Marvel’s Netflix shows are divided into two camps: the ones that care about the Hand, and the ones that don’t. Daredevil and Iron Fist are in the former, while Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are in the latter and much better for it. The Defenders is bringing these two pairs together, and as it continues, it’s prioritizing Daredevil and Iron Fist’s brand of storytelling. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage certainly have fantastic elements, but they are grounded in relatable issues that make them more engaging on a personal level, with villains that have clearly defined motivations. The Hand is a far more vague antagonist, which makes it considerably less interesting. Daredevil or Iron Fist weren’t able to fix that, and so far, neither does The Defenders.
What do the members of the Hand want? Immortality appears to be the main goal, but there’s also a desire to go back to their home in K’un-Lun. Why? We’re halfway through this mini-series and I still don’t really know. I can understand why they’d want to live forever, but that’s not something that resonates with viewers on a deeper level unless The Defenders gives a strong idea of who these characters are and how eternal life informs their emotions. That’s what sets Alexandra apart from the other members of the Hand: At least the show makes an effort to develop her character with scenes like Alexandra telling Black Sky about the daughter she lost before her pilgrimage to K’un-Lun. Sigourney Weaver’s performance captures the affection Alexandra has for her new “daughter,” and the bond between Alexandra and Black Sky is the only thing that makes the Hand slightly compelling.
Unfortunately, the Hand is still really damn boring. The shift away from Alexandra in “Take Shelter” highlights how tedious the Hand is when it becomes the central subject. The other members of the Hand are turning on Alexandra because they aren’t impressed by the Black Sky’s performance — especially since she used the last of “the Substance” to resurrect a defective weapon — but this power struggle is a flat conflict because the larger goals of the Hand are still so muddled.
Iron Fist’s Bakuto (Ramón Rodríguez) returns in this episode, cornering his old student Colleen and slashing her belly before rejoining the other fingers of the Hand. Bakuto’s presence gives Colleen more personal investment in this conflict, but it’s also indicative of this show relying more and more on Iron Fist plot points to drive the story, which isn’t the best decision when Iron Fist was so bland. Rodríguez also gives a stilted, exaggerated performance that makes Bakuto very cartoonish, and the last thing this show needs is another broadly drawn villain.
In the comics, Colleen Wing and Misty Knight become a crime-fighting pair called the Daughters of the Dragon, and their first meeting in this episode indicates a mutual respect between the two that could easily blossom into friendship. Simone Missick and Jessica Henwick have nice chemistry, and it gives me a lot of hope for their inevitable partnership. As great as it would be to get a Daughters of the Dragon series, Netflix’s Marvel lineup is already pretty crowded — and The Punisher will debut next year — so if they do wind up joining forces, it most likely will happen in Iron Fist or Luke Cage. Iron Fist could use an actor of Missick’s caliber, but I worry that her talents would be wasted on a garbage plot, so hopefully Colleen will make her way to Harlem instead.
Although the final sequence of Elektra seeking comfort in Matt Murdock’s empty apartment demonstrates why Uta Briesewitz is a good director for emotional moments, she’s less adept at the action. This is a problem for an episode like “Take Shelter,” which starts with a big fight sequence. The buildup is exciting, but the actual showdown between the heroes and the Hand’s forces underwhelms. The frame is constantly overcrowded with bodies, and the camera fails to lead the eye clearly through the action. The hyperactive editing just compounds this problem, and you end up with a flurry of people getting hit, but no moments that ever inspire awe. The smaller fight between Murakami, Jessica, and Daredevil is better, but given that this is Matt’s big moment back in the costume, I expect the action to be even more spectacular.
I would never have expected the classical music of Johannes Brahms to be such a big part of The Defenders’ soundtrack, but it works. After the more intimate use of “String Quartet No.1 in C Minor, Op. 51, No.1” in the second episode, “Take Shelter” begins with Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68” to underscore the Hand’s descent on the Royal Dragon restaurant. It’s a rousing piece of music, and it brings a lot of intensity to the opening montage, which ends with Murakami jumping through a skylight. The sound and visuals during this sequence are far more powerful than the actual Royal Dragon fight, and the energy at the top of the episode dissipates over the course of the hour.
After getting hit by a bus, Luke recovers and manages to turn the tables on Sowande, the member of the Hand who’s been recruiting young men in Harlem. We don’t see any of this happen, so it made me suspect that the Hand somehow set this all up so they can infiltrate the group of heroes. But that’s not the case: It’s just lazy storytelling so that the heroes can get information about what the Hand has planned. Of all the members of the Hand, Sowande is the one with the least development, and his death by decapitation would have had greater impact if the viewers had the slightest bit of information about who he was. But as the show has already made clear, it’s not interested in fleshing out the members of the Hand who aren’t Alexandra.
After getting out of the Royal Dragon alive, the heroes have to rush off to protect their loved ones before the Hand gets to them. The stakes are high, but this episode lacks the urgency that the situation merits, lagging when it should move quickly to heighten the sense of panic and desperation. Matt is forced to deal with the personal consequences of getting back in the vigilante game when he goes to Karen and warns her of the danger she’s in, but the script doesn’t dig deep enough into the tension that this creates. Actress Deborah Ann Woll is trying to depict the betrayal and frustration Karen feels in this moment, but she can only go so far when the script doesn’t give her more to work with.
A frequent issue with these shows is that they try to create a more realistic world, but struggle to find honest emotional moments within that world. For the most part, the actors involved have the capacity to bring that substance to the story, but the writers has so much to juggle that they choose not to spend time creating complex, believable character dynamics. It’s a common issue with superhero media, where the emotional content is simplified and superficial because the grander elements of the plot are the top priority. That’s easier to accept with superhero movies because they’re usually just two-hour time commitments, but when it comes to a TV series like The Defenders, the character work needs to be stronger if showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez expect viewers to keep watching.