The Defenders Review: The Avengers This is Not

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Five years ago, The Avengers marked a paradigm shift in blockbuster cinema. Three perfectly cast superheroes—Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and Chris Evans’ Captain America—would come together after finding success in their own solo adventures. Of course now, after being spoiled rotten by the studio, most Marvel fans would denounce Iron Man 2 and even Thor; but the mood was different back then. Marvel had made five very separate films that ranged from genuinely great to merely passable. The Defenders marks the second attempt in the MCU to really connect established characters who, most of the time, have very little to do with each other. And the mood going into this crossover was pretty positive until this past March, when Iron Fist dropped 13 truly horrendous episodes on Netflix with the promise that we had to watch the character again for the crossover. The mood swiftly changed from excitement to “How is The Defenders going to integrate this terrible character with three great ones?” After these eight episodes, the answer is, sadly, complicated.

It’s apparent from the series premiere that the writers aren’t exactly on a rescue mission for Danny Rand’s (Finn Jones) character, instead evoking the aesthetic of the four separate shows while catching us up with the heroes. That leads to some insane tonal shifts when cutting from scenes that belong in Jessica Jones (this writer’s personal favorite live-action superhero series of all time) to scenes that belong in Iron Fist (I’m sure worse ones exist, but I don’t care to investigate). Thankfully, once the big four start to come together—which tragically takes until the end of episode three—the Immortal Iron Fist, as he continually announces himself, can be shut down by Jessica Jones’ (Krysten Ritter) attitude or Luke Cage’s (Mike Colter) no-bullshit demeanor. By the time the team really starts to gel together, Iron Fist becomes way less of a chore to pay attention to, which is good because oh man does a lot of the plot of The Defenders revolve around him.

The villains of the miniseries are the Hand, previously the main villains of Iron Fist and Daredevil‘s second season. They’re led by Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver, chewing scenery the best she can), who has resurrected Elektra (Elodie Young) and is using her as an ultimate killing machine. Their plan is to find the key to immortality, which involves Danny doing something with his glowing fist and something that is literally referred to as “the substance.”

Look, The Defenders is an incredibly silly show, and that’s fine. Superheroes hardly need to be the cornerstone of realism. But Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were not silly shows. Yes, their title characters have superpowers, but those shows acted as a vessel to explore issues of gender, consent, race, and class. The Defenders leans entirely on Daredevil and Iron Fist for its plot, with Jessica and Luke entering their world to help out. The show knows this, and we thankfully get Ritter sassing Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) about his horns, or Colter chuckling at Danny’s incomprehensible origin story. This crossover is great when the four heroes are butting heads and making jabs at each other, even while they’re working together. It takes way too long to get them in the same room, but the series starts to flow with significantly more ease once their worlds collide.

This helps the drab, plot-hole-ridden finale from falling completely apart. The show relies almost entirely on the chemistry of its leads, which is admittedly fantastic. But as the story starts to ask more of the heroes, the tension never really builds. Like many MCU films, The Defenders feels almost completely devoid of consequence. All of these characters’ solo shows already have seasons in some stage of production. Nothing is going to happen to rock these characters’ worlds so significantly that the shows are in jeopardy from being themselves. And that’s where this crossover eventually starts to feel a little pointless.

What it does pave the way for, however, is more small crossovers in the individual shows, which is an exciting prospect. The idea of Jessica Jones popping up for a couple episodes of Daredevil season three is a fun one. But after this miniseries, the idea of the four coming together again for a big group mission isn’t that exciting. We know how they play together now, and it’s enjoyable, but the emotional cruxes of their personalized seasons is largely missing here. The finale tries to force some semblance of an arc for Matt, and I’d argue that the show succeeds in having Danny realize how to be less insufferable, but there’s little to emotionally attach to here, and that puts The Defenders a peg lower than pretty much everything besides Iron Fist. It just feels like Marvel going through the motions because they promised this three years ago. But it could have been more. It could have been The AvengersGrade: B-

Some Spoiler-y Notes:

  • Daredevil’s “death” went over about as convincingly as Superman’s at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And yet the show tried to make us feel something for its final 15 minutes…
  • So Alexandra was kind of a waste. Elektra killing her and taking over the hand was surely shocking, but it sure put a damper on the last two episodes that the Defenders wouldn’t be facing off with her again.
  • No Wilson Fisk or Frank Castle at all here, which was kind of a disappointment. Fisk should have absolutely just been the main villain in hindsight.
  • For having spent so much time on each solo series, Claire Temple really plays too small a role in bringing the four heroes together. Instead, an elaborate plot makes it take three full hours…a disappointing fact when we know Claire has all their phone numbers already.

By Matt Dougherty

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