‘The Defenders’ Review: Marvel’s Netflix Heroes Assemble, but Not Soon Enough
Editor’s Note: This review was first published after the first four episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders became available for critics. Since the show premieres today, I’m reposting these initial thoughts, but stayed tuned to Collider for much more coverage of the season as a whole in the coming days.
Let’s start with a truth: The Defenders are much better together than they are apart. And that is why the show doesn’t really come together until they do. Until then, it checks in on our solo-series heroes each in turn: Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), and Danny Rand (Finn Jones). Unfortunately, it also kicks off with a pitch-black fight scene starring Danny. Not the way to get people hyped, even if you are an Iron Fist apologist.
If you were hoping that The Defenders, with its short 8-episode run, would rectify some of the issues of the solo series regarding pacing and narrative choices, it does not. But like in those series, there are still things to enjoy. Jessica Jones is again a standout, as the PI’s story is the only one with any forward momentum. She’s still dodging calls to take cases, but she alone has a clear sense of who she is and what she wants to be doing. It’s a marked difference from Matt Murdock, who has retired from his vigilante work but still feels its call, continuing to be deeply conflicted between the man in the mask and the lawyer in a suit. Meanwhile, as encouraged by Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Luke Cage is embracing his role as a hero and a mentor to the youths of his neighbor. And I’ll let Stick (Scott Glenn) introduce where Danny is: “The Immortal Iron Fist, protector of the sacred realm, is still a thundering dumbass.”
For most of the early episodes, the four heroes (“don’t use the H word,” Jessica warns Rachel Taylor’s Trish) are on their own paths, investigating leads that seem unconnected but are ultimately part of a larger puzzle. Luke is worried about a mysterious gig the kids in Harlem are taking on — and not coming back from. Danny and Colleen (Jessica Henwick, maintains a pivotal role) are globetrotting in pursuit of The Hand, while a simple case for Jessica turns out to be a key part of a much bigger coverup. Matt is … going to confession a lot.
As most predicted, The Defenders’ main villain appears to be The Hand, as established mostly in Daredevil and Iron Fist. It also is connected to a major (and very good) role for Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, which I won’t spoil. But there’s quite a bit of retreading of Daredevil Season 2, where we spend time learning about Elektra’s (Elodie Yung) transformation into Black Sky (and Matt’s conflict over needing to destroy her), the origins of the Hand, what happened with K’un-Lun, and how those are all connected to Rand Enterprises. And here is where The Defenders makes its most major mistake by setting the show completely around Danny, who has no real connection to his father’s company these days other than occasionally putting on a suit to get into a board room to say “I’m Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist!” It’s not great.
A bright spot, though, is the banter among the heroes, which starts in pairs and slowly builds to a four-way hallway fight scene (it wouldn’t be a Netflix Marvel show without it), and ultimately, a begrudging team-up. There are a lot of great interactions and cameos by staple characters from each of the series (Carrie Ann-Moss as Jeri Hogarth, Elden Henson as Foggy Neson, and a surprisingly small role for Rosario Dawson’s Claire) but The Defenders never takes for granted that viewers will have seen all of the other series going into this, even though the experience is obviously more rewarding if you have. Still, that plays into the show’s pacing issues, as the season (four episodes of which were sent to critics) feels like one very long movie. But once the four come together, things improve immensely. In their new dynamic, Danny is, so far, something of an annoying younger brother, even though he is also their de facto leader. There’s more humor, too, which at first feels a little out of place when everything else is played with such seriousness, but it’s also a major relief. These are four people with superpowers — shouldn’t somebody be having a little fun?
One of the defining features of the Defenders, though, is how grounded their powers are. They are strong, but that’s essentially it — just like in their solo series, their fights are close and fast and violent. Martial artistry remains the dominant fighting style (with Jessica Jones lamenting, “am I the only one left who doesn’t know karate?”), but don’t let the recent trailers fool you into thinking the show is action-packed. There are good sequences, but they are scattered. And that is fine, so long as what’s in between doesn’t drag. But halfway through, the show is still figuring out how to balance its four heroes and the Hand, and how to tell these stories in a way that is both fun and compelling.
If I could, I would go back and recalibrate my review ratings for some of Marvel’s Netflix shows. So to give this review’s rating some context (now that I’ve seen all of the solo series and half of Defenders), here are some updated thoughts: The solo series are distinctive enough that whether or not you ultimately like them is based on personal preference. However, there is still an order to them based on overall quality, which I think starts with Jessica Jones, the most taught and immediately engaging of the four. Daredevil, which started it all and set this world in a very visually distinct place, comes afterwards, and Luke Cage places third (it had a fantastic opening few episodes, and then a terrible rest of the season). Iron Fist, which I didn’t hate, doubled-down on the glacial pace of the others, and was hindered by a confused take on a its main character and a messy vision for the series as a whole. (I’m a Finn Jones apologist, and think that his is ultimately let down by the bad material he’s given).
So with that in mind, I am setting the Defenders somewhere between Daredevil and Luke Cage (even more specifically around Daredevil Season 2, which makes sense since that season and The Defenders share the same showrunners, Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez). It’s something new, but it has a lot of problems. It’s a tonal mishmash as it brings these characters together (including a very cringe-worthy decision to play hip hop every time we see Luke in the first hour when no one else gets a soundtrack — we get it, guys; he’s black), but the interactions among the heroes are always great. There’s just not enough of it to start, and it takes too long for them to team-up. If you thought Defenders would be a culminating chapter to the other Netflix Marvel series so far, think again. So far it feels like another prelude, and it makes one wonder if we’ll ever get to the main event.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Defenders premieres on Netflix on August 18th.