Back in April of 2015, Netflix launched season one of the Marvel series “Daredevil,” and the internet collectively sighed, bracing ourselves for another ugly outing of the character we watched Ben Affleck butcher twelve years prior… but many of my nerd brethren nonetheless buckled in to see what this new extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to offer, as the fact that this new show was set to take place within the same reality as movies like “The Avengers,” made it interesting enough to suffer.
Soon, however, it became clear that this new Daredevil was nothing like the failed movie by the same name. The combination of Matt Murdock’s mental and emotional struggle, depicted with more breadth and development than a movie usually allots, with brutal fight scenes that emphasized incredible choreography rather than special effects, made for something unique even within the immensely successful Marvel live-action brand. Daredevil not only set the tone, but the pace, for a newly expanding television world that served as a gritty, and worthy, extension of the world we’d been introduced to by Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
Unfortunately, not all of Netflix’s Marvel outtings have been as successful. “Jessica Jones” provided us with a powerful (in more ways than one) female protagonist that was done a disservice by sometimes lackadaisical story telling, with season one of Netflix’s second hero series falling a bit flat. Soon thereafter, excitement returned to the streaming service in the form of “Luke Cage,” a Marine, turned cop, turned fugitive, turned bulletproof vigilante that, once again, encompassed a new demographic. Like “Jones” offered a woman’s perspective on heroism, “Cage” placed the race of its protagonist, and the challenges faced by American minorities, at the forefront of its story line with great success… at least until the last few episodes did away with the show’s incredible style and (spoiler alert) one of the best villains in any hero franchise, “Cottonmouth,” in favor of a cheesier tone and villain to match, in “Diamondback.”
Then came “Iron Fist.” Despite “Luke Cage’s” fizzled finale, it’s safe to say it had still elicited a great deal of excitement about what Netflix and Marvel might dish out next: and it came in the form of awkward acting, poorly choreographed fights, and the well-tread story of a rich kid turning to crime fighting after the death of his parents. If we were tired of that origin story littering every Batman franchise we’ve seen in recent years, just imagine how much worse it is when the character isn’t particularly likeable, and often forgoes a good fight scene in favor of lamenting about the challenges of being super rich and knowing kung fu. Iron Fist can be considered to be Netflix’s only “failure” in the super hero genre, though the show itself did fairly well in ratings, according to rumor (Netflix is notorious for not releasing its ratings).
Somewhere along the way, Daredevil Season 2 reaffirmed for us that Netflix was capable of telling incredible stories about incredible characters, with the super powers serving as the setting, rather than the plot itself – which combined with partial successes from “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” made for a great deal of anticipation for “The Avengers” of Marvel TV – Netflix’s “The Defenders.”
“The Defenders” sees the four main characters of previous series, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, thrust into circumstances that require their combined might to protect their city, and honestly, does so with solid execution. Each of the heroes, and the actors that play them, bring the best of their respective series to the table, with even Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, eventually becoming nearly tolerable on-screen. Returning characters, like Rosario Dawson’s “Claire” bring more dramatic appeal to the ensemble cast, with the addition of action legend Sigourney Weaver providing a dauntingly villainous presence, despite being 67 years old.
However, getting to the real quality of “The Defenders” will require a bit of effort on your part, as the first three or four episodes tend to drag on with more exposition than quality content. No worries if you skipped a series or two on your way to this new show, as the relationships between all of the (surprisingly large) cast of characters are once again rehashed in the beginning of this new show. Most of the exposition was delivered in creative ways, though, admittedly, any time Danny Rand (Iron Fist) and his cohort Colleen are on-screen, the show slows to a crawl, despite Jessica Henwick’s great performance as the legendary hero’s compatriot.
The rest of the plot, in a lot of ways, is nothing more than a redressing of the classic super hero team-up trope: a secret organization (The Hand) is going to destroy the city, and only by teaming up can our heroes save the day. The character development itself is also a rehash of tropes we’ve seen before; as my wife pointed out a few episodes into our binge-watch of the show. Daredevil plays the role of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s leader Leonardo, with the short-tempered Jessica Jones playing Raphael, the constantly snacking Iron Fist as Michelangelo, and Luke Cage’s voice of reason standing in for Donatello. They even have their own Master Splinter, in the form of Daredevil’s blind trainer, Stick.
However, don’t mistake familiarity for poor execution. Once the show gets past its admittedly slow start, it really picks up, both in terms of plot development and especially in action sequences. The show runners clearly heard the complaints about weak choreography in Iron Fist, offering up countless spectacular fight scenes, with choreography that not only seems realistic (in a super hero sort of way) but that matches the character using it. Jones and Cage bring similar abilities to the table, but Cage’s experience as a normal-human Marine and cop shine through in his ability to fight when strength isn’t enough. Jones, an untrained brawler that practices her investigation skills more often than her boxing, is sometimes outmatched by super-powered baddies, offering a realism in her need to improvise in order to win.
Daredevil, once again, brings a fast paced brutality to his fights, which couple well with the ninja opponents fielded by Weaver’s organization, the Hand, and honestly, even Iron Fist manages to impress from time to time. In what has become a Netflix staple, this series also has a “hallway fight” as most of the other series did, this time highlighting the ways our heroes can work together to become even more formidable than the sum of their parts.
The series also offers more developed villains than we’ve seen in Marvel’s films – and from more than just Weaver’s Alexandra. Elektra’s return as Daredevil’s dead ex-girlfriend/ninja super weapon provides the angst Daredevil needs to keep grimacing as this universe’s Batman (meant with good intonations) while also creating a deeply vexing character you find yourself almost rooting for to an extent. Madame Gao, another holdover from other series, also manages to be likeable, despite being an immortal villain with powers comparable to Darth Vader.
“The Defenders” follows multiple plot lines, carried by multiple characters, but does so in a mostly approachable way. Although it lacked the ensemble cast-carrying expertise we’ve come to expect from Marvel films like “Civil War,” it still did a good job of tying together the protagonist’s disparate story lines into one pretty tidy final act that leaves the viewer satisfied, if not already hurting for more.
The show doesn’t really break new ground, but then, it wasn’t supposed to. While “The Defenders” followed Marvel’s cinematic formula demonstrated by “The Avengers,” it served more as a reward for fans than an attempt at expanding the universe. The early Marvel movies, “Iron Man,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and “Thor,” all built toward the inevitable team up we’d been pinning for in 2012’s “The Avengers,” – but “The Defenders” feels more like a side course that adds to the development of the individual series’, rather than the entrée we’ve been building to. I actually found myself more interested in what was coming next from Netflix’s group of hero shows than I was in the possibility of another team up, though it seems inevitable (again, in a good way) that we’ll get more from the group as well.
Ultimately, “The Defenders” succeeded in capitalizing on the strengths of its individual characters, while further developing the weaker ones into heroes I might be willing to give another shot to. In fact, since finishing the series, I’ve found myself migrating back to “Jessica Jones” to give her series another shot, as Krysten Ritter’s performance as Jones was among the strongest “The Defenders” had to offer. Even Iron Fist felt tolerable by the culmination of “The Defenders,” but to be honest, I’d be more interested in seeing a show carried by his sword swinging companion, Colleen Wing, than I would be in another outing with Danny Rand whining about the price of prescription drugs.
If you’re a fan of the super hero genre, “The Defenders” fairly short season (eight episodes) will provide you with all the face-punching, karate-kicking, and wall-smashing you need, but if you find yourself on the fence about Marvel’s Netflix efforts, it may be a great opportunity for you to size up the shows and choose which one(s) you might be interested in watching. Unlike the Marvel films we see in theaters, “The Defenders,” and the shows that led to it, feel firmly rooted in reality, where violence has repercussions, and tragedies aren’t only seen wooshing by at Mach 1 from Iron Man’s heads up display. “The Defenders” are about fighting street level-threats that may fall below Nick Fury’s radar, where the death of even a single person is felt deeply by those involved.
While not the best piece of super hero fodder ever to make its way onto my television, “The Defenders” is a whole lot of fun, despite a slow start, and serves to strengthen Netflix’s appeal to geeks like me. If you find yourself looking for some heart pounding action, coupled with some occasionally over the top drama, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Netflix’s latest series.
Images courtesy of Netflix