The Defenders, like the four superheroes who make up its name, is ambitious and flawed, yet overall entertaining. Surprisingly, it truly does feel like the worlds-colliding TV show it was billed as, as well as feeling fresh and original. Since 2012, viewers have seen Avengers assemble, CW shows crossover, X-Men band together, will soon witness the Justice League unite, and thus the mere prospect of seeing another spandexed group of individuals in the same room (or in The Defenders case: a chinese restaurant) does not excite as it used to. Nonetheless, seeing these heroes from all over New York City set aside their differences to sacrifice for the collective and greater good is still exciting. It is a gripping series that services each individual’s character arc and adds another dimension to the gritty, street level noir setting of New York. It operates on a smaller, darker and more personal scale, and, although there are no aliens flying out of the sky this time to threaten the Earth, the stakes still feel high.
Taking place a few months after Daredevil season 2 and Iron Fist’s first season, the first few episodes of The Defenders focus on each individual character in their separate sectors of New York. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) has retired from being the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” and begrudgingly continues his work as a lawyer, though he still itches to be a vigilante again. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) has quit being a private investigator and spends her days (and mornings) drinking at bars. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is released from prison and goes back to Harlem and wrestles with his newfound fame for having defeated the villainous Cottonmouth. Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) and friend Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) are chasing down murderous Hand ninjas all across the world with no avail. All of these characters seem stuck and unable to move forward with their individual lives, and express moments of frustration at their current state.
Showing the heroes broken and somber is an interesting way to start of the series. It attempts to make clear that these characters have no business in resuming superhero work again, much less team up with each other. Yet it is Murdock, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist’s inability to think about anything other than their own present problems that makes their ultimate unification all the more rewarding. As they separately observe and analyze strange happenings going on in New York, they realize that the cases they were exploring are all connected to the Hand, a shadowy organization led by the enigmatic Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) who has plans to destroy New York.
Despite the excitement of the four heroes banding together to defeat Alexandra and the Hand, their team-up occurs much too late in the series. Past Netflix series were simultaneously blessed and cursed with thirteen episode orders; while this gave more time for the audience to see characters develop and grow, unfortunately it meant that a seven or eight episode plot had to be painfully stretched to fill the season. The Defenders feels like the same problems but on a smaller scale, and would have better benefited from a faster pace. The show never really clicks or comes together until the heroes do, which occurs in the middle of the third episode. The hour-long episodes are often disjointed, as those 60 minutes have to be shared with all the characters. Just as one character’s story thread gets interesting, it switches to the next.
Yet what the show suffers for in pacing, it gains from its stellar characters. Supporting cast from all prior shows make mostly glorified cameos here, although it is rewarding to finally see them interact with each other. Weaver’s Alexandra is a cool and calculating villain that, unlike Daredevil’s Kingpin or Jessica Jones Kilgrave, never breaks under pressure. She always assumes and acts as if she is in control. There is an aura of mystery around her, despite her charisma and willingness to be a public villain. Elektra (Élodie Yung) makes a return, resurrected as a weapon by the Hand, though she acts as more of a killing machine and is devoid of personality for most of the season. Jones’ Iron Fist/Danny Rand remains the show’s weakest link (and much of the series revolves around him as a central plot point). His whininess and zeal is curtailed and tempered by the other three members, who are more experienced. As The Defenders focuses on the Hand, the show services Murdock and Cage’s character arcs better, and so seeing their mystical reality collide with Jones and Cage’s more grounded background provides both tension and humor. Jones and Cage are the audience’s foothold in the world and have a smaller stakes; Jones is trying to help one family who is suffering from the Hand while Cage wants to avenge a young boy from Harlem who was killed by them. They have no desire to take down a ninja organization and their incredulity clashes with Jones and Murdock who realize the citywide implications of the Hand’s plan. As a team, they frequently bicker and argue, but eventually learn to accept each other, idiosyncrasies and all. Likewise, some of the best chemistry occurs when the team splits in pairs, with Cage and Rand slowly fostering a mentor-student relationship while Murdock and Jones act like siblings who annoy each other and care for each other deep down, but will never admit it.
A big theme of the show is the importance of “moving on.” As much as the four heroes would like to deny it, once they enter into each other’s lives, they realize that they need each other to truly move forward individually. In a beautifully-choreographed hallway fight and the subsequent aftermath in a chinese restaurant, Murdock’s pragmatism, Jones’s snark, Cage’s care and Rand’s ambition all collide and the four realize that they can learn from each other.
The unity displayed by the heroes is a stark contrast to the Hand. The Hand is united over a cause and believe that the ultimate end justifies the means, even if it means members must be sacrificed or killed. Yet the Defenders never let their goal eclipse their care for each other. They might save New York, but themselves become someone not worth saving in the process. In addition, the Hand wishes to simply kill New York in order to begin anew, but the Defenders show that to quit in order to receive a new beginning is a lazy way out. True transformation and renewal begins when one is willing to wrestle and correct one’s vices and problems, rather than simply running away.
Yet for all the philosophical themes The Defenders explores, it still delivers brutal and adrenaline-pumping action sequences. The fights play out like a battle royale and a circuit of different fighting styles are on display. Cage’s kung-fu has a mystic twist as decimates opponents with his glowing punch. Rand is much more acrobatic in contrast and utilizes a dizzying array of boxer-like jabs and powerful hits from his billy club. Cage simply bulldozes through his opponents, with machine gun fire and swords bouncing off his skin like Nerf darts. Jones likewise utilizes brute strength, throwing everything from cars to couches at her opponents, humorously asking her teammates “am I the only one who doesn’t know karate?” As with all Netflix Defender shows, most if not all of the fight scenes take place in the dark and, because there are so many assailants on screen at a time, it can be confusing to trace who is punching who.
“You four. The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, the smart detective, the righteous ex-con, and the kid with the glowing fist… The war for New York is here. So get your shit together.”
Spoken by Daredvil’s mentor Stick (Scott Glenn), this phrase is hardly a rallying cry but it accurately summarizes why the Defenders come together in the first place. If it were up to the characters, they would walk away from the responsibility of fighting the Hand. Yet they are bound by something greater than their own selfish ambitions: their love for their city. As much as Alexandra believed that if the Defenders had more connections they could be easily broken, they prove that those connections made them stronger.
Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org