Spoilers for season 1 of The Defenders incoming.
After years of waiting since the initial announcement was made, The Defenders has come and gone. It took five seasons over four shows to set up the superhero crossover series and at a mere 8 episodes it was a quick binge. Reactions from fans and critics alike are mixed with the show being considered a worthwhile watch but never getting close to the heights of Daredevil, Jessica Jones or Luke Cage while also never reaching the lows of Iron Fist’s debut season. I myself have mixed opinions on the series and instead of a more general review, which would end with me saying my opinions coalesce into a big dollop of ‘meh’, I’d thought I should separate my warring opinions into two separate articles, one focusing on the good and the other the bad of the Netflix show.
Iron Fist/Luke Cage dynamic
While the Netflix Iron Fist show does have its fans, and I didn’t hate it as much as most, it’s safe to say it was the worst of the Marvel shows. Previously hamstrung by bad writing and general stupidity, Danny Rand is a vastly improved character in The Defenders with a more humorous approach and more ‘fisting’ for lack of a better term. Sure, as at one-point Stick says, he’s still at times a “thundering dumbass” but his time with the titular team of heroes has transformed him from simply tolerable to genuinely likable. When with the team, primarily Luke Cage, he is more laid back and a joy to watch; his incessant need to tell everyone he is the ‘Iron Fist’ is played for laughs and yet the joke is never pushed too far, his relationship with Colleen feels more natural and Finn Jones proves he can actually look convincing in the action scenes. His back and forth with Luke Cage is the highlight with an unlikely friendship growing from the initial animosity and while I do want to see at least one more season of both Luke Cage and Iron Fist I would love to see both of them team up for a ‘Heroes for Hire’ series like in the comics.
Out of all the Netflix Marvel shows Jessica Jones was my favourite, challenged only by Daredevil season 1, with Krysten Ritter’s pitch perfect performance being a big reason why. It’s no surprise then that Jessica was one of my favourite parts of The Defenders with the show highlighting that she is by far the most intelligent of the team and the most reluctant to join the squad. The show treats Jessica well for its first half, giving her an investigation and conspiracy to uncover while also being able to easily discover Matt Murdock’s alter ego. Her investigation into the different companies, and aliases, The Hand has been using over the centuries was one of my favourite sequences in the series with the cold colour scheme making it feel like a David Fincher movie. For the second half of the season however Jessica is merely along for the ride, only coming into play when an elevator needs catching or a snarky comment needs verbalising; she just doesn’t fit with the larger supernatural/metaphysical elements of the series but she was the highlight of the first four episodes.
Madame Gao/Infighting within The Hand
The Hand wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in The Defenders with a boring goal and underdeveloped villains but this is the positive article so I do want to mention that I liked seeing the infighting among the ranks. While brief and glossed over, I liked hearing about the backstory of The Hand and the attempted coup d’état that Madame Gao had been involved in years earlier. In Iron Fist, we saw the antagonism between Gao and Bakuto and I like that it continued here with Gao being one of the most interesting characters in the MCU and with her ‘force-like’ abilities she is a speech impediment away from becoming evil Yoda. I had hoped for her to be the primary antagonist in Iron Fist but that show didn’t know what it was doing and so my hopes turned for a Gao focused Defenders but that wasn’t to be with Sigourney Weaver’s underserved Alexandra taking centre stage. Maybe one-day Gao will be given the screen time and importance she deserves, if she survived a collapsing skyscraper that is, but she was still the most interesting baddie of the season.
The fourth episode, titled ‘Royal Dragon’, was exactly what I wanted from The Defenders; maybe it’s just because of my penchant for bottle episodes but I thought the episode was damn near perfect. After the team meet in episode 3 during the now required corridor fight scene, episode 4 catches up with them hunkering down in a Chinese restaurant. This is where they truly get to know each other, creating unmistakable chemistry with small character moments and pooling their knowledge. Stick arrives to fill in The Defenders, in a way that Scott Glenn owns, as arguments and jokes fill the restaurant and mask the exposition. Jessica leaves to do some more great sleuthing, returning to throw a car through a wall at the right moment, joining the team and dispatching Elektra. The episode is the combination of the story and character work of the first half of the season and is far and away the high point of the season which gets muddled and convoluted in its second half.
Keeping the feel of the standalone shows
When crossing over multiple series there is a chance that the tones and general feel of the separate shows will get lost in the mix resulting in a congealed mess. While I do think this comes very close to happening in the final few episodes, the show’s first half keeps the feel of the original shows. Colour is obviously used to denote which character’s ‘world’ we are currently privy to; red for Daredevil, cool blues for Jessica Jones (my personal favourite), yellow for Luke Cage and green for Iron Fist. It’s not just colour though, the writing and directing (by S.J Clarkson) is on point during the first couple of episodes with the series actually feeling like it is four different shows in one gradually coming together. Later the directing feels uninspired but early on the show feels like everyone involved is trying to make The Defenders seem like the event television we were hoping it would be.
What did you like about The Defenders? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and videogames on Twitter @kylebrrtt.