One of the best things to come with the proliferation of superhero storytelling, across both film and television, is the growing complexity around the concept of heroism. And thus one of the best things about “Marvel’s The Defenders” is that it’s actively engaged with this, while still managing to deliver ninja fights, comic book in-jokes, Jessica Jones day-drinking, and more fun.
“The Defenders” unites the previous four Marvel/Netflix series — “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” and “Iron Fist” — for an adventure that spans not just New York, but the mystical realms. All four of the heroes from these previously established shows find themselves facing a New York in chaos thanks to the actions of the evil, ninja-esque organization The Hand (led by the mysterious Alexandra, played by legend Sigourney Weaver); after being drawn together by their individual investigations, they’re forced to acknowledge that the battle can only be won together.
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Going into “The Defenders,” the most important thing to know is that Marvel is betting on viewers’ binging instincts in a big way — meaning that it takes a while for Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) to all appear together on screen. Their worlds begin to blend right away, but the emphasis early on is in establishing each character; not necessarily spent recapping the full extent of their adventures in previous seasons, but at least setting up the emotional state of each person, as well as those who matter most to them.
An initial, and totally fair, reaction to the resulting slow pace is that it is so actively devoted to not being like other superhero team-ups that it subdues all the fun anticipated from this particular edition. There were many things audiences were looking forward to: Jessica Jones rolling her eyes at Daredevil’s theatrics; Luke Cage and Danny Rand battling with fists in an alleyway and with words over Danny’s privilege — not to mention Jessica and Luke dealing with their complicated romantic history.
Those moments do come. They just require some patience, and in the meantime, there are added benefits to this mega-crossover. In fact, one of the most exciting aspects of “The Defenders” is perhaps the most unexpected.
While officially, there’s only one lead “hero” in the bunch who’s a woman, the side effect of drawing together all the supporting characters from all the other Marvel series is that they all get opportunity to interact. And most of them are women — like Claire (Rosario Dawson), Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), Misty (Simone Missick), Colleen (Jessica Henwick) and more — who are well-defined enough to offer interesting color to the plot and occasionally even drive it. On the side of good, Jessica isn’t the only woman who dives into action, and women take just as many lumps as the men.
The main cast also seems to benefit from getting to play off each other. For fans of “Jessica Jones,” there’s not quite enough Ritter, but she does get some standout moments, and Cox is a little lighter than he can come off during “Daredevil’s” predominantly gloomy moments. Colter provides some essential punches (literally and figuratively), especially when paired with Jones, who seems to benefit the most from being part of an ensemble, able to lean into Danny Rand’s puppy dog edge in a way that invokes his most endearing scenes from “Iron Fist.”
There are also complicated and compelling women and men on the side of “evil,” and, more importantly, there are definitive sides. “The Defenders,” which was in production months ago, is odd to watch during a week when America is experiencing a major internal conflict lacking in grey tones. But while “The Defenders” exists in a New York City where the good guys do bad things, and the bad guys are given moments of empathy, there’s no question who we’re rooting for — which is just one of the things that superhero stories offer us, with the added benefit of that aforementioned complexity.
That’s the nuance which helps serve as a contrast to the real world we’re dealing with. It’s a reminder that on the side of light, flaws are allowable. It’s also a reminder that evil truly exists in the world.
On the technical side, “The Defenders” feels on par, budget-wise, with past Netflix/Marvel installments, but there’s some impressive production design here beyond the established worlds of these characters, especially in creating a unique look for new locations like the Hand’s inner sanctum. Also, forget the Emmys: Costume designer Stephanie Maslansky deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for her work dressing Weaver, who wears some truly stunning ensembles.
There are spoiler-y things to say about this season that would reflect why its grade is lower than fans would hope. The ultimate weakness of “The Defenders” is found in its plotting, especially the way it indulges in one massive superhero storytelling cliche towards the end. But when the show focuses on character, it’s at its best, especially when the secondary characters, — the women! — get a chance at the spotlight.
The Defenders themselves might shy away at the term “hero,” but they’re here at the exact time we need them.
“Marvel’s The Defenders” is streaming now on Netflix.