The MCU’s first crossover TV series, “The Defenders” Season 1 (2017, Netflix), has all the fun of a superhero team-up, along with all the clunkiness. Despite being written by four veterans of “Daredevil” – Douglas Petrie, Marco Ramirez, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and Drew Goddard — it is a notable step down from that bar-setting series.
What makes “Daredevil” great is the in-camera fight choreography and the unapologetic way it obsesses over the titular crimefighter’s reluctance to kill. Although it often pauses to give us an epic hero shot of Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) lined up and ready to fight, “The Defenders’ ” fight scenes lack the punch of “Daredevil.” They are in the quick-cut style from “Iron Fist,” so that takes some wind out of the show’s sails right there.
Everyone is in character in the eight-episode “The Defenders,” but their arcs don’t advance much from the last time we saw them. Daredevil wonders if there’s still good in Elektra (Elodie Yung), who has been resurrected by The Hand to serve as its ninja killing machine. Jessica tries to stay out of the fight, but gets sucked in because she cares about her clients in a deep-down level that never shows on her face. Luke is much the same way: He wants to protect and guide the youth of Harlem but is reluctant to go beyond that. Danny is still vaguely beating himself up for the destruction (or mere disappearance?) of K’un-Lun, which he left unguarded.
While “The Defenders’ ” Hell’s Kitchen cinematography is again spectacular and The Hand gains some gravitas by having Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra at its head (or thumb?), there’s a sense of inevitability to everything that happens. Notably, it’s heavily hinted that the grand finale will be in the bowels of The Hand’s new building (the mysterious hole from “Daredevil” Season 2), and that a portal in that basement – which can only be opened by the Iron Fist – leads to K’un-Lun.
The supporting casts – Foggy and Karen from “Daredevil,” Trish and Malcolm from “Jessica Jones” and Misty from “Luke Cage” – are accounted for, but they don’t get much to do. Colleen from “Iron Fist” and the all-purpose nurse Claire are in on the action more. And Scott Glenn’s Stick elevates every scene he’s in – even if he is just explaining the ancient conflict of good guys versus The Hand. That said, I’d rather be watching “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” or “Luke Cage” (but not “Iron Fist,” admittedly).
Granted, it’s highly amusing to see these four heroes feel each other out. The costume-phobic Jessica sees Daredevil’s outfit and notes “Nice ears.” (“They’re horns,” he explains.) After pulling Danny’s cellphone out of his pocket (it could’ve led The Hand to their hideout), Stick notes that Danny may be the Iron Fist, but he’s also a dumbass. And one of The Hand leaders observes that Danny is “the dumbest Iron Fist yet.”
Here, the scribes are insulting Danny to foster a connection with viewers who hated “Iron Fist”; I see the scriptwriting gears turning. The plot and character arcs are too obvious and advance too slowly for me to get swept away. Yet I can’t give this endeavor too low of a ranking, since its actors, settings and music keep things engaging. For all its faults, “The Defenders” deserves credit for melding four disparate shows into a big crossover event.
Here are my rankings of the eight episodes, which have very little space between them:
1. “Ashes, Ashes” (episode 6, written by Goddard and Ramirez) – This is the only episode that features something I didn’t see coming: Stick tries to kill Danny, who is “The Key” to The Hand’s scheme. It’s a third option, an alternative to hiding Danny or using him in the fight, and it’s fascinating to see Stick choose the path that was staunchly rejected by Buffy in “Buffy” Season 5, when Dawn is The Key. A less surprising – thanks to the telegraphed framing of the scene — third option is exercised by Elektra, who kills Alexandra and takes over the Hand leadership rather than continuing to serve or trying to escape.
2. “Worst Behavior” (3, Hissrich and Petrie) – Here we get the Elektra-as-Black-Sky origin story, which features some nice training-for-her-evil-masters scenes. (It’s interesting that the writers call the magic ooze that resurrects her “the substance.” It feels like a placeholder for a more robust word.) This episode’s centerpiece is a fun – if video-gamey — boardroom fight where a bunch of men in suits are actually Hand ninjas. They take on the four heroes, who fight as a group for the first time, and the storyline has momentum coming out of this hour.
3. “The Defenders” (8, Hissrich and Ramirez) – Our heroes’ discussions about blowing up The Hand’s HQ has 9/11 undertones, and it’s interesting that we see the skyscraper’s collapse, a signal that the era of oversensitivity about such images has ended (although it is undercut by the lucky fact that the heroes confirm that no innocents are in the building). The finale features the expected two-pronged suspense of a basement fight and a ticking bomb, and it’s a shame that most of the supporting cast (Karen, Trish, Malcolm, Foggy, etc.) have no role to play. I do admit that the way the camera holds on the door of the precinct office (indicating that Daredevil is not among the returning heroes, a crushing blow to Karen and Foggy) is effective. I’m surprised that we don’t see a majestic view of K’un-Lun at the end, although it’s safe to say that’s the place where Daredevil wakes up in the final shot. (In contrast to “Avengers: Infinity War” or “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I appreciate that the saga doesn’t pretend that a major hero is dead.)
4. “Royal Dragon” (4, Petrie and Ramirez) – This is just the four heroes talking and eating in a restaurant, as if the post-credits tag of “The Avengers” were a whole hour. While it kills the story’s momentum, it is engaging to watch everyone play off each other and see who has chemistry with whom. It’s nice to have Stick on hand to explain the ancient conflict without spin or mumbo-jumbo. Alexandra just randomly shows up in the dining room, like The Mayor popping into the library in “Buffy” Season 3, a reminder that Petrie studied at the altar of Joss Whedon.
5. “Mean Right Hook” (2, Hissrich and Ramirez) – A nice sense of mystery bubbles up as Jessica investigates a building changing hands through shell companies, and Trish’s radio boss shuts her down when she questions whether the earthquake was natural. (Later episodes quash any momentum for the mystery vibe, since the mystery isn’t mysterious to viewers.) The episode’s highlight is the first meeting of longtime comic-book allies Luke and Danny (a.k.a. “Power Man and Iron Fist”) – who, of course, fight each other.
6. “Take Shelter” (5, Hissrich, Petrie, Ramirez) – The Hand leaders start to worry the Black Sky still has some Elektra in her, but there’s no sense of mystery because we as viewers see her go to Matt’s apartment and recall good times. Stick’s beheading of Sowande is a deliciously violent moment, and the group’s hideout in the gutted interior of a vast old building is cool. Everyone’s friends and family being gathered at the police station for their safety is a logistically smart move by the heroes, but it also signals a flaw of “The Defenders”: so many great characters are sidelined because there simply isn’t room for them.
7. “The H Word” (1, Petrie and Ramirez) – Each of the four heroes (that’s the H-word of the title) have sequences that show them essentially in their own series, then an earthquake ties them together as Big Apple residents. The new Big Bad, Alexandra, has gravitas because she’s played by Weaver and even Madame Gao (the always compelling Wai Ching Ho) bows down to her. Sure, it works, but it’s almost like the casting director and writers are cheating.
8. “Fish in the Jailhouse” (7, Hissrich and Ramirez) – There’s too much “stuck at the police station arguing with cops” before our heroes finally see some action, although it is amusing to see Matt, Luke and Jessica on a subway traveling to the episode’s climactic fight. When these three Defenders face three Hand leaders, it’s an admittedly epic visual, but as usual the battle relies on editing more than in-camera choreography (which is understandable considering that Gao, an old lady, is one of the players; her moves are swift and singular).
How would you rank the eight episodes of “The Defenders” Season 1? Share your thoughts below.
“The Defenders” Season 1: