Marvel’s pocket universe of super-powered pulp heroes on Netflix has been trending less marvelous since the first seasons of Daredevil (starring Charlie Cox) and Jessica Jones (starring Krysten Ritter). Luke Cage had muscular performances, led by the commanding Mike Colter, but a thin plot, while Iron Fist, led by the miscast Finn Jones, was plain and wimpy. But The Defenders — a team-up saga that assembles the leads and supporting casts of all four shows and resolves some ongoing intrigues — is a lively genre entertainment that recharges your interest in Marvel pop. It presents as a big event, yet values consolidation. Marvel should embrace this approach moving forward.
Until now, Netflix’s Marvel series have been 13 episodes long. The producers of those shows, even the better ones, have never been able to generate enough plot to fill the time, resulting in thinly stretched, poorly paced volumes of story — they just don’t know how to vamp in compelling fashion. So while capable of fielding singular episodes of great power that drill down on a character or a relationship or some bit of mythological business, they don’t do it enough and they rarely do it well, either because the characters aren’t deep enough or the writers lack sufficient imagination for them. Each starry show has had a slick, handsome veneer, yet most episodes look under-produced or underfunded, a poverty that makes for dullness. Long, chatty scenes on just a few sets and New York locations, interrupted by an occasional, elaborate fight sequences that’s usually spectacular (unless it’s happening on Iron Fist): It’s like getting promised a generous baker’s dozen and getting a bag of donut holes instead.
The Defenders is eight episodes long, and damn if it doesn’t make the case that less is more. Of course, it helps to have four leads and all of their respective dramas and supporting players to service. Each character gets a concise, emotionally resonant individual arc packed with substantial scenes. The first two episodes nimbly move between them, resetting and advancing them while also using them to nurture an intriguing mystery-driven story that brings them together for a solid group fight in episode 3 and some extended banter and bonding in episode 4. The images are sharper and more inspired, the dialogue is wittier, and the pace is breezier than the usual Marvel-Netflix escapade. Kudos to showrunner Marco Ramirez — half of the team behind the disappointing second season of Daredevil — for upping his own game, honoring the best parts of every series, and elevating the franchise.
Matt Murdock, a blind, big-hearted attorney whose other senses are massively amplified, is struggling with his choice to give up moonlighting as Daredevil while estranged from friends Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll). Jessica Jones, super-strong, super-cynical private investigator, is still recovering from a triggering clash with psychic rapist Kilgrave (David Tennant) and struggling with the whole super-hero thing. Cox and Ritter — rocking their roles as anti-hero protectors of Hell’s Kitchen — are terrific and give the show its emotional heft. They sell a stand-out sequence in the early going in which they meet, verbally clash, then takes turns stalking and eluding each other in broad daylight.
As Luke Cage, Colter anchors everything with effortless charisma, grit, and wit. His “Power Man” is newly sprung from prison and re-establishing himself as an activist-defender of Harlem and reconnecting with girlfriend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), night nurse to costumed vigilantes. And Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, billionaire hippie and magical white savior of the mystical Easter kingdom of K’un-Lun is… tolerable. His character is central to the story — Marvel is going to make you love this guy, dammit! — and almost everything about him remains laughably dumb, from his mythology to the concept and special effect of his “iron fist.” But Finn works hard, so hard it’s actually endearing. His mediocrity is blunted by his costars, including Jessica Henwick, improved and owning her role as Colleen Wing. The other characters are made to cast shade on Iron Fist with put-downs and eye-rolls. It’s mean and it’s cheap and it’s a degrading use of Colter in particular, and all it does is prove that Iron Fist is a weak link in this would-be fantastic foursome.
Great villains played by great actors have marked the best seasons of the Marvel-Netflix shows. See: Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk of Daredevil, Tenant’s Kilgrave of Jessica Jones, and the double-whammy of Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth and Alfre Woodward’s Mariah Dillard of Luke Cage. The Defenders is blessed by a dynamite actress and geek pop royalty: Sigourney Weaver plays Alexandra, death-defying leader of an occult underworld organization known as The Hand. She makes a generic part pop with nuanced menace and elevates everyone involved, notably Elodie Yung as the assassin Elektra. The Defenders is far from perfect. But it’s an enjoyable superhero adventure distinguished by improvements and innovations that I hope Marvel will carry forward. Shorter seasons. More team-ups. Fewer shows. Start the consolidation by letting go of Iron Fist. If Danny Rand must persist, add him to the other shows and let the stronger players carry him. That’s what superfriends are for.