The Marvel Cinematic Universe has completely redefined the modern entertainment zeitgeist to the point where it’s difficult to remember a time when shared universe storytelling did not infect every aspect of pop culture. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)
Still, if the recent path of Marvel’s relatively low-budget Netflix offshoot of its uber successful mainstream cinema fare is any indication, even a juggernaut praised as much for financial success as storytelling quality can falter.
With The Defenders, I fear the “neighborhood” MCU Daredevil did such a great job of setting up seems poised upon the brink of narrative oblivion.
Daredevil wasn’t a perfect show, but it was something of a revelation, and its overall competency and entertainment value quieted the raised voices of many a nerd rueing Matt Murdoch’s sequestering to the small screen at the expense of joining the Avengers on the big one. Season 2 was a marked improvement in virtually every area, with the addition of another compelling antihero in Frank Castle’s Punisher and an equally-compelling antagonist/love interest in Elektra Natchios.
And after that is where the Netflix shows began to waffle in terms of quality. Jessica Jones dealt with issues other shows in the genre—most shows in any genre—wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Luke Cage introduced a refreshing and authentic view of the street-level Harlem of the MCU with a charismatic, likable lead. Still, both of those series suffered mightily from understuffing, stretching six episodes worth of juicy narrative and character arcs over a sometimes-excellent and increasingly yawn-inducing 13 hours.
And then Iron Fist, well … fell completely flat.
Which brings us to The Defenders, which has been sold for three years as something of a street-level Avengers team. With the relatively trim episode count (Defenders clocks in under eight hours,) and a robust team of mostly fleshed-out leads, what could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, quite a bit.
First of all, where the Avengers on the big screen were brought together under dramatic and entertaining circumstances, those on Netflix are forced together through shallow plot contrivances that has Jones, Cage and Danny Rand seeming as though they’re being ushered through discarded Daredevil scripts to align plot threads. In short, there is no compelling reason for them to meet, and even said meeting takes nearly two full episodes to start coming together.
Organic? Meet forced.
One of the major complaints of The Defenders has been its inconsistent and head-scratching characterization. Charlie Cox’s Daredevil feels like he’s in a completely different show (ie: his own,) while Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter are given precious little to do for large stretches.
Finn Jones was miscast as Danny Rand. There’s really no other way to say it, and it’s got nothing to do with whitewashing criticisms, earned or not. Jones plays Rand like a discount Steve Rogers, a boy scout playing fish out of water in the slums of New York. It doesn’t work. At all. This is a real shame, as the strange, confusing, threadbare plot that stitches this series together largely relies on the character and mythology of Iron Fist as a fulcrum.
As Tony Stark would say, “Not a great plan.”
Still, the agonizing start does give way to some nice banter when the inevitable team disfunction, bonding stuff starts, and even Finn Jones works in some of the scenes where he’s placed opposite Colter, a nice nod to comic book fans, given their characters’ intertwined fictional histories.
But all the while, viewers are left waiting for the other shoe to drop. Namely, the big bad.
Is it Sigourney Weaver? Nobody seemed to tell her. Her plan makes less sense when she gives voice to its particulars than when it’s left to our inferences, and it all comes to a jumbled mess of nonstarter that is frustrating to put it mildly and infuriating otherwise.
Is it Elektra Natchios? Kind of. Which is pretty strange, seeing as Daredevil shows pretty early on that he’s more than a match for her on his own, nevermind with three far more powerful allies in the mix, one of whom can punch literal dragons to death.
Is it The Hand? Yeah. The same shadowy organization Daredevil battled in Season 2 of his own series (sans corny, entertaining ninjas this time.)
If there was a silver lining to be had amidst all the hype, surely it would be the action sequences. On that account at least, The Defenders is watchable. Frustrating cinematography and choppy editing in the first few episodes gives way to more competent workmanship later on, even as the showrunners do their utmost to drown it all in darkness so near complete you can’t tell one hero from the next.
After giving viewers some of the best small-screen action of all time in the first two seasons of Daredevil, there’s frankly no excuse for Iron Fist to look as though he’s still a white belt. Similarly, it seems Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are there to glower, quip and occasionally punch walls that seem to block our heroes’ paths at every turn.
DAMN YOU, WALLS!
Perhaps the best moment in The Defenders comes amidst its sputtering, misguided attempt at a finale, where the show takes a dramatic turn that is handled well by its principal actors even as it feels completely unearned on a narrative level. The result is a hollow plot device meant to set up the next 13 hours of storytelling. For one character, at least, the fallout promises to be interesting and perhaps worth watching.
In the end, The Defenders is an eight-episode slog that feels like 13, and you’ll realize halfway through you’re only sitting there to see how it all comes together … or doesn’t.
It’s a disappointing entry in what started as a stellar campaign for Marvel on Netflix. There’s little reason to believe Daredevil Season 3 will suck, and The Punisher’s spinoff looks fresh and intense.
As for the rest? The Defenders have some work to do in their respective series before anyone’s clamoring for them to get back together again.