Review: Marvel’s The Defenders (2017)
*** Spoiler Alert: By reading this article, you may be informed of plot points that could diminish your viewing experience of Marvel’s The Defenders. It is recommended that you watch the series prior to reading this article.
I probably don’t need to go into great detail about who The Defenders are, unless you’ve been living under a rock. That is to say, I shouldn’t have to reintroduce you to each member, but I may have to fill you in on who the members of The Defenders actually are. The Defenders have all been introduced individually in their own Netflix solo shows leading up to the 2017 premiere of The Defenders; Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and most recently, Iron Fist (Finn Jones).
Together, the four superheroes comprise (most of) the primary roster of Marvel’s Netflix Universe and their respective stories are glued together by an amazing supporting cast of regulars that appear littered throughout each of the individual series, such as Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), Stick (Scott Glenn), Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Sadly, one on-again-off-again member of The Defenders that we won’t be seeing this time around is The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), but he will be appearing in his own Netflix series in the future and we should expect some level of cross-over, perhaps when season two rolls around.
Where do we start?
The Defenders picks up shortly after the end of Marvel’s Iron Fist, where Danny Rand [Iron Fist] (Finn Jones) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) have just– at least temporarily– defeated Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez) and effectively shut down his training camp/henchman factory for The Hand. Luke Cage (Mike Colter), having recently had his name cleared by Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), has just gotten out of prison and is back to his mission of cleaning up the streets of Harlem. Matt Murdock [Daredevil] (Charlie Cox) is working as a pro bono lawyer, presumably to make himself feel better about the part he played in Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung) dying at the end of the second season of Daredevil. Lastly, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) has continued in her mission to win over the hearts and minds of New York through heavy drinking and private investigative work after killing Kilgrave (David Tennant) at the end of Jessica Jones season one.
There are four main characters, so obviously, each one of them should get the majority of an episode to hash out their respective “what have I been up to?” stories, right? No? Well, too bad. It happens anyway. Normally, I wouldn’t consider this to be such a huge issue in a series, if it weren’t for the fact that the first season is only eight episodes long, which means that The Defenders don’t even know who each other until the halfway point in the season. Sure, Matt Murdock meets Jessica Jones in episode two. Luke Cage meets Danny Rand during episode three, but it’s not until the last ten minutes of episode three that all of The Defenders actually meet each other. Considering that each one of The Defenders is basically the polar opposite of another one of the members– Danny Rand’s blond haired and blue eyed spoiled white billionaire to Luke Cage’s pull-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps defender of harlem and everything black, and Matt Murdock’s do-what’s-right-for-the-sake-of-doing-what’s-right pro bono lawyering to Jessica Jones’ perpetually drunk misanthropic and prejudgemental introversion– the next five episodes play out less like a superhero team up and more like a sibling rivalry wrapped up in a whodunit-style mystery.
At least we get some awesome villains, right? …right?
The best types of villains are relatable
Personally, I think that the best villain we’ve seen in one of the solo series so far is in Jessica Jones, where David Tennant plays Kilgrave, a psychotic narcissist with the power to control minds. Yes, he’s crazy. Yes, he’s evil. That’s what makes him a villain, but what makes him relatable is the very simple premise that he is convinced he loves Jessica Jones and that he will pursue her to the ends of the earth in order to have her by his side, whether she wants it or not. You might not agree with his methods and you probably don’t support his willy-nilly killing of whomever he so chooses, but you can relate and empathize with the fact that he just wants love.
Daredevil season one had The Kingpin, a mob boss trying to improve Hell’s Kitchen through gentrification, under-handed business deals and the occasional murder. He was a good guy who went about things in a bad way. Season two saw Matt Murdock facing off against the entire idea of what justice really is with the introduction of Frank Castle / The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), an anti-hero who seeks to eliminate the evil presented by The Hand through any means necessary up to and including, murder. Again, relatable and understandable.
Luke Cage is where the quartet of hero shows starts to see a decline in the quality of villain. At the end of its first season, Luke Cage faces off against Diamondback / Willis Stryker — an old friend who has now become a gunrunner, drug dealer and gangster, purely for his own gain– in an attempt to rid Harlem of the gangs and crime that plague its streets. Stryker is just bad. There isn’t really any relatable element to his character and that unfortunately diminishes the quality of the show overall.
Iron Fist is only marginally better insofar as the villain is more relatable as a person, but sadly we don’t actually know that he is a villain until the first season is nearing its end. Bakuto, one of the leaders of The Hand, seems like an all-around good guy. He trains Colleen, he gets kids off the street, and he shows Danny Rand / Iron Fist how to use powers he didn’t know he had before. On top of all of that, he’s a likeable guy, to the extent that it actually feels like the writing falls a bit short in convincing you that he’s evil, leaving you to rely solely on Finn Jones’ adamantly passionate over-acting to bring the point home. The Hand is bad. Bakuto is part of The Hand. Ergo, Bakuto is bad.
Now, looking at The Defenders, we see even more of The Hand. Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver)— one of the five “fingers”, and ultimately, the leader of The Hand– is less of a villain and more of a malevolent business woman. Bakuto– another of the five “fingers” of The Hand– we met in Iron Fist, a. We’ve seen Madame Gao– the third “finger”– littered throughout the previous solo outings. The remaining “fingers” of The Hand we’re introduced to are Sowande (Babs Olusanmokun)– a white suit and hat wearing Harlem gangster who provides clean up services for The Hand– and Murakami (Yutaka Takeuchi), a japanese yakuza-influenced enforcer type.
None of the “fingers” appear to be particularly adversarial, with the exception of Madame Gao, who actually appears to have some level of power and physical prowess. Bakuto’s martial arts skills make him somewhat troublesome, but not to the extent that there is any major fear of The Defenders ever losing to him in the long run. Really, the only major threat to The Defenders is the once-dead-but-now-revived-and-brainwashed Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung) who was initially working for Alexandra up until she betrays and kills her, taking over in her leadership role.
The Hand, collectively, is working toward unearthing a dragon burial site underneath New York, where they plan to extract “the substance” from the bones they gather and use it to continually resurrect themselves and live forever. In order to open the burial chamber– that was previously sealed by another Iron Fist– they need Danny Rand to unlock the door. While wanting to have a nice long life is probably something that a lot of people can relate to, the individual members of The Hand are somewhat lacking when it comes to empathizing with their cause, and while it’s hinted multiple times that far more sinister things are afoot when it comes to The Hand, we never really do get an explanation of exactly what those sinister things really are. We’re simply left to assume that were they left to their own devices, The Hand would do unspeakably evil things that would irreparably harm the city of New York, K’un Lun, or anywhere else that The Defenders may consider home.
It’s entertaining though, right?
The Defenders doesn’t fail to entertain, despite the shortcomings that it has. Ultimately, the focus seems to be more on teaching the individual members of The Defenders that they are capable of working together as a team and less on any big bad villain being defeated. Even at the end of the 8-episode run, The Hand could still very much exist. Nothing seems certain and evil is still looming in the air.
The series does accomplish one ultimately important goal for Netflix/Marvel, which is to reintroduce us to Jessica Jones, who we haven’t seen since back in November 2015 and to set up the third season of Daredevil, which may or may not be based on the ‘Born Again’ series by writer Frank Miller and illustrator David Mazzuchelli.
Born Again was a seven-issue run (Daredevil #227 – 233) that was a complete redeux of the Daredevil character, and as with most of Frank Miller’s writing, it was pretty dark. Karen Page ends up working in the Los Angeles porn industry to pay for a drug habit and in order to quench her thirst for drugs, she sells the identity of Daredevil to Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin). The Kingpin then spends his time, money and effort to completely demolish the life of Matt Murdock. Fisk pays off a police officer to claim he witnessed Murdock paying a witness to perjure himself. The IRS freezes all of Matt Murdock’s assets. He loses his apartment and his girlfriend dumps him (then starts dating Foggy Nelson), to pour salt in the wound. The crooked officer ends up recanting his story after his sick son dies during surgery and both the officer as well as reporter Ben Urich get beaten within an inch of their lives. The Kingpin sends assassins after Karen Page, who eventually makes her way back to New York to try and make amends with Matt Murdock. Matt Murdock / Daredevil, still in a pretty dark place, confronts Fisk and ends up getting beaten, thrown in the trunk of a car and driven into the river. Matt Murdock survives, if only barely, and ends up being nursed back to health in his father’s old gym, by none other than his long-lost mother Maggie, who is now a nun.
Wilson Fisk hires a government assassin named Nuke to kill Murdock, but Captain America ends up thwarting his plans. While Murdock is recovering however, a mental patient hired by Fisk is paid to dress as Daredevil and wreak havoc in Hell’s Kitchen.
While it’s not entirely likely for us to see a cameo from Chris Evans as Captain America, it’s not a far stretch to assume the story could be manipulated to have either The Punisher, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Danny Rand, or even possibly a newly bionic-arm-equipped Moon Knight, step into the role of inadvertent savior. Obviously, this is all speculation, but a few hints here and there do lead me to believe that we might be seeing the Born Again storyline in one way or another, come Daredevil season 3. Particularly, in the closing shot of The Defenders, as Matt Murdock is laying in a bed, wrapped in bandages and being cared for by nuns, we hear one nun tell another to “Go get Maggie” just before the fade to black. Karen Page would need a catalyzing event to force her into a drug addiction, but what better event than the assumed death of her former boss Matt Murdock to force her into a downward spiral?
I’m sure we’ll see some variation of the storyline however, and I for one, am excited.