I had to watch the first two episodes of Netflix’s The Defenders, which hit the streaming service today, twice. Why? Because I fell asleep during both initial viewings. Whoa, that’s clearly not a good sign. That’s what I thought, but by the end of the fourth episode, which was the final hour Marvel and Netflix provided to critics, I was excited to see what was next.
If you haven’t watched Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, or Iron Fist, this show might not be for you. Most of you have seen at least some of the five combined seasons of those four properties, and you’re somewhat familiar with the characters and the cast.
Following the success of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and its sequel, as well as the Guardians of the Galaxy series, the viewing public has proven its love of superhero team-ups. DC attempted unsuccessfully to make Suicide Squad a force in 2016, and now they’re going all in with Justice League later this fall. Why do so many standalone Netflix series, other than the fact that all but one did well and were generally well-received?
Once you make each hero a star, you have a chance to create a superstar project when you group them together against a dastardly force.
Set in New York, The Defenders begins in one spot, but quickly shifts its focus to the collective, rather than the individual. Early, we see Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) still in their own portions of the universe. All four end up in the same city, and three live there permanently, so the continuity is easy to pull off.
Murdock is in court, Jones is deciding upon taking on a new case as a private investigator, Cage is getting out of jail, and Rand is still on the search for the mysterious, evil crime syndicate known as The Hand. Honestly, it’s a little dull during much of the first episode. Iron Fist is by far number four on the Netflix Marvel list, and we spent an awful lot of time with him.
What keeps things moving in the first episode is the entrance of the season’s primary villain, a mysterious woman named Alexandra, played by Sigourney Weaver. Keeping with the tradition of strong, talented antagonists on these shows, Weaver is outstanding. She’s not as unhinged as Wilson Fisk or as overtly diabolical as Kilgrave, but she’s a nightmare. She’s also dying, and it appears as if her very survival might be dependent upon the destruction of America’s biggest city.
Finally, we get a big-time Netflix superhero series that doesn’t feel the need to run 13 episodes. Here, The Defenders is an eight episode event, which means less fluff. The reason we see all four heroes in their own worlds at the start is so the joining process feels less artificial. The quartet find each other largely through secondary characters. For example, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) ends up attempting to be Luke Cage’s lawyer. When Jessica Jones finds herself in hot water, it ends up being another attorney you might know that arrives to defend her.
The effect is natural, and gradual, which plays to the benefit of the series once you arrive to the moment the four finally end up in the same room at the same time. It’s a cool scene, because by the time it comes, you REALLY want to see it happen. It’s not immediate, and it requires more than one episode of viewing to see, but once the foursome is together, the series ramps up in quality to an enormous degree.
After the second hour, I felt this would review would be more negative than it turned out to be. By the time we reach the fourth episode’s climax, I was all in on the entertainment of the show. Like all the Netflix efforts, these are imperfect, damaged, conflicted individuals. These are brooding, depressed, at times obnoxious people, and not the Wonder Woman of Spider-Man we’ve seen earlier this year on the big screen.
Netflix goes gritty with its superhero shows, filled with shades of grey and sometimes an almost irritating darkness. The shows are violent and dreary, and none of the heroes, with the exception of Danny’s glowing fist, has an immediately recognizable power. These are four special people that can hide in plain sight, except when Murdock decides to dress like The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
Weaver’s Alexandra is a real treat, and as she said herself about the character, this woman is “more an adversary than a villain.” She’s original and unique, and actually is transfixed to some extent by the reality that these four people would actually care THIS much about what is actually a relatively small portion of an enormous city.
The Hand has been a force at multiple times in these shows, and The Defenders appears to be the culmination of that side of the tale. That entity as an enemy leads to common ground between the very NOT friendly foursome. Watching them attempt to coexist or get to know each other is fun, because by no means is this is a seamless transition for any of them. You can probably guess who the toughest one to convince is if you’ve watched the shows that led to the super team.
Most everyone you’d expect to encounter in this world is here, from Foggy to Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) to Misty Knight (Simone Missick) to Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville) to Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). Again, while you could watch The Defenders without having seen the other shows, it’s not advisable, because much of the joy of the show comes from the familiarity and watching the intermingling of people you know. I never finished Iron Fist, but I knew enough. The others I had seen in their entirety, and it definitely assists in the enjoyment process.
There’s really only one big reveal in the opener, which comes at the very end of the episode, and I’ll leave that for you to discover. The short verdict on The Defenders is this: If you like the Marvel Netflix shows, you’re going to like the miniseries. Despite the slow start, once it clicks, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Mind you, I still have to finish it up, and perhaps the ending is complete garbage.
I don’t get that sense though, and as Finn Jones described it, the miniseries is basically the conclusion of the first stage of the Netflix Marvel universe. Halfway through, it’s clear the back half of the season should be both action-packed and loaded with story elements. But, when Episode 8 ends, we’ll see at least a tease of the opening into the next phase, which will lead off with Jon Bernthal’s highly anticipated portrayal of Frank Castle in The Punisher.
I predict that show, and Bernthal’s overall lead performance, will be the best effort yet, although right now, Jessica Jones is the leader in the clubhouse. I adored that series, even if it would have been even stronger with just ten episodes. That goes for all the Marvel shows, which is why The Defenders had an immediate advantage.
The miniseries was the initial end game, and everything you’ve seen up to this point has led to this moment. I was concerned at the start, but I’m now very excited to see how it ends. I’ll give it a B- for now. That’s probably where I’ll be at the finish as well, although I could see the minus dropping off if the quality stays at this level.
The Defenders is true to the Netflix Marvel universe, and appears to fulfill what the ardent fans of the four shows would want from the collaboration. Featuring a strong antagonist in Alexandra and a variety of characters and backgrounds, this one works.
I’m @JMartOutkick. By my powers combined, I am still not Captain Planet.