We spent the weekend avoiding the heat and bingeing on The Defenders, Netflix’s new mashup series of it’s four superhero franchises: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Like everyone else, we really liked the series but there were some things we would have liked to see as well. If you’re thinking of grinding through the eight hour series, here’s the best and worst you have to look forward to.
The Defenders Rescue Iron Fist (Both Literally and Figuratively)
Danny Rand is easily the most troubled Defender. His series is – by far – the lowest rated of the Marvel Netflix series. His series actually has a lower Metacritic rating than Ben Affleck’s Daredevil movie. I didn’t make it far into that series but, fortunately, you don’t need to know much about Iron Fist to enjoy The Defenders. On his show, Iron First is really irritating but here Danny Rand is pretty fun. He’s the only Defender excited to be working on the team. He’s childishly proud of his back story (“I am the immortal Iron Fist” he keeps claiming to the eye-rolls of the others). He’s hopelessly inexperienced and makes ridiculous mistakes. He’s the Spiderman of this group, noble but naive, and it’s impossible not to cheer for him by the end of the series. Danny Rand will return in a second season of his show (without showrunner and King-Midas-in-reverse Scott Buck) and I think I’ll actually give it a second chance. The Defenders do a lot of amazing things, but rescuing that terrible series is without a doubt their most amazing feat.
But Jessica Jones Gets Underserved
The Defenders seem like a pretty diverse group but, really, you have two guys trained by ninjas and two streetwise detectives. Given that, I imagine it’s hard to think of a story which would involve each of the characters equally and, here, it’s the streetwise detectives who don’t really connect with this storyline. And while Luke Cage is a bit of a fish out of water, Jessica Jones really doesn’t really belong here at all. To be clear, Jessica is my favorite member of this group. She’s powerful, smart, and down-to-earth, and she belongs in her rain-soaked streets solving crimes, not battling waves of thugs through buildings. Jessica Jones has superpowers but her show is much more nuanced and psychological than physical, and having her here throwing endless punches and battling dozens of ninjas somehow reduces her. She feels like an adult playing games with children. Having Jessica Jones fight ninjas looks about as consistent as having Rorshach at a birthday party or having Swamp Thing go clubbing or seeing The Tick deliver a eulogy. She does just fine, but I’d rather see her (and Luke Cage) get back to transcending and elevating the superhero genre, not sinking back into the lowest common denominator.
Sigourney Weaver is Excellent Villain
It should come as no surprise that Sigourney Weaver is an excellent antagonist for the cast. She’s one of the few actors I know who’s as convincing as a hero as she is as a villain. Here she’s playing a supervillain who’s physically dangerous, massively intelligent, and always a step ahead of the heroes. The writers also make her surprisingly vulnerable as she learns early on that she’s facing an incurable disease (which sets her plan in motion). Weaver delivers her lines with conviction and stalks her way through her scenes convincingly. She has the sophistication of an Ultron but the twisted humanity of The Kingpin. I wish I could see her spending more time facing off against the heroes and less time talking to (or about) Electra, a character who seems to slow the momentum whenever she appears. Fortunately, Sigourney Weaver is always excellent and here is she’s pretty awesome, continuing the line of excellent Netflix MCU villains.
But Everything Else about the Bad Guys is a Total Mess
Sigourney Weaver is great, but everything else about the villains is disappointing. The Hand has a seemingly endless number of ninjas and they throw those ninjas at almost every problem. The villain’s plan in this series also makes little sense. We’re told early that their scheme will destroy New York but it’s difficult to see how their revealed plan would actually endanger the city. Electra also plays a role in the villains’ plan, but she spends most of the series in an Agent Cooper-style fugue state and hardly speaks until the last couple of episodes. While she crackled with intelligence and energy in Daredevil’s second season, here she’s largely muted and somewhat boring for long stretches of the show. And, finally, how the villains are finally defeated makes very little sense as well as….well, [spoilers] in the end, the heroes seem to put the villains’ treasure out of reach but at least one character seems to find the area very accessible and if he can get out, why can’t others go back in?
The Heroes Have a Great Synergy
The best part of the series is definitely the dynamic among the heroes. They each get a lot of jokes at each other’s expense. They each get space to develop their own perspectives. Jessica Jones probably gets the best lines, but Luke Cage’s experienced perspective and Danny Rand’s unstoppable enthusiasm bring a lot to these scenes. Whether they’re all four chatting or they pair off on various missions, their interplay is as good as The Avengers (and much better than The Justice League). It’s impressive that on a superhero show with a number of complex fight scenes involving all the heroes, the one episode everyone is talking about is the one where the heroes spend the entire time getting to know one another over Chinese food.
But We Spend a LOT of Time With Subordinate Characters
Maybe it’s because I enjoyed the heroes so much, but I grew very tired of watching the subordinate characters chat with each other. I like Misty Knight and Foggy and Rosario Dawson, but with only eight episodes in the season, I really want to see as much of the heroes interacting as possible. We spend LONG stretches watching The Hand plan and the heroes’ friends voice their concerns for their heroes’ safety. I’d still rather watch Daredevil swap stories with Jessica Jones or Luke Cage educate Danny Rand on the topic of privilege. Those scenes crackle with energy. Watching loved ones once more fret and villains scheme is much less interesting. It made me think that maybe The Defenders would work better as a Netflix movie with a bigger budget and more concise story. I’d happily watch four seasons of different heroes culminating in a two to three hour epic movie as they came together with a bigger budget, more heroism, and far less exposition. It seems weird to say, but maybe eight hours is a little too much; with this much heroism (and with this many supporting cast members), maybe a tight two hours would be a lot more fun.