I’ve spent the last few weeks moving into a new home. It’s a lot like the old one, but bigger and more expensive and thus more difficult to keep clean and tidy, but there is a park over the road, which is a great place to meet single mums. Not that I can speak to them, obviously, because despite many failed schemes to leave her behind, my partner continues to accompany me. This might seem like a travesty, but I did get to marvel at her superior organisational ability. It only took her a week to realize that the furniture would need to be transferred from one property to another.
I’ve been doing a lot of marvelling, lately. I marvelled at how long it took my internet provider to transfer the service to my new address, and at how much they continued to charge me in the intervening period despite neither my old home nor my new one actually receiving the service I was paying for. I marvelled at the staggering ineptitude of the racist engineer who arrived to install my new phone line, and who left several hours later leaving a pile of amber brick dust on my new carpet and no working internet. As I had nothing better to do than read, I marvelled at the shoddy state of the contemporary novel. I marvelled at the cost of a new fridge-freezer, at the state of an old washing machine – which, naturally, managed two cycles before sputtering into uselessness – and at my phone’s mobile data usage, which I’d been using to conduct my various professional endeavours at a rate of charge that was almost twice my rate of income. What I wanted to be doing was Marvelling, with a capital-M. While I was busying myself with berating various lowly customer service personnel, Marvel and Netflix’s The Defenders, the long-awaited get-together of their street level superheroes, had been released in my absence.
As it turns out, this was less of an issue than I anticipated. Usually when one of these things is released, the unemployed binge-watching crowd swoop in like fucking sharks, and you can scarcely log into your various social media timelines without being buffeted by an onslaught of video clips; those long-take fight scenes from Daredevil, or those absurdly well-chosen hip-hop needle-drops in Luke Cage, or basically any scene from Jessica Jones. Not so much in this case, though, and after the first episode you can tell why. The writing in these shows has never exactly been Shakespearean, but rarely has it been as unfortunate as it is in the opening hour of The Defenders, which is littered with blocky, expositional claptrap as the show attempts to steer its core heroes into each other’s paths while painstakingly reiterating their individual traits. Did you know, for instance, that Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is bulletproof, a fan of the Wu Tang Clan, and a neo-blaxploitation icon of African-American cultural reclamation? Did you know that Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a metaphor for the survival of sexual assault-induced PTSD, or that Daredevil (Charlie Cox) is the literal embodiment of masochistic Irish-Catholic self-penance, or that Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is the Immortal Iron Fist, and must regularly centre his chi? Yeah, me too. The show reminded me all the same.
You can take that first episode with a pinch of salt, as it’s hardly representative of the whole season’s quality, but it’s certainly rather symptomatic of all the things Marvel continues to get wrong on the small screen. They still seem to be allergic to spending any money, they still profoundly misunderstand length, pacing and structure (most of these shows feel like eight episodes stretched into thirteen; this one feels like five stretched into eight), they continue to grapple with the fact that Netflix’s distribution model leaves them with no editorial latitude, they’re far too hung up on the leftover magic ninja death cult storyline, and nobody likes Danny Rand. They even continue to cast Elodie Yung, an actor of no discernable talent beyond being able to throw a decent high kick in leggings. She can’t even act in the Jason Statham style, and Jason Statham has only ever played Jason Statham – a character who, on the evolutionary ladder, exists just a couple of rungs above those like Groot and Hodor who can only repeat their own names.
Still, I can indeed confirm that there’s novelty and satisfaction in characters you already know coming together for a crossover event, even if it is assembled from all the least interesting and most nonsensical bits of previous seasons. Marvel might not get it right all the time, but they’re still the only company with the material, the nous and the cultural cache to actually try it, and if The Defenders isn’t a home run, it’s at the very least a notable improvement over the gap-year travelogue that was Iron Fist.
Speaking of which, I hope you at least enjoyed the mythology of that show, because The Defenders really leans into the cheesy eastern mysticism of K’un-Lun and the Hand; a plot which assembles every recurring villain (and a couple of new ones) under the purview of a new threat played, in another Netflix big-name casting coup, by Sigourney Weaver. Her character’s name is Alexandra, and she’s yet another nattily-dressed businessperson baddie who’s concocted a nebulous scheme for eternal life which involves the destruction of New York and that big hole from the first season of Daredevil that you completely forgot about. Oh, and Elektra. Again.
It should go without saying that all the heroes’ individual storylines intersect with this one, and thus they meet. Insults are exchanged, relationships are tested, personal philosophies are challenged, and ninjas are punched. This kind of self-referential patter is the backbone of any superhero team-up, and The Defenders gets it right, more or less. Much of it is directed at Danny Rand, as it should be; there are only so many times one can introduce themselves as “the Immortal Iron Fist” with a straight face before someone, somewhere, punches one in the chops. Rand’s seriousness is tempered with ridicule, which I appreciate. The whole thing could still stand to be somewhat less serious, given the subject matter, but even the microcosm of New York’s grimy criminal underworld shouldn’t be immune to silliness. This is, after all, a show which colour-codes each character; Daredevil’s scenes are a bit red, Luke’s are a bit yellow, Jessica’s are a bit blue, and Danny’s are a bit green. When they’re all together it’s like being on LSD.
The foursome is even parcelled off in ways that are surprisingly amusing. Daredevil and Jessica Jones make a good pair – he sees superheroism as his tragically noble and unavoidable destiny, she sees it as a right load of old bollocks. And here’s one for the comic-book fans – Luke Cage and Iron Fist, two characters from completely opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, actually get on alright. Finn Jones is still rubbish at almost everything his character needs to do, but it turns out he’s okay at conversing with Mike Colter.
One thing which I know I’m expected to buy into, and which I most certainly do not, is that each character brings a healthy dollop of scepticism to the table. Everyone is oddly shocked that Matt is blind, that Luke is bulletproof, that Jessica is strong, that Danny’s hand sometimes glows, seemingly without actually recognising the weirdity of their own abilities. Is there some kind of hierarchy to superpowers? Are some more or less believable than others? And that’s to say nothing of how unlikely everyone finds it that the Hand is a real thing. Aliens invaded New York in this continuity – there’s nothing shocking about a few blokes in pyjamas.
This is shoddy writing, of course, but it allows for some funny jokes that have been building for 65 episodes and two years, so I can live with it. And it has to be said that I’d much rather listen to Luke Cage mock Danny Rand than hear him fret about the gentrification of Harlem, or some local kid’s fire mixtape. This is supposed to be the advantage of a crossover; that once the quartet has been formed, it can develop its own style and identity rather than stitching together offcuts from solo outings. Fans love the finer details of continuity, but the last thing you want from a team-up is permanence. From the predictable reluctance of their getting together to how they’re divided for much of the season, one of them even reduced to the tiresome role of abductee, you almost get the sense that the showrunners (Doug Petrie; Marco Ramirez) are reminding you not to get used to this.
And you shouldn’t get used to it – mostly because I don’t think it would work for any significant length of time. Where this first season finds success is in novelty, and in knotting together all the frayed loose ends left behind by the Hand’s vague chicanery. Without those things, for The Defenders to work again, it needs to be the culmination of plot and character developments that occur in the coming solo seasons. The team dynamics aren’t strong enough on their own. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones played for thematic depth in their respective series’ because their skillsets don’t lend themselves to compelling fight choreography, whereas Daredevil and Iron Fist are so defined by their martial prowess that it’s difficult to care about their accompanying personal dramas. The obvious consequence of this is that the fight scenes in The Defenders – and there are lots of them – rarely amount to much more than keeping an eye on Daredevil and ignoring everyone else, while any business concerning the plot relies on Jessica’s sarcastic eye-rolling to feel worthwhile.
Nevertheless, The Defenders does feel like something of a return to form after Iron Fist, the latter half of Luke Cage, and everything involving the Hand from Daredevil’s second season. Come to think of it, these shows haven’t been all that good, have they? Their moments of genius have been few and far between, sandwiched between big slabs of frustration, and Netflix’s binge-tastic distribution model hasn’t really allowed for them to course-correct. It would have been naïve to hope that The Defenders would cure all the solo shows’ ills, but what we can hope is that it marks a newer, surer beginning for New York’s ninja-punching superpowered contingent.
That “Protect Ya Neck” moment is pretty great, too.
Enjoyed reading this review? Then you will probably like listening to us too so check out our podcast