Please note that this review has very mild spoilers (mostly allusions) for the entire season of The Defenders.
It took a little time to get there, but The Defenders managed to appropriate the feel of a big, dumb, overstuffed superhero teamup comic in the grand Marvel tradition. Sure, there were wobbles and inconsistencies, but every superhero comic fan knows that when your favorite heroes team up – especially for the first time – you have to expect moments where they’re going to seem out of character or moments when they appear to be vanquished by foes they could normally take with one hand behind their backs. We won’t claim the various narrative missteps along the way to full Defender-dom were a feature of the writing and not a bug, but by the time they were all kicking ass inside a dragon skeleton buried in a secret cave below Manhattan, we no longer cared. We were all in.
That’s the charitable take; the one that’s coming from someone who loved big, dumb, overstuffed superhero teamup comics some time in his hazy past. The more critical take is that The Defenders, despite the unnecessary grimness in its tone (given the aforementioned dragon skeleton, as well as several other more fantastical elements), over-stuffed storylines, and generic (when they’re not being exoticized) villains, winds up being better than it had any reason to be, due largely to a cast that should work together more often but probably won’t.
The critical consensus regarding Marvel’s collection of Netflix series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist) from which this team sprung is that it’s been somewhat spotty in quality despite the talent involved, and that every series suffered from an episode order that the story didn’t warrant. Every one of them probably would have done better as a six-episode series. Perhaps it’s not surprising that The Defenders suffers from the same problem. Curiously, despite the larger cast, The Defenders might have benefited from the shortest series order of all. We’re pretty sure the entire tale could’ve been done in four snappy, well-paced hour-long episodes. But “snappy” and “well-paced” weren’t on the menu for at least the first four episodes, which were slow in a way that makes zero sense to us, given the genre and even the actors involved, almost all of whom are seriously great at action sequences and fight scenes.
Part of the problem stemmed from the somewhat curious idea to spend so much time on introducing the members of the team and filling us in on what’s been going on with each of them since their respective seasons ended. Subsequently, there’s no real team-up until well into the third hour. And in the end, the story owed way too much to the backstories of Daredevil and Iron Fist, leaving Jessica and Luke – who are arguably the most likable and relatable of the four of them – somewhat outside the main story, looking in. Which is fine in some ways, because the story needed audience-identification characters, but after a while, given how different this tale of mystical ninjas, hidden cities, and dragon bones is from their own lives, it felt like they had little to do in most dialogue scenes except to voice some variation on “This shit’s nuts.”
And the worst part? It wasn’t all that nuts, in the end. When the full paramaters of the villains’ plans were revealed to us, we spent a lot of time struggling with them, looking for some sort of twist or major complication that would have justified that much setup. But in the end, “We’re going to destroy New York and stay immortal” was about the gist of it. As supervillainry goes, they were all rather distressingly basic. And yes, that includes our queen Sigourney Weaver, we’re sorry to say.
She plays the character of Alexandra as if she received exactly one note from the director: “Just be Sigourney Weaver.” That might sound like a dismissal of the actress and her efforts, but it’s really meant as a criticism of the writing and directing. She’s a world-class legendary actress who has serious genre bona fides (Avatar, Ghostbusters, the Alien films, Galaxy Quest), meaning she’s one of the few actresses of her generation who can make such silly supervillain dialogue as “We’re not so different, you and I” sound fresh – or at least, not as stale as it would sound coming out of the mouth of an actor less adept at this sort of material. She did her very best with what she was given, but it would appear she was given a generic “strong, shrewd, gets-what-she-wants, diva-bitch” character to play. And in the end, the story clearly had absolutely no idea what to do with her. Her costumes were to-die-for; we’ll give them that.
But there was at least a nice corollary to Sigourney’s floundering: Krysten Ritter, who came out of this as the Marvel Netflix MVP. The story here had every opportunity to go up its own ass (and took several of them), but each time it threatened to, Krysten Ritter was there, giving Jessica Jones just the right acerbic touch to any scene. We kept noting how often other cast members seemed to have crazy-good chemistry with her until the lightbulb finally went off over our heads and we realized that she was the common denominator in almost every great interaction in the series. Mike Colter as Luke Cage can easily go somewhat generically brooding (which is why we had such a hard time getting into his series), but plays off Ritter beautifully. Charlie Cox has always been great as Matt Murdock, but Ritter brings out a lighter, more verbally combative side to him that significantly elevates his status as a watchable character. Finn Jones as Danny Rand will always be the weak spot, in terms of character/actor pairings, but to the show’s credit, they lean into it somewhat. He’s easily the most eager and annoying of the four mains, while also getting lampshaded quite often as something of a tool.
We won’t get into the somewhat ridiculous way the climax of the story was dealt with in the aftermath (as in: NOT AT ALL, after HOURS of hearing what the repercussions were going to be) or how silly practically every scene set in the police station was (characters in protective custody doing everything from listening to scanners, going over evidence and even walking in and out of the property room). If we linger too long on some of that stuff, our good feelings about it all start to waiver. And we do have them. Good feelings, that is. Despite the critiques and complaints here, there was a pretty decent (if basic) superhero teamup tale anchored by character work among the four mains that actually improved them, if only temporarily. Despite its problems, we’d rather see more seasons of The Defenders than practically any of these characters’ solo series. It’s possible some of these characters don’t warrant ten hours of solo storytelling each, but we can definitely see the possibilities when you put them together. More, please. Just… better next time.