What started with the grounded world of Daredevil season one has become a breeding ground for comic book insanity. Bottomless pits at construction sites. Immortal villains. Magic superhero monks. All that and more is back to challenge our favorite street-level heroes in The Defenders.
Let’s cut to the chase: you want to see these four heroes fighting back-to-back like they were in an Avengers film. A super dark and gritty Avengers film maybe, but an Avengers film nonetheless. That happens. But unfortunately for viewers, that’s just about all that happens. What I mean to say is this: The Defenders is ultimately poor execution of a few good ideas, without any good connecting points to make an engaging story, or a compelling message.
Functioning largely as a second season of Iron Fist, The Defenders continues our introduction to the world of The Hand with Alexandra, a woman fixated on mortality, and how she aims to beat it. This idea is further bolstered by The Hand’s motto – “I serve life itself,” a phrase that later turns out to have a rather morbid meaning behind it. But even as Danny sets off on a path that will ultimately lead him closer to the hero he’s supposed to be, and bring in the other three heroes, the narrative struggles to plant its feet. With so many characters and themes to juggle from previous series, it never settles on one element long enough to say anything of lasting value.
Overly reliant on cliché plot devices and common superhero tropes, The Defenders is hardly the show that fans of Daredevil and Jessica Jones originally hoped for. Sure, it outshines the likes of Arrow, Supergirl, and even Agents of SHIELD just in terms of tone and action sequences. There’s a great idea at the heart of this show – street-level Avengers that are much more relatable than, say, a filthy rich playboy or a World War II hero. But as we delve deeper into the outlandish world of The Hand and K’un Lun, the more the narrative gets lost in its own mythology, creating a story that is plot-driven at the expense of character development.
In contrast, take the predecessors to The Defenders. Daredevil, a serious contender for the best show of its genre on television, tackles the intersection of violence and faith, and shows a man truly struggling with the ethics of what he feels called todo. Jessica Jones details the story of a survivor of sexual violence, and the demons she has to grapple with as a result. Luke Cage, although not as compelling as the previous two series, tackled serious issues within the black community.
But like Iron Fist before it, the waters are more muddied here, resulting in a series that isn’t quite sure what it’s here to tell us, or why it’s important. There are compelling moments in the series – such as when Jessica comforts Matt about his father’s death, and a tense conversation between Danny and Luke about race and privilege that actually ends up being productive. But these are isolated moments of meaning in an overall narrative that’s ultimately more concerned about ninjas than it is about character.
Some of these ninja elements are pretty cool, don’t get me wrong. Those who are greater fans of kung fu than I am tell me that the choreography is lazy and unconvincing, but for this lay person, it was enough to keep me engaged. Seeing these four heroes fight onscreen together, while not as fanboy-coma-inducing as The Avengers, is a really cool element, especially given the contrast between the martial arts of Iron Fist/Daredevil and the “just grab and throw” fight style of Jessica’s.
But that’s not what I grew to enjoy these Marvel/Netflix shows for. The first season of Daredevil blew me away not because of its fight scenes (although they are very well-directed and don’t feel like the majority of superhero action), but because of its characters. It really made me care about these people. In The Defenders, the focus is too scattered, too fragmented for me to learn to care about the four of them as a unit, or each of the four as individuals. Without a cohesive theme to tie it all together, the series becomes far too much like every other superhero or YA property out there – a team of good guys fighting a horde of bad guys to save the world.
That doesn’t make it bad. But it certainly doesn’t make it good. And that’s the primary flaw in The Defenders, that it’s simply unremarkable. Even Sigourney Weaver plays an unmemorable character, and the only thing that ever really has teeth to it is the interplay between Elektra and Daredevil, which would be better suited to a season of Daredevil itself. As simple, entertaining superhero fare, it does decently well. But as something that people have grown to expect from these Netflix series – a serious drama with compelling themes, well, you might want to save your binging time for something more deserving.