This past Friday brought the debut of the newest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): The Defenders. A Netflix original limited series, an 8 episode story arc, it became available in its entirety in traditional Netflix style. Being a fan of most of the “components,” I binged it over the past two days.

Netflix has carved out a section of the MCU for itself with several original series based on Marvel Comics characters in New York City. In order of release, these are Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. The shows anchored themselves in Hell’s Kitchen, a New York City neighborhood (in)formally bounded by 34th and 59th streets, 8th Avenue and the Hudson river. Efforts to rename the neighborhood “Clinton,” begun after press coverage of a notorious stabbing incident in 1959 rankled the city solons, have borne little fruit, and the moniker remains.

The stage for The Defenders was set across two seasons of Daredevil and one each of the other three. The heroes were interconnected not only by geography, but through associated characters (most notably, Rosario Dawson’s nurse Claire Temple) and an extended appearance by Luke Cage in the Jessica Jones series.

The Defenders brings the four of them together, along with their various cohorts, friends and acquaintances, to confront a sinister underground organization that calls itself The Hand. The Hand figured most prominently in the Iron Fist series, the last to air, and it makes sense that the story line presented in Iron Fist be brought to its climax in this crossover.

Unfortunately, the weakness of Iron Fist (the show and the character), which I discuss in a recent review, drags on a otherwise very good and very watchable The Defenders.

In classic Marvel Comics style, each of the characters is a flawed but good person, and each has internal struggles that inform his or her actions and “super-heroism.” Matt Murdoch, aka Daredevil, is a devout Catholic who struggles with the moral relativism of fighting violence and evil with his own violence. Jessica Jones abandoned the superhero business after suffering psychological torture and enduring PTSD. Luke Cage, perhaps the least conflicted of the characters, nevertheless struggles to “always do good” in a world of violence and badness. Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, bounces between the discipline, duty, and obligation inculcated into him by many years of Eastern mysticism and martial arts training and a deep-seated tendency to lash out and act rashly.

The series brings back all the supporting characters fans of the individual shows have come to know, and folds them ably into the story line. Without giving up much in the way of spoilers, the plot centers around some big goings-on involving The Hand in New York City. The first couple episodes work to bring the heroes together organically: Jessica Jones is investigating the disappearance of an architect (who worked for The Hand), Luke Cage is working to rescue a troubled kid from entanglement with a bad guy in Harlem (who’s using kids to do The Hand’s dirty work), Matt Murdock steps in as Jessica’s lawyer, and Iron Fist, with his sidekick Colleen Wing, are already chasing down The Hand’s nasty business. Scott Glenn reprises his role as Stick, and Sigourney Weaver has a splendid turn as the leader of The Hand.

The aspects that made Daredevil and Luke Cage compelling are in full exhibition in The Defenders, with Charlie Cox and Mike Colter ably reprising their characters. Krysten Ritter also does a good turn as Jessica Jones, but her character felt, to me, a little under-utilized. Still, the jaded-private-investigator trope was ably played, supported vitally by the occasional glimpse into the troubled soul that underlies the veneer. In many ways, Jessica Jones is the most interesting of the four heroes, and The Defenders could have used a bit more of her. A number of secondary characters get prominent screen time and story lines of their own, something that the advent of serialized television story-telling makes possible (8 hours of television gives far more opportunity for character development than 2 hours of movie).

The thing that holds The Defenders to merely “good” instead of “great” is the Iron Fist character. Whether it’s the writing and conceptualization of the character, the inability of an otherwise well-regarded actor to actualize the concept, or the mere lack of “likability” of Danny Rand/Iron Fist, the anchoring of the show’s plot on him and his story hampers The Defenders somewhat. Still, I enjoyed it, and if you watched and enjoyed Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, you will enjoy The Defenders.

Stylistically, the show succeeds. Filmed on location in NY City, it does a good job of capturing the street-level grittiness that is foundational to each of the heroes’ stories. Even the billionaire Iron Fist spends a lot of time in a basement dojo that’s far more a part of the others’ world. The fight sequences are well executed and nicely choreographed, presuming the viewer remembers that this is a comic book show, filled with plenty of comic book cliches, and that it is de rigueur that punches, throws and the like that would put you or me either in bed for a week, in a hospital, or in a grave, are shaken off by people in comic book movies and shows with little more than some blood, a few aches, and the ministrations of a handy nurse. The show also makes excellent use of unusual camera work, especially with Jessica Jones. This contributes wonderfully to the smaller, more personal feeling regarding these street-level heroes vs the high-flying, grandiose spectacles of Thor, Iron Man, et al.

As is true of every installment in the MCU, having watched the preceding material is of great benefit. Still, I do imagine that a new viewer won’t be put off or overly confused by The Defenders. Their abilities are introduced to the viewer by the fact that they need to be introduced to each other. While Luke Cage and Jessica Jones knew each other from her series, they only knew of The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, and none of them knew of the Iron Fist or of Danny Rand except by reputation as a billionaire. Indeed, Danny’s eastern mysticism “woo” is the subject of much skepticism at first, and Matt Murdoch’s blindness has the others baffled by his incredible abilities.

I’ve deliberately avoided spoilers here, and there are aspects of the show that cannot be deconstructed without spoiling matters, so I will voice one major criticism only in general terms. A major character from one of the earlier series is brought back, and the performance by that actor (again, whether we blame writing or the person is hard to determine) combined with a rather jarring and unexplained plot twist work against the overall quality of the series. As do a couple major plot points that are blatant cliche/trope/copout in nature. Still, I can overlook these to maintain a general thumbs-up review.

If you like comic book shows, you’ll like The Defenders. If you’re not into this world, I do suggest that you give the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones a watch first. They’re a rather different take than the big theatrical bombast of The Avengers et al, and you might find that these street-level, more personalized superheroes are more to your liking than Norse gods, goody-goody super soldiers, and playboy genius billionaires.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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