Marvel’s The Defenders: Season 1
Hopefully you’ve surfaced from your Defenders binge by now.
After what felt like an endless wait, we finally get to see the Marvel’s Defenders assemble. First off, I have to say this first season is very appealing visually. The thematic color choices for each Defender’s scenes are hard to miss and as the series progresses, the bleeding together of those color themes serves to symbolize the team growing closer. Small things like this show that the creators are maintaining the unique identities of each of our heroes and meaningfully bringing these shows into one.
Strangely, this season felt too short. The Marvel’s Netflix franchise, as a whole, has been largely criticized for the length of the 13 episode duration. But I wonder if, in hindsight, it might have been better to do 8 to 10 episode solo seasons and a 13 episode Defenders season? There was definitely a concerted effort to slowly bring the various threads together for the first few episodes, only to round things out in a dead sprint by the end. There’s a lot that’s sacrificed in order to support the escalation of the plot, one thing being the threat of the Hand. The ancient organization of the Hand is construed as a group that’s spent centuries cultivating power and planning to overthrow the leaders of K’un-Lun while their efforts here come off as more of a C-list terrorist group. Not only the Hand, but the sidekick characters (sorry, but that’s what they are) suffer at the hands of the season’s brevity and really don’t get a lot of room to breathe.
In terms of getting the job done, though, you can’t really deny that we got the Defenders season we were promised, and it’s mostly a good return on the audience’s investment. It also works as a standalone series without having committed the time to the other series with the exception of Daredevil, which I think you kind of have to watch to get everything going here (which, in my opinion, is a win-win situation.) Personally, I wanted a little more from the villains and the action, but the chemistry between the characters is great and there are tons of fan service being dealt out. At the end of the day, The Defenders delivered what was being advertised; a fun and entertaining team up of characters that you love (or love to hate… Iron Fist.)
Despite that last jab, something that really worked was Danny Rand. He comes off a way better character and human here than he ever did in his own solo series. The Defenders also treats the Iron Fist as more of a weapon, which has a lot to do with why I enjoyed his character a lot more (coupled with the fact that he’s tempered by many more competent individuals.) He comes off as a force to be reckoned with, whose abilities and power are actually valuable. Luke and Matt’s influence over him work to counteract the emotional thunderstorm that dominated his actions in season 1 of Iron Fist. One thing I’ve come to understand about this incarnation of Danny Rand is that he’s not a strategist, but in The Defenders he doesn’t have to be and we don’t have to be constantly annoyed by the asinine decisions he makes (although he still makes a few in this series.) Even by the end of this season, there seems to be some actual character growth. Call me crazy, but I might actually be excited for an Iron Fist season 2 now.
This may have been obvious going in, but the composition of this team works really well. There is great chemistry with the main four protagonists and their banter, in particular, is pretty enjoyable (Jessica definitely stands out.) Aside from the humor, I really bought into the idea of this team-up and I believe it goes a long way towards earning the emotional moments, especially towards the end of the season. In large part, this is a result of having watched all four of the solo series and having insight into each of these characters and what they’ve been through. Even taking this series on its own, the work put into blending these worlds and telling this story creates a bond between the characters that you can get behind.
Daredevil, Daredevil and Daredevil. Charlie Cox is actually Matthew Murdock to me. He plays the role so well and he shines as the character in this series. Maybe he benefits from the additional season as compared to the rest of the team, but the character just works on so many levels. Per usual, we get the typical brooding and withholding of key information, but his interactions with the rest of the team are pure gold. The story that’s told here with Elektra also goes a long way towards reinvesting the audience in their relationship. Their relationship is key because the pivotal turn in the series revolves around Elektra recovering her memories, her memories of being in love with Matt. Elodie Young does a fantastic job capturing the emotional fragility of her character after losing her memories and identity. By the end, you can totally feel for her character and understand why Matt sacrifices himself for her.
What Didn’t Work
Sadly, the biggest issue for me was a failure to handle the ancient evil organization, the Hand. A group that has been developed over two separate solo series and four different seasons in total somehow still struggles to come off as the menacing and invulnerable threat it has been built up as. We are first introduced to the organization’s leader Alexandra, played by Sigourney Weaver, who for the most part does a good job in the role. She’s treated like a more mystical version of Kingpin. She enjoys the finer things that extreme wealth can bring like fancy brunches, top notch medical care, private performances of classical music, etc. (you know, the standard.) We learn that she gambled the last of the group’s reserves of the “substance” (a life-preserving mixture made from ancient dragon bones that allows people to come back from death) in order to resurrect Elektra because she’s the Black Sky, a figure of prophecy who Alexandra believes is destined to be the Hand’s ultimate win condition.
The problem is, we never learn why Elektra is so essential. As far as what we are shown, she just kicks and punches harder and, in the end, is still basically Elektra Natchios, someone who does not take too kindly to being controlled as a someone else’s weapon (a fact Alexandra now knows all too well.) All of this is fine in a vacuum, I suppose. It’s just that, as fans of the Kingpins and Purple Men of old, I can’t help but feel a bit shafted here. The Hand’s entire plan all this time has basically been just to live forever…for longer? I mean, I get it; they want to continue operating in the shadows, pulling the levers of power and what not. It’s just a little underwhelming. To be fair, there’s also a desire of the leaders of the Hand to return to K’un-Lun, but it’s just not the world domination angle that I thought was being developed.
Another issue I had is the use of the side characters from the solo series. These character were all criminally underused, particularly Claire. I mean, Claire was touted around as the Nick Fury of the Netflix universe but 90% of her interactions in this season were with Luke, Danny, and Colleen. She talks to Matt like one time that I can remember, and I don’t think she ever speaks to Jessica. Why spend so much time ensuring that she makes an appearance in every solo series if not to utilize her as a prominent figure in the team-up? As for the rest of the side characters, Colleen Wing and Misty Knight get the majority of the screen time but barely enough to make them little more than hindrances to our protagonists. Misty is relegated to the resident Debbie Downer primarily, getting in the way of the things that we want the Defenders to do. Colleen comes off as whiny and self-absorbed; insistent on participating in the fight even though she knows she’d only be a liability for the super-powered people. I think these are huge missteps, likely due to the aforementioned miscalculation of having the solo series run 13 episodes and limiting The Defenders to 8. After reflecting on the series as a whole, I have to wonder if it was even worth bringing in so many characters if they weren’t going to give them enough time to justify their inclusion.
Finally, something that seems to be a growing trend with Marvel’s Netflix Universe, unfortunately: sub-par fight sequences. Maybe they just shot their load in Daredevil Season 1 but ever since then, the fighting has suffered dramatically. A lot of the fight scenes in The Defenders take place at night in the dark and are heavily chopped. There’s definitely some awesome moments in there, but you hardly get to enjoy them before jumping to the next thing, or you’re barely able to follow what’s happening from cut to cut. Take the hallway fight scene at the Midland Circle building, which works because not only does it take place in a brightly lit white hallway, it also doesn’t feature nearly as many cuts. Maybe I should just reset my expectations going forward because the action in The Defenders isn’t terrible by any stretch; it’s just now more akin to regular small-screen action as opposed to the amazing action we enjoyed in Daredevil Season 1.
Overall, I am very happy with this season. There are definitely some missed opportunities but the end result doesn’t leave all that much to complain about. There’s a real feeling that the uniqueness of each show is constantly on display and it all works together much better than I expected, especially the main characters. Even the primary themes of each individual series are bleeding through here in a way that I think sets the stage for an organic meshing of all these characters. While the Hand proves to be pretty weak overall, Alexandra and Elektra make very compelling characters and the twist between them at the end is unexpected and exciting. Listen, if you’re like me and have been on the Marvel Netflix train since the beginning, I don’t see you hopping off anytime soon, and based on what’s been rumored, that train doesn’t have any intention of slowing down anytime soon.
With the Hand dealt with for now (though I’m sure Gao and Elektra are still around,) the stage is set for the second phase of the Marvel Netflix universe. It might be sad to see them go, but there are certainly some developments to get excited about. Danny is picking up Daredevil’s torch, Luke is heading back to Harlem, Jessica is reopening up Alias Investigations, and Matt survives and wakes up in a nunnery. We also have The Punisher ready to round out the year, so don’t worry. Things are looking up.