As of this weekend, TV’s answer to The Avengers is officially live: The Defenders hit Netflix with eight episodes, finally fulfilling the promise made by the Marvel deal back in 2013.
And the show’s jam-packed with developments we’ve been waiting for. Iron Fist and Luke Cage, together at last! Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, meeting for the very first time! The Hand storyline developed in Daredevil and Iron Fist comes to fruition, and even the literal plot hole of Daredevil Season 2 gets filled up.
So why does it all feel so perfunctory?
To be clear, The Defenders isn’t awful. It’s fine. Just fine! It does what it’s supposed to, which is bring all four heroes together, and those interactions make up the best parts of the show. It’s genuinely thrilling to see Matt introduce himself as Jessica’s lawyer, or Luke and Danny go mano-a-mano in an alleyway.
Each main character gets an opportunity to show off their talents and get in some quips. The fight scenes aren’t Daredevil-good, but they’re not Iron Fist-bad, either. (Which bodes well for Iron Fist Season 2, I guess.)
It all adds up to an easy, breezy weekend binge, at least once you get past that truly dire opening sequence. And at eight episodes, it’s a much smaller time commitment than a season of any of the individual series.
But even by the end, it’s failed to come up with any real reason for existing beyond “because it was part of the Marvel-Netflix deal.” If the thought of Matt, Jessica, Luke, and Danny fighting side-by-side automatically fills you with glee, The Defenders is a must-see. If not, it’s inessential. And that, in itself, is disappointing.
All that said, when it’s fun, it’s fun and sometimes, that fun comes from places we weren’t expecting.
Although Luke and Danny are a classic BFF pairing in the comics, it’s been tough to imagine their small-screen counterparts finding much common ground. Mostly because this version of Danny seems way too bratty for Luke to tolerate for long.
But against all odds, The Defenders makes it work. Kinda. Their first fight scene has a lot of fun with Luke and Danny’s contrasting styles and opposite powers. When they finally get around to talking (with prodding from their babysitters, Claire and Colleen), Luke gives Danny a much-needed dressing-down about his privilege and Danny actually takes his words to heart.
The Defenders pivots away from the topic not long after that, but does give Luke and Danny another opportunity to bond by swapping war stories. (“Trust me, I’d rather face a dragon over Jessica Jones any day,” Luke jokes.) Gradually, it becomes possible to see how this unlikely duo might work better together than apart.
But fans of the Danny / Misty ship, on the other hand, will have to keep waiting. The comic book lovers barely interact at all in The Defenders, though Danny does put Misty up in a hospital that he owns.
The best pairing of all in The Defenders, however, turns out to be Matt and Jessica. The characters have more in common that it might appear at first blush: Both are ambivalent, troubled heroes who can’t help but step up for those in need, and both rely on their wits as much as they do their physical gifts.
Matt’s a lawyer who often ends up doing investigative legwork; Jessica’s an investigator who frequently freelances for a lawyer. Maybe in this universe, these two should be the ones to start up a Heroes for Hire.
Their personalities are well-matched, too. Jessica’s snark helps out Matt’s self-seriousness, and vice versa. Plus, Charlie Cox and Krysten Ritter play this nascent friendship like two people who just really enjoy each other’s company.
If Netflix is smart, the next seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones will find excuses to bring these characters into each other’s shows. They both live in the same tiny neighborhood, after all. Is it too much to ask for a run-in at the corner bodega?
Oh, and speaking of pairings involving Jessica: It looks like there’s some slim hope for Jessica / Luke shippers yet. While Luke and Claire are still going strong as of the end of The Defenders, Luke and Jessica have patched things up as friends. And then Jessica suggests to Luke that they get coffee sometime. We all know what that means …
So, yeah, tl;dr: The four Defenders are pretty great together. It’s too bad their combined forces are wasted against such dull villains.
Sigourney Weaver makes the most of Alexandra, but not even her powers are enough to make us forget that Alexandra’s a big fat nothing. It’s fun to watch her clash with Stick or Madame Gao, and she brings an unnerving edge to her scenes as Elektra, and I kept waiting for something more to come of her.
Then she dies, and that’s that.
The Hand were too generically evil to make for interesting antagonists in Daredevil Season 2 and Iron Fist Season 1, and that’s still true in The Defenders. Maybe even more so. At least in Daredevil and Iron Fist, the Hand had an aura of mystery. We could cling to the hope that there was something more there.
In The Defenders, we finally learn everything there is to know about The Hand, and it turns out they’re just generic baddies who want to live forever. Also, they’re only kind of on board with this whole “Black Sky” thing that’s been a recurring plot point since Daredevil Season 1. Also also, it turns out the “Black Sky” is just a resurrected person who’s really good at fighting.
There’s also some stuff about K’un-Lun, Elektra, a key, a hole, etc., etc., etc. I honestly couldn’t tell if the mythology is confusing, or if I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough to keep it straight.
Right, about Elektra: It turns out she’s the big final boss that the Defenders have to battle in the season finale. This has way more emotional significance for one of the Defenders than it does the other three.
Ditto the guidance the Defenders get from Stick. Danny’s glad to have someone on their side, even if he’s a stranger, and Luke and Jessica are mostly just confused about what’s going on. But Stick’s arrival means the most to Matt, who has a long and complicated history with the man.
As the story goes on, it’s Matt who’s forced to make a devastating choice between saving himself and saving the woman he loves. It’s Matt who makes the ultimate sacrifice. It’s Matt whose death has all the other characters mourning at the end of the season, and Matt who makes a shocking (if you’ve never read a comic book before) return from the dead in the final moments.
For Luke and Jessica, The Defenders is a side quest; for Danny, it’s either an epilogue to Season 1 or a prologue to Season 2. For Matt, though, it’s essentially Season 2.5 of Daredevil. Charlie Cox makes the most of this extra attention, grounding all of these increasingly fantastical plot twists in real emotion. But it’s hard not to feel that the showrunners who were also behind Daredevil Season 2 are playing favorites with the Defender they know best.
That feeling is amplified by The Defenders‘ general disregard for what made Luke Cage and Jessica Jones feel special.
The Defenders faced a difficult challenge in bringing together four different shows with four distinct styles, personalities, and themes. It solves the problem partly by eschewing the idiosyncrasies of the individual series. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage get to keep their quips and their colors, but lose the intimate stakes and sociopolitical commentary that made their individual shows so interesting.
In The Defenders, Jessica and Luke just become two rando good guys fighting a bunch of rando bad guys. Which is really this entire show’s problem in a nutshell. It’s fun to watch superheroes punch out supervillains, and The Defenders serves up plenty of that. It just doesn’t really offer anything else.