After the week from hell, the heroes of The Defenders are at the final stage of their battle against the Hand. All they have to do now is … [deep breath] … blow up the Midland Circle building before the Hand extracts immortality from the bones of an ancient dragon that’s buried hundreds of feet below Hell’s Kitchen.
Marvel’s Netflix shows are supposed to offer a more grounded look at the superhero genre, but the Hand’s story line here has been pure fantasy, despite visuals that try to add grit to a sensational narrative about ancient warring factions and dragons that give people superpowers. Like Daredevil and Iron Fist before it, The Defenders tries to tie the evil organization to the problems of regular people, but the Hand has always felt out of place in this street-level setting, particularly because there isn’t a compelling villain at its center. Alexandra occupied that role for a little while, but she didn’t show up until well after the Hand first started causing trouble in the solo shows. That’s a long time to go without a main villain that the audience can emotionally attach to, and then Alexandra wound up dead, leaving a hole in the Hand that Elektra hasn’t been able to fill.
Elektra has the potential to be a captivating antagonist, but her motivations in The Defenders are so scattershot that she doesn’t come across as a real person. She was a tool for the Hand, and now she’s a tool for the writers of the show, a character they can use to create an intense conflict for Matt Murdock without needing her story to actually make much sense. Is she driven by her love for Matt? She denies it and says what she really loves is the thrill of their game, which make her feel truly alive. She’s supposedly fixated on eternal life, but she’s also content to die if she dies with Matt at her side. She says that she doesn’t consider good and evil, but when faced with the end, she apologizes for the pain she’s caused. There’s a lot of flip-flopping with Elektra that comes across as inconsistent, unfocused writing rather than a character’s deeper confusion and indecision.
“The substance” needed by the Hand is inside the dragon’s bones, and removing the remains makes the foundation under this section of New York City extremely unstable. Digging to the entrance caused that tremor at the end of the premiere episode, but that was just a tiny taste of the destruction that will follow the Hand’s excavation. There are so many questions surrounding why there’s a dragon skeleton underneath Hell’s Kitchen, and none of them are answered. That’s a story that could be really interesting, but instead we get more of what we’ve already seen on this series, just underground. It’s frustrating because these seeds could have grown into something richer, but instead we’re given yet another conversation where Danny Rand is tempted to the dark side.
In an action sequence reminiscent of the final battle of The Avengers, the heroes face off against the Hand in a single long camera take. The Defenders’ first team-up was a fight calling back to Daredevil’s breakout action sequence, and it’s fitting that their last one would have the spirit of Marvel’s big-screen super-team. They used to be random people forced into a shared conflict, but now they are a full-fledged team fighting evil ninjas in front of a dragon skeleton. The camerawork shifts into a slicker, more cinematic mode for this scene, but it manages to hold on to some of that signature grit because all of the fighting is still hand-to-hand combat rather than aliens blowing up skyscrapers.
Jessica Jones ultimately plays a small part in the overarching narrative of The Defenders, but this show would be lesser without her. She’s the character who always comments on how ridiculous the situation is, and when you’re dealing with dragon-bone fantasy being passed off as gritty drama, you need someone like Jessica to point out that this is all nonsense. Jessica is the audience surrogate for any viewer who thinks this is all kind of stupid, but still ends up engrossed in the story. She needed something to get her out of her post-Kilgrave blues, and fighting the forces of evil with her superhero teammates does the job. Her relationship with Luke Cage also gets some strong development here, and seeing Jessica and Luke reconnect is one of the most satisfying things about The Defenders because so many complex emotions influence their dynamic.
While the central quartet of heroes takes on the Hand underground, Claire, Colleen, and Misty have their own fight against Bakuto, who appears when Claire and Colleen are planting C-4 explosives to take down the building. This sequence gives Claire the opportunity to show that she’s picked up a few self-defense moves over the course of her journey, and this episode continues to present Claire as an integral part of the Marvel-Netflix universe. Colleen builds on her pep talk from last episode as she watches Claire risk her life to play an even more active role in this vigilante mission, and Claire fends for herself against attackers while Colleen is fighting Bakuto. Claire does end up in a compromised position when she attacks Bakuto — you can’t expect her to beat a martial-arts master, after all — but Misty steps in to save her, losing her arm in the process.
With The Defenders ending phase one of Marvel and Netflix’s partnership, it would be nice to see some more tonal variation heading into phase two, which currently includes new seasons of the original four series and the debut of The Punisher. A team-up of Misty and Colleen as Daughters of the Dragon is the obvious choice for the next series to join the ranks, and The Defenders has laid the groundwork for their future partnership. Colleen feels guilty about her role in Misty’s injury, and she’ll probably stick by Misty’s side as she’s outfitted with an awesome new bionic art from the state-of-the-art Rand-owned hospital. Throughout this show, I’ve gotten the feeling that Misty wishes she could fight with the vigilantes, and this new arm might be the extraordinary power she needs to jump into the superhero lifestyle.
After Bakuto is decapitated by Colleen and the C-4 timer is set, the other heroes need to get out from underground as soon as possible. Matt stays down to hold off Elektra while Luke and Jessica get Danny to safety, and he ends up sacrificing his life to save his neighborhood. Matt and Elektra violently work through their issues, and by the time the bomb goes off, they’ve reached a point where they’ve released the tension and ultimately find comfort in each other’s arms, even when they’re surrounded by falling rubble. As frustrating as some of the character choices are, that final shot of them together in the middle of this destruction is a striking image to end their story on. Except the story isn’t over.
Matt’s love for the city is brought up in multiple scenes following his apparent death, and love is what led to his downfall. He cared so much about New York City that he couldn’t sit on the sidelines when it was threatened, and his love for Elektra convinced him that she could be brought to the side of the heroes when everything she did suggested otherwise. But love might also be the thing that saves Matt, specifically the love of a mother for her son. Despite being crushed by debris, Matt somehow makes it out alive, and the episode’s final scene finds Matt in a convent, where a nun named Maggie has been waiting for him to wake up from a coma. That nun is Maggie Murdock, a name that promises a reunion between mother and son at the start of Daredevil’s third season.
Because this is a Marvel Studios project, The Defenders ends with a post-credits sequence, although Netflix automatically minimizing the screen makes it easy to miss the teaser for the upcoming The Punisher series. Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle was one of the best parts of Daredevil’s second season, but the glimpses of the new series have me a bit nervous about a narrative rooted in Frank’s military past. These Netflix series like to incorporate larger social and political issues, but they tend to simplify complicated topics. How will The Punisher approach heavy subject matter like military torture and wartime trauma? Is it going to be an endless barrage of misery and darkness? The trailer suggests that Frank’s story will be taken very seriously, but do we really need another aggressively dour lead hero in Marvel’s Netflix lineup? There’s a homogeneity to these shows that makes them increasingly dull, and while there were some exciting moments in The Defenders, the series also highlights how these shows are forced into a mold that limits artistic creativity.