Monday, August 28, 2017

Despite A Few Charming Moments, The Defenders Season 1 Underwhelms

The Good: Good, if simplistic, plot, Good performances, Decent characters
The Bad: Very simple plot, No big performance moments, Underwhelming use of characters/lack of development, Short season
The Basics: The Defenders Season 1 brings together the four big Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes from the Netflix shows for an unimpressive team-up story that has the group saving New York City from The Hand.

There is something sad about a good idea gone unimpressive. Netflix got off to a pretty impressive start with its additions into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the series's have become formulaic and predictable. So, as the hype began for The Defenders, many fans of Marvel Comics's dark adaptations for television saw the series as a chance to redeem a slowly sinking ship. When Sigourney Weaver was announced as one of the show's principle antagonists, it instantly elevated the concept of The Defenders. As a fan, it became very easy for people like me to joyfully imagine Weaver squaring off with Krysten Ritter, Charlie Cox and Mike Colter.

Having now watched The Defenders Season 1 twice, it is tough to delude oneself into praising it on the level of many of the prior Netflix Marvel television shows. The Defenders Season 1 is not the natural successor to The Avengers and the show is crippled by being a simple problem with a simple solution, a series of underwhelming villains and a failure to utilize the established protagonists well.

Matt Murdock has given up the mantle of Daredevil and Danny Rand and Colleen Wing have spent months fruitlessly hunting members of The Hand when they are encouraged to return to New York. Jessica Jones, having generally been avoiding her life and work for months, finds herself drawn into a missing persons case when she receives a mysterious call telling her not to take the case. Luke Cage, exonerated finally from prison thanks to Foggy Nelson, returns to Harlem and discovers that neighborhood youth are being used for crime scene cleanup jobs by a mysterious group that later tends to kill them. Jones hunts down the lost architect and discovers he has a stash of C-4 shortly before Elektra arrives and the architect kills himself. Cage finds the man hiring the Harlemites and Danny Rand soon discovers how and where The Hand has regrouped in New York City.

The four heroes of New York converge separately upon the Midland Circle skyscraper - the building now built over the massive pit Daredevil and Elektra once found in Hell's Kitchen - and there they meet the executive leader of The Hand, Alexandra. Fighting their way out of Midland Circle, the quartet holes up at a Chinese restaurant where they compare notes and realize how their cases overlap. The four unite to fight The Hand, with Stick guiding them, while Matt wrestles with the return of Elektra and the conflict that ensues when it becomes clear that The Hand needs the Iron Fist to accomplish its goals in New York City.

The Defenders Season 1 is not all droll; it is a thrill to see more of Jessica Jones and some of the scenes in which secondary characters from the four previous series' interact are quite enjoyable. But at the core, The Defenders Season 1 belabors bringing the four main characters together and then struggles to keep them together in a truly interesting way. In fact, the show seems to recognize the Herculean task they have been given when Luke Cage and Danny Rand have a serious and genuine conversation. Cage comes from a very pragmatic world; Rand is shrouded in mysticism - the two are not natural friends and they are forced together in The Defenders more than organically developed into a realistic pairing.

In a similar fashion, the villains in The Defenders Season 1 fail to be of a magnitude that makes them enduring and impressive adversaries. Madame Gao returns and is as cool as ever, but she is paired with three weak-ass, generic villains and Alexandra, who seems incredibly cool initially, but then fails to dramatically "stick the landing." Alexandra is elevated above Gao right away, has a tragic weakness, but then fails to convincingly be presented as a leader who could have survived as the true leader of The Hand for decades, if not hundreds of years.

Elektra, sadly, is given the same arc in The Defenders Season 1 that she had in her season of Daredevil. The resurrected Elektra is given a lip-service arc that matches her original arc with disturbing parallels.

To better understand the eight-episode season, it helps to know who the main characters are. In the first season of The Defenders, the essential characters are:

Matt Murdock - Having given up his vigilante alter-ego of Daredevil and lost his budding relationship with Karen Page, he spends his days doing pro bono legal work and pining for his lost life. When Elektra turns up, he is torn between his past and his future and he struggles to protect those he loves from his brainwashed, murderous ex,

Jessica Jones - Wisecracking and heavy-drinking, she proves her detective skills are still not to be tangled with. She tracks down the headquarters of The Hand and gets a personal stake in resolving her case when she encounters Elektra. She becomes fully invested in Stick and Rand's story when she manages to track down documents that prove Alexandra is far older than she believed was possible,

Luke Cage - Freed from prison and eagerly reunited with Claire Temple, he is drawn into The Hand's crimes in New York by Misty Knight, who is investigating the missing Harlem youth. He is eager to avoid situations that might put him back in prison and is uncomfortable with the supernatural elements of The Hand. He wants to avoid any possible loss of innocent lives in the group's attempts to thwart The Hand,

Danny Rand - The Iron Fist, he is the person hunted by the Hand. Gao, Alexandra, Elektra and the rest of The Hand need his Iron Fist to open a door and he whines his way around delivering himself,

Alexandra - An ancient leader of The Hand, she is one of the five original founders of the organization and an old adversary of Stick. She has a love of music, is dying as a result of no longer having The Substance (a macguffin that allows the leaders of The Hand to be immortal, provided they can get more of it), and believes that the Black Sky is the means by which The Hand can survive. Like the other leaders, she wants to return to K'un-Lun,

and Elektra - Resurrected and conditioned by Alexandra to believe she is only the Black Sky, she immediately begins to feel conflicted when she encounters Matt Murdock in battle.

The disappointing aspect of The Defenders Season 1 is that the show has generally good components - three of the four main leads are wonderful (Finn Jones plays such an unlikable character that it is tough to tell if he is a horrible actor or just given a craptastic character to perform) and the addition of Sigourney Weaver is a real coup for the show - but fails to give them impressive and good moments to play. The episode directors seldom linger on facial expressions to capture the performers giving great performances . . . arguably because the moments do not exist in the show to capture. Indeed, arguably the most emotional moment of the season is a door frame being shot, with characters watching the open door.

The Defenders Season 1 ends up as a series of missed opportunities as some wonderful characters are brought together as a contrived team-up to fight an enemy that seems far less impressive the more it is fleshed out.

For a better understanding of what this season comprises, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes in the season at:
"The H Word"
"Mean Right Hook"
"Worst Behavior"
"Royal Dragon"
"Take Shelter"
"Ashes, Ashes"
"Fish In The Jailhouse"
"The Defenders"


For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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