The Good and Bad of The Defenders
I know this blog is coming a full week after The Defenders has debuted, basically an eternity in internet time, but them’s the breaks of having a Friday morning blog and trying to talk about a series that also came out on a Friday. Still, The Defenders is a pretty big event, the first attempt by Netflix to pull the connected universe move, and it ties in to the Marvel one at that. Now up to this point, Netflix’s Marvel shows were riding an overall positive wave, with the exception of Iron Fist, and even that one was more “meh” than “horrid.” The real challenge was that every character they’d given a series too had a very established tone and style, and putting them all together was going to make it hard to sustain that? Was The Defenders up to that challenge? Well, no. But it was still pretty good.
Fair warning, to talk about The Defenders I’m going to risk diving into spoiler territory. I’ll try to keep it vague, but you’ve officially been warned. With that out of the way, let’s start by talking about the core plot of The Defenders: The Hand wants to use Iron Fist to open a door sealed by an older Iron Fist, behind which is some sort of thing they want. See? Keeping it vague. Now that might make it sound like this show is going to be Iron Fist focused, and that’s true in early parts, but within a few episodes it becomes clear that Iron Fist is more of a plot device than anything, this is really Daredevil’s story above all others. And you know what? I’m good with that. Charlie Cox is a great actor, and Daredevil had an extra season to lay the groundwork for this conflict, as well as create personal stakes.
The bigger problem overall was that I couldn’t help thinking about how much better this would have been as a Daredevil/Iron fist team-up, rather than a full Defenders show. Daredevil and Iron Fist are both martial artists, they both have history of hating The Hand, they play on very similar levels. For them, a room full of ninjas is a serious problem with stakes and tension. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, however, kind of play in a different league. Luke especially is so powerful that the idea of some of these situations being dangerous is kind of laughable, even as you watch it happen.
To give a specific example: early in the show there is a really great scene of Luke “fighting” Iron Fist, by which I mean Iron Fist wails on Luke ineffectually with normal martial arts, mostly doing jack shit except avoiding Luke’s counter-attacks. Only when we’ve spent a good few minutes seeing how powerless Danny Rand is against his enemy does Danny whip out the Iron Fist and knock Luke across the alley. It’s a great scene, a wonderful demonstration in how to make both fighters look strong in their own respects. Yes, Luke is so goddamn tough that even trained fighters can’t touch him, but that also adds to how awesome the Iron Fist is for being able to mess him up. Both men come out looking powerful. So what’s the problem? A few episodes later Luke is getting kicked by henchmen, henchmen, and stumbling back. I’ll even ignore the fact that Luke and Jessica should be knocking mother fuckers through walls, they at least tried to lampshade that part, but there is no circumstance where nameless ninjas should be able to kick around the guy who fucking Iron Fist couldn’t budge without using his power.
That’s sort of Luke and Jessica’s deal in this whole series though. Because the challenge is so tailored to Iron Fist and Daredevil, it feels like they were tacked on superfluously in a lot of segments. Jessica Jones, who arguably had one of the most powerful, character-driven stories of the series so far, gets dialed back to the point where she just delivers surly one-liners from the background and makes occasional jokes about booze. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still great because Kristin Ritter is way past fucking talented, but it is very clear that writing for her was not a priority. Even Luke, who does get some fun scenes with Iron Fist, hopefully foreshadowing Heroes for Hire, has to stay in the background of almost every fight because he should cleaning house and we know it.
I’ve been kind of hard on Defenders so far, but I do think it’s important for you to have an idea of what to expect going in. Still, I think it’s time we started looking at some of the things they did right. One of the best moves of the show was one I didn’t expect: they kept it contained to a very tight timeframe. While I would have loved a long series about them all living their own lives and then linking up on occasion, building that with so many loner characters would have been tough and hard to believe. The way they threw them together made sense: people are trying to kill all of them. They can be together or solo, but mother fuckers are still going to try and cut them down. That’s a good justification for everyone sticking together; self-preservation is a hell of an instinct. And keeping the show in the span of a few days meant there wasn’t time for that kind of alliance to wear thin or fall apart. They were just tossed together, and by the end they’d fought through hell with one another, so we’re willing to accept there’s a kind of bond there.
They also do a nice job weaving in the side characters in small, carefully doled out doses. The show knows we came for the superheroes, but gives us some occasional insights into the mortals at their sides, which actually does serve to add moments of humanity to the frantic pace. Daredevil’s people get the most time, of course, but given the journey that group is on, the time never feels misspent. We’re seeing a man on the precipice, with voices on both sides urging him in their direction, so watching him interact with the ones advocating for a normal life adds a bit of realism to the choice.
At the end of the day, The Defenders did the job it was designed for, in that all of the Netflix Marvel heroes now know about each other and are living in a connected world. I hope that future installments either give some focus to Luke and Jessica, or create a threat where all the heroes have a chance to show what they can really do.
Oh, and one last gripe, this one with a serious spoiler warning before you read the next part: Netflix, you’ve made some of the best villains in the MCU, movies included. Stop killing the best ones midway through the series! Seriously, at least treat it like Jessica Jones and end the season with that shit.