Let the record show The Defenders is an exceedingly rare event, by which I mean it’s a Netflix series I finished watching within a week of release. Normally it takes me six to eight weeks to catch up with the cool kids. Don’t ask which of my work days suffered most from accomplishing that.
It helps that season 1 is only eight episodes, much more tightly edited, averaging 45-50 minutes each — a more concise spectacle than the padding and plodding that frequently dragged the other series to the 60- to 65-minute mark for indulgent purposes. I hadn’t planned to bulldoze my way through like this, but we have a convention this weekend where we know fans will be chatting about this brand new show to pass the time in the long lines. I’d rather not have to keep cutting them off with yelps of “AHHH! SPOILERS!” while stuffing my head into my carryall so I can’t hear them.
Additional motivation struck me when episode 3 — the one where all four main characters have their first rendezvous — turned out to be such an addictive, headlong rush of comic-book excitement in the mighty Marvel manner, despite the mandatory but middling Hallway Fight. Differently impressive was part 4, directed by ace TV veteran Phil Abraham (The Sopranos, Mad Men), basically a bottle episode in which Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist finally share moments, snipe, posture, threaten to walk, connect, and subtly weave all the threads and tones from their respective, disparate corners of the Marvel Netflix Universe into a coherent tapestry over a sumptuous if mostly ignored Chinese dinner. The characters’ flaws were laid bare with self-aware candor, the overlaps between their shows were extricated, dumplings were shared, and both humor and personal drama each found their entry points.
Results after those episodes were, uh, a bit more varied. The short version: generally a wild ride, but not without its sudden bumps and occasional missing pieces of track.
Fair warning: major spoilers lie beyond not only for The Defenders but for the preceding shows as well. If you haven’t watched those other five seasons first, parts of this show will be incomprehensible. That’s a disappointment to anyone who prefers self-contained stories to these interlocking continuities that marketing departments love to pieces nowadays, but that’s how the super-hero game is played on screens nowadays, for better or worse.
…so, random spoiler-tastic thoughts while watching:
* First half of the season was better than the second half. I didn’t mind that Our Heroes needed time to emerge from their various parts of Manhattan and stumble across sufficient coincidences, but I grew numb later on when tricky conversations gave way to lots of gussied-up tracking shots filled with grunting tumblers all doing the same four or five kinds of somersaults over and over. This season also would’ve been at least a full episode shorter if certain characters hadn’t fallen back into their old ways of making stupid choices for the sake of killing time. I’m looking in particular at YOU, White Angsty Martial Arts Guys.
* Speaking of Iron Fist: by and large, Finn Jones seemed more at ease here as billionaire brawler Danny Rand, better contained by the other pros around him and obviously given more time for fight rehearsals. My relief gave way to eye-rolling when episode 6 opened with him suddenly deciding the time for reasonable planning was over in favor of charging at the bad guys like a rhino with a dunce cap covering its eyes. This lapse back into his previous Idiot Plot proclivities of course had to happen so all the heroes would have an excuse to start fighting each other, because Hollywood has decided that’s a thing that real heroes always do now. The level-headed planning sessions were nice while they lasted. Contrasting episodes 3 and 6 show exactly what’s wrong with his character: the showrunners decided that to fill their changing needs he’s both a naive optimist and an inconsolable hothead, two character types that don’t fit well together. The former would better fill the missing emotional gap in their team lineup; the latter, a redundancy Daredevil’s already got covered.
* Speaking of ol’ Horn-Head: as with his two previous seasons, I love Charlie Cox’s take on Matt Murdock whenever he’s lawyering up, using his sensory powers to astonish others, or trying to get down to Serious Hero Business. But mention the name “Elektra” in a sentence and his brain turns into a living Goofy movie. Once the elevator began its descent into the Midland Capital pit, I knew where he and Elektra would end up, up to and including “dying”. Admittedly I was shocked to see the final scene pulled straight from “Born Again”, one of the definitive Daredevil stories. Now if only Elektra will stay dead or at least on permanent overseas vacation, maybe the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen can get back to being the hero his city needs and his viewers want instead of the lovesick simp with a weakness for obviously lost causes. (“Sure, she keeps murdering people in increasingly hideous ways and maybe ought to be arrested, but no seriously you guys I can change her!” Oh, Matt.)
* Luke Cage continues to be my favorite. It did my heart well seeing him taking up Pop’s role-model mantle and trying to live up to his reputation as Harlem’s eminent guardian. I loved seeing him lecture his teammates for their missteps, and I loved that he at least tried to save one misguided youth through nonviolent means. The scene in which Cage bears the tragic burden of consoling an anguished mother in a moment of unimaginable grief wounded my heart and brought more dramatic gravitas to bear than any twenty scenes about evil superninjas.
* Speaking of the Hand: I want Madame Gao to reign in every Marvel Netflix series ever, but I resent and reject the notion of her acting as anyone else’s toady. Sigourney Weaver has made many awesome things possible over the decades, but I didn’t buy her as Gao’s superior for one minute. I guess Alexandra was a fine role tailor-made for any stately actress who didn’t feel like moving around much and just likes glaring a lot. She brought some tender nuance to her later moments whenever her illness won rounds against her, but she was given precisely zero means of showing why she was the Big bad beyond her penchant for random ancient history trivia. Of the other three leaders of the Hand: I was all grumpy sighs at Bakuto’s return and waited patiently for Colleen Wing’s eventual final battle against her longtime gaslighter so he could go away again, because resurrected villains cheapen death in drama. Sowande I could take or leave, based on the few glimmers we were allowed of the African warrior’s combat techniques that were probably outlined in a very fascinating yet mostly unused show bible. And I really, really wanted to see more of Yutaka Takeuchi, the Japanese huntsman with lethally reserved composure and a creepy working knowledge of bear innards. Initially promising, but ultimately treated as just another disposable henchman.
* Jessica Jones is…well, still Jessica Jones. Hers was the only Marvel Netflix show I didn’t cover in its own post because I didn’t feel qualified. It’s not that I’m a guy, and it’s not just because I found myself frequently squeamish throughout the Purple Man’s horrifying exploitations of everyone within his reach. It’s because, as a kid raised in a family where women were the only role models and the men were all either absent or terrible, I have an absurdly tough time connecting with stories in which the main characters are constantly angry women who revel in their sins and loathe everyone around them. Call it alien to me, I guess. No doubt I have psychological barriers on the subject, so I recused myself from writing feature-length thoughts on her show. Here, she was outnumbered by dudes who wouldn’t stop trying to convince her to play better with others. In general they got their desired results, and lucky for them they didn’t tell her to smile while doing it. She ended up anchoring the team whenever the bros turned dumb and engaged in too much chest-thumping, echoed the audience’s disbelief at some of the more outlandish developments, and did actual detective work in her capacity as a super-detective who detects. She’s already doing better than several Batman films in that regard, so there’s that. But now I feel guilty about cheering her on for calming down, drinking slightly less, and…y’know, for behaving better. I feel like this line of thought is leading to me setting myself on fire just so I don’t have to see how this paragraph ends. Now I know what it’s like to write a Monty Python sketch.
* Stick is still a big jerk and I correctly predicted he wouldn’t live through this season. At the same time, I can’t believe he read my mind. During the heated debate over whether Iron Fist should either fight all the Hand himself or surrender to them, it had occurred to me that no one had submitted the dark suggestion of thwarting the Hand’s scheme by murdering their supposed Keymaster. Problem solved, the door to the Mines of Moria stays locked, no more magic dragon bone meal for anybody. Sure enough, about half an hour later, I watched Stick try stealing my Plan C.
* Remember that time Trish Walker was training to become a skilled fighter so she wouldn’t have to run from danger? And maybe she could eventually become the super-heroine Hellcat like she is in the comics? Well, Trish apparently doesn’t remember and someone should remind her. Ironically, out of all the characters we’ve met in all five series, Hellcat is the only one who was ever a full-time actual Defender from the original 152-issue comics run. It was a shame to see Trish taking two steps back.
* I also regret that Misty Knight was kept on the outside for so many episodes, trapped in the thankless role of Police Hindrance. In the comics she and Colleen are a detective duo who call themselves the Daughters of the Dragon, close friends with Power Man and Iron Fist, but that possible future seems far, far away in this alternate Earth. Also, knowing about her trademark cybernetic arm, I knew exactly what was coming the minute Misty walked into a room full of sword-fighting. Can’t wait to see what kind of cutting-edge Stark-tech Danny ends up buying for her cool new limb.
* Has anyone out there attempted an in-depth study on the physics of magic shockwaves? I feel like Madame Gao’s use of super-telekinesis offense was consistent with other applications in pop culture, but I don’t buy Iron Fist’s super-air-punching upgrade with a thirty-foot range. I mean, that trick where he punched Elektra’s sword and that sent her entire body flying without touching her? Are we sure about this?
* Is destroying an entire skyscraper really just that easy? Seriously? You can just get a map from a qualified demolition authority, drop C4 blocks on the X’s, accidentally set the timer and run away? And this is all possible without a single shred of collateral damage or incidental massacre across all surrounding blocks? Are there YouTube videos how-to guides for this? Because I feel like there shouldn’t be and the entire endeavor was ludicrous. As if that weren’t laughable enough, the pat finale denouement in which the police simply decided not to file a report on this billion-dollar catastrophe is mind-boggling. I’m surprised they didn’t just throw a happy beach-blanket dance party at the end while they were at it.
* Not that I’m opposed to all aspects of the contrived ultimate fatality of their entire organization. I hope we’re now officially done with the Hand forever and they don’t live on to become repetitive Ninja Hydra. Well, okay, one exception: Madame Gao can return whenever she wants, but no Hand revivals allowed. With everything around her ruined and nowhere else to go, maybe she can reform and join the Daughters of the Dragon. There’s no rule in the DotD guidebook that says “There can be only two.” While I’m thinking about it, y’know who else should join? The amazing colossal Claire. I can’t believe she survived the season, so obviously she also deserves to ride along with this potentially mind-blowing new super-team, superpowers or not. Jessica can come too if she wants, though she might not, which is cool. Either way, here’s the best idea yet: these formidable ladies should get together, ditch the “Daughters of the Dragon” label, rename themselves the Defenders, and go on to take over season 2 without letting the guys in at all. I’d make time to watch that within a single week.
(P.S.: Yes, there’s a bonus after The Defenders end credits — a teaser trailer for Jon Bernthal in The Punisher, your next entry in the Marvel Netflix Universe. Sure, you could watch it online, but that’s cheating.)