After a couple of duds (Daredevil season 2 and Iron Fist), The Defenders has the hard task of renewing our excitement about Netflix’s pulpy and grimy corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And this series premiere, slow as its pace may be, largely accomplishes that. “The H Word” basically functions as a 50-minute long “Where Are They Now” segment that somewhat stylishly catches us up with our favorite street-level Don’t-Call-Us-Heroes (or Legends), some of whom we haven’t checked in with since at least 2015. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist have all been through a lot, and The Defenders’ premiere asks if they’re capable of moving forward and becoming the heroes they need to be.
We begin in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The camera pans down from people walking on the street to the sewers below, where a vicious fight to death is occurring. This simple transition’s message is pretty clear: As the rest of the world goes along with its business, a war is being waged in the shadows. This latest bout is between the newly resurrected Hand representative Elektra (Elodie Yung) and some unknown opponent, and it looks better than almost anything in Iron Fist. Oh speaking of the annoying one, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) interrupts the brawl and tries to save the nameless man, but he fails, and Elektra fatally wounds the man before she escapes. However, this mission wasn’t a complete failure. With his dying breath, the man, who knows Danny is the Iron Fist, gives Danny and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) some important information: “The war you’re fighting…is not here. It’s in New York City.”
And cue the main title sequence, which screams, “Guys, New York is really a character in this show.” And from there, it’s time to check in with the other Defenders.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the first shot of Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) shows her being awakened by a bartender, who orders her to leave his establishment because it’s daytime. Our favorite self-destructive private investigator ventures forth into the day, where she meets up with her friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), who tells her that she has received more interview requests. Jessica is still recovering from her traumatic encounter with Kilgrave, so she has no interest in answering those. Some people may view her as a hero, but she doesn’t.
The last time we saw Luke Cage (Mike Colter), he was being transported back to prison to finish off his sentence, but it appears as though the prison stint doesn’t last too long. When we meet up with him in the premiere (as Mos Def’s “Sunshine” plays), he’s in the process of being released thanks to some legal maneuvering by Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), who is now working for Hogarth. Foggy tells Luke to call him if he needs help starting over, but Luke turns him down. “I’m not starting over. I’m moving forward,” he says (#RIPPops). For the moment, “moving forward” means “getting coffee with Claire Temple.” And by “coffee,” I mean “table-flipping sex.” (It definitely wasn’t quiet uptown.)
Whereas Jessica’s scenes in the episode are tinged with blue, Luke’s are bathed in warm, yellow light and feature hip-hop music, which makes them standout from the rest and lends the premiere some of Luke Cage‘s swagger. However, the warmth of Luke’s scenes also points out what distinguishes him from his fellow Defenders: He’s the most mature and well-adjusted one in the group. While Jessica, Danny — who is suffering from guilt-induced nightmares — and retired crime-fighter Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) — who is still grieving Elektra’s death — are struggling to move forward, Luke is optimistic about the future. He immediately jumps at the opportunity to help people when Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) updates him on the state of Harlem: Several young boys, who started doing some shady courier work, have all turned up dead. At Misty’s urging, Luke decides to use his status as Harlem’s hero to reach out to the brother of a recent victim. (Recap continues on page 2)
It turns out Matt is a pretty good lawyer now that he’s not distracted by his nighttime job. Here, we see Matt win a big case against a pharmaceutical company whose drug paralyzed a young boy. (Director S.J. Clarkson adds more excitement to the courtroom scene by dramatically sweeping around Matt in a vicious cross-examination.)
After the triumph, Matt runs into Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), who is living her best life as a reporter. Their conversation is fairly timid, which lets us know that they haven’t spoken much since Matt came clean to her about his secret identity. Matt tells her he thinks the city is better off without Daredevil, which is definitely a lie. In fact, Matt confirms that he misses being Daredevil when he heads to confession later in the episode. As he talks to his priest, we only ever see half of his face, which effectively conveys that he’s currently suppressing part of himself.
After checking in with the Defenders, it’s finally time to meet their foe: Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, the enigmatic and stoic leader of The Hand. Unfortunately, Alexandra isn’t long for this world. A doctor informs our heavy-fabric-wearing villain that she only has months, likely weeks, left to live; her organs are failing. This terrible prognosis doesn’t elicit much of a reaction.
However, Alexandra doesn’t plan on going out without a bang. She orders Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) to speed up the timetable on The Hand’s Big Evil Plan. Gao is worried that their deliberately paced plan will draw too much attention, but Alexandra doesn’t care; she’s not leaving this world before she’s done destroying New York…or something. It’s not clear what the plan is, but we do know Alexandra hates New York, so the city’s destruction probably figures into it.
While Luke tries and fails to make a connection with Cole (J. Mallory McCree), the dead courier’s brother, Jessica makes some headway in her investigation. A woman named Michelle has hired her to look into her missing husband, and with Malcolm’s (Eka Darville) help, Jessica manages to track Michelle’s husband to a dilapidated building in Hell’s Kitchen. (FACT: In Marvel’s conception of New York, every non-corporate building has flickering lights.) When she enters the apartment he was renting, she finds tons of demolition explosives. What the hell has Jessica stumbled into?
There isn’t much time to dwell on that startling revelation because Manhattan is suddenly hit with an earthquake. And all of the Defenders — including Danny, who just landed in the city via helicopter — feel it. Clarkson sweeps the camera around Matt yet again as his senses are bombarded with sirens and screams for help, and flashing blue lights intrude on his red-tinged scenes, adding to the sense of chaos and confusion. Hopefully, Cole was wrong when he told Luke it was too late for heroes, because this earthquake is definitely a call to action. Will the Defenders respond?
Not much really happened until the final moments of this premiere, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying getting reacquainted with the heroes at the center of this tale. The episode seamlessly moved between the Defenders’ fairly isolated story lines, and I only felt myself taken out of the action when we checked in on Iron Fist, whose scenes are incredibly bland. It’s even more apparent that he’s the weakest link of the group when he’s up against everyone else. So far, Charlie Cox has only been asked to do a bit of brooding, leaving Ritter and Colter to run away with the episode. They each exude confidence in their roles; their stage presence is powerful, and they do a good job of grounding the show. All in all, I’m excited to see where The Defenders goes.
Most Valuable Defender: Jessica Jones, by a mile
- Here’s what’s been going on in Harlem since Luke Cage ended: Misty Knight got promoted to the City-Wide Task Force, a good way to explain how she gets involved with this season’s plot; and Mariah is up to the same business as when we last saw her.
- “Hero’s your word, not mine,” Luke says to Cole in response to Cole’s claim that “it’s too late for heroes.”
- “No one can you give your life back. You have to take it back,” says Matt to the kid he was representing. This on-the-nose dialogue applies to Matt, Jessica, and Luke, all of whom, again, are trying to move beyond their pasts.
- Elektra returns to Alexandra’s side at the end of the episode, so we definitely know whose side she’s on.
- Finally: Welcome to EW’s recaps of Marvel’s The Defenders! My colleague Christian Holub and I will be your guides through this eight-episode miniseries, so don’t miss his take on episode 2.