Two years ago Marvel and Netflix paired up in an ambitious, all in, plan that involved creating a secondary universe filled with four gritty, flawed, not as flashy, second tier heroes. I don’t use the term second tier in a negative, not every super hero can be Spider-Man or Captain America, but be honest with yourselves. Who among the casual fans knew who Jessica Jones or Iron Fist were before their Netflix programs? I’m pretty sure that the world still remembered Daredevil from the abysmal Ben Affleck film (*groan*) which is why making him the lead off hitter to this endeavor was a bit risky. It was clear from the get go that both Netflix and Marvel wanted to purge that film from our memories as they supplied us with a dark and gritty Daredevil that fit the mode of Frank Miller and Mark Waid stories. Season one of Daredevil was so different from anything else that was happening in the MCU and supplied us with a part of the Marvel Universe that was conscious of the shadow of the Avengers but never felt buried under it. Street level problems deserved street level heroes, and Daredevil and Jessica Jones not only proved that the world was interested in Marvel telling these types of stories but yearning for it. The action and the language were harsh as characters died, cursed, bled, and had sex. The stories a bit more layered, complex, and haunting. The villains eclipsed any villain from the MCU who wasn’t Loki. Most importantly the heroes were flawed and broken in ways that Tony Stark or Thor weren’t. There was a more every man (or woman) quality to these heroes that made them more accessible than their MCU counterparts.
The success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones made the arrival of Luke Cage and Iron Fist a bit easier and helped stoke the fires of excitement for the payoff season, where our heroes would all join forces Avengers style, The Defenders. These shows had earned the trust of an audience who was willing to give these lesser known heroes a chance. Luke Cage wasn’t as good as Jones or Daredevil but was still a strong showing with excellent performances and a title character to care about. Iron Fist on the other hand (pun not intended) seemed like Marvel and Netflix’s first misstep within this universe. The story to a degree seemed to be a re-hashing of the CW’s Arrow, the fights reeked of choreography, and Danny Rand just needed a good slapping. With the ultimate goal being The Defenders it was a bit unsettling having Iron Fist be the lead in. You’re only as good as your last showing and Iron Fist was sub par at best. There was a bit of rumbling if Netflix and Marvel would be able to stick the landing of a project that seemed as invincible as Luke Cage’s skin.
The good news is The Defenders puts any rumblings, outside the city of New York, to rest right off the bat. The show is an absolute blast. From start to finish, The Defenders is everything you’ve come to love about this Netflix universe and arrives like an Iron Fist to the face and leaves like a Luke Cage “sweet Christmas”. While some might think eight episodes is a bit on the short side, thirteen episodes being the norm for each character, I would argue that is the perfect amount of time to spend with our heroes. Not once does the show feel like it over stays it’s welcome and consistently holds the feel that this team up is special. Think of it like an event comic. These characters may be apart of the same universe but they’re not always going to share the screen together. Something like The Defenders should be viewed as a rare, exciting, event and not a novelty.
The story starts off by quickly catching us up with the last time we saw our heroes. Danny Rand is searching for the Hand, Jessica Jones’s life hasn’t restored order since Kilgrave, Matt Murdock has given up the mantle while being shamed by Karen and Foggy for being Daredevil in the first place, and Luke Cage finds himself being freed from prison. It takes about two episodes before the four are united, which could seem like a lot of time for such a short season, but allows us to reacquaint ourselves with characters we’ve been missing. Once the group is united things tend to fire on all cylinders.
The major conflict here is the Hand and for those of you who might have let out a groan because it means more Iron Fist, take a deep breath. Yes, Danny Rand is a large part of The Defenders narrative and yes he still needs a good slapping, but the inclusion of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Daredevil all help to tone down the characters lesser qualities. The relationship with Luke Cage especially is well constructed, Mike Colter plays this role almost effortlessly, and I would love to see Netflix do a Power Man and Iron Fist show. I will say that Finn Jones vastly improves his performance as Danny Rand though. The fights seem to be a bit more fluid and Jones a little more comfortable in the skin of Rand. There’s still room for a great deal of improvement but there is hope here. As a matter of fact, there is a scene where Danny punches a bad guy right as Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” starts up and it’s one of the highlights of the series for me. If they wanted to make an Iron Fist show where every time Danny punches someone a different Wu-Tang song starts up, well, I’d be all over that.
The star of the show is hands down Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones who not only steals every scene she’s in but also has the uncanny ability to mesh perfectly with anyone she’s asked to share screen time with. The sarcastic one liners, exasperated facial expressions, or unwillingness to believe that this is real life make Jessica shine throughout the series. A woman who is grounded in reality and the crappiness of human behavior, not to mention super powers of her own, needs to be convinced that a world with immortals and ninjas really exists. At times Jessica is the voice of reason to a world that has immortals and ninjas. As I was watching I couldn’t help but think how badly I want Jessica Jones season two. She is the secret weapon of The Defenders and makes everyone around her better at every moment.
Charlie Cox gets to run point guard for the series, which makes sense considering he was the one who helped jump start it all. Daredevil is the backbone of The Defenders and the reluctant leadership he provides goes a long way of shaping the team. It goes a long way in shaping Danny especially. There are times where episodes of The Defenders could feel like Daredevil 2.5 and instead of overpowering the other heroes those story lines seem to fall smoothly into place. A shared problem for them all. The revival of Elektra as the Hand’s secret weapon, and weird daughter like figure to Sigourney Weaver’s calculated and eerie Alexandra, makes a great foil for the team. Each character gets a moment with Elektra as the stakes continue to rise higher and higher. For Daredevil, especially, the quest to defeat the Hand isn’t only about saving New York but preserving his soul.
Make no mistake about it, The Defenders are not the Avengers. In fact, they don’t want to be. That doesn’t mean that the show is any less fun. There is a great deal of humor buried in this dark and gritty pocket of the MCU and the Defenders not only make a claim to be as valuable as the Avengers but worthy to share the same screen with them. I would love to see these four pop up in Infinity Wars if only for a second to prove that they’re on the same level as Iron Man or Doctor Strange. For a rag tag group of second tier characters, that’s not so bad. The Defenders is worth your time and these heroes, in their own special ways, are worth looking up to.
Images from Netflix