Who defends The Defenders? (Not me)

There’s a moment early on in The Defenders where Jessica Jones – besieged by long-winded monologues about immortal ninjas, mythical lands, and plots to destroy New York – walks away. She explains to the rest of the team that she really gave it a shot, but this was all just too much for her, and she was calling it quits.

I really related to Jessica Jones in that moment… even moreso when she inevitably came back and stuck it through to the end, because that’s more or less what happened when I sat down and watched The Defenders.

I really wanted what The Defenders was selling me. My feelings on Marvel’s Netflix properties have always been a little mixed, but – with the exception of Iron Fist, which I just cannot be asked to sit through – I’ve sat myself down and invested in all of them, never feeling that my time had been particularly wasted. Even if these shows aren’t always exactly the peak of dramatic television, they’re still pretty consistently entertaining. Marvel is sitting on a pile of talent to be envious of, after all; Charlie Cox (Matt Murdock/Daredevil), Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones) and Mike Colton (Luke Cage) are all uniquely well-cast as their respective heroes, and they’re held up by an excellent cast of supporting characters including Rosario Dawson (Claire Temple), Simone Missick (Misty Knight), Deborah Ann Woll (Karen Page) and more. I discovered early on that Sigourney Weaver had come on board to play the antagonist, and I was here for it. The pieces were in place for a pretty good ensemble piece, if an ensemble piece there really needed to be.

Despite this, The Defenders is just not a great season of television.

Any discussion of the show has to begin with Finn Jones’s contribution to the titular supergroup: Danny Rand, or, as he’ll tell you very, very often, “The Immortal Iron Fist.” As you’ve probably heard, the standalone Iron Fist series debuted in the public eye with a soft, wet, farting sound, as complaints of poor representation and racial insensitivity only faded away after people realized it also just wasn’t a very good show to begin with. As his second appearance on the small screen, The Defenders is Iron Fist’s first opportunity to redeem himself, but it doesn’t seem that Marvel’s figured him out quite yet.

You never get an opportunity to overlook Iron Fist’s lameness, because his lameness is a central plot device …

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where this character’s many problems begin and end. He’s certainly not written well, as the plot is largely moved forward by an unceasing string of his poor decisions and every other character besides his sidekick, Colleen Wing, seems to hate him. It doesn’t seem to be a case of “good actor, bad script,” either, though, as Jones (who I’d argue has a strong case for being the least convincing actor on Game of Thrones) doesn’t do this character any favors himself. He repeatedly fails to put a likable face on Danny Rand, and he looks incredibly awkward in any kind of action scene. The Defenders tries to pair him off with Colton’s eminently likable Cage (his canonical BFF, I know), but even in his “relatable” moments, he just comes away looking surly, ignorant, and plain immature by comparison. It feels like Cage is supposed to be “getting through” to Danny in a lot of these scenes, but if he is, it’s not reflected in Danny’s actions at any point.

ironfist

Grr! Iron Fist is super mad!

I could probably brush off Iron Fist as a weak link if his role was just to be an auxiliary – after all, batting 3-for-4 is a pretty nice day at the plate. Unfortunately, The Defenders wants you to know that Iron Fist is the key to all this. He’s not just an important character, he’s the most important character. You never get an opportunity to overlook Iron Fist’s lameness, because his lameness is a central plot device, and he is therefore given ample opportunity to defy logic and keep the narrative moving forward in increasingly arduous ways. The Defenders regularly acknowledges Iron Fist’s status as their most tedious main character – many characters in the show are just as fed up with his act as you will be – but this self-awareness didn’t prevent the writers from pushing Rand into the spotlight of the series when it might have been more advisable to relegate him to the sidelines for a season. It felt backwards for Luke Cage to have so little to do here while Danny Rand had so much.

A significant complaint of mine with the Marvel Netflix-verse to this point has been “The Hand,” the secretive, magic-ninjas that have lurked around the periphery of Marvel’s Netflix conglomeration, Thanos-style, for a few years now. While Sigourney Weaver settles in as the previously unmentioned (but totally not retconned) leader of The Hand, some familiar faces return as supporting villains; Madame Gao, that fan favorite, is back for her whopping fourth cumulative season of these shows. Élodie Yung is returns as well, cosplaying as Boring Zombie Elektra, and spends most of the season silently gaping at things in between overly choreographed action scenes.

daredevil

It’s these action scenes that really bother me the most about The Hand’s involvement in these shows. It’s like they drag them down just by existing on the screen. My favorite thing about Season One of Daredevil (and the first half of Season 2, for that matter, before The Hand really came into play) is how impactful the fights felt; the hits were all so visceral that every action felt consequential. Matt Murdock didn’t win every fight, and even the fights he did took a visible toll on him. I mean, he met Claire Temple while unconscious and bleeding out in a dumpster. The famous hallway tracking-shot fight in that first season still stands out to me as one of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen for these reasons. The inherent action – Daredevil single-handedly takes out two rooms full of bad guys – is completely ridiculous, but it plays out in such a way that you almost believe it could happen, and it never really seems like a sure thing.

This sense of grit completely vanishes whenever The Hand are involved, and the action morphs (pun maybe intended) into something more reminiscent of the Power Rangers than an R-rated action series. The flips and stunts get dialed up to 11, and Daredevil takes hit after hit, but never seems injured. These sequences are impressively choreographed, I guess, but in a more precise, sterile way that reminded me of the emotionless lightsaber combat of the Star Wars prequels. An early fight scene featuring the whole gang together for the first time is actually a pretty good time, but Luke Cage and Jessica Jones quickly begin to feel irrelevant as even Colleen Wing proves to be more adept at flip-kicking ninjas than they are.

The Hand just fail to resonate with the audience or setting in any logical way.

The looming problem with The Hand is that they simply don’t fit within the more intimate confines of Marvel’s Netflix properties. These shows were originally intended to explore the consequences of The Avengers and their other, larger-scale film properties – a look at New York post-alien-invasion and how these essentially B-List heroes would behave in this setting. With the exception of Iron Fist, our heroes’ goals are distinctly not global: Matt Murdock wants to protect Hell’s Kitchen, Luke Cage wants to save Harlem, and Jessica Jones wants to drink and solve mysteries. Marvel has succeeded most spectacularly when they took the time to shrink their villains down to those respective settings, giving them motivations within the confines of New York and characterization to match. Memorable antagonists almost always feature this sort of treatment; Kingpin, Kilgrave, Cottonmouth and The Punisher were all actual characters with goals, vices, trauma, and what-have-you; Kingpin even has a love interest who is down with his whole villain schtick. These characters aren’t cartoonishly evil caricatures bent on world domination, like the ones that have plagued Marvel’s big-screen productions for several years now.

The Hand, however, are cartoonishly evil caricatures by their very definition: a clandestine organization that spans the entire globe, whose motivations nobody can ever satisfactorily define. They’ve popped up a handful of times now (that pun definitely intended), and have risen to greater prominence with Iron Fist and Season Two of Daredevil. Now, they appear to have finally decided that New York is the place where their quest for, as Danny Rand helpfully puts it, “everything,” will finally reach its conclusion. He really says that, by the way. Way to put things in perspective, my dude.

The Hand just fail to resonate with the audience or setting in any logical way. It might surprise you, but it’s actually quite hard to effectively characterize immortal shadow ninjas. The writers certainly tried to address this problem with the addition of Alexandra Reid, giving her a little more characterization than we’ve seen from the organization at large so far, but they just don’t quite get all the way there. We know Alexandra is dying (she’s given six months to live in the first episode) and we know she used up the last of the substance that could have saved her (and, conveniently, the other leaders of The Hand as well) to revive Elektra, but The Defenders never takes enough time to dig deeper into either of these points in a satisfactory way.

elektra

Elektra getting dunked into some “come back to life” juice.

Madame Gao and the other leaders of The Hand feel like a waste of space here, chewing up screen time that could have been spent fleshing out the Alexandra-Elektra dynamic in a more fulfilling way. With the exception of Bakuto, all any of them really does is stand around and whinge about Elektra anyways. Perhaps a more interesting route might have been to have Alexandra gather together the other leaders of The Hand under the guise of a meeting (think around Episode 2), only to send Elektra to eliminate them all, thus giving Alexandra complete control over the organization. This would have established Alexandra as a more serious threat (her “Kingpin kills a guy with a car door” moment), and un-cluttered the narrative to allow the writers to more thoroughly explore her and Elektra as characters.

You can probably assume from this, then, that Elektra also could have benefited from a script makeover in this regard. I wasn’t the biggest fan of her stint in Season Two of Daredevil, but her role in The Defenders is a notable step backwards. She barely even speaks for the majority of the season, instead mostly just glowering at things. A number of flashback sequences attempt to set up Alexandra as a sort of surrogate mother figure for her, but these scenes lack the poignancy of Wilson Fisk killing his father to protect his mother or a young, shaken Cornell Stokes playing the piano with blood on his hands, two of my favorite such scenes from Marvel’s work to-date.

Once again, we’re told many times about how Elektra is the legendary “Black Sky,” a title of some renown to The Hand (at least to Alexandra – Gao and friends no longer seem to care all that much), and once again, we’re not told much of anything about what the Black Sky actually is, apart from a really good ninja. The Defenders mixes in the cliche “character doesn’t remember anything until they meet a person they used to love” story beats with Elektra and Matt Murdock, but the poorly defined relationship between her and Alexandra doesn’t create a great sense of stakes, as there’s nothing about The Hand that should really be tempting to her. She’s basically the butter robot from Rick and Morty. Her late-season decisions don’t make a whole lot of sense, then, and mostly just serve to set up some heavily telegraphed “gotcha!” plot twists in the final few episodes.

Quick Hits:

  • This season focuses heavily on Iron Fist and Daredevil, but Jessica Jones is definitely its most interesting character, despite being relegated to a bit of a sideline role. She’s the most logical character here, for sure, and brings some sorely needed levity. Krysten Ritter is Marvel’s best Netflix lead so far.
  • Stick is boring and I hate him.
  • We’re told repeatedly that The Hand want to destroy New York, but the threat to New York is ultimately never detailed. As I understand it, the evil plan detailed to us doesn’t include a “New York goes boom” step, so I guess we’re to assume it would just happen after? The stakes would have felt a little higher if we had an actual idea what was supposed to be coming.
  • I touched on it briefly before, but Luke Cage is sort of a lame duck in this season. The show doesn’t give him a whole lot to do, and he feels a little underpowered, considering there’s no real reason a bunch of ninjas with swords should be a threat to him.
  • The first three episodes are honestly pretty decent, but once you’ve gotten through them, you’ve seen just about all the high points this show has to offer. The first full group fight scene has some actual personality and is pretty fun, but the show doesn’t capture this feeling often enough.
  • A weird quirk of a number of Marvel’s shows is that they tend to have a distinct sense of style that disappears halfway through. Early on, The Defenders color codes its scenes – blue for Jessica, red for Daredevil, yellow for Luke, green for Iron Fist. It feels a bit like an undergrad film student learning about thematic color choices for the first time, but I kinda liked it. The show just kinda gives up on it, though. I guess they never learned how to blend colors with the Color Wheel.
  • The Defenders disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan. A late-season fight scene busted out Protect Ya Neck, but nothing particularly cool happened. I’m mad about it. You can’t waste Wu-Tang like that.
  • Like I mentioned before, I didn’t bother with Iron Fist, so some of the backstory with that show is probably lost on me. That said, Colleen Wing kinda sucks. Her decisions don’t make a whole lot of sense – she impresses upon Danny that he needs allies to fight The Hand, but then later tells him the clearly superpowered people that are fighting The Hand aren’t the kind of friends he needs. What do you want from the guy? Colleen has an entire arc here that seems to be an extension of Iron Fist, and I don’t understand why it needed to happen here and not Iron Fist Season Two (if that ends up existing). These are writing issues, and not necessary Jessica Henwick’s fault, to be fair, but they hold the character back. She also walks across a New York street in broad daylight with a big katana strapped to her back, which was pretty silly.
  • I really like the Daredevil suit in general, but it is a little goofy to see Matt Murdock run around as the only character in a costume. He fits in a little better visually when he just has Jessica’s scarf wrapped around his head.

In Conclusion:

This has been an overwhelmingly negative review, for obvious reasons, but I want to note that I do think there could have been a good show in here somewhere. Murdock, Cage, and Jones have good chemistry with one another, and all their respective sidekicks are pretty good, if a bit too plot-device-y. The pool of quality talent to work with here is still massive, but having this many solid characters to work with is both a blessing and a curse. At some point, you have to leave some people out, and The Defenders doesn’t seem to know when to make the necessary cuts. The plot comes to a screeching halt right near its climax just for the sake of giving Misty Knight and the police department some more stuff to do, and I find it hard to believe nobody in that writer’s room thought to themselves, “We’ve only got eight episodes to do this thing, maybe we don’t need to give Colleen and Bakuto an entire subplot to themselves.” Even Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) shows up to wag her finger at Jessica for a couple scenes. A different shuffling of all these moving pieces could very likely have produced the show I was hoping for; as it stands, though, there’s just a little too much bloat.

At some point, you have to leave some people out, and The Defenders doesn’t seem to know when to make the necessary cuts.

This season felt like it should have been the second one; perhaps tackling The Hand would have seemed more natural if it wasn’t our heroes’ first rodeo together. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin would have felt like a natural first obstacle for the Defenders, I think. Perhaps, newly freed from prison (they wrote Elektra back from the dead, they can write Kingpin out of prison), a less cautious, more aggressive Kingpin could have quickly reestablished his empire (perhaps with Alexandra/The Hand’s assistance, if they really must be here somewhere). This conflict would be more effectively localized to its heroes: the Murdock connection is obvious, Jones could still come across the larger plot while following a case, and Cage could still do likewise while trying to keep some Harlem youth out of Kingpin’s organization. Danny Rand… I dunno, man. Don’t make me talk about that character anymore, please.

The Defenders is ultimately buried under the weight of the scripts that came before it, more or less forced to accept The Hand as the primary antagonists and Iron Fist as its most plot-crucial protagonist. Marvel played themselves a bit, I think, spending so much time setting the stage to this conflict with The Hand that they were left with no way to audible out of it once the reception to Iron Fist came back poorly. I had high hopes for this particular ensemble, but I walked away feeling more convinced that these Netflix properties might only really reach their full potential on an individual basis, when there’s less juggling to be done.

At least I can still look forward to The Punisher.

For the sake of having a numerical rating, I give The Defenders a five out of ten.

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