikely blockbuster horror shared universe.

The Defenders is an interesting beast, the culmination of a shared subuniverse. It brings together the primary characters from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist in their own weird little corner of the shared Marvel cinematic universe.

Devil in the details.

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