(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the first season of Marvel’s The Defenders.)
When the entire world needs saving, the Avengers are the team you probably want on the job (if this particular world exists in the MCU, that is). But when the local neighborhood needs protection, maybe it’s time for some smaller fish to spring into action. Enter The Defenders, the latest Marvel show to drop onto Netflix for fans to binge over a weekend and then swiftly forget about.
There was a time when a series like The Defenders would feel like a major event, yet there’s a curious lack of excitement revolving around the project. Perhaps it’s become harder to be enthusiastic about an event like this when every form of superhero entertainment is treated like an event now. In other words, it’s become exhausting.
When Marvel slowly built up the MCU and then unleashed The Avengers into theaters, it felt fresh and exciting – movies hadn’t attempted something like this before. How then does the same approach fare on TV with The Defenders? For one thing, Marvel has learned from some of the mistakes of their previous Netflix series. While the shows that led into The Defenders were often painfully drawn-out into 12 episodes, The Defenders is a much-more manageable eight. Yet even eight hours is just too long in this case. The Defenders is a 2-hour movie stretched into a series, and it suffers as a result. Not helping matters is the fact that The Defenders is plagued with strange wipes and smash-cuts to get us from scene to scene, fight sequences bogged down with slowness, a completely wasted villain, and, of course, more Iron Fist, the character none of us need more of.
There’s a lot to unpack here, yet at the same time there isn’t. This is truly the strangest Marvel series to date, not because of its content, but because of how curiously empty it ends up feeling. It’s a whole lot of build-up leading into not much pay-off. It’s entertaining yet somehow completely joyless. It’s a conundrum.
To examine The Defenders, we must first look at the four heroes at its center, and then beyond. Consider this an informal power-ranking, where we look at them from best to worst (I’m pretty sure you can guess who will end up in last place).
AKA Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones is not only the best of the Marvel/Netflix series, it’s also one of the best things Marvel has done so far with their new-found powers of entertainment domination. It was a series that tackled incredibly weighty material – sexual abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism – and found ways to fit it all into a superhero saga. While the Marvel films shy away from these very adult themes, the Netflix shows have allowed darker, heavier subject matter to flourish, and Jessica Jones was the show that handled it best.
So it’s no surprise that Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones is the most interesting element of The Defenders. Of the four leads, Jessica is the one who comes across as the most genuine; the most believable. And while Daredevil is the only member of the team who actually has anything approaching an emotional arc here, it’s Jessica who steals every scene she’s in. Jessica is still reeling from the events of her own series, and the specter of her vile arch nemesis Kilgrave still haunts her. One interesting factor is the reveal that since her tangle with Kilgrave, Jessica hasn’t really changed much. While it would’ve been very easy to have the character start to clean up her act and cut down on her hard drinking, that’s also not very realistic. Just because Jessica finally vanquished Kilgrave it doesn’t make her any less traumatized. She’s still inherently emotionally damaged, and she’s combating that the only way she knows how – with copious amounts of liquor.
What makes Jessica the best Defender is the fact that she’s the only member who has a sense of humor about, well, anything. All the other characters are incredibly self-important and oh-so-serious about who they are and what their mission is. Jessica, in stark contrast, just doesn’t give a shit. She wants to get this all over with so she can back to her own life. There’s something freeing in that, in a character who wants to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
Still cobbling together an existence as a private eye, Jessica gets hired – sort of – to find a missing architect. She’s hesitant to take the case simply because she believes the architect has run off to have an affair, but she eventually tracks him down to an apartment where he’s stored an alarming amount of explosives. The architect, brandishing a gun and clearly scared out of his mind, confronts Jessica in her own office, where he’s promptly attacked by none-other than the resurrected Elektra Natchios (Élodie Yung), although Jessica has no idea who she is at this point. The architect would rather take his own life than face Elektra, an act that ends up getting Jessica arrested by Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Every criminal suspect is entitled to legal representation, which gives the show the perfect excuse to bring Jessica and Matt Murdock together.
The show keeps coming back to the late architect character, who is peripherally involved with the bigger plot. Jessica awkwardly tries to reassure the dead man’s traumatized family, but The Defenders eventually drops this entirely to focus on half-assed fist-fights. It’s a pity, because these moments where Jessica, who is not the best communicator, struggles to talk with the dead man’s daughter (Chloe Levine) are handled quite well. These emotional moments are few and far between in The Defenders, and would likely be better explored in a new season of Jessica Jones rather than as part of the convoluted plot of The Defenders. This is a flaw that appears again and again in this show – smaller character moments are sacrificed to make room for flimsy spectacle. Hey, is it time for Jessica Jones season 2 yet?
Let’s all take a step back and appreciate how cool, and charming, and handsome Mike Colter is as the noble, super strong, bullet-proof Luke Cage. Colter has so much damn charisma that it should probably be illegal to pair him up with someone like Finn Jones, but hey, that’s where we are.
Unfortunately, Luke Cage has very little to do in The Defenders. Colter is so wonderful in the part, though, that his ranking here is high, but gosh it would’ve been nice if the writers had given him some more stuff to do.
At the start of The Defenders, Luke is in jail, but don’t worry: he gets out instantly and returns home to his neighborhood, where he hooks back up with Rosario Dawson’s ever-present nurse Claire Temple. Luke wants to become a shining light in his community; a hero who can do some real good beyond just clobbering people. This stuff is set up very early, and it hints at greatness. Luke gets involved trying to help a young man in over his head, and Colter shines in these moments. But don’t worry – the show quickly dispatches with this so Luke can just stand around and occasionally do strong stuff, like bending pipes or let bullets bounce off his chest.
One thing The Defenders does do right: it reunites Luke and Jessica, who hadn’t seen each other since the events of Jessica Jones. These few and far between moments, where the former lovers awkwardly talk about their history, are stellar, and Colter and Ritter have dynamite chemistry together. But who has time for all that character work when we’ve got poorly lit fight scenes to get to?
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