Marvel’s The Defenders
The superhero team-up promised by Marvel’s The Defenders since its announcement four years ago finally arrives in “Worst Behavior,” but long before that final fight sequence, it’s clear this is the best episode yet. At just under an hour, it provides a lot of information at a very brisk pace, and it does so with more character development and visual style than the first two chapters.
“Worst Behavior” begins with an extended flashback to Elektra’s resurrection and the development of her relationship with Alexandra, who treats her new weapon with a mix of maternal compassion and militaristic intensity. As Alexandra eats a traditional Turkish dish, we’re given a big hint about her age when she compliments the cook for making it taste better than it was in Constantinople. She’s reminded that Constantinople is Istanbul’s ancient name, and smiles to herself when the restaurant owner walks away. She knows exactly what that dish tasted like in Constantinople, which means she’s at least hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
That meal is interrupted when a dapper Hand agent in a white hat tells Alexandra they have retrieved the “Black Sky.” Elektra’s dead body is delivered and prepared for the resurrection ritual, which involves her being put in a stone coffin to marinate in blood, and when she wakes up, she’s feral and has no memory of her past life. Alexandra and other members of the Hand are waiting when she emerges from the coffin, and Alexandra removes her Christlike shawl to offer solace to the terrified, panicking Black Sky, the only name the former Elektra knows. When attacked, Alexandra effortlessly counters every move, and physically subdues Black Sky while assuring her that she’s safe and doesn’t need to worry. Alexandra’s in maternal mode for now, but that’s just until her weapon is calm enough to be tested.
Peter Hoar’s direction is impressive throughout this episode, and an early highlight is Alexandra’s explanatory conversation with Black Sky, who is slowly regaining language skills but knows that something strange has happened. The scene begins with a long, slow forward pan, and having Sigourney Weaver and Elodie Yung share the frame for most of this conversation helps develop a sense of intimacy between their characters. I mentioned in the premiere recap that I hoped this show would take full advantage of Weaver’s talent, and this scene does, tapping into her stage skills as it gives her a monologue that starts with her at a distance.
Weaver fills the scene’s cavernous space with her performance, and the camera’s distance accentuates her raw presence, which is a major reason why Alexandra is a compelling character. And it’s not star power — it’s presence. I think back to Weaver’s appearance at the end of Cabin in the Woods, and how she exuded authority from the moment she appears on screen. Alexandra is very much in that same vein, but we’ve seen moments of vulnerability from her that provide more dimension.
Meanwhile, Yung’s major strength as a performer is her physicality, and Black Sky’s minimal language skills force her to emote through her body. The script brings out the best in Yung, as Black Sky goes from pitiful to terrifying over the course of the episode. She channels raging animalistic instinct after the resurrection, then transitions into a more somber, aching quality during her conversation with Alexandra. There’s a big shift after that, as Yung’s performance becomes more confident and severe: After an action sequence pits her against four growing waves of attackers, she’s become the frightening killing machine that the Hand needs her to be.
Black Sky will reunite with her former lover by the end of the episode, but before that, Matt Murdock has a meeting with a new client: Jessica Jones. Their first talk doesn’t go smoothly, and she doesn’t trust him, for good reason. He shows up unexpectedly, and then tries to find out if there’s anything unusual about this case, which is definitely something the bad guys would do to see how much information she has and if she’s a threat to their plans. A refreshingly Hitchcockian game of cat and mouse unfolds when Matt follows Jessica, with Vertigo-esque music and exceptionally clever camerawork that indicates how much thought has been put into the technical elements of the story.
“Worst Behavior” also explores the personal ramifications of the Hand’s manipulation through Jessica and Luke, as they interact with people who recently lost loved ones. Luke visits Cole in jail and then visits his mother to give her consolation and scratch-off lottery tickets, and in the middle of the visit, she gets a call telling her that Cole is dead. The woman breaks down in Luke’s arms, and he holds her, absorbing her pain and letting it fuel him. Jessica isn’t as sympathetic when she talks to the widow of the architect who killed himself in her office, and she’s more concerned with getting information than making this woman feel better. Seeing how the Hand’s actions affect ordinary people helps to ground a story that’s more and more fantastic with each episode, and it gives Luke and Jessica a personal stake that’s rooted in their desire to protect those around them.
Danny’s privilege has come up in criticisms of Iron Fist, and episode writers Lauren Schmidt Hisrich and Doug Petrie tackle this issue head-on when Luke and Danny have their first sit-down conversation in Colleen’s dojo. The talk starts pleasantly enough as Luke tries to process the weirdness of Danny’s past, but it becomes heated once the subject shifts to the previous night. Luke feels guilty because Cole is in jail, and he’s very aware that Danny is not. Luke calls him out for being a billionaire white boy who beat up a black kid because of a personal vendetta, and as much as Danny tries to justify his actions as a duty to defeat the Hand, Luke refuses to accept that as an excuse to hurt and potentially kill people who are just trying to support themselves and their families.
“I know privilege when I see it,” Luke says. “You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born. Before the dragons. Before the chi. You had the ability to change the world without getting anybody hurt.” Danny later tries to use his privilege to solve the Hand problem by putting on a suit and playing a ruthless businessman, but Alexandra sees right through him and isn’t threatened in the slightest. She tells him about how she’s killed Iron Fists in the past, and then has her conference table full of goons attack him, kicking off a fight scene that does the best work yet presenting Danny as a force to be reckoned with. Just when it looks like Danny is about to be overwhelmed, Luke bursts through the door and “Run the Jewels” starts playing, which immediately turns up the energy as Luke and Danny partner up to survive.
There is a lot of fighting in this episode, and Hoar and editor Michael N. Knue create the series’ best action sequences yet. The Black Sky beatdown in the cold open showcases Yung’s combat skills with long takes of her attacking more than one person. When there are cuts, they typically come after the hits land rather than before, which is a small change that makes a big impact. The big fight in Midland Circle is much more hectic, but Hoar understands how to move the camera through the chaos to create distinct images.
The shot of the four heroes barreling through the hallway at the same time has been used in The Defenders’ trailers to get viewers hyped for the crossover, and the camera team makes this moment feel big. (The show has been building to it for three episodes, so it damn well better feel big.) Danny and Luke get the spotlight in the conference room, but the second half is dominated by Matt. He leaps at the chance to pummel without abandon, and after getting a taste of Matt in action last episode, this sequence provides a full meal. The hallway fight scene in Daredevil’s second episode was a definitive moment for Netflix’s lineup of Marvel shows, and there’s a nice symmetry in nodding back to it for this major event.
Even if this fight isn’t as powerful as that breakthrough brawl, it does draw attention to how much this world has grown since Daredevil beat up a bunch of people in a green hallway. Netflix has advanced the Marvel Cinematic Universe in significant ways: Jessica Jones introduced a cast of compelling, flawed female characters and tackled issues that other Marvel properties would never consider, and Luke Cage was Marvel’s first property spotlighting a solo black hero and the challenges within an urban community like Harlem. Putting all these characters in a scenario that references the start of their world makes me realize just how much these shows have done to enrich the Marvel Cinematic Universe with deeper, more inclusive stories. As the four heroes hop in an elevator, battered but alive, I’m left with new excitement for what’s to come.