Much like their cinematic counterparts, the Marvel produced Netflix shows have been barreling towards a shared universe since their inception. Beginning with Daredevil in April of 2015, the collective has seen five total seasons of TV dedicated to the four members of the Defenders, with the latest being our introduction to Iron Fist in March of this year. While the majority of the universe has garnered commercial and critical praise, with the first season of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all being seen as well made shows, a lot of what plagued the much maligned Iron Fist, along with the major pitfalls of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), crept into the eight part Defenders mini series, keeping it from being the coup viewers, and Marvel alike, were hoping it would be.
(**Mild Spoiler throughout, you have been warned!**)
The Defenders have a Danny Rand problem
Every team is bound to have a hierarchy, both thematically and technically, otherwise the adage “you’re only a strong as your weakest link” would be another garbage cliche. There’s a reason that Hawkeye from the Avengers won’t ever get his own film and is a constant, often self deprecating, punchline for his overall ineffectiveness. So, when Iron Fist came out earlier this year, underwhelming people before it was even released, it brought into question how the overall chemistry of the Defenders was going to work. Sadly, this mini-series doubles down on the importance of the Immortal Iron Fist.
The Defenders almost feels like a de facto sequel series to Iron Fist, whose deficiencies I wrote about at length already. Picking up not long after Iron Fist deals a massive blow to the all powerful, shadowy bogeyman organization, The Hand, we pick up with Danny and his kickass, samurai girlfriend(?), Colleen Wing, running through the sewers of Cambodia. For people, myself included, that still haven’t gotten that bad Iron Fisty taste out of their mouth, opening up on the odds on least favorite Defender isn’t the best way to start. And it only gets worse.
Say what you will about the MCU overall, a lot of it success hinges on how people feel about Tony Stark/Iron Man. Being the catalyst for the formation of the Avengers put him in a unique position and magnifies the importance of his chemistry with his teammates. This unintentional role can be great, Iron Man being the first and possibly still the best MCU movie, but also detrimental, as was the case with Avengers: Age of Ultron, which underwhelmed in part by being essentially Iron Man 4. Having Iron Fist in this role, his dealings with the Hand being the main plot driver and his lynchpin role in terms of the Defenders as a team, seems like the wrong way to go.
What about the Team?
Luckily for all of us, the Defenders are much more than just Iron Fist, and the rest of the roster have all had great success in their own Netflix series. Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage fill out the rest of the roster and bring all the best parts of themselves to the team. We catch up with everyone after the ends of their respective shows, bringing the overall timeline into question but only if you think about it too much. Each of them feels like they’re hesitant to return to their crime fighting ways, particularly Daredevil, who actually has the most compelling arc throughout the show.
Echoing a lot of the beats of The Dark Knight rises, we meet a Matt Murdock, still reeling from the death of Elektra in season two of Daredevil, throwing himself wholly into his pro bono law practice. Having hung up the horns and billy clubs, Matt still finds himself tempted to return to his vigilante ways, fighting it like a junkie and hiding his temptation from his closest friends. The shows gives us a lot to think about with Matt before shifting quickly to Luke Cage returning to Harlem after his stint in prison after turning himself in at the end of his first season. Rewarding patient fans, and Rosario Dawson’s Claire alike, Luke and Claire finally get to have that “coffee” they’ve been talking about.
The most curious, and ultimately most integral reintroduction is that of Jessica Jones. Always hesitant to use her powers, much less call herself a hero, Jessica is approached about taking a missing persons case almost as soon as she even thinks about returning to the private investigation practice. While initially shrugging off what in her mind is clearly a simple cheating husband situation, her interest is piqued after a phone call telling her to drop the case comes through minutes after she’s made aware of it.
With disparate motivations and various levels of interest, a team is formed around a common enemy. While the approach is far from revolutionary and the makeup of the team hits all major cliches, the Defenders feel fractured from the drop. With Matt and his alter ego the most weathered and weary, Luke in a position of duty and honor and Jessica just trying to finish a job, all plotlines point back to Danny Rand to drive and that’s where the cracks start to show.
Everybody Hates Danny
There’s a fine line between annoying and endearing. Think Luke Skywalker for all of Star Wars and the majority of Empire. It’s a line that can’t really be pushed by a narrative as much as a performance and much like he came across in Iron Fist, Finn Jones still feels miscast as Danny Rand. Whatever clarity or focus he was hoped to have gained has yet to make itself apparent and that annoyance is on display with all of his teammates. The fact that he comes to blows with everyone, particularly after being the one pushing for a team up, I’m sure is meant to show passion but ends up feeling forced. The only thing worse is the crippling of the major character develop his partner Colleen underwent in order to have her parrot everything Danny says.
Luke Cage, accurately, accuses Danny of white privilege and his misuse of his gifts, mystical or not. Matt Murdock, accurately, challenges his understanding of the Hand and his dedication to the city of New York. And Jessica Jones is just annoyed with him from the outset, although she might not be the best barometer of patience, so Danny gets a pass on this one. What’s clear though is that, if not for the Hand’s constant attempt to abduct Iron Fist to put in motion their murky evil plans, there would really be no need for the group to stay together at all.
I understand that might seem obvious and sound like nerdy nitpicking instead of legitimate criticism but from the point of view of the audience, it is entirely possible for their to have been a scenario where the Defenders, sans Iron Fist, would have banned together with the sole intention of kicking weird ninja ass, particularly after the resurrection of a certain someone. At the very least, I could see Luke Cage and Jessica Jones finding each other, which would make for some compelling, if not awkward, catch-up. These ideas and motivation being what they are makes the decision to form a story around the importance of the Iron Fist even more mind boggling.
The H Word
The success of any superhero movie or show is the strength of its villains. The Defenders universe, by virtue of its cast, has a built in baddie in the Hand, an organization so large and indirect that you could literally have them helm any nefarious plot. The introduction of Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra, the leader of the Hand goes a long way to lending some gravitas to the cabal and adding to a cast of returning Hand member. With Madame Gao, who has appeared in multiple Marvel Netflix series, returning and Bakudo, yet another “Meh” reminder of the constantly underwhelming Iron Fist, we’re introduced to gun running Sowande and Japanese survivalist Murakami, all of whom make up the Five Finger of the Hand.
The Hand plays a huge part in both season of Daredevil, and for the most part are portrayed as basically murderous zombie ninjas. Although, and I promise I’m not trying to constantly shit on Iron Fist but… Iron Fist took a bit of the mystical influence out of the Hand, enmeshing them with corporate espionage. This isn’t unfamiliar territory, having shown this multifaceted machine of evil in the first season of Daredevil, but their actual plan this time around is a little bit scattershot.
I know I said spoilers up top, and while I’ve been pretty vague with direct plot lines so far, and what I’m about to talk about should be widely known, if you haven’t watched the Defenders yet, skip to the next section.
Having Elektra come back isn’t a surprise. You need her to have Daredevil buy in and it makes sense within the narrative overall but there’s this constant threat of the Hand leveling New York, the major call to action that galvanizes the gang but never really seems imminent. There was the initial earthquake, which I believe we are to assume is either linked to Elektra’s resurrection or just Hand based resurrections (not a euphemism) in general, which again, didn’t make a lot of sense.
Then there’s the mystical door, inextricably buried 300 feet underneath New York city that’s protecting a substance (dragon bones) that the Hand use in their resurrection baths? Or is it a portal back to K’un-Lun, the magical homeland that assume made Danny Rand as annoying as he is, particularly since the only reason he’s kept alive is that he’s the only person who can open it.
It’s also implied that harvesting the aforementioned dragon bones will essentially weaken the foundation of the entirety of New York city so much that it will all just collapse, again bringing into question why they would be behind a door you’d ever let be opened. It just feels unfocused and like it’s trying too hard to incorporate all the Defender’s individual story lines, while only vaguely succeeding at furthering Daredevil’s and Iron Fist’s. Maybe this is meant to show the power of the Defenders, a team that comes together and defeats and centuries old cabal over the course of a weekend, but I’m left scratching my head.
The Defenders overall left me wanting a whole lot more and not in a good way. Sure, the eight episode mini-series restricted a plot that felt rushed and empty, but the format of a series overall brought with it some unnecessary baggage. The writers felt the constant need to remind you of every team member’s reasons for fighting, going as far to literally gather them all together in a room. This is the difficulty with adapting street level heroes, over half of whom don’t have secret identities to begin with.
An unintended consequence of this is that our two strongest non-title characters, Colleen and Claire, spend almost their entire time on screen talking about “their men.” Having spent almost all of Iron Fist showing the growth of Colleen and the entire lead up to the Defenders with Claire, the fact that this series almost wholly wipes it all the character development away in eight one hour episodes is a tragedy.
Bringing back Elektra as an… adversary(?) worked well, and really beefed up the Daredevil portion of this mini-series, which I think was clearly the most developed and thought out portion. Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock feels like the best actor in the crew and shows it with his delivery and constant struggle with the choices he makes. Krysten Ritter is again pitch perfect but, as Jessica Jones constantly reminds everyone, she just wants to get the job done. The reluctant hero schtick does get old but luckily not to the point of being annoying. And that’s where Iron Fist comes in.
I know, I know, I should just get over it already and you already know I don’t like the character’s portrayal, but he’s very clearly the weakest link, which is strange because he’s arguably the most powerful team member. And, while at times I find Mike Colter as Luke Cage to be a little stiff in his delivery, no one seems as out of place as Finn Jones as Danny Rand. Interestingly though, when we’re treated to the mentor relationship Luke forms with Danny, those moments are where they’re both most endearing. Comic nerds will surely be familiar with the Heroes for Hire book that most often stars the Iron Fist/Luke Cage team up and that might have been a good place to go before a full blown Defenders throwdown.
The Defenders isn’t all bad and my geeky hypercriticism comes from a place of love. I wanted this show to be as successful and appealing as the first Avengers was. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Marvel TV shows and think that some of their best work in on display in their Netflix properties. Like I mentioned before Krysten Ritter is awesome and steals almost every scene she’s in and ended up being the most consistent and enjoyable part of the show. She really sees how silly this whole team up nonsense is but never let’s that get in the way of her motivation.
Mike Colter as Luke Cage still just feels a bit robotic at times but he’s just so damn genuine about everything that you can’t help but thank him for canceling out the Danny Rand parts. I do hope that Danny or Matt give Luke and Jessica some martial arts lessons because they both make the fight scenes, which again are staffed on the bad guys side with literal ninjas, seem slow and choppy. Pairing brawlers with finesse fighters can make for some strangely shot scenes but the action wasn’t ever really a problem.
The problem was trying to do to much and coming out the other end without much to show for it. But when you compare the sheer amount of screen time and backstory for each of these characters when compared to their silver screen equivalents, it’s not as easy as just bringing an invading army of aliens through a portal in the sky to get a team together. An actress of Sigourney Weaver’s caliber feels a bit wasted in a show that never really figured out how to use her, taking the initial power she projected and siphoning it off unceremoniously. Villains come and villains go though so now that they’ve gotten through the awkward getting-to-know-you phase and each respective character is re-energized to get back to fighting crime in their own way, maybe the next throw down will be a bit smoother. And hopefully by that time, they’ll have figured out what to do with Iron Fist.