Geoff Johns, the chief creative officer of DC Comics, gave an interview last week announcing that, following the success of Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. would focus on standalone superhero movies with a loose continuity rather than making every film part of a single master narrative. Cynics pounced on his statement, seeing it as preemptive damage control, an early indication that next month's long-awaited Justice League movie would be a stinker that should not, Johns hoped, be held against future DC-based movies. But he could just as easily have just finished watching The Defenders and seen it as a cautionary tale. The eight-part Netflix series is the culmination of a Marvel Studios program that began with the debut of Daredevil in 2015. From the beginning, it was understood that Daredevil and its companion shows -- Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist -- were steps leading up to the formation of the Defenders, Netflix's street-level counterpart to the big-screen Avengers. Counting the pre-production time for Daredevil, Marvel had three years to develop a Defenders story, yet the finished product looks like the writers threw something together a week before shooting started.
Defenders is a substitute for a third season of Daredevil, produced and mostly written by the creative team from that show's second season, where many of the concepts at play here were introduced. The main concept is the threat of The Hand, the evil martial-arts cult created by Frank Miller during his landmark run on Daredevil at the turn of the 1980s. The Hand was also a major force in the Iron Fist show, so all the writers have to do is find some way for alcoholic superhuman detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and nigh-invulnerable incarcerated Harlem do-gooder Luke Cage (Mike Colter) involved. Jessica's trail starts when she investigates the disappearance of an architect who turns out to have developed a mad plan to blow up one of his recent buildings. Meanwhile, a freshly exonerated Luke goes after a new drug dealer in Harlem, his surviving antagonists from his own show being conspicuously absent (as are Iron Fist's corporate pals) from a show thick with supporting players from other shows. Luke's new crusade crosses paths with Danny Rand's (Finn Jones) vendetta against the Hand, one of whose Fingers is Luke's new enemy. Danny and sword-wielding sidekick Colleen Wing's (Jessica Henwick) brutal approach to anyone associated with The Hand raises Luke's ire when their targets are young black men, and so, naturally enough in the Marvel Universe, when two heroes meet, they fight. By contrast, Jessica and her new, unsolicited attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) don't fight, but they don't quite trust each other either. Jessica wonders why the blind lawyer is nosing around her business -- and how he happens to have super-ninja skills when he thinks Jessica isn't looking -- while Matt, being Daredevil, knows that Jessica, her violent reputation notwithstanding, is wandering into dangerous territory, since the building her architect wanted to destroy has been built on the site of that perhaps-bottomless pit Daredevil discovered some time ago, which means it all has to do with The Hand. After that Nick Fury of Netflix, freelance night nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), imposes a time-out on Luke and Danny, and as Matt continues to tail Jessica, all four heroes end up that the aforementioned building, where Danny hopes to at last confront the leader of The Hand.
That's where everything starts to fall apart, though the seeds of destruction really were planted as soon as Sigourney Weaver appeared as Alexandra in the first episode. First among equal Fingers of the Hand, which also includes Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho, Daredevil/Iron Fist) and Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez, Iron Fist), Alexandra is feared and/or resented by her colleagues, all of them exiles from the magical land of K'un L'un, but fears for her own life. Virtually immortal, she has grown mortally ill at a time when the Fingers have run out of the mysterious "substance" that has sustained them for centuries. A fresh supply apparently can be found in New York City, presumably at the bottom of that pit under Alexandra's building, but getting at it requires setting off a few tremors that briefly terrorize the city, as well as the services of the Black Sky, aka Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), Matt Murdock's psycho-ninja girlfriend of old -- and, for reasons that remain vague until nearly the end, the Iron Fist of K'un L'un. The problem with all this is that it's often unclear exactly what Alexandra wants to do, or what the consequences will be. The early earthquakes are meant to make us anticipate a cataclysm, but the show never really follows up on that threat, and the ultimate revelation that The Hand simply wants to harvest dragon bones to get more "substance" seems awfully mundane for something that sounds fantastic on paper. Worse, as Thumb or Index Finger -- they never specify -- Alexandra should be the ultimate boss of the series, the villain it takes all four Defenders to fight -- but she never displays any truly menacing powers, or any powers at all, to be honest. All the Fingers of the Hand should be super badass martial artists with virtually magical chi abilities, but only Mme. Gao lives up to that expectation, while Bakuto is unceremoniously eliminated by one of the auxiliary, Colleen, in a wrap-up to their Iron Fist subplot, and another Finger seems to have only the power to speak Japanese. Alexandra ought to have the powers given to Gao, but Weaver most likely was uninterested in doing any superhero fighting, or else the Alexandra character was introduced only as a Macguffin, an excuse to hire a big-name actor. You get the feeling that they could have told the same story without Alexandra, especially since the writers' endgame is to make Elektra the big bad, though her agenda is, if anything, even more vague than Alexandra's
At eight episodes, Defenders is the shortest of Netflix's Marvel shows, but it seems the most padded of them, as well as the worst written. The four stars do the best they can and are the best things about the project -- though I wouldn't mind a Defenders Auxiliary of supporting players dealing with more modest threats -- but they're put into the sort of petty bickering scenarios that supposedly typified the inferior storytelling of The CW's "Berlantiverse" superhero shows. Charlie Cox probably comes off the worst of the four, since Daredevil goes through many of the most tired tropes. He doesn't want to unmask in front of Luke and Danny -- he's borrowed Jessica's scarf and she's already made Matt as the Devil of Hell's Kitchen -- and then he wants to work alone because The Hand is dangerous and he doesn't want to be responsible for more people getting killed -- and then he goes into business for himself desperately trying to talk Elektra into rehabilitating. By the time Defenders was done, people were comparing it unfavorably to the lesser seasons of the CW shows. The Netflix shows' reputation for superior action scenes did not redeem this one. The set pieces have grown redundant, and the typical stuntman-concealing darkness of them has grown especially tiresome to this reviewer. Worse, our heroes lacked interesting styles and powers to fight against, while Elektra's power level was all over the place. I get that the Black Sky is supposed to be getting stronger constantly, but it still seems implausible for a ninja, however superfied, to hold her own against the truly superhuman likes of Luke and Jessica, much less the irresistible Iron Fist. The pacing of everything seemed off, as if eight episodes weren't enough for writers accustomed to thirteen, or else they lacked story enough for eight and had to pad everything out with evasions and poses.
I'll cite one annoying moment to represent the whole. During episode four Jessica tires of all the bickering and mumbo-jumbo and leaves to check in on her clients. After rescuing them from Hand harassment, she makes a dramatic return to the Chinese restaurant where the others are hiding, driving through the front display window to run over Elektra. As she exits the car we see a groggy Elektra on the floor. I'd expect Jessica to kick a menace like that while she's down, but instead she marches over to join the guys in a heroic-standoff pose to end the episode. That pose exemplifies nearly everything that was bad about Defenders, which accelerates a declining thread for Marvel/Netflix apparent since the second half of Luke Cage. The experience left me wanting just the sort of assurance Geoff Johns is offering now, since I'd like to see more of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones especially, but I'd hate to think that it might all lead to Defenders Season Two.