Trying to do something akin to the Avengers on a television budget without disappointing fans is a tough challenge. The Defenders needs to rely more on story and characterizations than the MCU films do. Fortunately, the show has several popular characters to work with. The Netflix show brings back comic book heroes Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Iron Fist (Finn Jones), who have all starred in previous Netflix series of varying quality. While the Defenders is not the best Marvel Netflix show, it’s not the worst either. It’s somewhere in the middle.
The Defenders has a much shorter season than the earlier shows, having only eight episodes, instead of 13. Also, the running times are shorter here, running anywhere between 35-45 minutes in length. This is both good and bad. Its good because it forces the plot to keep moving and not get bogged down like Iron Fist did. It’s bad because some aspects of the plot, especially near the end, seem rushed. For instance, our heroes are in trouble with the police in the final few episodes, but later we’re told that the police “didn’t file the report” so the Defenders conveniently get off the hook.
The series, which is set in New York, begins rather slowly. It reintroduces it’s four heroes and their various supporting casts; Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, Clair Temple, Trish Walker, Misty Knight, Stick and Collen Wing. It gets points for its adherence to continuity, but it does weigh the first episode down in necessary reorienting of the cast.
Matt Murdock (Cox) is re-establishing his career as a lawyer after the break-up of his old firm. He is trying to live a mask-free life, and has broken up with his former flame Karen. Jessica Jones is drifting directionless, refusing to embrace her inner heroism, preferring to drink and sulk. Luke Cage has just been released from prison with the help of Foggy Nelson and needs to decide what to do with his life. He also jumps quickly back into his relationship with nurse Clair Temple. Danny Rand (Jones) is travelling the globe, tracking down members of the notorious Hand organization, with help from his paramour Colleen. A clue sends them back to New York.
All these references to the previous shows might be disorienting for new viewers and the show is definitely written with the assumption that you’ve seen the earlier four series. The early part of the season bounces back and forth between the four separate plots. The script contrivances used to get the four heroes involved in the main story are rather hit-and-miss. It’s easy to fit Iron Fist into the main Hand storyline, but the way Daredevil is shoehorned into it seems forced. The way the tone changes for each of the main character’s scenes is both clever and also jarring.
The show builds up to the team-up of the heroes and when they’re on screen together, it’s fun. Much like the Avengers, the enjoyment is in seeing their disparate personalities clash. They argue and banter and brawl, allowing us to appreciate the distinctive quirks of each character. Cage’s “true-north” moralism, Jessica’s rude sarcasm, Danny’s naivety and Daredevil’s world-weary mournfulness make for some nice exchanges among the cast. Adding an extra dimension to the interactions is Scott Glen as the snarky, fatalistic blind warrior Stick. His condescending impatience with the group stirs up some heated moments. On the negative side, there are a number of scenes with forced tension between the characters, where one or more of them do something dumb, in order to cause the characters to get into a fight.
Some of the dialogue is cliched and overused, such as several variations on the “What part of (fill in the blank) do you not understand?”, but most of the cast members are talented enough to deliver the old lines in a passable way. Performance-wise, Ritter comes across the best, making Jessica stand-out among the boys. Mike Colter does a nice job playing the moral heart of the team. Charlie Cox has been better in previous outings but he manages to bring a certain amount of intensity and authority to his role as the devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
The weakest link is Finn Jones as Danny/Iron Fist, who spends most of his time announcing to everyone in the world that he’s “the immortal Iron Fist”, and repeatedly declaring that he’s here to destroy the Hand but he comes across as being an insecure kid trying to talk tough. He frequently has this pouty look on his face, making him seem more child-like. It’s not helped by the fact that the character frequently does dumb things. In fact, both Stick and Madam Gao make it a point to mention that he’s the stupidest Iron Fist of the long line of people who’ve held the mantle. He’s given a pivotal role in the plot and he does better in the fight scenes here than he did in his own series, but he’s lacking the screen presence of the other three Defenders. Fortunately, he has Jessica Henwick as Collen to help carry his scenes.
In regard to the fight scenes, they are better than the ones in Iron Fist, but not as good as in Daredevil. (Nothing can top the hallway fight scene from Daredevil season 1) The fight choreography is actually very good but the camera work hurts it, using too many close-ups and the shaky-cam.
As for the villains, we have several formidable females who bring on the badness for our Defenders to defeat. We are introduced to Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra, the immortal Leader of the Hand. She does a nice enough job in the role, but she doesn’t match Kilgrave or Fisk. Wai Ching Ho is back once again as Madam Gao and as always, she gives a strong performance, but sadly, Gao is less fun as a subordinate to Alexandra than she is when she’s running things.
The other main villain is the returning Elodie Yung as the resurrected Elektra, who is now called Black Sky. Brought back to life with no memory of her previous existance, she serves Alexandra, giving a beating to the heroes more than once. (Her new power is inconsistent. She handles the entire group of Defenders easily enough, but struggles when she fights them one-on-one.) The connection between herself and Daredevil is nicely used in the story, creating distrust with the other Defenders and also playing into the conclusion of the storyline.
The supporting characters all get their moments to shine. The ones who have the best moments are Henwick as the sword-wielding Wing, and Misty Knight, who gets an injury that sets up a famous aspect of her character in the comics. Their scenes together make you want to see Knight-Wing Investigations pop up in future shows.
There is a lot of information delivered throughout the show, and we learn about the origins of the war between the Hand and the Chaste, as well as the Hand’s ultimate goal. (Which is a little underwhelming). It pieces together all the loose threads of the earlier shows and fits them together in a basically entertaining way, but it doesn’t give us anything we haven’t seen before, nor does it touch on any weighty issues (such as Jessica Jones, which dealt with PTSD). The Defenders is generally fun but it lacks the maturity of the better Netflix shows. It’s less sombre than Daredevil; less edgy than Jessica Jones; and less relatable than Luke Cage. It’s better than Iron Fist. The season follows the formula of the Avengers but on a more street level. It’s an enjoyable watch but not outstanding.