Defending the Defenders
The first season of The Defenders went live on Netflix this past weekend. The 8-episode crossover series for Marvel’s street-level heroes — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — functions as Netflix’s own version of the 2012 blockbuster, the Avengers (though certainly on a smaller scale). While the payoff was nowhere near comparable to that of the big screen team-up, the first season of The Defenders was a reminder of the potential of Marvel’s “small screen” heroes.
The pacing in the show is admittedly slow, but one could chalk that up to it being episodic, rather than a single two-hour movie. However, the slow build was likely necessary. Given how well Marvel has handled how characters like Matt Murdock/Daredevil and Jessica Jones struggle with their “hero status” in their own ways, one could not expect these individuals to suddenly want to trust and team with others at the snap of a finger. With that being said, it should come as no surprise that the first three episodes were spent tying each individual hero to the common enemy of the show before finally bringing them all together as a team.
Danny Rand (aka the Immortal Iron Fist), who was seen to many as problematic for Netflix’s superhero universe following a lukewarm first season of his show, is somewhat redeemed by surrounding him with such polar opposite characters like that of Luke Cage. In what could be seen as a key character development moment for Iron Fist, Cage brings Rand down to earth by giving him a lesson on white privilege while the two are alone in a room together. Given the controversy surrounding casting Finn Jones as Danny Rand, one cannot help but think this was an attempt to acknowledge those critics and use it to better the on-screen hero. While some of Jones’ acting is still a little stiff and emotionless at times (think Stephen Amell in Arrow), the only real lasting complaint is that there are times where Iron Fist fails to hold his own in hand-to-hand combat. Mind you, Iron Fist has traditionally been known in the comics to be one of the most skilled fighters Marvel has to offer.
Sigourney Weaver shined as Alexandra Reid, one of the primary antagonists serving to further the underground crime syndicate known as The Hand. Weaver’s Alexandra exudes unspoken control and power in a manner similar to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk. Another standout was Elektra, who (Daredevil Season 2 spoiler) returned from the dead and would eventually steal the show as the “big bad.” Both Alexandra and Elektra were both subtle yet satisfying nods to a more progressive and feminist storytelling. On one hand, there was Alexandra who was the prototypical modern business woman. Then there was Elektra, who literally underwent a journey of self-discovery and self-worth throughout the process.
Speaking of Daredevil, another satisfying aspect of The Defenders was getting reacquainted with the mainstays of Hell’s Kitchen. Matt Murdock’s story arch in this season served to expand on his emotional struggles with Elektra, the lingering feelings for Karen Page, and his somewhat complicated friendship with Foggy Nelson. The Defenders was able to cover all of these bases without making the show seem like a poor man’s Daredevil Season 3.
The series also was a prime refresher on Jessica Jones. Krysten Ritter is as witty and blunt as ever — reminding fans of what made the first season of her show so successful, while also readying them for the upcoming second season.
The show as a whole was also shot beautifully. Whether it be a team meeting in a Chinese restaurant or a battle deep beneath the city, the lighting was often artful and extremely well-shot without being too over the top (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder).
The Defenders will not satisfy every Marvel fanatic along the way and many will find the finale to be polarizing in the grand scheme of the Netflix universe. The biggest knock on The Defenders might lie in the fact that when the dust settles, these small screen heroes are even further separated from the big screen ones (you’re telling me a building blew up in the middle of New York and not a single Avenger came by to investigate?). But while we will never see Daredevil and Captain America fighting side by side, The Defenders sets the groundwork for a universe that, when judged as a separate entity from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is full of compelling characters and has a tone that is distinct to that of any Marvel blockbuster movie to date.