Marvel assembles its street-level heroes for a Netflix event series that starts slow, but finds some fun once it figures out the meaning of teamwork.
[This review discusses details from the first four episodes of Marvel's The Defenders that may be considered SPOILERS.]
Marvel's The Defenders isn't necessarily a triumph for the company's streaming street-level superheroes, but after the misstep that was Iron Fist revealed a weakness in the Mighty Marvel Machine it does feel like a move toward course correction. That correction takes time, however – a lot of time. And in an event series only eight episodes in length, spending nearly half that time before Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the Insufferable Iron Fist himself, Danny Rand, are gathered in the same room, much less toying with the notion of teaming up, the wait can seem interminable.
In five separate seasons of television, Marvel's Netflix series have revolved around heroes who don't necessarily play nice with others, making the idea of a team-up an intriguingly unlikely proposition, the necessity of which is the driving concern of the event's first half. But that necessity remains frustratingly obfuscated during those four hours as the actual team is scattered across four more or less disparate plots. It's a storytelling choice that demonstrates the importance of (and these series' utter reliance on) Netflix's all-at-once binge-watch delivery. If The Defenders was being rolled out on a weekly basis, and viewers were asked to wait four weeks before the heroes threw their first collective punch, fans would riot. The series takes its sweet time reasoning why, exactly, these heroes must come together, and even then it's not an entirely convincing argument.
The hurry-up-and-wait storytelling shepherded by showrunner Marco Ramirez bounces from one hero to the next via sometimes jarring transitions meant to remind the viewer the story takes place in New York. They do help shift the focus from, say, Matt to Luke, or Danny to Jessica, as the series takes a solid swing toward altering the look and sound of each segment based on the character in question. But somehow, the transitions also feel dated and unnecessary, like The Defenders has inadvertently become an '80s-set period piece (which, actually, would work pretty well). Thankfully, once the various members of the unconventional team start spending more time with one another, there's less need to make those transitions and everything begins to fall into place.
But it takes a long time to get there. The first four hours are a mix of what makes shared universes so appealing and so frustrating at the same time. The Defenders isn't really The Defenders until final moments of episode 4. Up until that point, it's Daredevil season 2.5, and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist seasons 1.5. The continuity between the various series is impressive to a certain degree, as The Defenders is diligent in its handling of the connective tissue of those particular storylines. Matt Murdock is fighting to not be Daredevil and he explains as much to Karen Paige following a major legal victory for his fledgling solo legal career. Luke Cage is released from prison thanks to the help of Foggy Nelson and Jeri Hogarth's law firm. Elsewhere, Jessica Jones is pretty much at the bottom of a bottle of whisky, while Danny Rand and Colleen Wing are chasing not-so-mysterious ninja assassins around the globe.
Picking up with each character at these various points is great from a continuity standpoint. The length to which the series goes to connect each individual series as seamlessly as possible is admirable in the grand MCU scheme of it all. But approaching it in that way ultimately does a disservice to the likes of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, as the need for expediency undercuts the less superhero-y aspects of their stories. Matt Murdock's attempts to deal with the fallout of his identity reveal to Karen, and Danny's efforts to amend for leaving K'un-Lun unguarded works fine.
It's one thing to have these surface-level superhero plotlines picked up, dropped, or blended into another because that's what they're designed to do. It's another to see The Defenders blow past the significance of Luke's recent prison stint or Jessica's seemingly stunted attempt to push past her fatal encounter with Kilgrave. These are more personal storylines that speak to the core of who these characters are, and they need more time to develop and be properly explored. And because The Defenders is ultimately at the mercy of both the Marvel continuity machine and its own plot maneuverings, it doesn't juggle the Cage and Jones arcs as well as it could have. Despite clearly having ample time to devote to both storylines, the series speeds past them far too quickly.
It becomes a matter of time management. If The Defenders won't devote the time necessary to its characters' arcs then it could at least channel its energies into creating a compelling villain and reason for the Defenders to form in the first place. Instead, the first half of the series frustrates with a disinclination to make the Hand interesting or to be up front about Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra.
Everything noteworthy about her is shrouded in mystery, and for the first four hours all the audience is given are the dying parts of a much larger and potentially more interesting whole. Alexandra is potentially centuries old and powerful enough that Madame Gao fears her. She's also responsible for bringing Elektra back to life, and because she's dying, her plan (whatever it is) must be accelerated, putting her and the Hand on the radar of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Again, it's a simple set-up for an otherwise simple team-up narrative that becomes unnecessarily complicated by virtue of proving its shared universe bona fides.
The time and effort expounded on behalf of picking up where everyone left off feels even more redundant once the heroes are actually together, playing off one another's dissimilar personalities and, in the case of Luke and Danny or Matt and Jessica, finding they have an entertaining chemistry. Maybe there's something to be said for delaying the gratification of seeing the Heroes For Hire nosh on dim sum, or listening to Jessica's obvious fascination with her blind lawyer's uncanny abilities, but probably not. This is the show. When the heroes gather, it is the payoff to the conceit of the entire series; it's exactly what you want The Defenders to be.
That is why it's so confounding that after five solo efforts, Marvel still hasn't quite figured out the pacing of its Netflix series so that they make every minute count. Streaming drift is a problem experienced by most shows on Netflix, and certainly the Marvel series are susceptible to it as well. It's that part of the season that bridges the beginning with the climax where nothing much happens but you keep watching anyway because the episodes just keep playing automatically. With just eight episodes rather than the usual thirteen, you might have though The Defenders had found the most logical way of avoiding the drift, but instead it's just there from the onset.
In that regard, considering the cliffhanger on which episode 4 ends, and the fact that Marvel and Netflix were determined to keep the final four hours a secret, The Defenders stands to be heavily reliant on the back half when all is said and done. As the plot ramps up and Alexandra's plan comes to a head, the series will have every opportunity to make good on the entertaining chemistry of its four leads, and to add plenty more action into the mix. As such, The Defenders finds itself ready to cash in on a promising development found halfway through its eight-episode run, which makes the prospect of watching the final episodes much more appealing than, say, finishing season 1 of Iron Fist. That's reason enough to keep watching (which Netflix knows you're going to do anyway), but it would have been better if that reason were there from the start.
Marvel's The Defenders premieres in its entirety on August 18 on Netflix.