The Avengers was a landmark moment in filmmaking. The more time that passes the more evidence stacks up to support that statement. DC, Harry Potter, Fox’s X-Men & Fantastic Four, Universal’s Dark Universe and even the Fast and the Furious franchise are all trying to create a cinematic universe worth a fraction of the multi-billion dollar Marvel machine. Netflix sought out a different route – a smarter way – by picking good Marvel heroes that were never destined for the big screen and giving them a spotlight.
The inevitable crossover extraordinaire The Defenders unites disparate heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist after a series (or more) of their own adventures. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a sequel to the place we left all our heroes and references are of course aplenty – subtle nods like Kilgrave and Mariah, more pronounced inclusions such as Stick and Madam Gao. Worse case scenario a viewer might close The Defenders in favour of a series earlier in the timeline, which is still a win for Netflix and will eventually lead them back here anyway.
The Defenders is objectively very good. It’s a carefully-plotted long-form story that will cap off this chapter of the Netflix universe fittingly.
The villainous Hand organisation is pulled from the sophomore season of Daredevil and the debut season of Iron Fist, and The Defenders does an excellent job of explaining their mixed motivations in one conversation over some dim sims than Iron Fist ever could. Five ‘fingers’ have been acting independently in servitude of Sigourney Weaver’s leader Alexandra but now that all changes.
As a quick side note, this is the easiest money Sigourney Weaver has ever made. She is regal and menacing, and she adds considerable star power to the promotions, but she hasn’t needed to dig deep for some Oscar-worthy acting. Perhaps later in the series.
Daredevil’s lover Elektra is also there, which is about all that can be said. She’s spoken less than a dozen words and acted mindlessly for the Hand. It’s a shame to mute the charisma of Elodie Yung but it won’t be forever and the dedication to the comics plot ‘Black Sky’ is admirable.
In fact the deep consideration for every individual series and the motivations of every character – not just the main four – speak to a higher level of understanding from Marvel Television chief Jeph Loeb. Everyone is quick to praise Kevin Fiege (and rightly so) but Loeb is behind not only The Defenders and The Punisher, but also Agents of SHIELD’s successful Inhuman, Ghost Rider and LMD plotlines.
A warning to the viewers though: if you want to everyone united by the first episode’s close you will be disappointed. The first episode is our heroes existing in isolation, at first glance skippable, but it serves as a bridge from the solo series into the crossover. It’s also the most time to see supporting characters Karen Page, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, Trish Walker and Claire Temple.
Even after that the unification is very gradual. It’s still novel to see Daredevil counsel Jessica Jones or for the Iron Fist to throwdown with Luke Cage, both physically and verbally. The polar opposites of the latter pair could not be more pronounced in these series and there is a long way to go before a teamup similar to the comics is ever on the cards.
The third episode truly feels like The Defenders series the viewers imagined, and the fourth episode leans into the idea fully. There is a real feeling of resistance by the characters to join the Iron Fist’s fight, but their own personal adventures are leading them to this moment. Luke Cage is pivotal to bringing both Jessica and Daredevil into the fold – “I’m willing to play along with this mystical stuff if it means answers”.
It might go without saying, but Mike Colter’s performance is sublime. He remains incredible and is a hero in the purest form of the word. A decade from now it would be incredible to incorporate him into The Avengers. Charlie Cox is a more restrained Daredevil that the sulky, ultraviolent star of his solo series and it is such an improvement. It was a real concern that the hero with the highest episode count would overpower the series but Loeb’s steady hand offers a more balanced effort than any crossover event yet.
This of course means equal screen time for Finn Jones’ Iron Fist. His solo outing was widely panned somewhat unfairly, but here the redeeming qualities are stripped away to showcase a very whiny and unlikable protagonist. He is the most focussed of the group in his mission, but he’s also the most childish and silly. Every time he says the Hand murdered his parents it’s laughably narrow-minded and naive, and that’s without even drawing on the Lego Batman parallels. It’s unlikely it’s part of a master plan, but at this stage the only way to save the character is to have him go through a Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice puberty in where a colossal event (death, or something equally epic) allows for a rebirth (either literally or figuratively) to allow the character to embody their actual identity.
It’s not Finn Jones’ fault, and it’s not Henry Cavill’s either. And The Defenders is very good despite Iron Fist. It’s actually a testament to how cringey the character is that he is not elevated by his brilliant companions.
And the most brilliant of them all is Jessica Jones. Her solo series was a runaway success and she is the best thing about The Defenders. Krysten Ritter is perfect casting and her delivery is fantastic. Her odd couple act with Daredevil is charming and her sweet familiarity with Luke Cage shows a rare vulnerability. Jessica Jones holds the whole show together.
The direction is beautiful. The scripting is so true to the characters. The stage is set and now the epic show we were promised actually begins.
The Defenders is a large success, but it never soars to the innovation or daring that Jessica Jones or Luke Cage’s solo series did. There are too many moving parts to tell a story so profound. The simplicity of the story saved it from being a convoluted mess. It’s brave to play the long game and this time it worked while so many other shared universes grapple to survive.
Marvel triumphs once again, surprising nobody. A barely-lingual tree sells more merchandise than the Joker. The famed studio makes it look easy when it certainly is not. When will they miss? Looking at you, ABC’s Inhumans.