If there’s one defining trait of Marvel Studios’ output ever since 2008, it’s been the ‘C’ word. That’s right… Continuity! The Marvel / Netflix output we’ve seen so far from Season 1 of Daredevil leading right up to the The Defenders has worn its continuity very much on its sleeve.
Sure, there’s always been a degree of separation between Marvel’s TV and cinematic output (outside of a few oblique references to “The event” and “the big green dude and his crew”), but here’s nonetheless been an explicit shared continuity. With The Defenders, Marvel Studios have attempted to mirror the epochal cross-pollination of characters and their supporting cast achieved with The Avengers (2012) on the small screen.
While both seasons of Daredevil and season one of Jessica Jones have been met with universal acclaim, the reaction to Luke Cage and (particularly) Iron Fist‘s inaugural seasons has been decidedly more lukewarm. So, does Marvel’s first small-screen team up live up to the pedigree of it’s constituent characters? Let’s find out…
Come Together… But Not Right Now
Today’s frenetic attention grabbing media landscape rarely affords TV shows the luxury of a slow burn. In this light, it’s gratifying that The Defenders takes the time to bring its protagonists together organically. Each Defender enters the fray in a way that befits the individual characters and the ongoing narrative arcs in their own shows.
Rather than use a bombastic event to bring the characters together by happenstance, the narrative weaves each character into the plot to varying degrees at different points. Yes, there’s a focal event that brings the Defenders into their loose configuration (don’t call them a team), but it comes at its own time and doesn’t feel shoehorned into the flow of the narrative.
Many have criticized the show for it’s ‘slow start’, but when the cataclysmic event comes, you’ll be glad of this deliberate structure.
Working Class Heroes
Each of the Defenders is bearing the cross we left them with at the end of their last season. Matt Murdock has hung up the red suit and is struggling to find meaning as a Pro-Bono lawyer. Luke Cage is doing his best to help the people of Harlem overcome their social, political and economic disadvantages. Danny Rand is still aggressively pursuing The Hand to bring them to justice for their transgressions against K’un Lun… And Jessica Jones is still a boozy, belligerent asshole (and we love her for it).
Each of the characters is very much the same as we recognise from their previous exploits, though they’ve clearly grown and learned from their experiences. Many were very vocal in their disdain at the depiction of Iron Fist a few months ago, and while the character may still be irksome to some, it’s clear that he’s grown and matured. In fact, Danny has probably the most compelling arc in the series. He’s still immature and impetuous but this time the narrative is contingent on his immaturity and impetuousness rather than feeling constrained by it.
Performances are on-point across the board. Charlie Cox’s Matt is still a righteous but tortured soul battling for salvation. Though a lot of Matt’s narrative function in the show is as an expository mouthpiece the actor pulls it off with aplomb, navigating dialogue that would be tortuous for a lesser actor with ease. Mike Colter’s Luke uses the actor’s stone-cold charisma and easy charm to diffuse some of the more tense situations. Finn Jones feels much more at ease in the role of Danny Rand now, having had the time to grow into it unimpeded by a rushed schedule or a background hum of ‘white saviour’ controversy. Finally, Kristen Ritter’s performance as Jessica Jones is a delight, as always. The actress owns the screen in her every scene (no small feat given the company she’s keeping).
The stars share an easy chemistry and it’s clear that they’re having the time of their lives working together. Aside from the defenders themselves, you’ll find many supporting characters that you’ve grown to love on top form.
Hand of Fate
Across Daredevil and Iron Fist, Marvel have done a great job of setting up The Hand as a credible threat. Its reach and influence are both staggering and terrifying to behold. Here, we see the infamous crime cult cast in a more nuanced and multifaceted light (while still bloody terrifying). Sure they’re a bunch of ninjas with mystical powers, but they’re a whole lot more than that. The show gives us some new insights into The Hand’s structure and introduces us to its leaders, ‘the five fingers’.
Sigourney Weaver’s turn as the enigmatic Alexandra ranks as one of the finest villainous performances in the Marvel canon. The legendary actress brings her unmistakable presence to the role, creating a character who is formidable, imposing and densely layered. The narrative brings us insights into her past and motivations without betraying her fundamental sense of mystery. Her poise, restraint and amiable malice make her a sober counterpoint to the likes of Vincent D’onofrio’s Kingpin.
Flailing Fists and Broken Bottles
The show does a lot of great work with character, but by no means is this at the expense of the action. When the fights do come, they’re fast-paced and frenetic. Each Defenders’ fighting style mirrors their character. Danny’s style has the histrionic flair of chop-sockey film excess. Daredevil’s is similarly stylised but scrappier. Luke and Jessica are more blunt force instruments, relying their brute strength. The action comes at narratively plausible moments and always feels like an organic part of the plot.
The Devil’s in the Details
Despite some impressive, action set pieces, the show’s greatest triumph is in the little things. It’s in the small moments of character interaction from actors who’ve grown used to working together. It’s in the assuredness with which those actors approach their characters. The victory lies in the continuity of the characters’ portrayal and their arcs. The dynamic camera work and aversion to the tired tropes of TV shot vocabulary also helps. The camera angles and editing add kineticism and energy to the scenes without drawing too much attention to themselves.
The Final Verdict
As in The Avengers, Marvel have managed to merge the disparate into a cohesive whole. The smaller scale and more intimate setting allow for a character-led but dynamic and action packed mini-series that’s sure to delight long-term devotees of the Netflix corner of the MCU.