The ever elusive team up, pitting somewhat disparate characters to meet up, usually fight each other, then decide to join forces in order to topple a greater, common evil. DC’s super heroes, Universal’s Monsters, even Legendary Pictures’ rebooted Godzilla and King Kong, all are attempting (and mostly failing) to copy the blueprint that Marvel’s has been using to print money since the first Avengers film “assembled” in 2012 and made good on the promise that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been building toward since the initial surprise success of the first Iron Man film in 2008.
Even mighty Marvel itself, attempting to make lightning strike twice, stumbled a bit in the home stretch when trying to replicate its big screen team up success with its spate of street level Netflix series’. Starting with the excellent first season of Daredevil, an even better season of Jessica Jones, and a second season of Daredevil that was even better than that, a meandering and overlong season of Luke Cage barely got by on the strength of it’s completely game cast, and Iron Fist failed to find much of an audience at all.
Defenders succeeds not because of, but in spite of its plot’s over-reliance on Iron Fist-y stuff, it’s creators clearly overestimating the majority of its audience’s ability to have sat through that entire series (confession: we tapped out around episode 3). Eventually that show must’ve actually gotten somewhere beyond it’s coma inducing boardroom intrigue because all kinds of “K’un L’un” this and “Shou Lau” that are bandied about here, folding the origin of shadowy evil ninja clan The Hand into Iron Fist’s mythology neatly and succinctly.
For a fan of Ed Brubaker’s mid aughts run on the Iron Fist comic, this is cool stuff to hear, but it still isn’t going to compel me to go back and catch up on that Iron Fist solo series, nor does it make Finn Jones’ casting any less of a head scratcher, with scenes featuring the entire ensemble looking like some sort of “take your son to work day” nightmare as this Netflix iteration of Danny Rand is distractingly dwarfed by his contemporaries not just in stature but in personality as well.
Good thing then, that the villains after his mystical power acquit themselves to the task at “hand” much more convincingly. Hand head honcho Alexandra is brought to life by by gloriously cast against type classic screen heroine Sigourney Weaver, with the same joyously sinister aplomb Vincent D’Onofrio brought to his now immortal Kingpin, and by her side for much of these proceedings is Elodie Yung’s returning Elektra, now resurrected as The Black Sky, and even more of a merciless, mindless murder machine than before.
The amount of important (and not so important) pieces on the playing field basically guarantees that plot is kept to a bare minimum. Essentially, there’s a gate at the bottom of that giant hole that The Hand was digging in the second season of Daredevil, and the key to open it is the Iron Fist’s… well… Fist. So naturally operators on both sides of the conflict want to protect and eliminate young Daniel Rand, with the core group of Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones and Mike Colter’s Luke Cage electing to protect Rand from both The Hand, and himself.
Those core heroes’ interaction (and yes, even Iron Fist especially when paired with comics’ best bud Luke) power the most exceptional sequences in Defenders, whether they’re kicking asses or just shooting the shit. Jones and Murdock make a particularly convincing duo, taking pot shots at each others’ bullshit, Jessica sleuthing out Matt’s abilities and origins, and Matt’s unwavering sense of justice eventually gaining her hard won trust. Each hero brings their supporting cast along as well, with the arc of Simmone Missick’s Misty Knight being of particular interest, including a late series development that brings the character much more in line with her comics counterpart.
Defenders clocks in at a lean 8 episodes as opposed the usual 13, a decision that we praised after enduring the overlong Luke Cage, but Defenders has so much to unpack, especially for those completely unfamiliar (either from the show or the comics) with Iron Fist lore. Another episode or two might’ve help explain the villains’ motivation more, especially Alexandra’s origins, given the brilliant performance on display the character’s truncated screen time is a shame. The new Hand members introduced here could use a bit more time as well, as could Elektra’s arc. Also, the series’ endgame comes abruptly, with a bit of eyeroll inducing coincidence and semi-plothole type shenanigans in play to get all the puzzle pieces into place, when more time could’ve provided similar results more organically.
That’s really nitpicking though. Like most of the Marvel Netflix stuff has, Defenders sets a precedent, and it’s a good one. Not just continuing the assertion that superheroes really can work, and work well on TV, but that superhero team ups can as well. And as in the comic books, just because you don’t absolutely love every character and storyline, it doesn’t mean that you can’t jump right into the big event crossover somewhat cold and be fully and thoroughly entertained. Defenders leaves each of their 4 main heroes, even poor old Danny Rand, in a significantly more interesting narrative space than it found them, and bodes incredibly well for a “Phase 2” of Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen heroes.