‘The Defenders’ Review: Marvel’s Super Team-Up (Almost) Avenges ‘Iron Fist’
There’s no small irony in Iron Fist packing the least punch of Marvel’s four Netflix series, and its sluggish setup crystallized flaws in the other three. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones dragged longer than their villains could carry, and Luke Cage likewise struggled to keep its unique perspective fresh through 13 episodes. The Defenders should theoretically punch past those obstacles with known enemies and a crisp eight-episodes, but it has trouble amounting to more than the sum of its parts.
It’s been at least several months since Iron Fist’s finale (though really, who can tell with these crisscrossing timelines?). Matt Murdock keeps his Daredevil suit locked away as he flourishes in pro-bono work, but he still struggles with the urge to bloody his knuckles on any thug within earshot. Luke Cage emerges from prison with his past finally behind him – eager to resume cleaning up Harlem – but bristles at Claire and Misty’s suggestion he find other, more meaningful work. Meanwhile, Danny Rand plays jet-setting ninja and Jessica Jones – who we’ve missed most of all – returns relatively unchanged; free of Kilgrave, but still drinking and pushing away anyone who wants to help her.
That need to check in and update on every character keeps the early Defenders hours feeling exactly like four different series stitched together; linked by transitions that almost literally switch lens filters to reflect the noir blues of Jessica’s investigation or the golden hues of Luke’s hip-hop tinged return to Harlem. It isn’t until The Hand’s, uh, handiwork brings Danny face-to-face with Luke in the process of rescuing one of Harlem’s native sons that these different crime fighters start to clash in interesting ways.
And like The Avengers, Marvel’s Netflix team-up has its most fun shooting sparks between characters as they become reluctant allies. Luke and Danny create some of the most dynamic visuals, between Danny’s punches bouncing off Luke in one scene, or the two standing back-to-back against a hail of bullets in another. Another thought-provoking moment sees Luke dress Danny down* over his white billionaire privilege. Their rich comic history is well-represented, and Matt and Jessica share some delightful exchanges too, with her acerbic indifference blending nicely with Matt’s stern optimism. There’s inventive chemistry bursting from every scene, though it will test your patience when The Defenders takes an hour to introduce it.
(*The Defenders was in production long before Iron Fist premiered, but there’s definitely some attempt at character rehab for Danny Rand. You can see the wheels turning in his head as Luke forces Danny to rethink his perspective on crime, and Finn Jones brings a much clearer sense of joy to his new partnerships by the fourth hour.)
The Defenders is also burdened by the need to take two series’ forgettable ninja villains and transmute them to one compelling threat. Enter Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, who rolls all the vague mysticism and real-estate drama into one earth-shaking scheme that reaches from Jessica’s office to the young men of Harlem, and even the vanished K’un L’un. Weaver is exactly the caliber of cultured and icy presence you want for a role that crucial, even if Alexandra still follows the franchise’s basic archetype of affluent figures with mysterious pasts pulling the strings. The need for a physical threat falls more to Elodie Yung’s resurrected Elektra (faceless ninjas will only take you so far), though the early hours mainly treat this previously well-rounded character as an emotional bombshell for Matt.
I’ll be honest: It’s hard to get a sense of any one specific tone from the first four episodes of what’s supposed to be an eight-episode event (let alone an event that doesn’t pair any of the title characters until two hours in). Bits and pieces of the things you love are well-represented, like Jessica putting on accents to chase down leads, or Matt parkouring through the most mundane scenarios. Less-beloved staples like Danny squawking about mystical destiny in corporate settings are back with a vengeance as well, but at least other characters treat him like the “thundering dumbass” he is. You can see a sort of family dynamic taking root over Jessica and Luke’s refusal to acknowledge their “hero” labels, or Matt’s unwillingness to treat their union as more than a confluence of damaged loners. Ironically, it’s Danny’s enthusiasm that makes The Defenders really start to come alive.
We still don’t know what the future of this franchise holds beyond second or third seasons. Marvel TV has raised concerns with recent flops like Iron Fist and The Inhumans, and Defenders might make the best case for a sharper vision in whatever colorful team-up comes next. The Defenders’ potential is there, especially as the fourth episode starts to let these characters crackle against another, but if there’s one aspect of this franchise with no defenders, it’s that punishing pace.
AND ANOTHER THING …
- Supporting cast like Foggy, Karen, Claire, Misty Knight and Trish Walker are all around as well, but its Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing and Scott Glenn’s Stick who play the largest roles.
- Conversely, we’re only given faint hints of what Mariah and Shades are up to, while poor Ward Meachum is off on a business trip, presumably flipping off everything in sight.
- I cannot describe to you the depth of ludicrous parkour and stair-jumping Matt does for no reason.
- There’s finally a bit of context to the Hand’s goals and some implied purpose for the “Black Sky,” but darn it all, if I still don’t know what super-heroin had to do with it.
- The writers still have absolutely no idea what corporations and CEOs do.
- If you were wondering: Yes, Luke and Jessica absolutely take time to catch up.
- Scott Glenn makes everything better.
- “Who missed me?”
All eight episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders will debut for streaming on Netflix on Friday, August 18 at 12AM PST / 3AM EST.
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