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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 ling-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 both 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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Iron Fist – Snow Gives Way (Review)

So, what is Iron Fist about?

To be fair, it is a tough question to answer. The final Netflix series, publicised as “the Last Defender”, seems to have been a hard sell. Indeed, the emphasis on the show’s position as “the Last Defender” recalls the marketing of Captain America: The First Avenger. In both cases, Marvel was selling a property that posed a creative challenge by tethering it to a looming mass-market crossover, counting on its position as “the last piece of the puzzle” to draw in audiences that might otherwise hold little interest in the material.

Fist first.

And, by and large, Iron Fist is defined by these outside demands. Any audience member trying to figure out what Iron Fist is or what purpose it serves will arguably get a better sense of that by tracing the outline established by the other Marvel Netflix shows. Iron Fist is not a television show that defines itself, instead existing in a narrative and marketing space that has already been defined for it by the demands of other multimedia. Iron Fist is not so much a television show as a bunch of stuff that fits in that space before The Defenders.

That much is evident even as early as Snow Gives Way, the first episode of the Netflix series. The pilot is arguably as instructive in what it fails to do as it is in what it actually accomplishes. It eats up fifty minutes of airtime without providing the audience with any real sense of who these people are, what they want, or what the series is trying to say that isn’t on the agenda already set up by the other Marvel Netflix shows.

He’s acting. Really hard.

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