Hey everyone, today begins LRM‘s reviews of Marvel and Netflix’s The Defenders — the 8-episode mini-series event that combines characters and events from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. We’re spreading out our reviews over the next few weeks to give everyone a chance to discuss each episode and debate the good, the bad, and the Danny Rand (just kidding, the more we get to know the Iron Fist, the less we dislike him).
We open on a desperate chase and running fight through the sewers of Phenom Penn, Cambodia. Iron Fist (Finn Jones) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) pursue a lead on The Hand, but encounter a highly-skilled swordfighter instead (hint: It’s Elektra). Rand and Elektra battle, and Danny appears to defeat her with a Chi punch, but not before she kills the man they sought. As an aside, it’s not clear how Danny summons his Chi (aka glowing fist) or how long he can sustain it; we know he needs a moment of undistributed concentration, but it’s never been sufficiently explained why he can only channel it through one fist or how long it takes for him to recover or channel it again — not a deal-breaker, but it’s clumsy storytelling.
“I’m not starting over, I’m moving forward.” — Luke Cage.
The other Defenders are each re-introduced, relative to the last time we saw them in their solo series. Luke (Mike Colter) exits Seagate Prison; Jessica (Krysten Ritter) drinks her way through each day; and Matt (Charlie Cox) struggles with his own form of sobriety: a life without Daredevil. The timeline is a little muddy, but it’s surprisingly easy to pick-up these storylines considering their long layoffs (Jessica Jones Season 1 dropped in November, 2015).
While the characters are initially separated, they’re not isolated; they’re just a bit lost and looking for purpose. Luke’s frustrated that he’s out-of-step with life in Harlem, Jessica’s guilty over her newfound fame, Matt’s struggling to bury his vigilante past, and Danny… well, I still don’t know what his deal is, but he selfishly blames himself for the destruction of his former home of K’un Lun. These are small but important setups, and reinforces why we should care about these characters.
What’s odd, however, is that none of them seems particularly worried about money. Luke needs a job, but isn’t in any hurry to find one; Jessica turns down cases, even though she still needs to replace her office door; Matt accepts only pro bono work; Danny burns cash while pursuing Hand clues, which I guess is A-OK with the Rand Corporation board. There’s a lot of shorthand within these intros, but expressing their personal struggles without also addressing how they live day-to-day is odd. One of the key hallmarks of Marvel comics are their character’s struggles to scrape out a living, so the glossing-over of this aspect feels off.
THE MAIN PLOT EMERGES
And while it’s great to catch-up on everyone’s individual circumstances, the pace suffers a bit for it. If you’re expecting wall-to-wall action — a fair expectation — you might be surprised to realize that the core plot of The Defenders actually involves a mystery, which is unexpected but not unwelcome. By contrast, Marvel’s big-screen The Avengers (2012) involved a world-threatening alien invasion, but in The Defenders, the focus is on a localized-but-emerging threat in New York with ominous overtones, which is honestly fitting for these street-level heroes. Finally, about halfway through the episode, we meet Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), our primary villain. Her introduction is incredibly low-key: a hospital patient with a terminal illness who’s time is running out. We assume that Alexandra leads The Hand, whom we know can resurrect the dead, so what’s going on here?
Alexandra and her lieutenant, Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), accelerate their shadowy plans, as a result of her earlier diagnosis. A major earthquake befalls the city, which touches and affects the lives of all four Defenders. This final few moments of the episode unifies all of the characters and their various timelines. It’s a great moment that reinforces that they’re up against something big, whatever it is. In the immediate aftermath, Alexandra reveals her secret weapon: Elektra… who we saw killed in the finale of Daredevil Season 2. It’s intriguing that all of the major villains here are female and they are each marked by silence and calm, quite a departure from your typical Marvel adversaries, and again helps to distinguish The Defenders from everything else in the MCU.
Quick note on the opening credits sequence: I really liked how the characters were embedded within a map of the city, emphasizing how much New York is a character in this story (it’s reminiscent of HBO’s True Detective opening titles). Each of the major characters are depicted in their appropriate colors too, which is reinforced through scene transitions during the episode. The music is also very solid and sets a nice, heroic tone too (without sounding at all like The Avengers or any other MCU property).
The major problem with this episode is lack of context. If you haven’t watched each season of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, or Iron Fist, you might have some trouble understanding what’s happening. It’s particularly annoying when characters talk about plot threads and characters who do not (and will not) appear in The Defenders. Reminds me of how poorly Joss Whedon explained the absence of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in The Avengers, and it’s just as clunky here. However, this was a decent, albeit sluggish, opening episode (NOTE: things improve significantly in upcoming episodes).
Was this the start to The Defenders mini-series that you were hoping for? Let us know in the comments down below!