Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Defenders Weighs Good Characters Against Bad Plotting

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With the first four episodes of The Defenders’ first season having taken care of the cumbersome process of actually uniting our four heroes, our second half is set up to deliver all the gangbusting action people dreamed of when the show was first announced. That’s not to say those first four episodes were wrong to take their time; while The Defenders arguably erred in its pacing, the process of bringing Jessica Jones, Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand was handled very well and with respect to each of its characters.

Now that this job is done, though, it’s time for the heroes to take down The Hand. Did The Defenders tell this tale well? How was the show overall? The answer is a complicated one, torn between the extremes of the show’s considerable strengths and the disappointing weaknesses. The answer will also depend on the viewer. Let’s take a look at what The Defenders ultimately did right and oh so disappointingly wrong.

Source Spoiler, these two are the best. As if you expected otherwise.

The Heroes Shouldering the Burden

For all its weaknesses, I enjoyed The Defenders for one hugely important reason; most of the heroes remained plain awesome from beginning to end.

I doubt many will be surprised that Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock plain carried this show from beginning to end. They have easily the best of the solo shows and succeed as characters for many of the same reasons. They also have a more “human” feel to their characters, a vulnerability central to their characters in ways not managed with Luke or Danny. The two shined early and often in the first half of the season, and continue to do so in these episodes. There’s no doubt who the stars of the season are.

Ultimately, I have to give the nod to Jessica as the best of them. Krysten Ritter has truly made this role her own, and The Defenders did a wonderful job continuing her story in a natural way, inspiring hope for the second season of her solo show. Her snark is top notch, her guilt over her newfound fame and success shines through in both writing and acting, and her stakes in stopping The Hand maintain a fantastic mix between the personal stakes inspiring her and her deep-seated desire to be a hero, no matter how she denies it.

Matt’s handled damn near perfectly as well, though his character ultimately suffers due to decisions made in the larger plot (which I will cover later in the review). I hoped for the interactions between him and Jessica to shine, and shine they did. Whether it’s the combined snark of their teasing or the more intimate moments creating a stronger connection between them, their shared seasons were consistently the best part of whatever episode they occurred in. They are both such damaged, glorious assholes, and The Defenders made them the ultimate BroTP.

While Luke and Danny may not match the quality of Matt and Jessica (mostly because they simply aren’t as interesting), that’s not to say they were handled badly at all. In fact, their shared scenes were also handled so well that I wonder whether Marvel should scrap their solo shows and simply make Heroes for Hire right away. Luke Cage and Iron Fist were the least of the Marvel shows so far in large part because the writers couldn’t manage anything so compelling as Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Together they managed to be more interesting and compelling than they ever have on their own. The same thing occurred with Luke’s introduction in Jessica Jones. Maybe they need to coexist with someone else to reach their full potential. The Defenders certainly suggests as much.

Thankfully, these shared scenes were typically a major plus no matter what combinations of these characters shared the screen together. Matt and Danny have arguably the best fight scene of the series against each other and some truly fascinating parallels in their lives. Luke and Jessica continue the same strong chemistry they had in Jessica Jones. Jessica’s little brother treatment towards Danny never ceases to entertain.

No matter where the flaws took the show, I never stopped caring for the heroes at its center.


The Supporting Players at Their Side

This same strength of interaction extends to the many side characters pulled into the series, especially when they start interacting with each other. Some of this is carryover from their original shows. Foggy and Karen continue to lend each other strength in their shared worry for Matt. Trish and Malcolm continue as the support anchoring and inspiring Jessica. Colleen has a bit rougher season here than she did in Iron Fist, but also has some of the strongest moments. The same is true of Misty. Each of them usually interact with the heroes how you hope and expect, with some reservations.

Even better, the crossover interactions deliver. Colleen and Misty have scenes together that demand a Daughters of the Dragon spinoff. Trish and Karen share their investigative interests. Foggy tries his charm with Luke and Claire. Just like with the main characters, the supporting characters consistently deliver when put in rooms together, whether the interactions are familiar or new.

Something that will especially make our readers happy is the wealth of positive interactions between women in this show. Jessica/Trish, Trish/Karen, Colleen/Claire, Colleen/Misty, Misty/Claire, over and over The Defenders puts its women in rooms together and does supportive, positive things with them. Despite a disappointing twist, even Alexandra/Elektra stands out here, as does Alexandra/Madame Gao. When some shows seem to insist on never letting women say nice things to each other, this is worth mentioning.

Hopefully one day it won’t be necessary.

Probably the most prominent of these side characters (to the point of practically being a main character) is Stick, and he has one of the strongest arcs in the show. He stays the same ornery prick from beginning to end, never swaying from his mission or beliefs. Sometimes this puts him on the side of our Defenders. Sometimes it puts him in opposition. In the end he stands strong as one of the best examples of what The Defenders did right with its heroes big and small.

It’s a shame the villains couldn’t live up to them.

The Villains Unable to Live up to Them

I know I had a lot of praise for the way The Defenders handled The Hand last week. I stand by my praise. The first couple episodes continue to build these villains with skill unseen in their previous appearances. Elektra’s reawakening memories throw her allegiance into doubt. Alexandra’s desperation increases. Sowande exudes the perfect amount of intimidation and control you expect of a Finger of The Hand, all while strapped to a chair. Things build towards something escaping the blandness sinking their previous appearances.

And then The Defenders makes familiar mistakes, throwing all this progress out the window.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by Elektra’s betrayal of Alexandra. This makes the third villain switch Marvel Netflix has done now. Hopefully the third strike strikes this idea out now. It didn’t work when The Hand took over for Frank Castle in Daredevil’s second season. It didn’t work when Diamondback took over for Cottonmouth on Luke Cage. The potential existed for Elektra’s betrayal to buck the trend.

Unfortunately it didn’t, mainly because Elektra never had proper motivation before, during, or after the murder. Why did she do it? What was her goal? We honestly never know. Elektra mentions the fear of death and need to get the substance allowing The Hand immortality, but why did Alexandra need to die to do this? The subject is never explained. The Defenders never really tries.

It also doesn’t help when the show sapped Elektra’s charisma and leaves her a stone-faced sack of bland. Elodie Yung has done well with this role before; whatever you think of The Hand in Daredevil’s second season, Elektra was not this. She had charm. Her relationship with Matt was a highlight of the series. Why they decided to strip Yung’s charisma away and turn her into a piece of cardboard, I can’t understand.

Source At least it’s not the Smirk of Empowerment?

This leads to the same bland evil making The Hand so damn uninteresting in their previous appearances. We end up with mindless hordes of people to beat up and no real reason to care about them besides whatever connection you ultimately feel towards the Matt/Elektra relationship. Perhaps on a better show their relationship could have continued to pull The Hand out of this boring mire, but not here. Instead it drags Matt down because of the same flaws dooming Elektra’s character and The Hand as a villainous group.

The intimidation factor of The Hand also vanishes with damn near everything we see out of them the second Sowande dies. They lose basically every fight. The Fingers show no cunning or danger. Each of our heroes whips each of their asses at some point. What happened to the dangerous ninjas that used to be The Hand? Remember how frightening it was to watch Nobu in action, ripping Matt apart in that warehouse during Daredevil’s first season? Or the freaky supernatural figures Matt couldn’t even fight because he couldn’t hear their heartbeats?

The Hand became worse with every single appearance. Hopefully they are gone for good this time, or at least long enough to examine just how big an injustice the writing has done them.

The Writing Failing Everyone

Unfortunately, they were not alone in the failures of the writing over the second half of The Defenders. These last four episodes feature questionable moments and dialogue to the point it damn near sinks the show. For some it just might. Dialogue, especially in groups of four or more, becomes nothing more than terribly delivered exposition lacking any personality. Character abilities seem to come and go based on the plot, with the worst example being Matt’s enhanced senses. Everyone seems to insist on secrecy and lack of communication where it makes no sense for anyone involved.

Even worse, the logic of the characters and plot often vanishes. Colleen tells Danny to find superpowered allies at the beginning of the season, but wants them to go it alone once Danny actually finds allies. Karen has always supported and understood Daredevil, yet for some reason she treats Matt like a drug addict for donning the costume. The Hand used the last of the “substance” providing them immortality to bring Elektra back, yet Bakuto is back from his death in Iron Fist.

So much of what happens has wonky logic at best, and nonexistent logic at its worst. The ending stands out most in this regard. Having Jessica, Matt, and Luke break out of prison without everyone immediately realizing Matt is Daredevil is bad. Colleen stealing a bag full of explosives and apparently wiping the security footage of the escape is even worse.

Then there’s the ultimate plan to defeat The Hand itself, involving the destruction of a building collapsing a massive hole beneath New York City. How exactly would this stop a worldwide organization like The Hand, even if the Fingers are dead? Why did setting explosions in one location at the base of the building lead to explosions ripping up the length of it? How did it happen with basically no collateral damage in the nearby neighborhoods? How are none of The Defenders in any legal trouble whatsoever after this? Where exactly was the logic in any of this?


When Matt Murdock’s refusal to leave Elektra behind is the most plausible aspect of the ending, you know the ending had problems.

So much of the consistent strength in the smaller group interactions simply vanishes when the plot kicks into gear. Instead we get half-assed dialogue taking most of the personality from the characters involved and little to no proper motivation or logic. The worries about blending the tone of all these characters rears its head at the ugliest times, as the worst of the shows seems to take over, swallowing everyone else in the process.

The Influence of Iron Fist

I knew going in that Danny Rand would end up the most important of the four Defenders to the plot. As he likes to tell everyone he sees, he is the immortal Iron Fist, whose sworn duty is to destroy The Hand. With The Hand as the villains of the series, he was always going to play a central role in things.

What people hoped would result from sticking him among the three better heroes was the elevation of his character to somewhere near their heights. Instead the feared opposite happened; The Defenders eventually settled on a tone, and it was the tone of the worst show among them.

This shows on multiple levels. Danny takes prominence, shoving his annoying tendencies in our faces without the proper callouts the first four episodes provided. Everything revolves around him. He is the key to the plot of the villains. The heroes act only to protect and rescue him. The Hand becomes the same uninteresting villains they were in Iron Fist. Even the final group fight scene occurs to Wu Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck,” and it’s every bit as jarring as it sounds. The song was purely an Iron Fist touch.

The first half of the season does its best to avoid letting a single show’s feel overtake the others. They couldn’t manage the whole season, though, and it’s a shame to see Iron Fist win out here.

By making Danny so important, The Defenders also increasingly relied on fight scenes that ended up completely disappointing. I brought this up last week, but episodes 7 and 8 showed the absolute worst of it. The end of “Fish in the Jailhouse” features a climactic battle between Jessica, Luke, and Matt against the remaining Fingers of the Hand. It’s an absolute mess of jump cuts, bad effects, and dark lighting meant to disguise terrible choreography. Whoever came up with the idea of Wai Ching Ho (who plays Gao) taking part in a fight scene should have been corrected on the spot.

I was highly optimistic that the Daredevil showrunners would bring their game to the fight scenes of The Defenders. Instead the show barely surpassed Iron Fist’s disappointing fights. You cannot build a show around fight scenes and then botch the fight scenes so badly. Especially not the climactic fight scenes.

It was a shame to see The Defenders flub the ending like this, especially when the reasons were so easily recognizable from the worst of the Marvel Netflix shows. It was everything we feared from Danny Rand’s participation in this show.


Weighing Good and Bad

For all these complaints, though, you know what? The Defenders worked for me. I suppose, as I mentioned last week, it is a matter of expectations. Many will understandably go into this show expecting the best Marvel show yet. They’ve waited years to see these heroes on screen together and have certain expectations. Fair or not, they will despise these flaws far worse than someone like me.

All I wanted was a fun show that delivered on the interactions between all these heroes and their friends. The Defenders gave this to me in spades. For every bit of awkward exposition, I had a scene like Jessica and Matt talking to the daughter of Jessica’s client. In return for the disappointing group fight in episode 7, I had Colleen killing Bakuto. Yeah, I disliked how they blew up the building and defeated The Hand. I accept it because of the powerful scene of the surviving heroes returning to those they love while Karen and Foggy break down at the realization Matt would not walk through that door.

And maybe the influence of Iron Fist and Danny Rand was too strong in the end, but in return I saw hope for a future Luke Cage and Danny Rand show.

The Defenders was always about the characters for me, and they met my expectations far more often than not. It won’t be the best superhero show you see this year. However, The Defenders is a must-see for any fan of Jessica Jones, Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, or Danny Rand.

Images Courtesy of Netflix

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