Friday, August 18, 2017

The Defenders Opens From The Disadvanageous Place In "The H Word"

The Good: Good performances, Good introduction for Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra.
The Bad: Annoying direction (seriously, are there no working light bulbs in New York City?!), Unsatisfying/problematic character gaps, Very slow plot
The Basics: The Defenders puts all its main pieces on the board in "The H Word," which is a "necessary evil" start to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe work.

Netflix has been building to The Defenders much the way the theatrical portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seeded movies in a common world before uniting heroes and adversaries from the disparate films in The Avengers (reviewed here!). Today is the day that The Defenders finally hit Netflix and the saga begins with "The H Word." "The H Word" is the culmination of the second season of Daredevil (reviewed here!) and the lone seasons of Jessica Jones (reviewed here!), Luke Cage (reviewed here!), and Iron Fist (reviewed here!). Perhaps because of my antipathy toward Iron Fist, when I sat down to "The H Word," I was nowhere near as excited about The Defenders as I was after the end of Luke Cage. Despite that, I sat down to "The H Word" eager to see how the four protagonists would come together and exactly what kind of adversary and situation the show would present for them to combat.

"The H Word" is burdened with re-introducing all of the main characters from the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the new villain . . . and making it appear as if The Defenders is not going to be a contrived super-hero team up show. Given that, so far, only Claire Temple has appeared in all of the Netflix Marvel television shows and Madame Gao has been the main crossover villain in only two of the four series', The Defenders had quite a task in this regard in "The H Word." "The H Word" avoids the "crossover feeling" by keeping the characters - primary and secondary - from the prior shows completely segregated from one another. At best, Luke Cage obliquely references Claire Temple avoiding talking about something that happened when she wrote him in prison, which is as close as the episode comes to referencing her participation in the first season of Iron Fist.

Opening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Elektra Natchios is going in for the kill when the man she is attacking is rescued by Danny Rand. When the man is stabbed, Colleen Wing arrives for back-up, but in chasing Elektra, Rand loses her. Before the man dies, he tells Rand and Wing that New York City is where the real fight with the Hand is. In New York City, Jessica Jones wakes up in a bar and meets Trish. Foggy Nelson springs Luke Cage from Seagate Prison and Matt Murdock manages to get an eleven million dollar verdict for a client disabled by an experimental drug. On the way back to New York, Rand and Wing try to figure out what is going on with The Hand.

In New York City, Alexandra meets with a doctor and after a series of tests is convinced that she is dying . . . at a much more accelerated rate than previously believed. When Jessica Jones returns to her office, she is met by a woman and her daughter who are looking for John Raymond (her husband, the daughter's father), a by-the-book architect who rather abruptly went missing a week ago. Jones is not about to take the case, but she immediately receives a phone call on her answering machine telling her not to look for John. Malcolm quickly figures out that the architect might be an amateur, while Misty Knight tells Luke Cage about a series of dead young men in Harlem who all appear to have come into money while working nights for no clear or obvious employer. Cage pays a visit to Candice's brother, the last child in that family, who appears to have come into money, much like his now-dead brother. Jones's search for John Raymond lead her to Raymond's massive cache of C-4.

"The H Word" begins at a weird place. For a New York City-based group of heroes, starting in Cambodia with (arguably) the least-popular member of the team is a weird starting point. Moreover, keeping Elektra hidden in the dark during the fight is a fairly forced conceit. Having a significant gap of time between the end of Jessica Jones and the last season of Daredevil means that the characters have a big gap of time to account for (Luke Cage gets a pass because the protagonist was in prison at the end of the finale and has been referenced as being incarcerated there in Iron Fist). The explanation of what Jessica Jones has been up to is fairly unsatisfying; Trish mentions more people want to do stories on Jones and her thwarting of Kilgrave . . . and she is referenced as not working. The thing is, the finale of Jessica Jones had Malcolm manning the phones and the assumption was that Alias Investigations was back in business. So, how Jones has kept her head above water for years without working and without repairing her office seems forced.

At the other end of the spectrum is Matt Murdock. "The H Word" does a decent job of illustrating - long before it is made explicit - that Murdock has hung up the mantle of Daredevil and he and Karen did not resume the romantic relationship that was percolating before Elektra showed up (and subsequently died). "The H Word" handles that transition surprisingly gracefully. In the books, Matt Murdock is able to do pro-bono law work pretty much only when Murdock and Nelson are working together (Nelson coming from a wealthy family); how Murdock is getting by financially while doing pro-bono work is not clear. Similarly, Danny Rand suffering nightmares about K'un-Lun disappearing and the monks there being slaughtered makes for a decent transition from where Iron Fist ended.

And, while Luke Cage's entrance into The Defenders makes perfect sense, Misty Knight appearing - fully restored and promoted at the police department - makes less sense. Knight was disillusioned and driven out of her detective work in Harlem at the climax of Luke Cage, so how she went from working freelance against Mariah and Shades to back on the force (albeit in a different division) is clumsily thrust upon the viewer.

The big introduction in "The H Word" is Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra. Alexandra is presented as dying and she calmly notes that all of her organs are failing. Alexandra is hinted at being exceptionally old in her first scene with Madame Gao. The magic of Alexandra's characterization comes in her interactions with Gao. Gao has been presented in the prior works as mysterious and bearing a strange amount of power. In "The H Word," Gao is deferential and she takes directions from Alexandra, which instantly elevates Alexandra.

"The H Word" meanders into its plot. Danny Rand and Colleen Wing are the most focused on where The Defenders is primed to go as they have been hunting The Hand for months. Rand explicitly asks the question that will preoccupy The Defenders: What does The Hand want with New York City? By the end of "The H Word" all viewers have is the idea that The Hand might be out for destruction or chaos without a clear vision.

On the acting front, "The H Word" is dominated by Krysten Ritter and Wai Ching Ho. Ritter may not give the most amazing performance of her career in the first episode of The Defenders, but she slips effortlessly back into the role of Jessica Jones and seeing new material with the character is a real delight - especially the way Ritter plays her. Wai Ching Ho manages to transition Madame Gao from recognizable, mysterious evil force to subordinate in a single scene without presenting even a hint that she is betraying her character. Wai Ching Ho does that through her body language and softer use of her voice in her line deliveries than in her prior appearances and that has the desired effect.

"The H Word" has a problematic task and it barely manages to accomplish that task - which is to re-introduce the main characters of the Netflix Marvel Comics shows and put them all back in New York City. The cases that Jessica Jones and Misty Knight (and then, by association, Luke Cage) are investigating have no apparent relation in "The H Word" and Matt Murdock appears out of the game, while Danny Rand is off with Wing investigating something else entirely. In other words, in "The H Word" there are no Defenders and the characters who are supposed to come together feel very far apart in this episode.

[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 Marvel Cinematic Universe pilot episodes, please check out my reviews of:
"Now Is Not The End" - Agent Carter
"Pilot"- Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Into The Ring" - Daredevil


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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