'The Defenders': TV Review

Leaden fist aside, this really works.
8/18/2017

Despite glaring flaws, the new Marvel show on Netflix becomes an enjoyable mashup of disparate heroes trying to save New York.

There is a scene in The Defenders, the latest Netflix series that mashes up four different shows from the Marvel Universe that aired previously on the streaming outlet, that's about as near to perfect as a scene could be.

In the fourth episode Iron Fist, played by Finn Jones, is fully embracing his dubious rich-white-guy background as alter ego Danny Rand, reacting good-naturedly to the light mockery the other more plausibly heroic characters — Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil (Charlie Cox) —  are subjecting him to. It's a successful meshing of the four characters, something The Defenders fights hard but not always successfully to achieve, and once it feels natural and starts to elicit the "OK, let's do this" vibe from the viewers (and the characters themselves), it's both fun to watch and laudable.

It's also precisely the mode Rand/Iron Fist should be in the most often, but can't, because his eponymous show, the weakest of the solo series quartet, demands that he be so damned serious all the time (while almost never delivering any of the necessary gravitas). In fact, where The Defenders struggles mightily is in incorporating Jones/Iron Fist into its little conceit of gathering all four heroes together to fight a very big bad (Sigourney Weaver and friends) about to put a dent in New York City.

"I am the Immortal Iron Fist!" Jones is forced to say several, extremely unconvincing, times — and the only time it works is when Luke and Jessica are looking at him like he's insane. If only Marvel could lean into their mistake of not reimagining a comic book character to be, say, Asian, and play to whatever strengths and believability Jones might possess as the character! But Marvel has historically shown little interest in admitting either conceptual or casting mistakes.

So, that part is too bad. For at least one scene, the completely unwatchable Iron Fist franchise seemed to have hit on its own fix, and, for viewers who might have wished the Defenders were a trio, there was a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe this whole thing could work without a quarter of its prequel series being a total nonstarter.

And who knows, by the late third episode and all of the fourth episode, things are jelling much better as a concept and as a story, which allows Iron Fist to just be a guy at the party, not a whole separate story that needs explaining again — which partly drags down the first two episodes (in fairness, the whole Matt Murdock reluctant-blind-hero thing is also a less tantalizing act than those of Jessica or Luke, but at least Cox sells his character and has the chops to pull off some of the wince-inducing dialogue from that origin story).

And yes, it should come as no surprise that some eye-rolly writing drags down even the best parts of The Defenders, which is partly the fault of the writers of course but also partly due to the wholly weak comic DNA, where obvious shows of emotion and declarative sentences dipped in gooey cheese are part of the deal.

And yet, despite all of that, The Defenders morphs into a likeable and enjoyable collaboration by the third episode and is helped immeasurably in the fourth by Scott Glenn as Stick, as it is through the entirety by the wonderful Weaver; the two older actors lend a lot of welcome authority and conviction to the cornier underpinnings.

As these things go, The Defenders really could have imploded conceptually, but it is really thriving by its midpoint and gives off the impression that moving forward things will drastically improve, even if it can't completely explain the nefarious goings-on of the Hand, the shadowy group that Weaver leads, which is understandable. At least the writers can cut through the claptrap with Jones' sass, as when she says, "These names are killing me" when Glenn's character reveals he's the last of a group called the Chaste. Earlier, when Murdock is morphing into Daredevil mode, sans costume, he borrows Jones' scarf to cover his head and his eyes. "You look like an asshole," she says, rightly (he's wearing his lawyering suit, so, yeah). "It's your scarf" he sneers back.

Marvel knows how to play for laughs what it's like when you bring together disparate worlds — it has a lot of practice doing this on the big screen. The natural dubiousness each hero feels toward the other is ripe for comedy and, for the most part, it plays perfectly well in The Defenders.

Some of the bonus elements in this mashup come from making Daredevil a little colder, a little more badass and believable (or at least more interesting) and the aforementioned brief moments of Iron Fist actually being watchable. If he never had to deliver an emphatic, dramatic line again, that character might be … oh, never mind.

Elsewhere, Colter and Ritter (especially) prove in every scene why they hold down the two most compelling series. Here they get to grow a little bit as well (ideally that would be part of the plan of The Defenders, one would think) and that should help their individual shows and characters in the long run.

Cast: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Charlie Cox, Finn Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Scott Glenn, Elodie Yung, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Henwick, Eka Darville, Rachel Taylor, Elden Henson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Deborah Ann Woll, Simone Missick.

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