Marvel‘s The Defenders is the culmination of each Netflix property so far, the superhero team-up we’ve waited two years to experience, and it’s finally here for you to binge over the weekend (if you intend to keep up with the cool kids). That is, IF you find the series bingeable in the first place. Before you read further, know that this review is largely spoiler-free.
The Defenders begins with each of our heroes- Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist- on their own paths. Danny Rand (Iron Fist) is working to take down The Hand, Luke Cage is doing hands-on detective work as Harlem’s savior, Jessica Jones is drinking and coping with her post-Kilgrave life, and Matt Murdock (Daredevil) is focused on his career as an attorney so that the people he loves most aren’t put in danger. Each of these characters shun the notion of being “a hero,” which further adds to their complex and fleshed-out personalities.
When they’re forced to work with each other to take down The Hand, the immortal ninja clan/criminal enterprise from Daredevil and Iron Fist who have never proven to be all that interesting despite their threat to humanity, we see those personalities clash- as can be expected. Matt Murdock takes issue with trusting his identity and secrets with anyone because he doesn’t want to risk endangering the people he loves; Luke Cage and Danny Rand initially clash over their perspectives of privilege and what makes a villain; and Jessica Jones- well, has she ever REALLY gotten along with anyone? The dynamic of the heroes together is the resounding highlight of The Defenders. Watching them bicker and fight is fun, but seeing them learning to rely on each other is special.
The actors are again in top-shape as the characters. Krysten Ritter continues to own Marvel’s Netflix universe as Jessica Jones, bringing the in-your-face toughness of the character without sparing her flawed nature, vulnerability or humor. Charlie Cox is excellent as Matt Murdock, brilliantly conveying the fear of hurting everyone around him by doing what he knows is right. Mike Colter is probably the coolest guy on the planet and his suave charisma and humor shines through Luke Cage, who’s dedication to his city and fighting social injustice continues to be a highlight of the Marvel TV universe. Though Iron Fist is undeniably the least interesting of the four heroes, Finn Jones brings a likability to his performance that works better with the other characters than it did in his own series. His story continues to be a weaker element (and rather boring), so it’s a testament to Jones that we come to care about the character at all.
Aside from our cast of heroes, Sigourney Weaver is outstanding in a villainous turn. You understand her motives (no spoilers, don’t worry), and you feel for her in her moments of vulnerability. Elodie Yung, too, shines as Elektra- who will keep viewers on their toes as to her role as either a hero or villain. Rosario Dawson is always great as Claire, and though she isn’t heavily featured, she’s a welcome addition to the cast. The other characters, however, namely Foggy, Karen, Malcolm, and Misty Knight, feel relatively forced into the plot. There’s nothing wrong with the performances, but the characters themselves tend to stall a narrative that hardly involves them in the first place.
That is, unfortunately the biggest flaw of The Defenders. If you thought that being condensed to eight episodes would rid the Marvel series of the pacing issues that’s kept recent shows from fulfilling their full potential, think again. Though it’s understandable that it would take some time for our characters to come together, nothing outside of their team-up is nearly as interesting or entertaining, so these moments apart, and the focus on other characters, especially the members of The Hand, tend to feel slow and boring- a disappointing contrast to the high notes of the series.
The writing, too, feels like a letdown at times. There’s a particular “shocking” moment in which a character unexpectedly dies, but this mechanism felt more effective in previous shows. In regard to the finale- the action in the episode is fantastic, as it is throughout the series, but the writers had a chance to do something gutsy- and it seemed like they were actually going through with it for a moment, only to backtrack in the final frame. While the final reveal will likely prove positive for Marvel’s Netflix universe, it detracts from the emotional resonance that the moment, and its aftermath, attempted to achieve.
There are moments of greatness in The Defenders, but as a whole, it’s never quite the superhero team-up we’d hoped for. While some will find a lot to love, others will find it underwhelming- and they’re not wrong.