There’s exactly one action scene in the first episode of The Defenders, and it happens in the first three minutes. Not only that, but it’s nigh-incomprehensible, having been chopped into Michael Bay-like oblivion under the eye of director S.J. Clarkson. To some degree, this is meant to throw us with jarring force into the sensory overload of this tunnel-set battle, keeping a woman’s identity secret, but mostly it just means it’s a dark and incoherent sequence. After Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, appears, sending the unknown assailant scattering, the man breathes his last and tells Danny and Colleen their fight against the Hand is in New York City. From that moment on, the viewer should settle in, because it’s all talk for the rest of the hour.
For a series meant to bring together four great brawlers into a supergroup showdown, the initial outing of The Defenders delivers remarkably little in the way of thrills. It does nothing but remind you who these people are, and where their stories left off in their individual shows. It feels more like the first 45 minutes of an eight-hour movie than a standalone episode of television—something all the Netflix Marvel shows have struggled with, to varying degrees of success—and while it’s admirable the series feels comfortable taking its time and easing us back into this world, a little more intrigue would’ve gone a long way toward raising the narrative stakes. A quick earthquake and a glimpse of a resurrected Elektra, staring blankly at Sigourney Weaver, isn’t really enough.
Instead, we get four different conversations, all of which are really about the same thing: How can you be the person you want to be? Some of these protagonists are still reluctant to embrace their potential, while others are just waiting for the right opportunity to put their skills to work, but all of them are struggling to figure out where they fit in. They inhabit very different parts of the city, but they all share a common alienation from themselves, whether self-imposed or via the limitations placed upon them by circumstances. These are four characters in search of not just a cast, but an entire play. They’ve lost the narrative of their lives, and they’re trying to regain it.
Since there’s very little yet connecting these people, let’s take each of their individual arcs in turn. Matt Murdock is the only one who comes across like he’s actually been living his life during his time offscreen, having made a decision in the interim to stop being Daredevil and just focus on being a lawyer. (We watch him win a case for a teenage boy who’s been the victim of a profits-over-safety mentality, both to remind us he’s actually a good lawyer—something that was occasionally in question during season two—and so that he can deliver a speech about the difficulty of life with a disability.) As we soon learn, he’s mostly hung up the mask in order to win back the people he cares about, primarily Karen, but he’s swimming against the current. Sure, the earthquake might have been the trigger he can’t ignore, with cries for help he can no longer drown out, but we already knew we were counting down the minutes until Matt resumed his heroic ways. Plus, “moving on” is going to be a little tough once he finds out Elektra’s alive.
Jessica Jones, on the other hand, is stubbornly, almost hilariously herself. She may have finally managed to put Kilgrave behind her, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she’s still closing down bars, refusing clients, and adding whiskey to her morning coffee. Don’t get me wrong, she’s easily the most endearing one, with her emotional rut and stalled life returning to us like a comfortable pair of shoes, but as Trish reminds her, it doesn’t look much like a life if Jessica’s not actually living. While there are small hints of her making progress in her hermetic existence (Malcolm’s a reassuring presence in her life), it mostly feels like she’s been watching the clock until this show could come along and get her engaged again, through the wafer-thin tactic of a mysterious phone call. She sets off to discover the truth about Michelle Raymond’s missing husband, and instead stumbles upon boxes of explosives. The upshot of a character being a private detective: They actually get to have a little mystery unfold in their presence.
Next, there’s Luke Cage. Conveniently, the writers didn’t have to worry about coming up with a reason to keep the hero of Harlem in suspended animation since the end of his own series. They just sent him to jail, and let him out when they were ready to utilize him again. (With a little assistance from Foggy Nelson, apparently now practicing law at Jeri Hogarth’s firm.) Once more roaming the streets of his beloved neighborhood, Luke wastes no time in having some table-shaking sex with Claire Temple, who has not only patiently waited for him to get out of the slammer, but wrote him constant letters during his incarceration. (The old “your letters kept me going” cliché was enough to elicit a groan from this writer.)
Luke is eager to get back to pursuing his old enemies Mariah Dillard and Shades, but is pulled up short upon learning from Misty Knight that another young man he has a connection to has been killed. Being sent to offer guidance to the bereaved sibling is a useful application of Luke’s hometown-hero reputation, albeit potentially futile. This young man needs help, and Luke is only to happy to offer a hand, but whatever Candace’s brother is into, it’s not good, and presumably a small hint of the criminal link that will eventually bring Cage into orbit with the other heroes. The pleasure here comes almost wholly from seeing the community respond to Luke’s return. After Jessica, he’s the most immediately engaging presence, and watching the show have fun with his charisma is a smart reintroduction to the character.
Then, of course, there’s poor old Danny Rand. Ill-served by his own series, the character feels as adrift as ever. The show has simply swapped in one guilty conscience for another, his parents’ death having been replaced by the lives of those in K’un Lun, presumably killed by the Hand during Danny’s sojourn in New York. Danny and Colleen have a stilted conversation in which he once more applies the idiotic tactic of pretending everything’s fine, despite literally waking up screaming from the ghosts of the past. And that’s the problem with making him still tortured. For all its flaws, I actually enjoyed watching Iron Fist once it become clear that Danny Rand was a dim-bulb of a superhero, and going into it viewing the character as a clueless and overeager puppy dog, albeit one who can hit the ground so hard it knocks people off their feet, made for a more entertaining series. The character works best when the show leans into his well-intentioned optimistic stupidity, not when it saddles him with angst.
But let’s set all our protagonists aside for a moment, because holy hell, The Defenders landed Sigourney Weaver as its bad guy. There’s a reason the New York Comic-Con crowd started chanting “holy shit” when her casting was announced, and every frame she’s in telegraphs why. The iconic actor draws the camera in, rather than the other way around, and even in her few scenes, she elevates the table-setting material with which she’s working. Her character is dying—maybe months, maybe weeks left to live—but she’s pulling the strings behind some grand plan. We know this because Madame Gao, so compelling a villain in her own right, is basically responding with, “How high?” every time Weaver says jump. The ticking clock on her lifespan is forcing her to move up whatever plan they have in store, and presumably it involved whatever caused the episode-ending earthquake. It’s a treat just watching her furtively go about her work, and helps to make up for the dearth of intrigue elsewhere.
Still, this was a fairly milquetoast return for four heroes who are capable of so much more. This is part of the issue with TV built for binge-watching: It sacrifices narrative momentum, knowing it can always defer the drama to the next episode. But it ends up harming series overall, because it negates the impact of the very structure these programs are working within. Nearly every Marvel show on the streaming service thus far has had to tread water a few times to fill out its 13-episode season; after watching this minor outing kick off an eight-episode series, I’m hoping The Defenders doesn’t suffer from the opposite problem—killing time it can’t afford to waste.
- Despite fumbling that opening fight, Clarkson fares better handling the quieter moments, particularly transitions: The cut from Luke pulling up his hoodie to Jessica lowering hers was an inspired one.
- Danny responding to Colleen saying New York is the greatest city in the world with a dry, “New Yorkers love to say that,” was the only time I’ve wanted to high-five the screen for something the Iron Fist said.
- Despite the overall weakness of the episode, showrunner and co-writers Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie actually handled many of the little character beats well, doing their best to integrate the disparate tones and styles of these characters into one universe.
- Speaking of small things, I appreciated the little touch of Jessica still not having replaced the window to her front door.
- The relationship between Jessica and Luke was a sharp and compelling one, and barring any potential friction when Claire and Luke’s new romance becomes known to Jessica, I hope it doesn’t neuter Mike Colter and Krysten Ritter’s chemistry.
- There is basically zero chance that woman in the opening fight was anyone other than Elektra, right?
- Welcome, everyone, to The Defenders. I look forward to overanalyzing this limited series with each and every one of you—yes, even the parts with Danny.