In 2015, Netflix and Marvel surprised the world with a take on Daredevil that was not only true to character and deeply respectful of the source material, but also offered a brand new direction in which to take the MCU. Soon, the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen was joined by the bad-ass private eye with PTSD, Jessica Jones, the unbreakable ex-con, Luke Cage, and the billionaire kung-fu master, Iron Fist – each bringing varying levels of success to the franchise. Now, after two years of build up, these heroes must join together to fight a threat greater than any of them could face alone, all the while dealing with their clashing personalities, in the first season of Marvel’s THE
Having all been through the ringer in their individual series’, none of Netflix’s heroes are exactly in a place to team up and defend New York, so there is a fair amount of jumping between story lines before circumstance finally forces them together. Iron Fist (Finn Jones) is off travelling the world, hunting down members of the hand, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is keeping a low profile after finally being released from prison, and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is belligerently ignoring potential PI work as she tries to return her life to normal. Most surprising of all, and hugely jarring as far as narrative continuity is concerned, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) has hung up the Daredevil persona, and is focusing on saving people in the courtroom, instead of darkened alleyways.
The ultimate big bad that finally brings these disparate heroes together – the Netflix MCU’s Loki, if you will – takes the form of Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), a high ranking member of The Hand, whose levels of power and influence are exceeded only by her fashion sense. Leading four other Hand members, including returning baddies Bakuto (Ramón Rodríguez) and Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), and backed up by personal assassin/recent corpse, Elektra (Elodie Yung), Alexandra acts as a puppet master of sorts, whose machinations draw the attention of each prospective Defender, ultimately drawing them to a reluctant team-up.
The effortless chemistry between the lead actors is easily the greatest strength of the series.
Once the four paths finally cross, it becomes instantly clear that the bizarre ways in which their clashing personalities complement each other is going to be a strong driving force of the series. As a fighting unit they are surprisingly seamless, and the adaption of the now expected corridor scene to involve four fighters is appropriately glee-inducing. Off the battlefield, the budding Defenders get to explore just how mismatched their individual personalities are – with banter flowing and eyes rolling, the effortless chemistry between the lead actors is easily the greatest strength of the series.
Matt slips easily into a leadership role, with his recently tested and reaffirmed convictions providing a loose moral compass for the team, Luke gets some great material with both his comic book BFF Iron Fist and awkward ex Jessica Jones, and the PI herself holds her own as the only female member of the team, with plenty of sardonic wit and layperson judgement of the others’ heroic ideals. Even Danny Rand has loosened up a little since his less than well received solo outing, and briefly seems to settle into his natural role of team joker, before unfortunately being shoehorned back into a more serious, plot forwarding position due to his strong connection with the shadowy villains.
The idea of five members of The Hand (Geddit?) teaming up with as much reluctance and personality clashes as the Defenders themselves is an intriguing one, and there are a few moments when the villains, particularly with their scheming power grabs, are as engaging to watch as the good guys. Gao and Alexandra have an especially fun dynamic; the scenes shared between them give the impression of a very long friendship, that has only lasted so long because each has failed thus far to murder the other. An unfortunate bait-and-switch (A habit of Marvel’s that wore thin a while ago) means that for the latter half of the series, the focus is taken off of Alexandra, leaving a void of charisma that none but Sigourney could have filled.
It’s surprising that such a monumental event is given a plot that […] feels as pointless as Luke Cage’s collection of hair products.
Barring the assumed misstep that was Iron Fist Season 1, the story quality in Netflix’s MCU has been pretty consistent; each season tended to have a moment or two of dragging over its 13 episode course, but the plot was gripping enough and the characters engaging enough that these narrative lulls were forgiven. It’s surprising, therefore, that such a monumental event as the joining of the four flagship heroes is given a plot that is patchier than Jessica Jones’ fingerless gloves, and feels as pointless as Luke Cage’s collection of hair products. Jammed in between the enjoyable moments of character interactions are hammy plot threads that offer nothing new, and culminate in an endgame that manages to feel simultaneously ridiculous and underwhelming.
Whether a reaction to the criticisms levelled at previous series’, or simply that the wafer thin plot couldn’t be stretched any further without breaking, THE DEFENDERS forgoes the norm and cuts in at a much leaner 8 episodes. While this certainly helps to avoid the feeling of dragging, it ironically offers little time for character development amongst the winding, exhausting plot. It doesn’t help that there seems to be no hurry to get the team together, with pairs meeting (Matt and Jessica, Luke and Danny) at the end of episode 2, and the whole team not coming together until the end of 3. In a normal season this pace would be fine, but with only 5 episodes to explore the team dynamic, the end result leaves a lot to be desired, and feels like a missed opportunity.
Though it would have been preferable to spend less time following each Defender individually (not to mention toning down the painfully intrusive use of coloured lights to indicate whose storyline we’re following – red for Daredevil, yellow for Luke Cage etc), once the gang comes together the electric energy shared between them makes the long wait easy to forgive. Less sweet to swallow is the bland, poorly executed plot, and, despite Sigourney’s charm, the lack of a credible threat. Overall, THE DEFENDERS shows plenty of potential, much of which is sure to be picked up in future solo seasons, but for what it is, it feels incredibly lacklustre when compared to the success of it’s feature film counterpart, The Avengers.
Verdict: 3/5 Paddles