Marvel + Netflix’s The Defenders | August 18, 2017
This past Friday, Netflix dropped all 8 episodes of its Marvel crossover series The Defenders. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are all finally together. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no. Honestly, I’m leaning more towards the “no” at this point. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the Marvel programs that Netflix has adapted (yes, even Iron Fist). Each individual series with these characters told a fully fleshed out story. We learned more about them with each passing episode.
The major plot-lines also became more interconnected with each passing series. In season 2 of Daredevil, we learned more about The Hand, a shadowy organization that has ultimate control over New York City. In Iron Fist, The Hand gets fleshed out a little more. We learn that there are different factions of The Hand, and they all have different ideas on how to control their strongholds. It added a new layer to the villains and made The Hand more interesting. In fact, The Hand was downright scary sometimes – a foe that seemed nearly impossible to defeat. That’s one main reason why The Defenders simply doesn’t work. The Hand has been neutered here.
When The Defenders begins, we basically play catch up with our characters for about 2 and a half episodes. There’s nothing wrong with catching the viewer up on where our characters are, but in an 8-episode run, it wastes too much time getting the gang together. Matt Murdock is working as a pro-bono lawyer and dealing with the guilt of Elektra’s death. Jessica Jones is trying to get her investigation business back up and running. Luke Cage gets out of jail and reconnects with Claire. Danny Rand is hunting down The Hand overseas when he learns that New York is in imminent danger. All four start to investigate The Hand after the entire city starts to quake. Their curiosity leads them to each other, but they don’t all come together until the end of the third episode.
Unfortunately, the main reason for getting excited about The Defenders is also the main reason why it doesn’t completely gel. The characters were more interesting in their individual shows (yes, again, even Iron Fist). That’s not to say there aren’t great moments. Luke and Danny have plenty of bonding moments, as do Jessica and Matt. They all definitely have chemistry. The problem with The Defenders is the story.
After all the buildup in Daredevil and Iron Fist, the master plan of The Hand is to … get … dragon bones? Apparently, The Hand’s key members have survived for centuries by ingesting “the substance” – a life-extending serum that comes from mythical long-gone dragons. The last of the remaining substance was used to revive Elektra and turn her into the Black Sky. The Hand has apparently found more of the substance under New York City (explaining the giant hole from Daredevil season 2). For a pretty terrifying criminal syndicate, this plan seems awfully hokey and out of place.
Leading this master plan is Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra. She is the leader of The Hand. We learn that she and the four other leaders of The Hand (including Madame Gao and Bakuto) were once all residents of K’un-Lun, the mystical city that was introduced in Iron Fist. Alexandra and the rest defected from K’un-Lun after seeking to become immortal. Seeing the five leaders of The Hand together is a nice reveal, but then they start talking to one another.
Madame Gao has been a fierce and cold foe for Daredevil and Iron Fist. In The Defenders, Gao comes across as worried, small, and borderline insignificant. Sigourney Weaver does a fine job as Alexandra, but she lacks a sense of brutality and menace that The Hand had projected before. All the top members of The Hand come across as squabbling children in The Defenders. Conflict among faction leaders can be infinitely entertaining (look at Game of Thrones), but the conflict that Alexandra instigates just seems out of place. It shows The Hand as extremely vulnerable, which is the polar opposite as to how they’ve been portrayed in the previous series’. It makes the villains look easy to defeat, which is never good for suspense.
Before Alexandra can even become a truly menacing foe, she is cut down by Elektra. The following two episodes with Elektra in charge manages to diminish The Hand’s villain status even further. In the beginning of The Defenders, Elektra has no memories of who she was before. Before she kills Alexandra, she apparently remembers all about Matt and the relationship they had. Elektra’s motivations after this moment fail to make any sense. She even says out loud that she no longer serves anyone but herself. Although she still decides to trick Danny into opening a magic doorway in order to get more of “the substance”, it just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Iron Fist kept the rules of K’un-Lun and Danny’s full power under wraps, for the most part. In The Defenders, the rules seem to change on the spot.
This brings me to my other gripe about squabbling in The Defenders. It takes a long time (all 8 episodes, really) for the team to come together. The main issue with the core four is that they don’t trust one another. I can understand Jessica, Luke, and Danny being mad at Matt for not disclosing his personal feelings towards Elektra. Their disbelief in their circumstances, however, is a lot harder to swallow. The four of them succumb to “LOST” level of denial. In LOST, characters literally traveled through time, but still found it hard to believe in the magic island they resided on.
Danny has a magic fist, Jessica has super strength, Luke is bullet proof, and Matt is a blind ninja. Even with all this, it remains a constant struggle for the characters to believe that they’re fighting a mystical battle. It got tiresome after the 10th time Jessica Jones scoffed at something “unbelievable”. The more the show went on, the more I actually wanted the core four characters to split up from one another. Even when they fight The Hand together, the result was underwhelming.
They really only come face to face with The Hand, as a team, in the third episode and the eighth. There are some minor fights here and there, but nothing comes close to the combat that we know this type of show is capable of. There’s no standout sequence like the Daredevil hallway scene. The fight scenes are strangely edited, and besides a few creative punches and body slams, there wasn’t much to get excited about with the combat. I don’t understand how there isn’t a quintessential “fighting as a team” moment in this show. Even when the moment is attempted, it fell flat.
With all that said, there are some bright spots. Haters of Iron Fist might enjoy Danny Rand a bit more in The Defenders. He is still stupidly naive, but he has more of a drive and purpose in The Defenders. I can’t say good enough things about the actors. They’re all pretty great here. Even the supporting characters like Foggy, Karen Page, Misty, and Claire all have their little moments. If anything, it’s great to see the supporting characters from this shared universe interact. They are connected by their “what did we get ourselves into” attitude. The characters here are pretty good, but they are constantly bogged down by the story.
The story also feels strangely small for how much build up there was. I think we all expected The Hand to have some insane master plan that would be hugely detrimental and have some weight to it. Basically, we received a plot that almost entirely takes place at Midland Circle, the home base for The Hand. Jessica Jones and Daredevil made Manhattan feel real, and Luke Cage brought Harlem to life. The Defenders takes place mostly on different sets. It just feels small. There’s no final epic battle. There is a “sacrifice”, but anyone with a brain could see the Batman vs Superman ending coming a mile away.
I really wanted to love The Defenders, but I just couldn’t ignore its many flaws. Everyone knows that the first season of Iron Fist was hugely flawed, but it at least tried to tell a new story. It did actually add layers to this universe, whether you hated Danny Rand or not. The Defenders fails to add anything new or special to the universe. If anything, I found it to be the most boring Marvel Netflix program to date. That’s one thing I absolutely was not expecting to feel from The Defenders. A mash-up like this should never be boring. Maybe if they all cross paths again, the stakes can be raised a little bit. Here’s hoping.