The Good: Moments of character, Good performances
The Bad: Light on plot, A lot of the dialogue is simple exposition.
The Basics: The Defenders finally unite for a conversation in "Royal Dragon" and the result fits the characters well and provides for a basis for the show to actually go forward as a team effort.
The moment a super-hero team is conceived and announced, one of the critical issues in making a story (and project) work is finding a balance for the characters and making a story that justifies the team-up. Making sure that none of the characters are overshadowed and that the story warrants the protagonists uniting for a common cause is critical to the story working. The Defenders, predictably, begins with the four main characters all at separate places, working on completely different cases before their missions become clearly overlapped. It takes until the fourth episode of The Defenders, "Royal Dragon," before the protagonists meet properly and have a genuine conversation about what is going on in New York City.
"Royal Dragon" is not the first time the protagonists all meet; that happened in the prior episode, "Worst Behavior" (reviewed here!). Given that "Royal Dragon" opens moments after the climax of "Worst Behavior," it is impossible to discuss the new episode without some references to the episode that preceded it. The title of "Royal Dragon" refers to the fallback position of the Defenders, a Chinese restaurant where the heroes run to in order to survive their disastrous encounter with Alexandra, Elektra, and The Hand.
Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand retreat to a Chinese restaurant, the Royal Dragon, following the attack they each walked into independently at Midland Circle. Jessica Jones and Cage catch up briefly, recognizing that they arrived at Midland Circle working different cases. Danny Rand tries to explain the Iron Fist to his new companions and Jones reveals to Murdock that she has figured out he is Daredevil and she tries to get the information she needs on her case to get out of further issues involving The Hand. Back at Midland Circle, Alexandra and Elektra discuss the nature of the Black Sky. Elektra seems confused by the hints of her former life eking into her memory, though she commits to being the Black Sky and serving The Hand.
At the Royal Dragon, the heroes debate how they might defeat The Hand using legal methods. Rand denies that it is possible to stop Alexandra legally and Stick, less his right hand, arrives to try to help the quartet. When Stick tells them about The Chaste and that New York City is at risk, Jones bolts. While Stick tells the others about The Hand and the ancient war, Jones researches the companies that evolved into Midland Circle. Discovering the handwriting of the executive of various ancient companies matches, Jones concludes that Alexandra truly is ancient. Jones discovers that The Hand has a presence watching John Raymond's widow's house and she stops the surveillance. When Alexandra arrives at the Royal Dragon, all of the protagonists must choose to adopt Stick's plan or surrender to Alexandra.
"Royal Dragon" is the first direct time The Defenders must confront directly the disparity between the two types of Marvel heroes who make up the new group. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are two street-level operatives who have been altered by scientific corporations to have abilities and they exist in, largely, a very real world. They are pragmatic super heroes with no real experience with the supernatural. Iron Fist is all-supernatural for his powers and Matt Murdock's transformation into Daredevil was slow and practical, but in its second season, the supernatural elements surrounding The Hand were introduced overtly into his world (Madame Gao was revealed in the first season as being very ancient and quite possibly not at all human, but not to Murdock) with Nobu's resurrection and his use of blood magic to empower an ancient device related to the Black Sky. Reconciling the two fundamentally opposite viewpoints on the world is a real tasked, mostly glossed over by Luke Cage and Danny Rand in "Worst Behavior." "Royal Dragon" forces the issue through having the protagonists converse about it.
The instant reaction of Matt Murdock is to protect his secret identity and, completely in character, Jones wants to split. "Royal Dragon" affords Cage and Jones a chance to learn about The Hand. Rand and Murdock provide a lot of exposition about The Hand and while it could be tedious, the reactions of Jones and Cage keep the scene surprisingly grounded. That, in combination with Jones figuring out very quickly who Murdock is in relation to Daredevil enhances the sense of character in what could be a very plot-centered scene.
"Royal Dragon" is a comparatively serene episode, with the protagonists working to understand one another and come together while The Hand hierarchy comes together. Instead of having the heroes run around and fight for the majority of the episode, "Royal Dragon" allows the potential allies to talk and their adversaries come to them. The refreshing aspect of the set up to "Royal Dragon" is that there are no "guns blazing" moments for the three-quarters of the episode. The protagonists converse, the antagonists converse, Stick walks quietly into the restaurant; even White Hat (Sowande) meets with Elektra in a surprisingly low-key way. Stick takes time to detail the three new-to-the-audience members of The Hand and the conversation manages to keep the episode more about the characters and ideas than big action sequences. Ultimately, Alexandra's appearance is not foreshadowed by violence and the tone of "Royal Dragon" is actually calm and rational for the bulk of the episode.
The key moments of "Royal Dragon" - outside Jessica Jones actually investigating once again - come with Matt Murdock and Stick relating to one another. Murdock does not tell his new allies about Elektra and the ensuing private conversation between Matt and Stick is remarkably familial. The relationship between Stick and Murdock has been complicated and now, in the face of the war being truly revealed to Murdock, the conversation is engaging.
"Royal Dragon" manages to do justice to what has come before and foreshadow what comes next. The Defenders Season 1 sets Alexandra up to want the Iron Fist as a tool for her own purpose. "Royal Dragon" does not make that purpose clear (viewers know it is to open the door that The Hand found in the pit below Midland Circle, that that is not made explicit in this episode), but the goal of The Hand in this season is now for the group to take control of the Iron Fist.
Those who come to the Marvel Cinematic Universe solely for action and adventure will find "Royal Dragon" tedious and boring. But for those who want something more, "Royal Dragon" rocks. The episode allows all of the characters to get caught up with what viewers might have only vaguely pieced together and it starts the team dynamic without denying the characters their individual characterizations. That makes for something pleasantly different for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it allows viewers to re-invest in each character and believe that there is merit and realism in the otherwise contrived team-up.
For other works with Mike Colter, please check out my reviews of:
Luke Cage - Season 1
Jessica Jones - Season 1
Men In Black 3
Million Dollar Baby
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into The Defenders - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of the street-level heroes here!
For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
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