After the first season of Daredevil, I’ve been relatively all-in when it comes to Marvel and Netflix’s partnership. To me, that was the proof-of-concept for modern superhero television. It was equal parts character portraits and satisfying action setpieces. It didn’t pull its punches in terms of portraying violence but didn’t glorify in it. Every character felt well-rounded, and D’Onofrio’s Kingpin was possibly the best superhero villain on-screen.
Jessica Jones was the next logical step up, a deeply psychological show that again foregrounded characters and backgrounded action. Killgrave was, again, a brilliant villain. Jess is surrounded by interesting characters who manage to be more than their archetypes. Luke Cage, at least in retrospect, seemed to lean a little bit more on the action. The second half of the season, in particular, was weaker than previous outings. The death of Cottonmouth marked a shift in tone that I didn’t find as compelling. The Diamondback storyline’s focus on Luke’s individual limitations was less interesting than the focus on Luke’s social and emotional vulnerabilities in the first half. Daredevil season 2 had the same problem – The Punisher was a fascinating ‘villain’ for Matt to face, and their scenes together were a highlight. But I wasn’t convinced by the Hand storyline, and Elektra’s whole nihilistic violence thing seemed a bit too paper-thin.
I didn’t touch Iron Fist. There was enough of a critical malaise around it that I didn’t really feel it necessary, and Danny Rand has never been a draw for me in the comic book space. So this was my first taste of Jones’ portrayal, and I think they’ve handled it well. It’s clear that Rand is from a different part of the Marvel Universe than Jessica and Luke, a more mystical quasi-Eastern crime compared to their more-grounded storylines, but Daredevil provides a good moderating force.
I liked Sigourney Weaver. She set a tone for The Hand, and acted as a figurehead, but was relatively underused. And this is definitely a story about The Hand, and I understand the writer’s decision to use them as the uniting factor for The Defenders – they’re shadowy, they’re powerful, they have powers and guile that can match them. I loved Madam Gao’s appearances in Daredevil, and the hints that she was not what she seemed. But when you come face-to-face with the Hand, I think they lose a lot of their impact. Their menace is in their insidiousness first, their ninjas second. The idea of a band of five immortals who, since time immemoriam, have used humanity for their own gain sounds more exciting than it ends up actually being in The Defenders.
I think that the action scenes, while fun, tend to drift towards the forgettable; with so many heroes on screen, it becomes more about attrition rather than any actual stakes. Plus, Luke Cage. It’s hard to make fights interesting when one of the Defenders is essentially invulnerable. There are basically three options – another character has to be able to go toe-to-toe with him, he has to be distracted or removed from the fight, or his ‘weakness’ has to be the vulnerability of his teammates. I never really thought any of them were in serious jeopardy.
The best scenes of The Defenders were when the leads were interacting. There’s something particularly thrilling about comic book meet up events. Their characters track nicely with the four temperaments trope that’s familiar from everything from Ninja Turtles to Sex and the City. The way Luke tears down Rand’s mystical bullcrap and Jessica constantly questions the ridiculousness of their situation adds a layer of self-awareness. The writers know this is ridiculous. Marvel television up until this point has been relatively grounded, but it gets super ‘comic-book’ in The Defenders. Misty Knight, the detective who we first meet in Luke Cage, is constantly pointing out that the vigilante actions the Defenders take are risky, criminal, and endanger the lives of innocents. She’s right, because that’s what comic characters do, and in ink, most comic writers don’t have the space to portray the fallout.
It’s definitely worth watching for those moments. We’ve spent a long time with these characters struggling in relative isolation from other super-powered people. To see them meet, laugh, and work alongside each other is as exciting as it was in The Avengers. However, there’s not the space for the character work that was so compelling about earlier Marvel series.