Marvel’s The Defenders brings its eight-episode team-up to a close with an action-packed finale that delivers fun spectacle amidst a mostly uneven effort.
Once Marvel’s The Defenders starts throwing punches not much else matters. That’s especially important when watching heroes repeatedly punch bad guys is essentially everything the miniseries has or even wants to offer. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it comes at the expense of the implied ambitiousness of a multi-series team-up even set within the MCU. With just eight episodes at its disposal, the plot of Netflix’s team-up series keeps things simple right up until the very end – perhaps too simple.
After a few episodes hinting at an ominous threat looming on the horizon – or, in this case, beneath New York City, lest you forget these are gritty, street-level heroes – the danger is revealed to be… a hallway full of dragon bones containing the substance that gives the Hand the ability to cheat death. Much like stopping short at naming the substance something other than “the Substance”, Marvel’s The Defenders stops short of following through on the grand implications of the project to instead act as a bridge that directs the viewer toward future seasons of Marvel’s growing library of Netflix series.
The sense that The Defenders stopped short with regard to its characters and story is evidenced in how the series handled Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, her plan, and the great mystery of it all. As strong as Weaver’s performance is and as much as her presence offers the series, it’s hard not to think of the big twist in which she’s killed off mid-speech by Elektra, the very assassin Alexandra brought back to life insisting she was Black Sky, as something more along the lines of a bait and switch. Not only does it abruptly rejigger the audience’s investment in who was purported to be a major antagonist very late in the game, it also obliterates the dynamic between Weaver and Yung that was one of the more interesting matchups the miniseries had to offer.
Who was Alexandra and why did she matter? Was the notion of Black Sky ever important beyond the prophetic individual having an admittedly cool-sounding name? In the end, The Defenders isn’t interested in providing answers to those questions; they came a distant second to insisting the Hand is more interesting than it really is, and positioning the heroes in a familiar hallway brawl thanks to “thundering dumbass” Danny Rand being tricked into opening a doorway to an ancient Substance reserve.
That isn’t to say the ensuing brawl doesn’t deliver on the implied spectacle of a four-way team-up years in the making. Like the hood that Finn Jones inexplicably dons just prior to a solo back alley brawl, the poorly lit hallway gives the stunt performers some additional freedom in creating another memorably extended fight sequence. Fittingly set to Wu-Tang’s ‘Protect Ya Neck’ – and not just because the first verse references Spider-Man – the climactic sequence makes a showcase of each fighter’s respective styles and power ranges without losing track of who’s who amidst all the chaos. While Matt and Danny leap around, delivering multiple precise blows to their adversaries, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage just sort of plow through opponents, often tossing them like rag dolls in satisfying displays of superhuman strength.
The dragon bone brawl is the most kinetic version of one thing the show did very well: demonstrate the differences between the four main heroes, not only in how they reacted to one another, but also in how they responded to the forces acting against them. The goal of that final sequence is to see The Defenders come together as a team, in an Avengers-style battle of New York – one that happens to unfold in the city’s literal underbelly. It also offers some of the series’ best direction and pacing, finding time amidst the lengthy fight sequence to deliver big moments for members of the supporting cast as well.
While Jessica keeping Danny and Luke from taking a nasty fall affords the finale what is arguably its show stopping moment, the episode cuts to Colleen, Misty, and Claire taking on Bakuto without forfeiting the forward momentum of the finale’s primary conflict. This two-pronged attack, coupled with the unscheduled demolition of a high-rise that’s about to occur, effectively raises the stakes, offsetting for the miniseries’ sluggish first half by going all-in on multiple story threads. The ambitiousness of that design works during moments like Jessica preventing the elevator from plummeting to the bottom of the chasm, but it also affords some flexibility with regard to Misty losing her arm in battle with Bakuto, or Daredevil and Elektra’s relationship woes being masked as the hero making the ultimate sacrifice.
As satisfying as the climactic battle is, there is a sense that the miniseries as a whole was written largely around the idea that seeing four heroes punching anonymous bad people is really cool, rather than actually finding a compelling reason for all that punching. Initially, that reason seemed to be in the mystery of Sigourney Weaver’s character, but that soon proved to be little more than an underwhelming false flag. Positioning Elektra as the primary antagonist, and making her responsible for the deaths of both Alexandra and Stick did hint at the miniseries mining something more emotional from the core of its story. The trouble is, that core is largely absent due to the one-dimensionality of the Hand, a boring, clandestine group whose motivations and goals are as dim and empty as the chasm around which so much of the plot revolves.
Besides the lack of a compelling villain or reason for the group to assemble, The Defenders suffers from the same problem that plagues its big screen cousins: the plot mechanics of the miniseries overwhelmingly act more in service to the great content machine of Marvel Studios than to the story at hand. The ambiguity of Elektra’s end, the amputation of Misty Knight’s arm, and even the call to Maggie as Matt Murdock’s convalescence begins all feels conceived to oblige Easter eggs and moments of pure fan service than the narrative of The Defenders. Perhaps if the deluge of superhero and comic book content in film and TV weren’t so great The Defenders might be viewed as a solid attempt at delivering an ambitious spectacle instead of feeling like another product keeping the wheels of two massive corporate machines turning.
The Defenders is currently available in its entirety on Netflix.
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