It’s fair to say that Marvel’s The Defenders has been a pretty big project so far.
Over the last two and a half years, the comics giant has introduced four “street-level” heroes within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) in individual Netflix series. After populating their worlds, Netflix is now smashing them together for a big eight-part crossover, in an attempt to mirror the methods of Marvel’s first Avengers films.
Now, we’ve finally had the chance to see how well The Defenders holds up – and based on the first four episodes, it’s a bit mixed.
While there are some fun moments and decent action scenes, a lot of the dialogue appears to have been borrowed from a cheesy 90s cop movie, while the threat of The Hand that bands them together is a little ill-defined beyond “vaguely corporate ninjas ordered about by Sigourney Weaver” (who seems a little wasted in her strait-laced villain role).
It’s not a disaster like Iron Fist, but it’s not the triumph that Jessica Jones or the first series of Daredevil were earlier. Like the team itself, when these series are brought together they bring all of their strengths and weaknesses along too – so while we get the good points like Jessica’s humour and Daredevil’s fight choreography, we’re also stuck with Danny Rand being slightly annoying, Daredevil’s supporting cast acting like wet blankets and the supernatural, arc-y explanations being vaguely embarrassing for everyone involved.
Oh, and Luke Cage’s straightforward, straight-shooting schtick still sometimes makes him a little bland. Sorry folks, but it’s true.
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that production realities have meant that the Netflix series’ initial appeal – that fans would see heroes existing in the world of the Avengers et al with a different tone and genre – has had to be sidelined, with little acknowledgement of the wider Marvel Universe in this new series beyond the New York “incident” of the first Avengers movie (which is about five years out of date at this point).
At one point, a character even intones that “the only thing keeping Manhattan from crumbling into a pile of dust is the four of you”, which seems a little overblown considering they could just call the Avengers and get the whole ninja invasion sorted out in an afternoon. Hell, even Spider-Man’s only a half hour away in a cab.
Still, the heroes the series does have access to are well-used, and one of the Defenders’ greatest strengths is how the newly-teamed up characters bounce off each other once they do actually meet (though it takes a while – all four aren’t in the same place until the end of the third episode).
Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones is an enjoyably cynical addition to any team (in one highlight, she breaks the tension of a scene by taking out an enemy in a brutally efficient manner), while Luke Cage (Mike Colter) brings a kind of grounded wisdom that tempers the more supernatural leanings of Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Iron Fist (Finn Jones).
Finn Jones as Danny Rand/Iron Fist, with Mike Colter as Luke Cage
One of the best moments of the episodes released, in fact, comes from the interplay between Colter and Jones’ characters, with Luke calling out the young Mr Rand for what is essentially his white privilege in an exchange that is hard to see as anything but a response to the Iron Fist backlash earlier this year.
“I’m not some billionaire white boy who takes justice into his own hands and slams a black kid against the wall because of his personal vendetta,” Luke rages at Danny’s overenthusiastic pursuit of a lowly Hand henchman, before later adding, “I know privilege when I see it. You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born.”
As noted earlier, this fired-up interplay works just as well in action scenes as more dialogue-heavy ones, whether it’s from an unbreakable man meeting an unstoppable fist or all four heroes battling their way through a ninja-stuffed corridor (yes, these Netflix series love their corridor fights).
Overall, then, there’s a fair bit to defend about this latest series – it’s fun, action-packed and tells us new things about the characters we’ve got to know over the last couple of years – even if like the heroes themselves, it has a few fatal flaws that stop it from ever progressing beyond “just OK.”
For now, I’d definitely rather call on the Avengers in a pinch – but I’m open to see what else The Defenders can offer.
Marvel’s Defenders streams on Netflix from Friday 18th August