TV Review: Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’ Punches Its Way Into Shape

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Superheroes on television are far from a new concept. The campy Adam WestBatman” first made its way onto the small screen in the 1960s. Lou Ferrigno smashed things as “The Incredible Hulk” in the 1970s. Today, the CW network sustains itself on a heavy diet of DC superheroes including “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and others. However, the most unique superheroes to come to the small screen have undeniably been Marvel’s Netflix series. One part TV series, one part 13-hour movie, the total of 5 seasons paved the way for a team-up series. The result is “The Defenders,” which teams up Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist for an 8-part miniseries. While the series never quite lives up to the highs of the individual character’s it is still a huge step above the rest of superhero TV, and frankly some superhero film as well.

To this point, the Netflix branch of the MCU has been one of the surprises for the multi-platform universe. Both “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” absolutely soared when they reached TV and were among the best shows of their year. “Luke Cage” was a bit uneven, but its first 7 episodes made it seem like it would have fit in with his Hell’s Kitchen counterparts. The only real stumble so far for the Netflix shows has been “The Immortal Iron Fist” which was plagued by many issues, not the least of which was a terrible narrative and poor choreography compared to its counterparts. Luckily for Danny Rand, his story leads right into “The Defenders” which kicks us into the main narrative.

There is a lot going on for our heroes at the start of “Defenders” but the show bounces between them with relative grace. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is hunting down the Hand, an international crime organization hiding in the shadows. Luke Cage (Mike Coulter) is finishing up his jail time after his arrest at the end of season 1. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is still an alcoholic and wisecracking private eye. Last, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is struggling with his decision to retire as Daredevil after Elektra (Elodie Yung) died in his arms. We also meet our villains in episode 1, namely Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver) who begins a hunt for the Iron Fist with the help of Elektra (who was resurrected as the Black Sky). We’re off to the races, and soon after our heroes come together.

The basic layout of the season is simple and works to help us understand the character’s relations to each other. While they all roam in similar circles, most of them don’t know each other yet. Unfortunately, the show wastes a little time by not having them begin their team-up antics until episode 2. The first episode does give us a peek at each character’s life in the time since their last adventure, but even “Avengers” got us moving quicker than this. It takes almost two full episodes before one of the character’s finds themselves face to face with another hero. It’s an odd choice considering the brevity of the season, and this ends up being one of the bigger issues of the season.

One of the things that have plagued most Marvel series has been the pacing. Frankly, most of the shows do not justify a full 13-episode arc. 10 episodes would be fine in most cases, but 8 would likely be ideal. Each season has felt a little stretched, with an episode or two seemingly in the mix to eat up an hour. With only 8 episodes in “Defenders,” the show should have been more streamlined. However, we don’t get all our heroes on screen together until the end of episode 3. Once they meet up, we are immediately treated to one of the best fight scenes in the series. It’s a shame because there is enough fat to cut where the 2nd episode should have ended with the hallway fight, but instead, the show just takes a little too long to get from A to B.

What is nice to see the series is that its heroes are as sarcastic and skeptical towards each other as one would hope. After all, who would believe that a man could be bulletproof, a blind man could be an acrobat, or billionaire punched a dragon in the heart? Each origin seems insane on paper, and the characters provide plenty of backlash to each other’s origins. This also provides the strongest way for the show to build up its bonds between characters, and as they learn more about each other, they begin to develop their relationships. It’s good character development that pays off by the end of the season.

The fight choreography is also vastly improved here than in some of the other seasons. Daredevil’s inclusion ensures there would be a level of athleticism the other shows hadn’t possessed. Iron Fist benefits the most, but the story still paints him as a privileged and somewhat whiny billionaire. He’s still the weak link in the series, but it’s a vast improvement over the dumpster fire of season 1. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones maintain their brawler status, but there’s something missing about their slickness with the team-up.

Unfortunately, the choice to combine all the characters into a melting pot also removes each story’s edge. The trademark brutality of Daredevil and Jessica Jones’ worlds vanishes here. There’s nothing as grisly as the car door decapitation, or the 1000 cuts sequence. This makes some sense, as the show’s goals are entirely different. There are no Blaxploitation sequences here either, even if Luke Cage enters to rap music on multiple occasions. While the series tries to establish its own style as it progresses, it simply doesn’t live up to the coolness of the individual series. This is blockbuster television and needs to appeal to the widest audience possible.

Finally, there are many other things to be excited about across the board. While the cinematography isn’t as stylized as other Marvel shows, there are some fun shots. Some roam through a courtroom, bounce between conversations, or track a fight in progress. The production team also brings us to a variety of set pieces. Some are used to build into a great fight. Others are just interesting places for characters to interact. Overall, the production team does an excellent job of making the world feel lived in while maintaining the street level attitude of the other shows.

Overall, “Defenders” is a solid entry into the MCU. It has a stronger narrative than one might expect, and 8 episodes is the perfect length for the superhero show. It’ll be very interesting to see where things go considering the ending of the season. Still, it was a fun ride, and well worth the wait. Time will tell whether or not we see another “Defenders” team-up series. However, with so many fun characters, it’d be a shock if we don’t get another within the next few years.

What do you think? Did “The Defenders” live up to the hype? Let us know in the comments below!

Season 1 of “The Defenders” is now streaming on Netflix. “Daredevil,” “Luke Cage,” “Jessica Jones” and “The Immortal Iron Fist” are all streaming on Netflix as well.

GRADE: (★★★)