Now on Netflix: Earth's Whiniest Heroes
Spoiler alert: I was really, really excited for The Defenders.
So far, with the exception of the much-maligned Iron Fist, Netflix's Marvel shows have been mostly well-told, grounded, character-driven stories about so-called "street level" heroes. This means that they keep scumbags and other low-level criminals off the streets so The Avengers can worry about interdimensional threats from aliens. And so forth.
Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage all portrayed messy, complicated people who just happened to have superpowers and weren't quite sure what to do with them. I especially enjoyed Matt Murdock's (Charlie Cox) wrestle with how his violent lifestyle fits with his Catholicism and Jessica Jones' (Krysten Ritter) honest portrayal of the scarring of sexual assault without ever outright mentioning it by name. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) brought the culture and character of Harlem alive and introduced us to Misty Knight. Conversely, the story of Danny Rand (Finn Jones) as Iron Fist was disjointed and even boring at times. It didn't help that the performances in that show felt forced and the writing was abysmal.
So, enter The Defenders, which should have, on the strength of 3/4 of its characters, risen above all of that. The showrunners did get one thing right, at least. Instead of the usual bloated13-episode series, they opted for only 8. If you're looking for a show to demonstrate how much storytelling can be done in eight hour-long episodes, it's time to binge Stranger Things again. This shorter season should have, ideally, cut down on some of the unnecessary fluff that tends to fill the Marvel solo outings. Instead, for some inexplicable reason, the Defenders don't fully meet up and start working together until halfway through the series.
That, and the fact that they decided to hinge the entire story on the importance of "The Immortal Iron Fist," (which, in a universe where Jessica Jones' snarky reactions exists, is a very serious miscalculation) shows that while Marvel may know what to do with these characters one a time, they're clueless when it's time to bring them all together. Rather than focus on thugs and criminals they're known for, the Defenders take on The Hand, a mystical, shadowy organization of ninjas (yes, really) whose origins have remained shrouded in mystery until...now. Mostly, we don't care, except that serving as The Hand's all-important weapon is Daredevil's former lover, the resurrected Elektra Natchios (Elodie Young). They call her the "Black Sky," for some reason.
It's all deeply unfortunate, because even when the story is supposed to feel epic, it feels stagnant. One episode almost entirely takes place inside an abandoned industrial compound. As expected, blending the ridiculous mysticism of Iron Fist with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones' pragmatism just doesn't work. The result is that in every episode in which Danny Rand appears, everyone's dialogue automatically feels dumber. For instance, Luke Cage is reduced to scoffing at Danny's claim that he once fought a dragon by saying, "You did not!" Really?
The greatest strength of the Marvel Netflix series, the action sequences, survives, if only barely. The climactic battle with The Hand leaders seems edited by fourth graders and is very hard to follow. The show manages to pack a few surprises, when heads literally roll. But even the humor isn't as ubiquitous as it could be. Krysten Ritter's Jessica Jones looks like she'd rather be anywhere else, and I'm not sure she's in character.
All of that to say, The Defenders underwhelms. The series feels more like a stopgap in each character's life rather than the culmination of two years worth of storytelling. Which, with this much talent in front of and behind the screen, is severely disappointing.