Marvel’s The Defenders is a reasonably satisfying superhero team-up with a gritty undertone that’s characteristic of the comic studio’s previous Netflix shows. It brings its New York–based main characters — Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Daredevil, a.k.a. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Iron Fist, a.k.a. Danny Rand (Finn Jones), and his partner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) — into a shared story line via separate subplots that give each hero an investigation or mission to pursue.
The missions eventually dovetail, as they must, near the end of episode three, setting up a series of meet-hostile/cute or patch-up-your-differences convos. Of course, these end with the good guys joining forces to smash a conspiracy headed by a terminally ill, chillingly confident industrialist named Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver) — a character who is apparently not a part of the print canon, though some Marvel fans have speculated that she’s a gender-swapped version of a particular, semi-famous male villain. Of course, Alexandra would never be portrayed by a star of Weaver’s caliber if we weren’t eventually going to find out that she’s at the center of all the mysterious goings-on, which include the disappearance of young street criminals offered lucrative employment by invisible bosses (a crime that’s investigated by Cage); a missing-person case involving an absent father who turns out to be harboring explosives in his apartment (Jessica’s story); and ninja assassins infiltrating the United States (Danny and Colleen’s mission).
I’d rather not say exactly what Matt’s piece of the puzzle is, because its revelation constitutes one of the few genuinely delightful moments in the four episodes that were sent out for review. As overseen by co-showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez (Daredevil), The Defenders is a pretty grim slog for the most part, enlivened mainly by Jessica’s hard-bitten one-liners, “surprise” appearances by major characters from Marvel’s other Netflix shows, and a couple of lively fight scenes (though not the opening bout, which is so darkly lit and chaotically edited as to be barely comprehensible).
Unfortunately, there are few vestiges of what made the Jessica Jones and Luke Cage solo outings mostly excellent, Daredevil’s two seasons something more than merely competent (the Punisher ruled), and … well, I wanted to say something nice here about Iron Fist, but I can’t, because it was terrible. Most of the cringeworthy parts of The Defenders are drawn directly from Iron Fist’s creative DNA, which was corroded by insufficiently examined Orientalist clichés and a hopelessly white-bread central character, poorly cast and played by Jones. Creepy, often faceless Asian characters are all over the place here, and in a key section of the fourth episode, composer John Paesano’s score merges three lazy musical-geographical stereotypes of Otherness into a single cue: Tuvan throat-singing, vaguely Arabic wailing, and mysterious Far East chimes and trills. The internet hot-take machine is going to roast this aspect of the series, which is too bad: It’s sincere and inventive in other ways, and more connected to actual life than all but a handful of superhero stories produced at this budget level. There’s frank talk of institutional racism, rapacious real-estate development, and gentrification, and when disaster strikes New York City, there’s dialogue pointing out that poor people don’t have insurance to cover repairs.
On a more immediate, nuts-and-bolts level, it’s disheartening to see Netflix fall all over itself to create a small-screen answer to The Avengers. It does so at the expense of the character details and finely wrought, urban pulp atmosphere that made earlier entries in this franchise, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones most notably, feel special. Jessica battling a spectral rapist, Danny feeling guilt over leaving the mystical city of K’un-Lun unguarded, Matt giving up his Daredevil identity and trying to make sense of his love life and his faith, and Luke embracing his destiny as a neighborhood Samaritan and ending up in prison: These are all far more personal, serious, painful stories than we’re used to seeing in big-budget punchfests. I resented how The Defenders rushed through these stories or pushed them into the background of a tale that’s mainly interested in getting the gang together so that they can beat people up as a team.
There are pacing and structural problems, too, of a somewhat different kind than we’ve seen in Marvel-Netflix superhero shows. While every previous project suffered from what’s been called “Netflix bloat” — the tendency to reflexively order 13 episodes of a show when there might really only be enough plot to fill six or seven — this comparatively truncated, eight-episode project doesn’t overcome the problem; it just finds odd new ways to suffer from the same ones. When it’s not sidelining character psychology to get to the next plot point, it’s lingering on inside conversations that don’t deserve lengthy consideration because the character development has been handled through spell-it-all-out groaners like “Realize that you’re only at mile one of a marathon” and “You know what your problem is? You’re not comfortable with what you’ve become.” And if the entire point was to thrill audiences by throwing these stars together in a single story, why not just jump right into it and bring us up to date on their individual stories when they’re in the midst of action, as the better Marvel films have done? The approach here is not enough of one or the other, and when the team finally comes together in a big way in the fourth episode, you may rightly wonder if the buildup was worth it.
Team-ups are a time-honored centerpiece of superhero fiction, and there have been a couple better-than-average examples on the big screen in recent years (the original The Avengers, for sure). But it’s worth pointing out that none of have been as satisfying dramatically as films and TV series that embrace geographical intimacy (the city or the neighborhood as opposed to the world or the galaxy) and focus on a handful of characters — preferably one central hero, one central villain, and a suitable but not excessive number of allies and henchpersons. Admittedly, satisfying personal drama is rarely the goal in team-up projects. They’re mainly about scratching that childhood rhetorical itch that wants to know whether Iron Man could beat up Captain America or if the Hulk could take Thor in a gladiator match — a question that will be answered in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, unless they pull the usual lame “it was a tie” thing — or, on a more mundane level, asking how exceptional but damaged people with radically different worldviews and life experiences find common ground and fight for the greater good (which is the story of democracy itself).
The Defenders has splashes of the latter fascinations — the pairing of the orphaned blond millionaire-turned-mystic-warrior Danny Rand and the bulletproof Harlem fist-slinger Luke Cage, in particular, feels like a sociopolitical argument made flesh — but the overall triviality of the project evaporates them. At least Ritter and Colter’s performances continue to impress: Their melancholy realness rubs off on the most underwritten or under-imagined scenes, and whenever the story returns to their subplots, Cage’s especially, The Defenders reminds you of what these Netflix series once seemed to want to be, and might someday become.