(Ed. Note — Marvel and Netflix are allowing published reviews of The Defenders on the condition that no major spoilers are revealed. What follows are my NON-SPOILER impressions on episodes 1-4 of the series. Also make sure to listen to the August 2nd episode of the LeagueCast for more opinions on the show.)
When Netflix announced their partnership with Marvel Studios’ TV division in late 2013, they wasted no time telling viewers that the endgame for their four planned series—Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage—was an ambitious team-up event that would posit the four leads as a street-level Avengers. But a funny thing happened on the way to The Defenders — after two seasons of Daredevil, and one season each of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (all of which were highly successful and critically lauded), Iron Fist became the first Marvel…well, anything to get a rotten score from the ubiquitous review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The mystical martial arts-meets white privilege series was annihilated by critics for its uneven plotting, unlikable lead, a missed opportunity for casting diversity, and poor fight choreography. It also got a lukewarm at best, downright hostile at worst, reception from fans. Still, the series did big numbers for the media streaming juggernaut, and Marvel marched, undeterred, into production on their big crossover event.
So now that the culmination of four years of planning is here, the big questions on my mind (and I’m sure on the minds of many fans), are: does The Defenders integrate Danny Rand well and make him a better, more likable character? And with a truncated episode count (8 rather than 13), does the show improve upon the main critiques leveled at the Netflix series so far – namely, inconsistent action scenes in dull locations (the hallway fight meme) and a tendency to run out of narrative steam in the back half of the season; something I refer to as the “butter scraped over too much bread” syndrome?
Thankfully, the answer is mostly yes, with a few caveats. Obviously, having only seen the first four episodes, I can’t say whether or not the wheels fall off during the final stretch here, but I can tell you that—aside from a slightly draggy chunk of episode two—the pacing of The Defenders is excellent, deftly cutting among the main characters and the inhabitants of their respective “worlds,” with the sinister plot of The Hand organization unspooling in the background. As for Finn Jones’ much-maligned Danny Rand, I’m happy to report that he is used and treated far better here than in his own show. While his overall performance and the inherent nature of the character remains primarily the same and won’t win over his most fervent detractors (i.e., he still whines a lot and looks like a wealthy yoga bro back from a semester backpacking abroad), Danny’s motivations and purpose are much clearer in The Defenders and he seems to have improved in the fighting category as well.
Jones is also put to good use bouncing off of the other characters. In fact, the chemistry among Jones, Ritter, Colter, and Cox is absolutely stellar; better than I could have imagined. Once all the disparate plot threads finally converge and the team is “assembled,” the interactions are crackling and dynamic, full of great banter, insults, and wordplay: Luke and Jessica carry over their electric, yet seemingly doomed attraction from the Jessica Jones solo series, both Jessica’s acid snark and Luke’s streetwise sensibility clash spectacularly with Danny’s impulsiveness and naiveté, and Cox is simply a rock, playing well off of the entire cast. And while there is the requisite amount of doubt and distrust among the four, leading to the inevitable “can they put their differences aside and work together?” push/pull routine, it doesn’t feel tedious or unnecessary.
Visually speaking, The Defenders is one of the best-looking Marvel Netflix shows yet. Cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd establishes a very cool color-coded motif for each character in the pilot, which the subsequent episodes follow until their separate worlds finally meld into one. Jessica’s scenes are bathed in cool blues and purples, while Daredevil’s radiate red and Luke’s are peppered with splashes of bright yellow. it’s a simple, yet effective visual storytelling technique that sets the mood and helps orient the viewer as we catch up on where the characters are in their lives as events conspire to unite them. Action-wise, the series does a nice job of mixing all of the different fighting styles seen in the previous shows, from Luke’s no-nonsense brawn to Iron Fist’s chi-driven fluidity – culminating in one of the best battle sequences of all the Marvel Netflix programs so far. (I’ll let it be a surprise as to what episode it occurs in.)
I haven’t said much about Sigourney Weaver’s villain role, or who she interacts with and the overall plot of the Hand, and the reason for that is twofold. Firstly, these elements carry the most spoiler potential, so I simply can’t discuss them in any detail. And secondly, it’s all still very much a mystery after four episodes, which could raise a familiar level of frustration for those who feel the evil plans in these shows are too ambiguous and remain so too deep into the narratives. Suffice it to say that it is always a pleasure to see one of the genre’s greatest female champions on screen doing her thing, and if Weaver’s character ultimately falls short of greatness in The Defenders, the blame should land squarely on writer/showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez.
Some minor plot contrivances aside, like characters magically appearing to confront other characters, or questionable logic drawing characters into one another’s paths, The Defenders is shaping up to be a series that not only redeems the Iron Fist, but lights a fuse on a powder keg of terrific team dynamics. Hardcore comic book fans and devotees of the colorful Marvel Cinematic Universe films will still find themselves bothered by the lack of costuming and any connections or references to the Avengers, but even without the spectacle, The Defenders has just enough pulpy energy to hit some of the comic book sweet spots. Hopefully, the show will stick the landing in episodes 5-8, but based on what I watched, the show is off to a great start in terms of being a solidly enjoyable, street-level, Marvel action-drama.