No spoilers that weren’t already apparent in the trailers.
Show: The Defenders
Created by: Douglas Petrie, Marco Ramirez
Genre: Superhero / drama
The Rule of Three, I guess. The Hand was by far the worst part of “Daredevil’s” second season. The mysterious ninja organization played a key role in “Iron Fist,” and we all remember how that turned out. The Hand is also the driving force and primary antagonist in “The Defenders,” Netflix’s long-awaited crossover miniseries featuring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s four street-level heroes. Oh boy.
“The Defenders” might not reach the considerable lows of “Iron Fist,” but it’s still an infuriatingly inconsistent letdown that largely fails to challenge its considerable cast or provide a remotely meaningful payoff for longtime fans. That’s an agonizing summary to write, because there’s no doubt that when “The Defenders” clicks, it offers some of the best moments of super powered television since this whole Marvel Cinematic Universe thing began a decade ago. Really. There are moments of brilliance, humor and wonderful fan service here, and when it’s all said and done, “The Defenders” could’ve—and should’ve—been so much more.
There’s no shortage of grievances to be had here, but let’s begin with some of the show’s better aspects. From tone to wit, each of the four protagonists’ opening scenes are faithful to their origin shows and feel like solid progressions from where each of their last seasons ended. There’s plenty to enjoy in each of the main characters’ introductions, but Matthew Murdock’s (Charlie Cox, whose performance is generally exceptional throughout) is undeniably the best.
Matt’s struggles with the fallout from “Daredevil’s” second season are given appropriate attention and though the screenwriters for both “Daredevil” and “The Defenders” seem hellbent on making Murdock’s life as miserable as possible, at least it results in some fairly fantastic drama. Though Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Luke Cage (Mike Coulter) are more or less bystanders throughout the season—“The Defenders” is primarily a sequel to “Daredevil” and “Iron Fist,” make of that what you will—their reluctance at being roped into the central conflict is natural enough to forgive.
While Jessica’s alcoholism is unfortunately played off for a few cheap jokes, Ritter still largely nails the performance and her character’s aggressive sarcasm and apathy help keep things grounded. Coulter’s appearance as Cage is unexpectedly the weakest of the four protagonists: He’s uninspired, one-dimensional and practically the only reason bullets are used in the show is to demonstrate Cage’s unbreakable skin. We get it, but even as the low point, Coulter’s performance is never so lacking to actively annoy.
Of course, one of the most interesting cases is the return of Elektra Natchios (Élodie Yung), whose formal introduction is genuinely tragic. She’s a damned soul, and an episode’s cold open that illustrates her rebirth into the Hand is a truly emotional sequence. It goes a long way to invest viewers into the character, which makes the complete lack of payoff—both for Elektra’s character arc and the season as a whole—all the more painful.
But, we’re still talking positives. On the subject of main characters, “The Defenders'” most pleasant surprise is Finn Jones’ Iron Fist. Jones’ work here is leagues beyond his portrayal of Danny Rand in his debut show earlier this year. Though fans might still be divided over the MCU’s portrayal of Rand as a youthful quasi-idiot, Jones nonetheless brings a remarkable amount of confidence and liveliness to the character that was sorely missing before. I’d even dare to say that at times, he’s fairly badass and if anything, Jones’ performance in “The Defenders” should spark some hope for the second season of “Iron Fist” and confirms that the axing of Scott Buick as that show’s creator was the best news out of this year’s Comic-Con.
And then there’s Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra. You might recall several prerelease interviews where Weaver described her character less as an antagonist and more of an adversary. That turns out to be half-true. Alexandra definitely isn’t an antagonist, but she’s certainly not an adversary, either. Her character is utterly wasted: Alexandra does absolutely nothing other than wearing increasingly weird outfits, say “My child” a lot and flatly deliver some Wilson Fisk-esque lines that intend to intimidate, but fail to do that or elicit any other emotional response.
Alexandra is as bland as the Hand has ever been in these shows and the script’s criminal neglect of her completely obscures any presence Weaver could’ve brought to the character. She’s quite possibly one of the franchise’s worst villains, which is really saying something, when you consider that Malekith, Whiplash and Diamondback coexist in this cinematic universe.
Of course, the real stars of the show are the Defenders, and like “The Avengers,” the joy is watching a team of dysfunctional heroes try to work together.
Although it takes some time for the Defenders to actually start defending anything, the first action scene featuring the show’s four protagonists is pure nerd bliss. It might not be as raw or serious as the acclaimed fisticuffs in “Daredevil,” but the score, choreography and dialogue are still wonderfully on-point and as far as sheer comic book goodness goes, it simply can’t be beat. The episode that focuses on the team learning more about one another is nearly as entertaining, and there’s plenty of fun to be had watching the reluctant heroes be forced to work together.
After that, “The Defenders” falls flat on its face and never recovers. Severe logic gaps, twists that create more questions than answers, repetitive and dull character development and far too many cases of Roger Ebert’s “idiot plot” plague the entire second half the season and near completely kill the enjoyment.
It’s a stark and thoroughly disappointing transition from “The Defenders” largely great first four episodes. While the Netflix MCU shows have been criticized for increasingly uneven quality as each season progressed, most of them still showed sparks of ingenuity that encouraged viewers to keep tuning in. Not here. The second half of “The Defenders” is absolutely consistent: Consistently terrible. The fight scenes become the kind of copy-pasted nonsense that made “Iron Fist” a slog, while the dialogue and story developments mirror “Luke Cage’s” insipid second half. Jessica’s quips about how moronic the plot becomes are legitimately funny, but don’t excuse the fact that, yeah, it’s pretty laughably moronic.
It may seem like this review paid inordinate attention to its characters instead of the season’s plot. That’s intentional, because there’s shockingly little in the way of story development in the second half of “The Defenders.” Entire episodes drag along as characters reiterate the same points, ho-hum about what to do and generally waste time. A subplot that dedicates excessive time failing to develop Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) is particularly reprehensible, and the screenwriters’ attempt to turn them into the Black Widow/Hawkeye duo of the team is a mystifyingly poor decision that is as egregiously stupid as it sounds.
Those that stick around for the conclusion will be awarded with those most horribly unsatisfying endings to any big or small screen comic book adaption in recent memory. It’s a terrible, clichéd bunch of nonsense that justifies nearly every criticism thrown at cinematic universes and comic books in general. There’s no payoff or closure for any of the characters, and the ending is actually awful enough to sour not only one’s perspective of entire season, but quite possibly that of the entire Netflix MCU franchise, as well. It’s actually that bad.
If you can get over that, it’s important to restate that there’s nearly as much to like—even love—in “The Defenders’” first half. The show does so many things right, which only makes the monumental failures of its second half all the more stinging. Both casual and hardcore fans might have their faith shattered at the journey’s end, but there’s still plenty to enjoy along the way.
“The Defenders” fails to service its impressive cast or live up to the creative highs that made “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil’s” first season standouts hits, but the potential is so clearly there, if we ever get a round two. That’s not much of a consolation, but it’s the best “The Defenders” can muster. Better luck next time.