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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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Marvel and Netflix’s The Defenders (Review)

The Defenders stumbles in familiar ways.

The series is nominally a crossover between the four Marvel Netflix series, a small-screen version of The Avengers providing a point of intersection between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. In theory, this is the perfect opportunity to bring together four television superheroes to face a larger threat. There is something inherently cool in the idea of a crossover, in watching worlds collide and watching protagonists folded into a larger ensemble.

However, things are not so simple. The Defenders prejudices some of its constituent elements more than others. Most notable, it is overseen by Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, the producers on the second season of Daredevil. It also carries over several elements from that season, including the hole in the ground from Semper Fidelis and the death and resurrection of Elektra from A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. More than that, The Defenders carries over the mythology of the Hand and the Iron Fist from Iron Fist, putting heavy focus on Danny Rand.

From the outset, The Defenders effectively handicaps itself by leaning on the two weakest pillars of this multimedia empire. The second season of Daredevil was a disjointed mess packed with poor writing and stuffed with generic ninjas. The first season of Iron Fist was a collection of Orientalist stereotypes crammed into a cheap and poorly constructed origin story fashioned from whatever meat that Daredevil had left on the bones of the template that Christopher Nolan had established in Batman Begins. These are not foundations for an epic.

More than that, this emphasis on the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist comes at the expense of the three strong seasons of Marvel’s Netflix output. The Defenders never captures the emotional power of Jessica Jones, nor the street-level perspective of life in New York conveyed through Luke Cage. Even more basically, The Defenders never even tries to create the same sense of pulpy thrill that defined so much of the first season of Daredevil. Instead, The Defenders focuses on ninjas and mystical nonsense.

The central plot of The Defenders hinges on the revelation that the island of Manhattan has been built on a volatile foundation. The Defenders could just as easily be speaking about itself.

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The Defenders – The H Word (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

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Iron Fist – The Blessing of Many Fractures (Review)

As “The Last Defender”, Iron Fist bears the burden of tying most heavily into The Defenders.

This is not a surprise. This has been a large part of the Marvel Studios model, with productions teasing concepts and characters that will not arrive for quite some time. By the time that Thanos moves against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers: Infinity War, it will have been more than half a decade since the stinger at the end of The Avengers teased his looming threat. Even since Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. dropped by the stinger in The Incredible Hulk, these teases have been a way of doing business.

Glowing yellow peril.

As such, it makes sense that the company would put a lot of groundwork into setting up the summer’s big-ticket crossover between the four different Marvel Netflix shows. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage had largely been their own thing, while Daredevil had devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to introducing concepts and ideas that would pay off down the line. However, as the last of the shows to be released before the big summer event series, Iron Fist carries a heavier burden than any of its predecessors.

Unfortunately, Marvel and Netflix seem to have wholeheartedly committed to the idea of the Hand as the enemy of choice for this eight-part crossover miniseries. And so Iron Fist gets burdened with the Hand.

“Time for snooping.”

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