It took 65 episodes of television to build up to Marvel's "The Defenders," and perhaps that meant expectations were unfairly high. But even when you give it a hype handicap, the Netflix super team-up is a bit underwhelming, with mistakes both fundamental and so obvious that you can't help but be extra frustrated.
The bingeable TV model is a blessing and a curse for storytellers and audiences. Series suddenly gained breathing room —- storytellers gained the ability to create long and complicated arcs for characters, tease out information over multiple episodes, and hook viewers with intrigue. But the flip side is that sometimes it's too much freedom, and with just about every series going in this direction, stories are being dragged out longer than necessary, with payoffs that inherently underwhelm. Such is the case with "The Defenders," and now retroactively, the Marvel/Netflix series.
The individual series are all varying degrees of engrossing and enjoyable, with different tones and aesthetics based on the characters at their center. "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones" take on the grit of Hell's Kitchen, while "Luke Cage" took on the flavor of its Harlem setting. (We'll deal with "Iron Fist" in a bit). And yet they all had local villains and very New York issues at their core, making them a cohesive anthology. They also felt action packed, with plenty of exhilarating fight scenes in each episode. It kept the shows moving, even as their bigger mysteries took time to play out.
Yet instead of taking cues from its successful series, the producers of "The Defenders" decided to do the opposite. This new series drags and drags before the four main characters come together at the end of the third episode. It obviously required some machinations to get them all in the same place, but the the first three episodes could have been much tighter and leaner; despite the shortened run-time of just eight episodes, it almost seems as if they had to stretch and pad out the storylines.
Once the characters get together, there's some fun to be had. There's an easy chemistry in the uneasy alliance between Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Iron Fist (Finn Jones). They don't trust one another, and their personalities don't exactly mesh well, but that's what drives the banter. Each one thinks the others are insane, which is funny coming from freaks with superpowers. Even Danny Rand is likable now, because Jones finally leans into the rich boy asshole persona that differentiates the character (let's put aside the whitewashing issue, because that ultimately negates any likability).
One of the many issues that plagued "Iron Fist" was its mystical, international feel — the street-level work of these damaged superheroes is what makes them so attractive, because we have The Avengers for the biggest problems facing the world. Instead of a local villain, like Daredevil's season one rival Kingpin or Jessica Jones's enemy Kilgrave, they go with The Hand, a mystical group of world-controlling ninjas that dominated "Iron Fist" and parts of the second season of "Daredevil." It's a stupid group of supervillains, and they can't even be saved by the legendary talents of Sigourney Weaver, who as the ageless Alexandra walks around giving orders with a stare that is more cold and blank than sinister.
This is just a review of the first four episodes of "The Defenders," because that's what journalists got from Netflix ahead of the series' release. It probably gets better over time. But you'll have to deal with several boring hours to get there, and even then, the villain is rote and uninspiring; they may be sinister, but they're not scary. That said, we're still looking forward to the next season of "Luke Cage," which is in production now. Going solo again will be just what these Defenders need.