When Marvel Studios added that extra scene at the end of the original Iron Man with Nick Fury stepping out of the shadows, they changed Hollywood forever. Clearly, as with any cycle followed by the studios, this too will pass, but for now, everyone appears to be chasing the promise that Marvel made in that moment, and so far, no one is as good at it as Marvel Studios has been. But there is a huge gap between what Marvel does in their movies and what Marvel does on TV, and the difference isn’t just about budget or scale. This past week, Netflix released the full eight-episode series of THE DEFENDERS, which brings together Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) after Netflix spent five seasons of TV setting up the characters and their sidekicks. This is the biggest event Netflix has produced so far, and ostensibly the reason they’ve been doing everything up till now. This is the Netflix equivalent of The Avengers, so it’s fair to judge it through the lens that Marvel has established, and it’s fair to ask at the end of another eight hours of time invested, “Is that it?”
Part of the problem here is that I don’t really think of entertainment in terms of money spent anymore, but rather how much time it asks me to spend. Even before the first frame of The Defenders, that’s something like 50 or 60 hours of television, and the individual shows have been wildly disparate in quality. I’d probably give the overall “best of” to Jessica Jones, which was thematically focused, and which benefitted enormously from the chemistry between Ritter and bad-guy Kilgrave (David Tennant). While it definitely had some mid-season snag and made a terrible choice in killing Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) too early and keeping Captain Smirk (Theo Rossi) alive instead, Luke Cage had its charms, and Colter’s a perfectly-scaled TV superhero. I think Daredevil has been rocky overall, but there’s something about their approach to Murdock and his relentless self-punishment that I think gets to the heart of the character.
Of all of the shows, the only one that felt like a near-total bust was Iron Fist, but that character strikes me as almost impossible to crack in a way that would both preserve the character as written and also present it in a way that doesn’t lean on so-old-they’re-moldy stereotypes. He’s basically White Privilege, the superhero, and Finn Jones doesn’t help sell the idea that there’s more here than a pouty rich kid with some culturally-appropriated shtick. It’s not like they’re starting this crossover event from a place where every show worked equally and we’re rooting for this collision, which is exactly what they want. That was the magic trick that Marvel pulled off with The Avengers, and by the time you got Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor standing there back to back battling aliens from the sky, you were rooting for them collectively.
If you have not watched all of the other shows, then The Defenders is nigh incomprehensible for the first of its eight hours. If you’re not up to speed on the vast influence of The Hand, the ninja cult that was behind most of Matt Murdock’s misery in season two of Daredevil and that drove much of what went on in Iron Fist, then you’ll spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out who’s doing what and why. There’s also a good deal of time spent setting up Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver), the big bad guy, who manages to resurrect Elektra (Elodie Yung) for reasons that remain murky even as the rubble settles at the end of the last episode, and considering how hard Weaver’s working and what a huge get that is for the producers, it’s all ultimately a disappointment.
The biggest problem here is a problem that was true of several of the Marvel sequels, and it’s a problem that will continue to plague producers who are trying to tell these giant interconnected stories over dozens of movies and hundreds of hours of television. If everything is building to something else, then everything is just exposition for something that never quite gets here. There is so much exposition in The Defenders that if you told me that the Hand’s evil plot was to bury New York under exposition, I’d believe you. It feels like they’re setting things up all the way to the last few scenes here, and if I’m not compelled to watch whatever it is they’re setting up, then where’s the pay-off for me for the time I spent here?
I get that you’re not going to even try to do sheer spectacle for television, so that’s not what I’m asking for. I’m asking for something that feels like the emotional equivalent to big-budget fireworks. That’s what TV and the time we invest in it can do that movies can’t. They can spend that time setting you up for something, and when it’s done well, the payoff can carry an impact that simply doesn’t come from watching characters for 90 minutes. Think of your favorite big moments from your favorite television dramas. Think of why those moments all landed for you. It’s because you were invested, and because that investment was rewarded. If I cared about the doomed love between Elektra and Daredevil, then maybe those last few episodes of The Defenders would have the emotional heft that they obviously are meant to have.
Having said that, I still found things to enjoy throughout, and I suspect that’s one of the reasons Netflix is okay with the way things are going. None of these shows have been home runs, but they manage to be “good enough,” and considering the way many people digest Netflix programming now, “good enough” might be all they need. Krysten Ritter makes every scene better simply by showing up, growling, and drinking, and Colter continues to impress as a guy who knows that simply being bulletproof doesn’t make you a hero. Whenever the show allows some friction to develop between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, those sparks are interesting enough to imagine what a Luke Cage/Iron Fist show might be like. Charlie Cox works so hard that he almost made me believe they’d actually written the anguish that he sells so well, but I think that’s more a case of the actor doing the heavy lifting that isn’t really on the page.
As with many of the individual shows, the supporting players here almost unbalance things. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) could easily just be “the women” on these shows, but they’re both so interesting that they pull things out of shape. That was true on their individual shows as well, and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is clearly a character who could do the same thing if the writers had any idea what to do with her. One of the things that seems frustrating to me is that you have these characters who you can actually spend that time with because it’s not a movie, and they still feel like they get sidelined. We spend enough time with them that they become interesting and start to get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and part of what you can do with television that you can’t do in films is react to the way the audience is reacting. If they clearly love what you’re doing with some characters (and they do, as any search online for the characters will reveal), then lean into that. The shows are richer the more they lean on Malcolm (Eka Darville) or Foggy (Elden Henson) or Trish (Rachael Taylor), and when you’ve got this big a canvas, you should take more advantage of all the legwork you’ve already done.
Also, I think it’s time we stop giving TV a pass on the action if it’s subpar. There are enough shows that have proved that they can get it right if they want to spend their attention that way, and you’ve got a series here that is about superheroes, and it feels like the fights are often perfunctory and something to be rushed through to get to the next story point. Impatience should not be my reaction when a set piece erupts, but there’s no joy to the work here. There’s no sense that we’re seeing character revealed during the action. It’s kinetic, and these people hit those people, and because this is Netflix and not network, sometimes heads or arms get cut off, but for the most part, the action doesn’t feel carefully built. With the time and money spent on these programs, they should be more aggressive about what they are. It feels like they’re stuck somewhere between the old idea of what television is and this new freedom to actually be as stylish and as distinct as possible. When I look at these shows next to something like, say, FX’s Legion, it’s clear that the problem is not just “they’re television.” That no longer means anything. Now that we’ve seen how big Netflix can dream with these shows, it’s clear that the problem begins at the conception level.
I loved the original idea of these shows serving as a human level reaction to a world that had been changed forever by the events of The Avengers and the larger Marvel cinematic world. You want to see what that looks like when it’s pulled off the right way? Spider-Man: Homecoming was in theaters this summer, and they nailed that approach, using this one corner of the Marvel world to tell a story that felt very personal and real and vibrant, set in a world that actually looks like our world, with a diverse cast and a dedication to making sure that every character feels grounded so it’s clear just how much the world around them is changing. That’s what The Defenders could have been. Instead, it’s the grimdark version of the ridiculous live-action superhero TV shows of the ‘70s, afraid to let the heroes actually be the heroes, small in ways that have nothing to do with where the show is airing and everything to do with how it was imagined.
Season 1, Episodes 1-8 (S01E01-08)
The Defenders is available to stream on Netflix.
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic