What happens when a band of superheroes, all of them victims of various crimes or neuroses, gather together in an effort to protect their home city? Can they put their differences as both humans and vigilantes aside and focus on eliminating a dangerous threat, or will personal differences get in the way? This is roughly the premise of many superhero movies, including various mutations of the X Men franchise and Captain America: Civil War, and it becomes the backbone of the rather ambitious Marvel-Netflix venture, The Defenders.
The Marvel-Netflix universe has been building to Defenders for years now, from the release of the first season of Daredevil in 2015. Since then, there have been two seasons of Daredevil, two critically acclaimed series (Jessica Jones and Luke Cage) and one lukewarm Iron Fist. All of these shows are about heroes, usually supremely troubled and traumatised ones, who work in different neighbourhoods of New York City. Defenders unites the four, by presenting them with a threat too large for a single hero to contain.
The show has a run of eight episodes – shorter than the Netflix staple of 13 – and takes off immediately after Iron Fist ended. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) and his associate Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick, familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones) are returning from seeing the devastation at the gates of K’un Lun, the mystical city in which Rand became the Iron Fist. They run into members of the Hand, the notorious splinter organisation that has the power to resurrect its members. The Hand is planning something huge in New York, and Danny and Colleen return determined to end them once and for all.
The Hand formed the main villains of Iron Fist and were also a core element of Daredevil’s season 2 arc, so the association with Jones and Cage is the one that takes a while to set up. Jones, still reeling from the long-term effects of her showdown with Kilgrave, is approached by a woman who claims that her husband, an architect, has gone missing. An investigation reveals to the sharp-tongued detective that there’s something majorly sinister afoot.
Further uptown in Harlem, a newly released Cage learns of a recent trend: young men from the streets suddenly coming into flushes of cash, working for a mysterious organisation briefly before disappearing altogether. A hero in his largely poor community, Cage determines to find out what’s happening, and thus the paths of the four heroes cross, though not without some misunderstanding and punches thrown at each other.
One of the main strengths of a superhero show or movie, or comic, really, is its villain. The Marvel shows have thus far been graced with compelling, complicated, terrifying ones, often played by noted actors, including Vincent D’Onofrio’s coldblooded Wilson Fisk and Mahershalah Ali’s smooth-tongued Cornell Stokes. In this iteration, that villain is Alexandra, played by an elegant and restrained Sigourney Weaver. Alexandra plays a key role in explaining what exactly ones of the last scenes of Daredevil season 2 showed us: a dead Elektra being placed in a mysterious sarcophagus, possibly in the hopes of her being revived.
Well, Defenders proves that what makes up hope for the Hand spells bad news for most other people, most tragically, in this case, Matt Murdoch.
There are so many ingredients at work in this show that any satisfying melding of flavour was going to require an amazing script, or the sort of sustained, longer look at the universe that a comic book can afford. Marvel has pulled this off multiple times in print, whether with the Civil War arc or Secret Wars, but to expect the same feat in the series might have been asking for too much. The problems lie in uneven pacing (it takes far too long for the four characters to come together) and what seems an undue emphasis on the wrong character.
Danny Rand is not exactly everyone’s favourite superhero from this particular sub-universe, and using him both as an entry point to the action and as a key element in the Hand’s plot makes the whole Defenders set-up a bit shaky. Danny still comes across as a petulant, entitled whiner, and while this allows the other characters, such as the constantly harassed and warred-upon Luke Cage, to emerge as even more heroic and balanced, it does so at the cost of a core character who we, as viewers, are no doubt expected to sympathise with, if not root for.
Though the narrative does loop in all four heroes, there’s no escaping the fact that some are more obviously invested than others. Defenders is primarily Rand and Murdoch’s story, since they have the greatest emotional stakes in the Hand’s existence and plans. Jones and Cage are almost sidelined by the narrative, only stepping in to deliver some punching, quipping or schooling others in their privilege (which Cage does in a brilliant scene with Rand). The reasons they are involved are outlined at the start, but as the narrative progresses, they seem less and less integral to the plot, though as always, their presences are welcome and the actors take care to keep them entertaining.
This is, at heart, the problem with Defenders: there are way too many elements at work to provide a cohesive narrative that does justice to everyone. Claire Temple, the nurse who ties together the various shows, re-enters, still working her healing magic and serving as the primary love interest for Cage. Simone Missick reprises her role as the tough cop, Misty Knight, and provides a breath of fresh air in scenes otherwise overladen with grim superhero posturing. The friends and family of Jones and Murdoch also reemerge, playing key roles in getting Cage out of the prison he was placed in at the end of Luke Cage, and keeping Jones on track.
It’s a lot to keep in mind, and the result is an uneven storyline that jostles some characters out of the way even as it works to keep others perhaps unduly in the spotlight.