The Defenders is finally here, and we’re breaking down the good, the bad, and the weird in Marvel and Netflix’s long-awaited combo series.
Everyone loves an odd couple, a ragtag team, a mismatched collection. There’s a charm to characters who march to discordant drums, a static charge between opposites that draws humor and drama like storytelling dust.
Marvel’s four vividly personified street-level heroes should snap right into this recipe; snarky, barbed, flawed, and singular, the alchemy of the Defenders combined should be a delight to behold. And sometimes, it is.
Sometimes, however, it is not.
In the first four episodes made available to critics, the Defenders seems considerably more concerned with mythology than psychology, prioritizing the mechanics of plot over the characters that breathe them to life. Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand are players on a chess board, servicing the arcane and more-than-slightly Orientalist mystery that has been pooled together through the Netflix series.
As such, the opening movements of the Defenders are puzzlingly turgid, as complicated lures are set in place, gradually (very gradually!) drawing all four heroes into the same sphere.
Fortunately, false starts and passing connections among the Defenders provide flashes of slick enjoyment between the labors of plot. From even the most fleeting interactions, it’s clear that Manhattan’s hot-mess heroes have just as much chemistry together as fans could hope — especially razor-tonged Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones — a revelation that makes the extended build-up even more frustrating.
Which is not to say that the long-awaited combo series is without its pleasures before the central cast collides. Sigourney Weaver is instantly riveting as Alexandra, a towering figure with layers of secrets that peel away like dying petals. Alexandra’s increasingly epic stature underpins the mythological consequences dogging the story, but more importantly, provides a lovely contrast with her surrogate daughter — the recently-revived Elektra.
Once the dominant seductress and killer, Elodie Yung now translates Elektra into a small, lost creature, pitiable for all that she remains appallingly deadly. Reanimation has boiled Elektra down to her essence as the Black Sky, but something is wrong in the state of Alexandra, and Elektra knows it.
That frisson is a powerful thread tracing through the Defenders, and one that only gets more complicated when Elektra’s apparent return is made known to Matt Murdock.
There are also plenty of enjoyable cameos from the secondary cast of the various series. Misty Knight of Luke Cage and Jerri Hogarth of Jessica Jones are particularly effective, as is Daredevil’s Foggy Nelson, though none of these characters are given much time to expand beyond vehicles for exposition. That’s an understandable shortcoming — the Defenders is only eight episodes long — but this kind of economy also serves to highlight the series’ unbalanced storytelling
The Defenders, it is clear, wants to be everything at once, but it has no idea how.
The show wants to look like all four of its predecessors, mashing together stylistic cues not as homage but as a repeated shortcut. (We know it’s Jessica’s turn in the spotlight when rapid cuts flicker across the screen, we know Luke is up when rap music plays and the light fades to yellow.)
The Defenders also wants to reconcile the social consciousness of Luke Cage with Iron Fist’s self-important good fortune, and so stages satisfying confrontations of Danny’s privilege that don’t seem to make a dent. And the Defenders wants to finally resolve the mythology of the Hand and K’un Lun, so it proliferates itself with generically Asian villains and labors over wordy scenes full of secret whispers with nary a cared-for character in sight.
Fortunately, the Defenders also clearly wants to play with its four flawed heroes, bouncing them off each other like wounded marbles in a box.
The series indisputably roars to life once Matt, Jessica, Luke, and Danny are finally forced out of their own problems and into cooperation. The tag-team heroics and rapid-fire dialogue that ensue are every bit as delightful as fans could hope for, although it’s worth noting that fans who struggle with Danny’s character will not find much relief.
All told, the Defenders is something of a Frankenstineinan creation. Part lumbering awkwardness, part vibrant wit, part somber self-reference, and part giddy fun, the final product has the whiff of an incomplete experiment. That’s frustrating, given Marvel’s many successful big-screen mashups, but ultimately the Defenders is solid enough not to disappoint fans.
After all, the Defenders themselves are all too ornery to coalesce perfectly. Perhaps it makes sense that their series is the same.
Marvel’s Defenders hits Netflix on Aug. 18, 2017.