Marvel’s The Defenders REVIEW
Airing on: Netflix, from 18 August
Number of episodes: 8
Developed by: Douglas Petrie, Marco Ramirez
Starring: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Sigourney Weaver
So here it is, the culmination of Netflix’s Marvel Phase One. The small screen answer to the MCU’s Avengers. Because critics love labelling, there was a time when we thought we could also handily label it the “street-level, dysfunctional Avengers”. Except, of course, Iron Fist turned out to be all about white rich-boy boardroom battles, and no team could be more dysfunctional than the Avengers after Civil War, so hey, there goes that opportunity for a soundbite. Thanks Marvel.
We can’t even call it the grumpy Avengers, because while Matt’s all angsty, Jessica’s all attitudey and Danny’s all teenage stroppy, Luke’s actually pretty mellow most of the time.
Maybe we can call it “the less CGI, more fist-fighty Avengers” instead.
Whatever the case, The Defenders sees Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist teaming up – somewhat reluctantly – for the first to take down the Hand.
Netflix has released the first four episodes for reviewers to cast their eye over with a strict “no spoilers” policy, so don’t expect us to go giving away any big secrets here; not that we would anyway. Not even if the Hand has resurrected Kilgrave for a surprise comeback. (Or is that a clever double bluff?) So broad strokes only here folks.
First things first – it’s way more entertaining than Iron Fist, even though, initially, it looks like it’s Iron Fist season two. That doesn’t last long, and besides, the irritating Danny Rand works much better here, with the other main characters voicing all the criticisms of character that he got on line; that he’s an immature, entitled, self-centred rich kid. Oddly, this works much better as part of a team dynamic; it’s just questionable why anybody thought we would want 13 episodes of that character on his own show without anybody challenging him. Hell, the bickering between Luke and Danny (who in the comics became a longterm double-act as Power Man and Iron Fist) provides some of the best moments in these opening episodes, because they’re so different.
Secondly, it gets off to a really slow start. Don’t worry, by episode three it’s nipping along, and even episode four, which is largely an extended infodump around a table, is immense fun because it’s the first chance for all four characters to verbally bounce off each other, which they do with an almost Joss Whedonesque feel for snarky quipping.
But episode one…? Well, granted, Netflix has helped redefine the rules of drama series pacing with its emphasis on the telenovel approach; and binge-viewing means a broadcaster can expect an audience to watch the first few episode in a block rather than having to work to make sure they come back next week for more. But even though there’s a lot to admire about the opening episode of The Defenders, it’s hardly full of hooks. You have little idea where the series is heading after the first instalment; there are no gobsmacking action sequences (decent ones, sure, but nothing that marks the show out as different from its predecessors); there are no jawdropping revelations. Coupled with the fact that this series is just eight episodes instead of the usual 13, and it does feel like a frustratingly leisurely opening.
But stick with it and things pick up rapidly. And when the Defenders do all get together, it really takes off.
Most impressive is the way it not only shares the screen time between its four main characters with remarkable equality, but the way it manages to fold in themes from the various series as well. Although we’ve seen only half the episodes, it’s clear that each of them is going through their own mini-arc, and each of them is remaining true to what drives them in their own shows. Occasionally it’s a little forced, with one character seemingly reading passages out of the writers’ guide for another, but mostly it’s good, meaty character-driven plotting, and fans will not be disappointed with how much their favourite character is used. Hell, you might even start liking Danny… or loathing him a little less.
Admittedly, some of the supporting characters are less well served. So far, cameos for Misty Knight, Karen Page, Foggy Nelson, Trish Walker, Malcolm Ducasse, Turk and Jeri Hogarth all feel a little like a conveyor belt of fan-pleasers, though Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) once again gets to upstage the title stars on a regular basis, and Jessica Henwick continues to impress as Colleen Wing. But hey, a big crossover event like this can’t give everyone a substantial role, and it’s better to have some Foggy and Trish rather than no Foggy or Trish.
Sigourney Weaver is everything you’d expect as the main villain; driven, icy cool, manipulating and ruthless, with just a hint of fragility under the surface. It’s the kind of role she can perform effortlessly, which is all well and good, but we’re hoping there’s something more worthy of her acting talents awaiting in the second half of the series. Meanwhile, keep your eye on Murakami (Yutaka Takeuchi), another member of the Hand. He’s only in one scene in these four episodes – though we know he’ll be seen more in the second half – but it’s a hell of a scene which owes more than a little to one of Tywin Lannister’s most notorious moments.
Production-wise it’s as slick as you’d expect. Though so far there haven’t been any truly stand-out fights, the first joint ruckus featuring all four of the show’s reluctant heroes is great value. And that pretty much sums this crossover series as a whole so far; it’s good, and it’s solid, it certainly worth watching but it doesn’t have the WOW! factor of the first three Marvel/Netflix collaborations.
On the other hand, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and both seasons of Daredevil all managed to deliver a massive gamechanging twist in their second halves, so don’t be surprised if The Defenders steps up a gear.
And is better than Iron Fist.