After two years and 5 seasons stretched across 4 separate shows, The Defenders has arrived. The show had a tall task from the beginning; Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are four very different shows of varying quality. Showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez not only have to create a storyline bringing these four together, but reconcile the different styles of each show. After all, the gritty noir feel of Jessica Jones could not be much more different from the mysticism of Iron Fist. The agile, masked Matt Murdock differs just as much from the unmasked powerhouse that is Luke Cage.
So how did The Defenders turn out? Let’s take a look at the first half of the 8-episode season, which primarily focused on bringing these characters together.
Spoilers for the first 4 episodes of The Defenders
If you were hoping our 4 heroes would team up early I’m sorry to tell you that’s not the case. The Defenders uses these first four episodes to methodically build towards the team-up. None of the 4 end up in the same room with any of the others until the end of the second episode, and the four don’t fight together until the end of episode 3. The show takes its time giving fans what they want.
Notice I didn’t say it’s a bad thing.
One of the toughest tasks for this show was always going to be creating a justifiable way for these four to end up together. They are four very different characters with differing experiences and motivations. Danny Rand’s mysticism might as well be gibberish to Luke Cage. Matt Murdock’s selflessness is going to stand at odds with Jessica Jones’s relative selfishness. Danny may fully understand the danger of The Hand. Matt certainly has an understanding. The others have no idea.
So how do you get them on the same page? Even more challenging, how do you do so without sacrificing who these characters are?
The Defenders does a pretty admirable job here. At the expense of pace, it takes time to fully remind the audience who these characters are and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them. Jessica, predictably, wallows in guilt over murdering Kilgrave and sabotages the expanded business available to her because of that action. Matt struggles to keep Daredevil retired and focus on his law career while still mourning Elektra’s death. Luke is released from prison and returns as both Harlem’s and Claire Temple’s hero (and also to get laid). Danny and Colleen hunt down The Hand around the world after they slaughtered the monks at K’un-Lun.
From the beginning The Defenders shows commitment to retaining the personalities and motivations of its heroes. This also shows in its style, as another problem facing The Defenders was blending the styles of its heroes. For the first couple episodes at least, it avoids the problem entirely by giving them each the style we’ve come to know. Matt has his courtrooms and dark reds. Jessica has her noir PI feel and shades of purple. Luke gets his distinctive Harlem flavor. Danny is the only one without a distinctive feel and well, that’s no surprise considering his own show lacked it.
A stronger show results for this effort. I fully understand why each character ends up at Midland Financial. I wouldn’t say their arrivals are all completely natural; Matt only arriving because he was assigned to tail Jessica barely works, and Danny’s “plan” is nonexistent. Luke’s desire for justice for the kid he tried to save, though? It’s exactly what I expect of him.
As far as motivations to team up go, Matt totally would involve himself out of a sense of duty towards New York City. Same with Danny and his sworn vow to destroy The Hand. Jessica’s insistence on helping the family of the man who kills himself in her office? Especially with everyone around her telling to keep out of it? That’s just who Jessica Jones is.
The Defenders never stops allowing its characters full autonomy regarding the eventual fight against The Hand. They don’t change after meeting. No one forces anyone into the fight. When Stick tries to force Jessica (“sit down and shut up!”), she defiantly walks away. She then returns for her own reasons, not for him. They all choose the fight because of their own heroism. Even if they don’t comprehend the full danger ahead of them or believe they are heroes, they do understand the risk to those they love and choose their better sides. They even bring their own strengths and purposes—I, for one, love the use of Jessica’s investigative chops throughout these episodes.
To reinforce this last point, The Defenders brings in a lot of the side cast from the solo shows. Trish and Malcolm remain the stable foundation grounding Jessica. Foggy and Karen continue to stick by Matt, while Stick continues to be the same ruthless old asshole as ever. Misty remains a somewhat reluctant ally of Luke’s, while Colleen tries her best to deal with Danny’s annoyingness.
The chemistry between all these characters can be hit or miss, but I thought it mostly to hit. Jessica and Luke’s history pops off the screen the second they see each other. Matt and Jessica’s combined snark is exactly what I hoped for. While certainly a bit forced, Danny and Luke play off each other better than I hoped. Luke has a thoroughly enjoyable scene attacking Danny’s privilege as a white rich man where he basically voice 75% of the problem with Iron Fist.
It certainly helps when so many actors are cast perfectly and can make the most of even weak material (which they will have to moving forward). Still, the interactions between them all gave me most of what I wanted, and the actors were predictably comfortable in their roles. Even Danny was better, though mostly because The Defenders bothered to address his nonsense in a way his solo show never bothered.
Anyone wondering how these characters would translate while sharing a show, have no fear. The Defenders delivers.
Many also worried about The Hand as the season’s villain. While there are certainly problems to come (which we’ll talk about next week), Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra works quite well throughout these four episodes. She has a real human motivation and a plan centered on achieving that motivation. Her considerable power and influence shine through with each scene. When Madame Gao is damn near subservient to someone, you know they are powerful.
Her connection to Elektra also works fairly well as a type of mother-daughter connection centered around what basically amounts to Elektra’s second birth and childhood. Episode 3, “Worst Behavior,” spends its first 15 minutes on this point. Elektra emerges from her “coffin” very much like a birthed child; covered in bloody goo, unaware of the world, and ready for molding by a parent. She’s basically told what and how to be by The Hand, and Alexandra particularly.
The time spent showing Alexandra mold her also does a solid job establishing the connection between the two, as well as the clear reliance Alexandra has on Elektra to accomplish her goals. The next episode makes clear the connection Alexandra feels both personally and professionally to Elektra. Elektra’s initial hints of connection to her previous life also take place, creating an intriguing tension moving forward. Maybe others disagree, but these episodes did wonders to rehab my image of The Hand and their potential as villains.
Mostly, what makes The Hand work in these 4 episodes is the limited use. Where Iron Fist and the second season of Daredevil overexposed the organization to the point of annoyance, The Defenders holds back. We get glimpses of the plan, the characters behind it, and we’re introduced to 4 of the 5 fingers of The Hand. It’s a shame the show doesn’t maintain this sparse use moving forward. For now, though, I found myself surprised by how much I liked the first glimpse of the villains.
For all these strengths, though, some clear weaknesses mar the first half of The Defenders. The dialogue is often extremely forced and clunky. I love Colleen Wing, but her “maybe we could find some allies” speech to Danny was stunningly ham-fisted. Other moments do much the same, with characters awkwardly providing exposition. Some lines are just terrible, and you can tell the actors aren’t sure what to do with them.
(Side note: What the hell was going on with Alexandra’s outfits? I’m certainly no fashion expert but holy crap. Is this what ultra-rich leaders of ancient cults wear?)
Another…not quite surprising but disappointing aspect is the fight scenes. Considering showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez came from Daredevil, I expect a higher standard of choreography and cinematography. Constant jump cuts ruin the flow from the very beginning and obviously exist to cover up actors who plain can’t fight. Previously known limitations stand out quite a bit here. It’s not a huge issue whether Krysten Ritter can fight or not in Jessica Jones. The fighting doesn’t matter and doesn’t feature much.
Unfortunately, the fighting does matter for The Defenders, so we have the same issue Iron Fist has, where the ability of the heroes to beat the villains suffers believability issues because of the mediocre to bad fight scenes covering up for the actors. Finn Jones was definitely better than in Iron Fist, but the action was still too jumpy. Though the first fight scene featuring all the heroes, at the end of “Worst Behavior,” was pretty good.
Unfortunately, these kinds of problems carried over from Iron Fist and you can’t help but wonder how much the need to inject him into the story affected everything else.
Another part that’s hard to reconcile is how little actually happens within these 4 episodes. After a second watch, I couldn’t help but feel like cuts needed to be made to squeeze this down to 3. When I try to figure out what exactly needed to be cut, though, I find it difficult. No scene feels unnecessary, especially after I spent so much of this review praising the work put into each of the characters.
Maybe they could have met up earlier before separating again. Maybe episodes 4 and 5 could have been blended together instead of making 2 different episodes. “The Royal Dragon” is definitely the easiest of these episodes to find bloat in. The episode shoves the four heroes (and Stick) into a restaurant and basically has them explain who they are, what they can do, and what’s going on with The Hand. Danny is at his worst regarding forced bonding with the others. If you’re looking for content to squeeze out, “The Royal Dragon” seems the easiest place to start.
Then again, the episode is full of the kind of interaction The Defenders was created for. The reunion between Jessica and Luke, the planted seeds of partnership between Luke and Danny, Matt’s anger at Stick, the connections between Matt and Danny, the interplay of knowledge between them. It all makes for the kind of stuff we always wanted from the show. Jessica’s snark in the face of all the mysticism never ceases to entertain me.
Considering how hard I’m finding it to name needed cuts, I can’t overly blame the people who made the show for including everything they did.
There’s also still the problem of blending the different styles of each solo show. While the first 3 episodes mostly avoided it, you can’t keep avoiding it when these characters begin spending a lot of time around each other. You see a glimpse of this with the Midland Financial fight in “Worst Behavior”. I love Run the Jewels. I will turn down very few opportunities to listen to them. Unfortunately, an RTJ song did not feel right for the first big fight scene featuring the entire Defenders team. It felt like the kind of thing Iron Fist and no one else would do, which made it a bit strange.
The Defenders most certainly has problems. I’ve seen my share of mixed reaction to the show since it hit Netflix, and I can’t fully disagree with many of the issues within the negative ones. Many of these problems reach their peak in the season’s second half, which I will cover next week.
Overall, though The Defenders did its job with these episodes. It gave me more of the characters I love (and Danny), it remained true to their characters, and it brought them together in a way I liked. I had fun. Don’t go in expecting another Daredevil or Jessica Jones, and you’ll probably have fun, too.
If nothing else, it gave us Krysten Ritter teaching Charlie Cox how to knit.
Images Courtesy of Netflix and a bunch of wonderful Tumblr users