Both the Defenders and the Justice League had a lot of potential, but the audience and critical reaction hasn’t been what the companies had hoped for. Marvel’s the Defenders was the least watched of their Netflix series of shows. It only had 17% of the viewership that Daredevil season 2—which is Netflix’s most-viewed Marvel show—had in its first 30 days. Justice League is underperforming at the Box Office, bringing in far less money than DC and the WB had hoped. The Defenders has a decent but not great 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but only 63% on Metacritic, while Justice League is floundering at 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 46% on Metacritic. Neither is quite living up to it’s potential.
Let’s look at them both and decide which of them works better.
The Plots: The Defenders plot was built-up over a period of time, using bits and pieces from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. While it didn’t all come together flawlessly, it did make sense overall. The problem in the Justice League is that 25% of the film was reshot by Joss Whedon after Zack Snyder had to leave the project. This leaves some aspects of the plot either vague or inconsistent. For instance, whatever Snyder had planned for Superman’s resurrection (based on the dirt floating off the coffin at the end of Batman v Superman) is not followed up on, and the resurrection seemed a bit rushed and easy. When Superman is revived, his change of personality—being more like the upbeat Superman fans have wanted—is not really explained. This also makes Justice League highly inconsistent in tone. You can tell which scenes were directed by Snyder and which were done by Whedon.
The Action. The Defenders had some okay action sequences, but not as good as they had been in earlier shows like Daredevil. Iron Fist/Danny Rand in particular had some disappointing fights, relying too much on his unreliable glowing fist. And there wasn’t enough distinction in the fighting styles (Daredevil and Iron Fist were both flippy martial arts fighters, while Jessica and Luke were both power-punchers.) In Justice League, the action is pretty good. The FX are strong, and we see some good teamwork.
Winner: Justice League.
The Villain: While Sigourney Weaver was disappointing as the main villain of Defenders, she’s still much better than Steppenwolf, who is a major flaw in Justice League. He’s generic, and constrained by typical villain dialogue. We never get a clear explanation of why he’s doing what he’s doing, except that he’s evil. While comic book fans may know all about the character and his motivations, casual fans will find Steppenwolf a cookie-cutter bad guy. Some of these questions would have been answered if the film had been a two-parter and led into the arrival of Darkseid as the cliffhanger, but with Darkseid cut out of the movie, it left Steppenwolf to carry the film alone without a complete motivation.
The Stakes: The Defenders was a smaller story and it focused on the villain’s personal goals, not any big threat to the world. A contrived plot-element was injected into the last episode at the 11th hour, saying that New York would collapse if the dragon bones are disturbed, but it seemed shoehorned in. Justice League has a more epic world-in-peril element. While the plot seems spotty and leaves us feeling like we’re missing something, it still comes across as more important. And it’s good to see Superman arrive to save the day at the end.
Winner: Justice League.
Characters: This one is close…The characters from the Defenders were mostly well-defined when we see them get together. Daredevil is still intense and world-weary; Luke Cage is still the moral centerof the group and pure-of-heart; Jessica is still rude, sarcastic and screwed up; Iron Fist is still naïve and prone to rookie mistakes. The Justice League has some tonal problems with the characters, which probably goes back to the fact that there were two directors for the film. Batman often seems much more light-hearted and casual than he did in Batman v Superman; Superman is a more cheerful, positive character now, which is a good thing, but the change seems rather jarring. The Flash seems too overly awkward and ‘Spiderman-ish’; Aquaman is a bit too much of a ‘bro’. Wonder Woman and Cyborg are okay but we don’t get deep enough into their characters. All the actors do a good job with the material they have.
Winner: Defenders (but barely.)
So far, it seems that we have to give the nod to the Defenders, but there’s one other thing to consider…expectations! The Defenders does not have the same epic gravitas that the Justice League has, and so has a lower bar to clear. Also, the Defenders had better good-will going into its release. The Netflix shows are mostly well-regarded and create a strong lead-in (except for Iron Fist). Justice League has the baggage of following mostly badly received films (except for Wonder Woman) and has to pick up the plot threads of the muddled Batman v Superman film. The Defenders has more of a head-start.
So, what’s the verdict? Overall, the Defenders holds up better as a complete whole. Justice League is handicapped by the behind-the-scenes drama and the change of directors. It wasn’t a terrible film like Batman v Superman, and had some good moments, but it should have been so much better. All things considered, Justice League is better than it seemed it would be, but not what fans deserved.
Both of these super hero team-ups are rather ‘Meh’ in quality, but overall, the Defenders is the slightly better of the two.