Marvel's The Defenders
“Hero is your word, not mine,” Luke Cage (Mike Colter) says to a young man caught in a dangerous work situation in the premiere of Marvel’s The Defenders, and throughout the episode, the show’s would-be superteam tries to distance itself from the idea that they are heroes within their community.
Fresh out of a second stint in Seagate Prison, Luke is referred to as “the hero of Harlem,” and even though he pushes back against the label, he wastes no time getting back to action helping the people in his neighborhood. Meanwhile, attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is feeling the pull of the vigilante lifestyle, but after seeing what his secret identity as “the devil of Hell’s Kitchen” did to his personal life, he’s staying out of his red Daredevil costume and sticking to courtroom justice. And then there’s Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), who doesn’t even want to hear the “H-word.” She’s drinking away her sorrows after killing the man who destroyed her life, and her private-investigation practice is on hold indefinitely. These three characters are at the core of The Defenders, and even though they’re trying to keep out of the superhero life, there are evil forces within New York City that will inevitably pull them back in.
If you’re expecting to see Marvel’s street-level heroes team up in the first episode of The Defenders, prepare to be disappointed. This eight-episode miniseries brings the leads of Marvel’s Netflix series together against a common foe, but first, it’s catching viewers up on who these characters are, where their stories left off, and what kind of enemy they’ll be fighting. This premiere episode sets the stage for the conflict to come, providing a crash course on this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for any viewers who haven’t watched the 65 episodes of the four series leading to this point.
There’s another main hero in The Defenders, but Danny “the Immortal Iron Fist” Rand (Finn Jones) is largely in the background of this episode. The premiere opens with a sewer fight between Danny and a shadowy female assailant — later revealed to be Elektra (Elodie Yung), resurrected after her death in Daredevil’s second season — and this sequence has characteristics that will be familiar to Iron Fist viewers, including nondescript production design, choppy editing that robs the action of its impact, and a performance from Jones that fails to capture the intensity of the situation.
Of the four lead actors, Jones has the biggest challenge as he tries to internalize the fantastic elements of Danny’s backstory. He has to make the audience believe that Danny overcame severe childhood trauma by being trained by monks in an ancient, hidden city, and in both Iron Fist and The Defenders, the reality of Danny’s circumstances fails to come through in Jones’s superficial performance. He’ll play emotions like frustration, terror, and guilt, but these are always very broad, bordering on cartoonish. This could partially be the fault of the writing and S.J. Clarkson’s direction, which generally doesn’t strive for subtlety, but Colter, Cox, and Ritter are able to bring convincing nuance to their performances, grounding their characters in ways that Jones does not.
Judging by how “The H Word” is divided among the four leads, it’s safe to say that co-showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who wrote the episode, realize that Iron Fist is the least compelling of the four solo series. Danny and his colleague, Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), are sidelined for most of this episode, and after that initial fight, they only appear in two more scenes: the first is a recap of Danny’s history and his mission to track down the Hand, the villainous organization trying to start a war in New York City; and the second has Danny and Colleen returning to New York City, just in time for the Hand to make their next big move.
While Luke, Matt, and Jessica’s stories explore their relationships with the communities they live in, Danny’s story is entirely focused on the Hand, distancing him from his fellow heroes to the point where he feels like an afterthought. There’s such a long gap between Danny and Colleen’s airplane scenes that I forgot they were even part of the show. I could say that the script should be better balanced, but I don’t actually want to spend more time with Danny. As the Netflix show that ended most recently, Iron Fist is also going to be the freshest in viewers’ minds — if they’ve watched it, that is — so this episode can spend less time filling people in on what Danny and Colleen have been up to in the interim.
It’s been more than a year since Matt and Jessica were onscreen, and almost a year since Luke’s last appearance, so it makes sense that they would get the most attention in this premiere. The visuals of this episode change depending on the character, particularly with regard to color palette: Matt’s scenes have strong red elements because he can’t escape the devil inside him, Jessica’s are a pale-blue that reinforces her chilly disposition, and Luke’s have an aggressive amber filter that adds heat to the Harlem environment and closely ties him to his neighborhood thanks to his signature yellow T-shirt. (That T-shirt comes off when Luke reunites with Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple in a scene that reminds viewers these shows are a lot more liberal with sexual content than their big-screen cousins.)
Luke and Jessica don’t know anything about the Hand yet, but their plots have them stumbling into situations that will lead them to the Big Bad. Luke wants to find out who is using Harlem’s youth as late-night couriers, and despite her initial reluctance, Jessica starts investigating a missing architect when she receives a phone call telling her not to pursue the case. There’s something strange going on, and things only gets weirder when an earthquake hits New York City, promising even greater peril on the horizon. The premiere ends with Matt Murdock in his apartment taking in the sounds of a panicking city, and even though he’s trying to leave his Daredevil past behind him, he can’t ignore the swell of people crying out for help. There’s no doubt he’s about to leap back into action, but getting back into hero mode will cause even more trouble for Matt once he realizes that his ex-girlfriend is alive and working with the people who want to destroy his city.
I’ve had major issues with the Hand as the major villain across Marvel’s Netflix shows, largely because there’s not much pathos behind a group of evil ninjas that has infiltrated corporations and governments around the world. The Hand needs more complexity to be a captivating antagonist in such a long, serialized story, and while Iron Fist took some steps to add more depth to the organization, the Hand was still lacking an emotional anchor that makes the audience understand its motivations and empathize with its members. Enter Sigourney Weaver. Her character goes unnamed in this first episode, but we know she’s a powerful member of the Hand — powerful enough to puts plans in action that aren’t supposed to happen for months — and we know that she’s dying.
Weaver’s character is introduced visiting a hospital for an MRI, wearing a dramatic white coat like a suit of armor that she removes before her medical examination. (Costume designer Stephanie Maslansky gives Weaver some serious looks in this episode, and I love the regality of her wardrobe.) She exudes power and confidence in the company of others, even when she’s being given test results that confirm her quickly impending death, but there’s a deeper vulnerability that comes out when she is alone. The most powerful moment with this character is a single shot after she takes off her coat and jewelry and leans against a window for support. Clarkson frames the shot from the other side of the window, and even though Weaver is behind foggy glass, her exhaustion and desperation in this moment is crystal clear.
A big strength of these shows is that they’ve created villains with more dimension than the bad guys in superhero movies. Characters like Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk and Frank Castle, Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave, and Luke Cage’s Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard were as interesting as the lead heroes, and those series benefited from this attention given to the inner workings of the antagonists. (Iron Fist didn’t fare especially well on the villain front, although it did give Wai Ching Ho more to do as the intimidatingly calm Madame Gao, who appears in The Defenders.) With an iconic actress like Weaver in the lead villain role, The Defenders has the potential to deliver another riveting addition to this list, but it’s too early to tell if her character will be given material that takes full advantage of her immense acting talent.