Marvel’s The Defenders review: A team-up of unequal parts
These Defenders have a hard enough time getting on with each other, let alone actually defending anything.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Superhero stories have, by definition, a necessity for the suspension of disbelief. These are the folks who spend their evenings, and in some cases their waking hours, wandering city streets in their underwear. Some of them can also fly or deflect bullets. In other words, you've got to be willing to switch part of your brain off in order to enjoy them. Still, there are levels of believability in any superhero series, and it's especially true for anything under the Marvel brand.
Marvel, after all, grew in prominence in the 1960s largely because the Marvel crew (Stan Lee usually gets all the credit, but that's ignoring the work of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many, many others) took the framework and tropes of superhero life and applied them to more realistic situations. Peter Parker was a teenager with teenage troubles. The Hulk explored issues of personal rage (and later, under Peter David's run on the series, actual physical abuse), and the X-Men covered racial intolerance issues. Marvel, in other words, can tell serious stories around somewhat ridiculous premises.
That's certainly been the case for the far more grounded Netflix Originals series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil was dark and gritty, underpinned by excellent performances and fight choreography; Jessica Jones was one part superhero, one part abuse drama and three shots of straight scotch; Luke Cage at least tried to focus around racial inequality issues and family; and Iron Fist was, well, Iron Fist.
The Defenders was the series that was meant to bring these heroes together, and when it was first announced back when Netflix first pitched its slate of series, I was really excited. My fandom for this group of heroes is quite long term. From where I'm writing this, there's a full run of The Defenders issues within reach, not that far away from the full run of Power Man and Iron Fist. I know these heroes, and while Netflix has made some missteps along the way, the early trailers showed promise, and Sigourney Weaver is usually excellent in projects she chooses to be in.
The Defenders certainly starts off quite well. Team-up shows will usually struggle to fit everyone in, but all the protagonists have had their own shows by now, so we don't need introductions, although you'll be rather lost if you haven't at least seen some of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and bits of Luke Cage. It's also opted for only eight episodes, which should suggest a brisk pace, although the first four episodes do adopt a rather lighter, slower pace than you might expect.
The core story revolves once again around The Hand, revealing far more about the group and its origins, and also its desire for what's only called "The Substance", the thing that keeps the five fingers of the hand coming back from the dead over and over again.
Problem is, they're fresh out of Substance (seriously, could nobody come up with a better or more mystical name?) having used the last of it to revive Elektra as the "Black Sky". Yes, it's a bit of comic book mystical mumbo-jumbo, but it's fun enough, and Sigourney Weaver does a decent enough job as Hand head honcho Alexandra in conveying just about the right mix of malice and sadness at her own impending mortality.
The Defenders takes it fairly slow in revealing what The Hand has been up to with that mysterious deep hole first seen in season 2 of Daredevil, leaving it until the last couple of episodes to reveal that it's not a way back to Kun-Lun, but instead a reservoir of Substance built around Shao Lao The Undying's bones (or possibly one of his relatives, it's all rather skipped around), the removal of which will also cause New York to crumble to the ground, because, well...because it will. They needed some extra peril to make it seem like the "battle for New York" was going to be more epic on only a TV budget, or possibly you're just meant to not think about it because—look, superheroes are punching people!
This sounds like a comic book series type of cop out, but it's actually not the worst problem The Defenders has. The worst problem it has is the passing of the idiot ball that successive characters engage in as the series goes on. This is especially true at the end in order to fit in every last twist and turn the writers decided was necessary.
Finn Jones's Danny Rand was already pretty wooden in his own series, and he's not much better here. To give Finn credit, he's given some terrible lines and a plot (the Iron Fist is the "key" to unlocking the Substance) that's so incredibly obvious in its resolution that even a second's thought would have worked out a dozen ways to avoid it. But of course, he doesn't.
Instead, he does the most obvious thing possible by fighting Elektra in what's meant to be a climactic battle, but instead it is a murkily lit plot point dressed up as a set piece that could only end one way, which indeed it does.
That particular fight isn't helped by the equally weird acting choices made by Élodie Yung's Elektra, who seems to want to merrily jump between coy, killer, sexy and confused, sometimes all in the same frown. Joining them in the idiot ball World Series is Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock, given the unenviable task of deciding for the sake of not much onscreen chemistry that he'd rather die than leave Elektra to her fate. Which he knows he's doing anyway, but the series wanted another fight between the two, albeit one with significantly less dynamic energy than in earlier Daredevil episodes. Also, he doesn't die, but then the fact that the final episode still had significant running time after the primary battle did rather give that away.
The Defenders feels like it's drawing to a thrilling conclusion for the first six episodes, but then it badly overstuffs its final set. It's not a great sign for Netflix Marvel series going forward because we've seen successive drops in quality, starting with the high points of Daredevil and Jessica Jones through to the uneven Luke Cage and the generally poor Iron Fist. The Defenders was meant to be the well-planned drawing together of all of those threads, and while it's light enough to be mostly entertaining, it's still a frustrating series to watch.
The Defenders does manage to bring what are a disparate group of heroes together, and there are some bright points. Mike Colter's Luke Cage and Krysten Ritter's Jessica Jones have considerable chemistry, and it did manage to make me cheer when Misty Knight finally lost her arm, even though that's one of the weirdest sentences I've ever written. Sure, Netflix hasn't confirmed a Daughters Of The Dragon series just yet, but this so strongly hints at one that's it has to happen, right?
Still, it's final impressions that count, and The Defenders rests way too heavily on the idea that you'll tune in for successive series, where it perhaps should have instead wrapped up its storylines and maybe only left us with a pathway to The Punisher.
The Defenders is streaming on Netflix Australia now. Want more TV? Check out our regularly updated list of TV shows available on Netflix.