In 2012, Marvel Studios did something no one else had done before by releasing The Avengers. Four years, five movies, four franchises, and 1.1 billion dollars since Iron Man, The Avengers weaved together years of story telling, and it was damn good. It’s a model that many studios are now trying to replicate; a model so good, Marvel used it again, this time on Netflix. In April of 2015, Netflix dropped season one of Daredevil and promised that one day we would see him team up with Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist. Last weekend, Netflix and Marvel made good on their promise with The Defenders. And again, what we got was damn good.
The story picks up right where Iron Fist left off, Danny and Colleen Wing are traveling the world hunting down The Hand, a villainous organization that goes all the way back to the aforementioned first season of Daredevil. From there we’re introduced to the remaining Defenders. Matt is working as a pro-bono attorney, wiping the courtroom floor with slumlords like he used to do with Russian mobsters in the streets. Luke is newly released from prison and reunites with Claire Temple. Jessica takes a new case and continues being everyones favorite superpowered alcoholic. The gang’s all right where they need to be.
One benefit of the Netflix model compared to film, is we get so much time with these characters before they team up. This gives the show runners time to create realistic reasons for all these heroes to come together. Which brings up another massive positive of this season: it’s pacing. Each one of the individual characters’ series is 13 episodes long, and a common criticism of each series is they can drag a bit in the middle. The Defenders solves this problem by not only quadrupling the characters, but also cutting the episode count down to 8. The first few episodes set up the motivation each character has for getting involved in this fight, and I was glad they devoted so much time to this. Once the team forms, the series takes off at lightening speed, but the foundation was well laid, so it worked.
This being a superhero team-up series, we’re bound to get plenty of fighting, and oh how it delivers. If we’re being frank, each Defender’s skillset can be boiled down to “really good at punching,” but the action choreographers did an amazing job at creating some fun, innovative sequences. Nothing quite at the level of the one-take sequences Daredevil has given us, but that’s an incredibly high bar to hit. What I loved about the action is how each character’s personality came through in their fighting style. Watching the group fight didn’t feel cookie cutter, it felt like each of them had a physicality all their own. Not every sequence is perfect, but more often than not, they left me with my jaw on the floor.
These sequences are aided by some utterly spectacular cinematography. The camera work shines brightest in the first few episodes, before the team comes together. Cutting between each individual member, there are shifts in the look of each scene. Jessica Jones looked different than Iron Fist did, and if they were to just smash the two together, the tone would be jarring. The visuals were able to tie everything together, while still maintaining consistency to the series that gave us each hero.
Going into this series, Finn Jones was my biggest question mark. Theres no way around it, he was not good in Iron Fist. And when the series opens with him, I didn’t think much had changed. He was just as awkward, dramatic, and over the top as I though he was in his own series. However, once Danny was in a room with any of the other heroes, my concerns were put to rest. The story of Iron Fist is a ridiculous one, but when someone gets to react to the nonsense coming out of Finn Jones’ mouth, he himself was elevated. His wasn’t the best performance, but it was miles ahead of what we got earlier this year.
Also returning is Mike Coulter as the other Hero-for-Hire, Luke Cage. Coulter is great in this show. More often than not, he plays the role of “straight-man,” the character reacting to the world around him along with the audience. Straight-man is a hard role to play, because usually they come across as bland and insignificant, never really standing out, all so the viewer can have someone to identify with. That’s not the case with Luke Cage though, Coulter fills him with personality and a magnetic charisma. Cage is just a man who wants to make Harlem a better place, and he has the superhuman abilities to make that happen, but he never forgets just how crazy the world he’s living in is.
Kristen Ritter returns as Jessica Jones, and watching her this season reminded me just how snug she fits into this role. Jessica may have superpowers and be an all star detective, but deep down, she’s a rape survivor. All throughout the series, both in Jessica Jones and here in The Defenders, Ritter displays little moments where her traumatic past bubbles to the surface. Only once is Kilgrave even referenced, but through Ritters performance you can see the deep scars he left in her psyche. Ritter also has the best comedy chops of the whole season, delivering some of its most memorable lines.
The centerpiece of the Netflix MCU is Charlie Cox’s Daredevil, and he delivers yet another stunning performance this go around. His is probably the most emotional character arc of the season, and Cox is more than up to the task to deliver. In Daredevil, Matt confides in his priest that he’s worried he’s got the devil inside him, and nowhere has that duality been more apparent than The Defenders. Daredevil is the only member of the group to have a costume, and while it could have been silly, Cox gives good reason for this. He doesn’t just play one man in different outfits, there is a noticeable, darker turn to Cox’s performance when in the Daredevil suit.
This season totes some impressive supporting players. Scott Glen is back as Stick, and takes the role of the honorary Defender. Stick has always been a warning to Murdock, a grim reminder of what would happen if he set his morals aside, and Glenn gets into some really intense places, hammering that dynamic home. Elodie Yung’s Elektra returns as the resurrected weapon of The Hand. She did well with what she was given, but often there wasn’t much more than “be confused, be a badass.” And Sigourney takes up a new role, Alexandra, one of the Five Fingers of The Hand. She’s good, but not quite on the level of Kingpin or Kilgrave.
There’s a definite tonal shift between this series and that of it predecessors. Defenders is a show about superheroes fighting ninjas, and it isn’t afraid to have fun with that premise. Compared to something like the Jessica Jones or Daredevil’s second season, this almost comes across as campy. It’s closest in tone to Iron Fist, but instead of feeling like a continuation of that series, it accomplishes what Iron Fist couldn’t. The fights are still brutal, but you can’t help but smile when ninja’s are getting beatdown to a Wu Tang Clan soundtrack.
Defenders isn’t without its flaws, the worst offender bing the presence of each individuals supporting characters. Foggy, Karen, Trish, Malcolm, Misty, Colleen, and Claire all get screen time. This isn’t a knock on their performances, as most of them do well with what their given, but it didn’t make sense for most of them to be featured. I love these characters, and I believe they play an integral role the series they call home, but Defenders never presented a reason for them to be apart of this story. So much time was spent creating the perfect storm for the heroes to join together, but just because they band together, doesn’t mean their world’s fully collide. Other than that, I can only find insignificant flaws and nitpicks that don’t affect my enjoyment of the series whatsoever.
The Defenders not only managed to unite four unique characters in a believable way, but it did so with incredible style and more fun than anyone could have expected. The Netflix attempt at recreating The Avengers went off in spectacular fashion, and never once felt like Marvel was just following a formula. This season, though short, gave an extremely satisfying conclusion to Phase 1, and leaves me extremely excited for Phase 2.
Rating: 4.0 — Great
Best Episode: “Royal Dragon”