While the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy have been busy dealing with large-scale planetary threats in theaters, smaller, bloodier conflicts have been showing up all throughout Netflix. The Defenders, for example, is a miniseries combining 4 shows and fan bases: Daredevil (2 Seasons), Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. The difference in form (series vs. feature film) actually makes the shows themselves fairly distinct, working on rather tight budgets and having to tell longform stories over 12-13 episodes. They’re also closer to a PG-13 - R rating than the slew of Marvel’s PG movies; generally more mature and adult in theme.
Defenders is the team-up series that fuses the characters from those previous series together against a common enemy. A persistent ninja clan called “The Hand” has been periodically emerging and causing tons of trouble. Now, consider the following statement: “Four superheroes fight an undying clan of ninja cultists.” You know how disappointing it is that Marvel somehow made that boring to watch?
Here’s a speed review of the other series, which I promise will be relevant: Daredevil is a solid show with strong characters (Kingpin is perfectly cast), a few incredibly well shot action scenes, and a mostly uncomplicated story; its Season 2 counterpart is overall a little worse, mostly due to too many small conflicts and a lack of focus, especially since the story was wrapped around “The Hand” as well. Jessica Jones is perhaps the best show in the bunch, having the overall strongest lead character and a terrifically nefarious villain. The show succeeds thanks to a well considered film noir style and creatively covers tricky topics including abuse and non-consent. Luke Cage is probably the most stylistic, dedicating the majority of its visual design, pace, and execution in the fashion of Harlem Renaissance appreciation with nostalgic ‘70s influence (similar to Shaft). Luke is also the most important superhero, culturally: a bulletproof, black male dedicated to keeping the community safe and being a positive role model. As some would say, he’s the ideal “woke” television figure. Finally, there’s Iron Fist, which has about two good episodes right off the bat, then completely fails to be interesting. Possibly related, that show was also centered around “The Hand.”
A funny thing I’ve noticed with these shows is that the more they are related to “The Hand” as a central conflict, the overall worse the show is. This might be why Defenders, the show in which “The Hand” is pretty much the entire show, is fairly weak considering what it might’ve been. It also feels like all the other shows I’ve mentioned while each flagship character is onscreen. In an eight-episode series, the whole “crew” doesn’t collide until the end of episode 3; until then, it’s like the previous shows are simply continuing, which leads to a series with four independent styles of execution side by side - often differentiated through well chosen color tones. I understand the intention behind this approach, but the experience is a little jarring, though all the segments featuring Daredevil, Jessica, and Luke are solid and fun to watch. The problem is that after they unify, the entire show basically feels like Iron Fist again. It even follows suit with a few interesting scenes and character-driven moments scattered across a landscape of mediocrity. While there are more likeable characters throughout Defenders to keep it kind of fun, and Marvel has taken some of the Iron Fist critique to heart, that’s ultimately not enough to carry the entire show.
Defenders is a perfect example of why the Netflix model of producing an entire series before the first show airs still has its flaws, namely in course correction. Iron Fist probably could’ve been saved if its creators had had the ability to receive feedback partway through production - and that show is especially important, since the mythos of Iron Fist is so crucial to everything happening in Defenders. Unfortunately, the entire bad experience was shot together and released in one disappointing burst. Because Iron Fist is so terrible, it forces the hand (literally) of Defenders, locking it on a brittle foundation. I mean, Marvel was in the middle of shooting Defenders when Iron Fist came out; it’s a bit late to redirect by that point.
I can’t highly recommend this massive run of shows, but I would recommend a couple. Daredevil (Season 1), Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are worth a watch. If you’re really dedicated, rest assured that Defenders works better than the both Daredevil’s Second Season and Iron Fist, but don’t feel the need to keep forcing the hand: the outcome is less than thrilling.