Marvel’s The Defenders, the latest entry in the Netflix pantheon of comics-based original series, brings together the stars of Marvel’s first four efforts at creating original series for the streaming giant. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist all carried their own eponymous series in the past couple of years, and this grouping of the reluctant super heroes has been in the works since long before actor Charlie Cox took up the role of Matt Murdock/Daredevil in 2015. And for eight hours of entertainment, you could do worse.
As someone who occasionally reads comics (and loved Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias series upon which Jessica Jones was based), I came into The Defenders vaguely aware of the characters. I caught a handful of episodes of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones when they were initially released, but I skipped Luke Cage and Iron Fist. To that end, I expected to start watching The Defenders and be immediately confused. I was pleasantly surprised to find how much the show manages to get new viewers up to speed while also telling its own story. Most of the necessary exposition gets taken care of in episodes one and two, leaving the remaining six episodes to build upon these characters and this world. Much like the best comic books, events, people, and places are alluded to without bogging down the storytelling.
As far as that story goes, it’s typical comic book fare. We’re introduced to the villainous machinations of the global crime syndicate “The Hand,” viewed first through the lens of current Iron Fist Danny Rand (Finn Jones). The Hand is led by the mysterious Alexandra Reid, capably played by Sigourney Weaver. The other “fingers” of the hand are comprised of villains previous Netflix series fans will know–Wai Chiang Ho’s Madame Gao and Ramón Rodríguez as Bakuto (from Iron Fist)–as well as others. The Hand have a mysterious motive for seeking out Danny Rand, as his powers are the key to unlocking something they’ve been seeking for a long time. When Daredevil (Charlie Cox), recovering PI Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) get drawn into the intricate web via various threads, the four heroes are forced to work together to overcome the odds and save New York City.
Bringing the four characters together is a feat which the series accomplishes pretty easily and with minimal hand-waving. Each of these characters feel led to one another in an authentic way, and the actors tend to have a chemistry with one another that makes their temporary, tenuous partnership feel natural. The series also does a really neat thing with color, wherein every character’s scenes are overwhelmingly infused with different colors. Jessica Jones’s blues portray the film noir genre the character could easily slot into; Luke Cage’s hopeful attitude feels sunny, thanks to use of yellows and oranges. The reds of Daredevil’s scenes are steeped in red, and Iron Fist’s green hues recall the early scenes in 1999’s The Matrix. When the characters come together after a well-choreographed fight scene in episode three, they do so in a Chinese restaurant whose outdoor marquis playfully includes the colorful elements of all their major thematic colors.
From that moment on, The Defenders becomes a true ensemble effort and the motif of individual colors is dropped. It’s a nice thematic touch.
Another appreciable thing to note in this series is its strong use of the individual Marvel series’ supporting characters. It really helps sell the notion that this world is shared, and that the characters from each series move in similar orbits. Nowhere is this more apparent than when all of these characters are brought together in a late episode storyline wherein they’re able to play off of one another and form partnerships that may not have happened otherwise. Much like how the original Daredevil exhibited the idea that Hell’s Kitchen has been touched by the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel Television Universe benefits from their inclusion.
If there’s any dim spots in this story, it’s the inclusion of Iron Fist. I wanted to like the character and sympathize with him, but it’s clear that even with the emotional and physical damage of the other Defenders, Jones’s Danny Rand is the weak link. Jones sells the emotional immaturity of the Iron Fist, that’s for sure. But he’s pretty much punchable every time he’s onscreen. That he’s both a main character and the series’ macguffin is a huge detriment. I found myself groaning every time the color green saturated the action onscreen. Most of the criticism I’ve read about Iron Fist have to do with Jones’ casting and portrayal; of the Marvel series that gave birth to The Defenders, his is the one I’m least likely to visit.
The others, though? Thanks to Mike Colter’s performance, I’m extremely interested in revisiting Luke Cage (especially given the political ramifications of a black superhero, bulletproof, and wearing a hoodie as his uniform), and I might even finish Jessica Jones to learn just how and why the title character in that series ended up so damaged. Even Daredevil’s previous exploits fighting The Hand with his love, Elektra Natchios, has me intrigued.
When all’s said and done, Defenders does what it sets out to do–bring four heroes together, save the day, and set up future installments and crossovers–and tells a pretty enjoyable, briskly paced story at the same time. If you’re going to binge watch something, you could do a lot worse.
Marvel’s Defenders was released on Netflix on August 18. Each episode generally runs close to 50 minutes and all are rated TV-MA.