Review: 'The Defenders' Assemble, But Same Old Problems Persist

Champions though they may be on the cinematic block, Marvel has been scattershot on the small screen, and I think that's being generous. Forget the patchy Agents of SHIELD or the overrated Legion, Marvel's corner of Netflix has been where they've enjoyed the highest praise. They deserved it for Daredevil, which captured the darkening mood of Frank Miller's legendary comics run with fun superheroics. But it set up a paradime that Marvel has failed to break in subsequent series: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the pitiful Iron Fist largely followed the same beats step by step, flaw by flaw. There were cultural characteristics that yielded occasional benefits; Jessica Jones's femininity, Luke Cage's black machismo, Iron Fist's....well, blandness, but overall the shows got by on "cool factor" alone.

The Defenders is pretty much the same thing. It skates by on seeing all of these would-be heroes together fighting the same battle, but doesn't offer much else to chew on.  The first four episodes, which is all Netflix bothered to issue for review, so I had to binge the final four early this morning, are a slog as we see the long-suffering Daredevil (Charlie Cox), entitled kung-fu dude Iron Fist (Finn Jones), stoic Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and perpetually bitter Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) circling the same villains without anybody else knowing. These villains would be The Hand, of course, who have been a thorn in the side of them all in every series so far. Roped into the middle of this fight are satellite characters such as Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), Misty Knight (Simone Missick) Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), the latter two barely making their presence felt throughout.

Of course we expect there to be slow spells until the heroes actually get their crap together but after three episodes of navel gazing it gets a little tough to bear. I watched the first episode twice at Comic-Con; the first in my hotel room and I got bored as Hell, the second in a packed Hall H audience and I fell asleep. Showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez essentially triple down on the gloom of Daredevil, which would be fine if there was something more to do than stare at shadows in darkened sewer tunnels. I dare you to tell me what's going on in the earliest few fights, and no cheating by brightening up your screen. Finally, things start to perk up around the end of episode three with the already-cliche hallway fight, although it should be said that it's got some extra pop having everyone cracking skulls as a unit. And just when you're getting excited, 95% of episode four has them all chatting in a Chinese food restaurant like that one episode of Seinfeld. That last 5% is Hella awesome, though, and will get you pumped to burn through the rest of the series in one sitting.

I won't go into the individual storylines that force the Defenders to join forces, especially since one is particularly spoilery. But their common enemy is a seemingly normal woman named Alexandra, and you know she's a top shelf heel because she's played by Sigourney Weaver. Other familiar foes stand alongside her (I'm a sucker for a Madame Gao appearance) but it's Alexandra who remains the most mysterious, and as played by Weaver she's totally like a CEO who could also whoop your ass. But not in an obnoxious way like Iron Fist.

Speaking of Mr. Danny Rand, it had to have been a conscious decision to put so much of the storyline's weight on his shoulders, as a response to the negative reaction to Finn Jones' portrayal of the character. But this is indeed a series that relies quite a bit on Iron Fist, the mystical mojo of K'un Lun, and the walking enigma known as Stick (Scott Glenn). It's a mistake because, well, Iron Fist is super lame and Jones is always the worst actor in every scene, even when it's just him and a punching bag. Worse, the whole "harnessing my chi" stuff is just a little too Hong Kong Phooey for a series that relies on being grounded and gritty and real. It's hard not to chuckle, right along with Luke Cage most of the time, whenever Iron Fist starts talking about punching the hearts of dragons or whatever nonsense he's spouting about.

The relationship between Iron Fist and Luke Cage is one of the things the show does get right, and it deserves credit for taking on Danny Rand's white privilege head on. There's a terrific interaction early on when Danny is beating the crap out of a black kid who had been working for the Hand. Since the Hand are his sworn enemies, Danny beats the kid like he was one of their trained ninja assassins, up until Luke steps in and chastises him for the assault, stating the kid just needed money and had no idea of his employer. Danny stands his ground and accuses Luke of doing the same to others, only for Luke to fire back that at least he lives on their street, rather than up in some high-rise looking down on them.

“And I know privilege when I see it. You may think you earned your strength, but you had power before the day you were born", Luke puts a nail in the testy conversation. It's a great scene, one that will be catnip to fans of the Power Man and Iron Fist comic books these two have often shared. Not every moment between them works, in fact a lot of them don't, but this was The Defenders at its best. Other highlights are pretty much every time Jessica Jones has something snarky to say about their pseudo-teamup. She alone seems to get it; that this team of loners doesn't make a lot of sense. But arguing about it makes even less sense. Also, the inner workings of The Hand, which is exactly the kind of venomous snake pit of egos as you'd imagine, is genuinely fascinating. I could do with an entire miniseries just focused on The Hand and the various factions within. Plus, the return of an important character not seen for a while goes far better than their previous appearance, potentially setting them up for a future series of their own.

 At only 8 episodes, a downgrade from the usual 13, you'd think The Defenders would zip right along. The same pacing problems persist, only compacted now, and we go through the same interminable stretch of superhero angst. These are the most depressing superheroes ever, and each has had long enough to get over it. We don't need to see them rehashing the same personal demons now when there simply isn't time for it. The Defenders should be fun; I don't want to listen to Luke worry about the neighborhood, or Daredevil about his complicated dual-life. There was time for that before, but not now.

The Defenders is, overall, a disappointing crossover effort and I'm not sure it could have been anything different. A final act twist throws a curveball nobody wanted, and bears too striking a resemblance to an equally unnecessary swerve in Luke Cage. That's the problem in a nutshell. The Defenders should venture to be something new, since we've never seen anything like this on the small screen before. Not from Marvel, anyway. But it doesn't feel new; it feels like more of the same, and while that may be enough for some, shouldn't we expect more from an event like this?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5