The Defenders may have been about a man who loved his city more than himself, but the show itself was all about the man in the mask.
The final 20 minutes of the eighth episode serve as a source of closure for each of the four heroes, bringing a sense of finality to this story that has woven across multiple series, but it functions above all as an elegy for Matt Murdock, the devil of Hell’s Kitchen. “Protect my city,” Matt whispers in Danny’s ear just before Midland Financial comes crashing down around him, our protagonist joined at the mouth with Elektra Niatchos. From there, we get mournful looks from each person, a church-set encomium with Foggy and Karen, and homilies to his goodness from Claire, Danny, and more. It’s all quite effective, and even if it gets more or less negated by that final shot (don’t come to Marvel looking for real pathos about mortality, we’ve got franchises to build, people), there’s real heart in the touching farewells to Daredevil, sweet without becoming sappy.
“The Defenders” has very little story left to tell, so instead, it goes all-in on the big moments, the equivalent of spending your time on the splash pages of a comic rather than the little exposition-only boxes. After the requisite setup, where everyone has to again convince Luke that blowing up the building is the right thing to do, the show shifts smoothly into action mode, and doesn’t let up for nearly a half-hour straight. Colleen’s fight with Bakuto is straightforwardly framed, and showcases some good swordplay, but while Misty losing her arm was pretty surprising, the whole thing couldn’t hold a martial-arts candle to the brawl deep underground.
There’s two key parts to the battle of the gate of K’un Lun, and one works a little better than the other. The best sequence, even if it’s a little stagy, is the rotating tracking shot, following each of the Defenders in turn as they tear through the Hand. There’s little of the fun tag-team combinations that have made previous fights so thrilling, but it’s still a satisfying rumble, with plenty of bone-crunching jolts. Director Farren Blackburn also helmed an episode of Iron Fist that showed more facility with character beats than action, but despite yet again displaying some choppy editing here and there, getting at least one chance to choreograph a big, messy, electric fight scene helps temper some of the other flaws.
And the other fight sequence down there was triggered by something that either made you laugh or groan, most likely. Danny meeting Gao’s attack by activating the fist drops his enemies to the ground, and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” kicks in over the rest of the fight. While The Defenders has occasionally struggled to incorporate the more New York-centric hip-hop sounds of Luke Cage (mostly limited to playing some of it whenever Luke was on camera alone the first two episodes), here it’s a form of joyous enthusiasm, the equivalent of asking the audience to stand up and do the wave while some bad guys get their heads kicked in. Whether you found it effective or jarringly off probably depends on the degree to which you felt this installment was nailing a consistent tone. While I found it to be an abrupt change, it wasn’t an unwelcome one; not everything has to be paired to a bombastic swell of instruments.
Thrilling heroics aside, the episode excelled in the ways it tried to genuinely show some forward growth in these characters, and allow the rest of the world to keep moving in tandem with them. Early on, I faulted The Defenders for essentially freezing each of its characters in ice, development-wise, as though everyone had defaulted to their simplest personality setting in order to more easily fold them into a single narrative. (Matt Murdock was arguably the only exception.) But the denouement provides some chances for everyone to evolve, and suggests hope for these super-powered people to be in a slightly different place next time we see them. (“I’m glad we found each other,” Matt says, and you can practically hear Jessica’s eyes roll into the back of her head.)
Luke and Jessica both get nice but brief moments back in their own lives—he’s settling in with Claire again, she’s getting Alias Investigations up and running—yet still, they’re never better than when uneasily close, still attracted to one another despite all the reasons they tell themselves to stay away, with Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter deftly playing off the other’s reactions. Rather than just vanishing from each other’s lives, Luke and Jessica leave the door open for a “coffee date,” which they both know is always an invitation to more. Whether they take it probably depends in part on what happens with Claire.
Danny and Colleen get a more definitive resolution than was found in his solo series, which isn’t hard, since no one, not even Danny, seemed to know what he was all about there. But The Defenders did an excellent job reviving and giving humorous life to a character many had written off as a hopeless dud, leaning into everything that made him foolish rather than trying to force him into some tortured badass mold that never suited either Finn Jones or the character. Once the first couple episodes finished shaking the dour off him, Iron Fist became a lively and entertaining presence. “There’s a lesson in every tragedy,” he tells her, saying he now sees New York as home, with him a proud protector of it. Let’s just assume “next time, don’t activate the one thing the enemy wants and then give it to them on a silver platter” is right there in the number two spot for lessons from this experience.
And the side characters, mostly here for window dressing throughout the run of the series, get some small interactions that deepen the surrounding world and lend depth and poignancy to Matt’s sacrifice. From Trish and Karen trying to puzzle out the city-shaking mystery, to Misty and Colleen discussing the cop’s life from this point on, there are elements that could’ve been edited out entirely, but remain for the simple reason that these characters make us like our heroes more. When Foggy’s voice breaks while talking about Matt with Claire, it doesn’t feel like cheap button-pushing (we have Matt lying in a bed, dozing peacefully after all this hand-wringing over his death, for that). It’s a soulful depiction of loss—the knowledge that, for some people, these stakes matter.
The Hand endures, obviously, with Madame Gao being the best contender for who survived after Matt and Elektra, but it’s presumably out of commission for at least awhile. And the emotional journey that began in season two of Daredevil, between Matt and Elektra, finds a (temporary) conclusion of sorts, the pair forgiving each other in those final moments, and embracing. As with all things Marvel, it can’t last; they’ll undoubtedly be back to their contentious pas de deux soon enough, but it served as a fitting finale for this superhero team-up. New York’s bruiser guardians stopped their city from crumbling, cracked some jokes (and heads), shed some tears, and made some friends in the process. If it wasn’t always gracefully executed, well, maybe we can chalk it up to their personalities. Especially Danny’s.
- Jessica at the bar: “What’re you having?” “My fourth.”
- Some of the transitions that were meant to be cool were downright weird, like everyone coming out of Midland and confronting the cops as the bomb ticks down to zero. Luke mutters, “I can’t let this happen,” then we cut to the radio announcing everyone clearing the building. I’m sure that was meant to be more badass than awkward, but the latter was how it came across.
- Only Karen’s crazy enough to suspect the truth: that Matt survived.
- If these four were the Golden Girls, Danny would obviously be Rose.
- Hero of the episode: Everyone gets a toast: Luke’s spur-of-the-moment plan to take down the Hand; Danny’s Gao-pummeling use of the fist; Jessica’s elevator save; and Matt’s whole sacrificing-himself thing—unnecessary though it may have been, depending on what you think Elektra would’ve done next.
- Additional heroes: Colleen, Claire, and Misty for taking out Bakuto, though that was mostly Colleen.
- Of all the Netflix Marvel series, The Defenders has by far the most anthemic and appropriate theme music. Those opening credits are accompanied by the perfect swell of bombast and tension, a marvelously fitting musical pairing with the Avengers-esque nature of the series.
- Thanks, everyone, for joining in on this uneven but fun superhero supergroup. I’d say see you next season, but it’s gonna be a few years, so maybe keep that Chaste incense burning in the meantime.