It’s no secret that Netflix and Marvel Television have struggled to find an episodic formula that works for their superhero adaptations. By most accounts, Jessica Jones has been largely deemed the most successful of their ventures, with Daredevil coming in at a close second. But even these series are hampered with narrative inefficiencies towards the back-ends of their runs. Unfortunately things have only gotten worse, rather than better, over time, with a very uneven season of television in Luke Cage, which featured an amazing first-half followed by a drastic drop in quality, and then the all-around misguided effort of Iron Fist. The Defenders, an event series that brings all four of these respective projects together, showed some potential in avoiding these pacing issues when Netflix announced the series would only be 8 episodes long. Not only was the series going to be shorter, but featuring all 4 of these characters in one compact narrative had the promise of a show that wouldn’t have a minute to waste.
Having seen four of the eight episodes that are due to be released this week, it’s troubling to say that the problems plaguing these previous series are still present, albeit in a briefer fashion. Of the four episodes I previewed, two were fairly good, but the initial two were completely inessential. The first two hours of the eight total are spent trying to drum up an excuse to bring these characters together in the first place. We get a “check in” episode in the pilot, in which none of our Defenders actually interact. Luke Cage, Danny Rand, Jessica Jones, and Matt Murdock all inhabit separate storylines and environments, and the script has to proverbially crane its neck in order to force them to cross paths in episode two.
In these initial episodes, each character’s appearance underscores their respective strengths and weaknesses as characters that have been developed in this universe. Jessica Jones is the bright spot of The Defenders, both because she has a very clear and logical reason to be involved in the narrative, but also because Krysten Ritter dominates the camera whenever she’s on screen. The way she elevates the material actually made me realize what a strength Ritter is to Jessica Jones, and how her presence is what makes it work so well, particularly in her sort of half-way drunk-lisped line readings. She of all these performers has her character locked down in a way that’s approaching iconic. On the other side of things you have Finn Jones. Arguably one of the most miscast actors under the Marvel banner, the show literally grinds to a halt whenever we see Iron Fist on screen. It’s only when he finally begins to share his screen time with the rest of the Defenders that his presence becomes tolerable.
When the show finally pulls its team together, it seems like it finally has a spring in its step. The chemistry between the leads is varying but largely works, particularly Ritter and Charlie Cox, whose dynamic is complex enough to feel mistrustful and playfully curious at the same time. You get the sense that showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez and their team of writers felt more comfortable tackling Murdock and Jones, both together and apart and their respective moments in the first half of the series shine brighter because of it. Luke Cage and Iron Fist, on the other hand, should have been the team-up comic book fans were waiting for, but somehow isn’t. Their pairing is more logical from the standpoint of their history in the comics, but in this adaptation, feels completely forced. Luke Cage is probably the worst casualty of this, stuck teaming with Danny Rand even though it’s impossible to see why he would, given the way Rand’s written. He even gives Rand a speech in their first meeting about privilege so that the writers can “smooth over” this issue as quickly as possible. In addition, the character is burdened with a save-the-youth subplot that comes across as inauthentic in comparison to the strongly developed, socially-minded material of Luke Cage‘s first season.
While I don’t want to give too much away, common sense would dictate that The Defenders’ big team up would involve The Hand. This has always been a fairly ambiguous villain, and remains an uninteresting threat relative to three-dimensional and arresting villains like Kilgrave and Wilson Fisk. It’s possible some wrinkle will be added and will develop them further in the back half of the show, as these seasons often do, but so far the antagonist doesn’t really seem a threat worthy of pulling these four heroes together. In the first four episodes, their aims and connections still aren’t very clear.
When the series finally gets going, around episode three, it becomes much more enjoyable to watch. But the time it takes to get there might be more than some are willing to invest, particularly given the brevity of the series overall. Your enjoyment of The Defenders will likely be determined, at least in part, by how well you rate each of these respective shows. The strengths and weaknesses of the Marvel/Netflix model are well on display throughout, so there aren’t a lot of surprises here for those familiar with the previous offerings. If you were hoping The Defenders would be some kind of turning point or change in course, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you were interested in more of the same, you’ll be in for a better time.
For my part, I plan on finishing the series, which is something I couldn’t say for Iron Fist. There are moments of potential here that haven’t been present in the past few series, and at least we’re less burdened with dull side characters like Foggy or the Meachums. But so far, I can’t escape the thought wriggling in the back of my head that the years of build-up weren’t worth the wait.