Review – Defenders
Netflix have released the next instalment of their flawed but still superb Marvel series, and it’s the one we’ve been building to since the release of Daredevil back in April 2015. It’s been a long time and a lot of building to get to this point, and it hasn’t all been plain sailing. This eight episode series brings together our fours main players to fight against the greater forces of the Hand, the looming dread that has haunted the series from the very beginning.
Let’s not dance around here. A Spoiler Warning is in full effect. Here are my thoughts on Marvel’s Defenders.
Heroes for Hire
Daredevil – Perhaps it’s because we’ve been following Matt Murdock for the longest, but Daredevil is by far the most empathetic character in the group. He tries his hardest to push away the others, and pushes even harder when Stick arrives, which could come across as simply not playing well with others, but we’ve seen how badly Matt has been affected by letting people get too close to him and the danger that he inflicts on these people. We could look to his selfish behaviour regarding Elektra as foolish and misguided in the extreme, but a chance to bring a loved one back from the dead, to get a second chance, would matter more to him than anything after losing her and his father.
Biggest spoiler of the article is that he pulls a Superman. Buried in a hole under the villainous lair of the hand, he should have stayed dead but he doesn’t and we can tell he won’t from a mile away. Hells, Murdock himself could have spotted that “twist” coming a mile away. It’s a problem that ties deeply into the most grievous issue with Defenders, but I’ll come to that.
Jessica Jones – The hard-boiled detective with a traumatic past and a drinking problem may very well be the most sympathetic character. She drags her heals at being dragged into yet another massive situation, especially as the last one nearly destroyed her and everyone she loves. There’s a scene I found myself pondering, when Jones opens a collection of images and starts deleting them one at a time which (obviously) leads her to uncovering a clue that drags her back in; was it just drama and shoehorning her back into the fray? I wonder if she was looking for a reason to go back.
But her power was woefully inconsistent. Jessica is capable of popping ribs with a thumb, she’s stronger than Luke Cage although she’s more vulnerable to injury. So why, in so many fight scenes with people trying to kill her, is she taking punches and barely slapping back when she could hoist a Hand ninja up by the ankles and dip him in concrete floor?
Luke Cage – No question who the real hero is in Defenders, and once again I find myself liking Cage more outside of his own series. He’s a warm and likeable guy who’s just trying to do his best to help people, and doesn’t much care for legality in matters of right and wrong. He’s even come to embrace his own hero status amongst the people, using it to encourage and inspire others as Captain America does. Perhaps that makes him bland, but he’s certainly the nicest character of the team, if a little gullible, getting dropped by Stick with a simple knock-out gas. He fights despite having the most to lose, being under constant threat of being sent back to jail.
He also suffers a lot with power-inconsistency, taking punches from Danny Rand without batting an eyelid until he summons the fist, but faceless mooks seem capable of staggering him, and even if they’re members of the Hand they’re not that strong.
Iron Fist – And here I was looking forward to Danny Rand, changed by his dramatic failure and the fall of K’un Lun, and what we have instead is a whiny millionaire with a dragon-punch that takes a long time to charge because he has to wait for the cameraman to get a good lens-full. He becomes something of a verbal whipping boy from the rest of the cast though, and perhaps now he and Luke Cage (the original Heroes for Hire) have teamed up once there’s scope for him to finally become an interesting character. He nearly became interesting, starting the series with a few hallucinations, hints at how his guilt may be shaking him to the core, but it’s rapidly glossed over.
As the centre piece for the series he becomes something more of a MacGuffin like object rather than an actual person, and his childish attitude and insistence on brandishing his title at every turn really don’t foster any empathy on behalf of the viewer. I’m becoming rather pessimistic about his future, but who knows. Some exposure to Luke Cage has already changed him, and he’s started to use his silver spoon a little more effectively than his weak wuxia.
Defenders – I loved the way the heroes interacted, it was a monumental highlight of the series. They, and their supporting cast come together in a growing and fascinating world so similar to the Avengers it’s fantastic, but more real, more human, and more grounded.
I’ve been a shameless fan of the way each hero has their own colour palette, their own cinematographic cues. Murdock gets pervasive and harsh reds, blurry and off-centre focus; Jones’ blue-washed world drains colour and emphasises light and dark; Cage’s world is toned in yellow and deep shadows, alongside the smooth funky soundtrack that follows him everywhere; Rand is strongly green, and constantly mobile shots that match the motion of the characters. The concepts get a miniature showcase in the opening titles, they’re far from subtle but they make for great characteristics.
Five Fingers Make The Hand
Sigourney Weaver… my word. To see the face of Ellen Ripley playing the immortal head of the hand makes for a chilling sight, and she plays the villain so very well. At first we are presented with her vulnerability, her motivation, which is thrown into far greater contrast when you understand her past. Alexandra is an immortal facing death and in charge of four others in the same situation, their every action is to preserve the life they have clung to for centuries by any means necessary, but she has become desperate, as death is closer for her than the others.
Not only does she have the obstinacy of the Defenders to contend with, but the machinations of the sycophantic Madame Gao, the silver tongued Sowande, the deadly Murakami, and the familiar and beguiling Bakuto; most of the Hand’s mythology is an original creation for the series, having very little to do with the comics, but no less interesting and compelling for it.
Elektra has returned under the control of the Hand, specifically under Alexandra, who is desperately following the Black Sky prophesy in an effort to stay immortal, to the point where her “friends” are concerned for the stability of her leadership. Elektra is actually quite terrifying despite the amnesiac thing and the plot of her memories returning, her eyes lingering on her signature twin sai, pausing whenever she hears her old name. Still, I’m lost on what the whole “Black Sky” thing actually does. I understand she’s a potent fighter and a merciless killer, but ultimately it accomplishes very little, and seems to come with no super powers. What happened to the chained up little kid in the storage container? He seemed far scarier.
And therein lies the overall problem with the whole series.
Big ‘N’ Scary
Let’s talk threat.
Daredevil season 1, Kingpin waits in Ben Urich’s apartment and beats him to death, and orchestrates mass bombing in New York. Jessica Jones, Kilgrave sets up a series of tableaus that show off his power, turning Cage loose as an unwilling weapon. Season 2 of Daredevil, the bleeding chambers, the hospital siege. Luke Cage, the shrapnel extraction scene, the merciless tactics of the gangs bosses of Harlem. Memorable, terrifying, threatening, and every moment had us shifting uncomfortably in our seats, and we could feel the odds pitched against our heroes, making their victory all the sweeter.
Iron Fist… and now Defenders, both lacked any serious kind of threat, a trend that was already beginning in Luke Cage. Defenders gave us one earthquake with a cover up story in which no one dies, and four dead characters; a couple of minor characters who were obvious throwaways, saw them dying episodes before it happened; Stick, who had it coming to be honest, but still a bit of a shock to the system; and Daredevil, who doesn’t stay dead. Even the central five members of the Hand are a huge disappointment.
Maybe that’s why the powers of the Defenders are toned down, for the sake of trying to make the Hand and its forces more dangerous, instead it serves to make some of the more epic fights notably more… pale, diluted, weak, any number of adjectives that portray how lack-lustre the conflict of the series became. It could have been made far more incredible with another episode or two worth of run-time, just something to take the series up a notch. Maybe kill off someone bigger, someone more important, like – dare I say – Claire Temple. I love Rosario Dawson, she’s been a massive asset to the series, but it would have made the whole thing a lot more dramatic, would have made us a lot more empathetic, and would have been a far better martyr for the series than Phil Coulson in the Avengers.
Defenders is well worth a watch, I actually prefer it to Iron Fist and the second half of Luke Cage. It’s managed to recover some of my optimism for the series as a whole, and I am more excited than ever before for the Punisher and the second series of Jessica Jones. It has some rather substantial failings that it must atone for if it has any hope of surviving and bringing in the ratings it deserves, but it does not deserve to go the way of Constantine. Four more seasons are already on the cards and production is underway, and I would welcome a Defenders reunion with open arms.
Marvel itself has spread like an octopus under a rolling pin, reaching out into so many networks with so many properties it’s now impossible to keep track. Legion, Inhumans, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, The Gifted, a whole lot of spaghetti thrown at a wall and so much of it sticking.
It’s an interesting time to be a nerd.