The most quintessential aspect of any comic book series are the team-up issues, where your favorite heroes and villains match wits with each other—providing readers with new scenarios and “what if” situations. With the advent of the cinematic universes created by Marvel and DC, these on page fantasies have become fully realized big screen realities with The Avengers movies and this fall’s Justice League respectively. The success of these crossovers on the big screen has had a great amount of influence on the small one as well, as the CW’s line-up of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow have effectively birthed their own super-powered ecosystems that aren’t unlike the comic books they were birthed from.
Marvel and Netflix were hoping that lightning could strike twice, and after the launch of their slate of gritty, critically acclaimed shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones all roads led to the creation of the street-level superhero team up The Defenders. On paper, the success of this eight-episode miniseries should be a no-brainer—taking the cast of four (!) of their shows and bringing the principal characters of Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones (played by Charlie Cox, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, and Krysten Ritter, respectively) together to unite against a common threat. However, The Defenders is a muddled, poorly written mess that kind of squanders the great characters—well 3/4s of them (sorry, Iron Fist)—that we’ve grown to love over the last three years.
So, what went wrong here? Even with the combined power of the showrunners, Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie (who helmed Daredevil Season 2) and much of the same cast from the four previous shows— the major issue with the The Defenders is that it wanders around aimlessly for a large part. Building off of the second season of Daredevil and the much criticized Iron Fist series, The Defenders is the culmination of the heroes battle with The Hand—an ancient group of ninjas who are omnipresent and equally as murky in their actual abilities. The first few episodes move at a glacial pace, reintroducing characters who have all seemed stuck in place since their last season and leading viewers down a breadcrumb trail that will eventually lead them to each other.
The issue isn’t with the team-up itself, because once it happens (in Episode 4!) the chemistry between the heroes is sublime but the serialized nature of the show begins to show cracks in the Netflix formula. These stories are meant to be grandiose epics that are meant for the big screen, not confined to a 50 minute run time. Even at an eight episode season, The Defenders still pulls a lot of the same cheap length padding disguised as story beats that plagues even the most critically acclaimed “binge-ready” Marvel shows—with mid-season padding to cover up the more drawn out story beats and a denouement that mostly wraps up loose ends in a less than flattering way.
In essence, The Defenders plays like a movie that was cut into sections that last way too long. As mentioned before, the characters don’t team up until halfway through and are largely running in search of multiple macguffins that they over explain every ten minutes. The fight scenes, which were a highlight in the Daredevil series, are choppy and ultimately disappointing. There’s a fight scene within the first five minutes of the first episode that is cut so poorly you’d think you were watching a Taken movie. This sense of cheapness spread to the bad visual effects as well, Iron Fist’s glowing fist looks like it was made in After Effects, and there are a bunch of practical effects that look purely amateur, with dismemberments and beheadings that look more silly than shocking due to the shoestring budget. than a Sigourney Weaver plays Alexandra, the big bad of the season, and is completely wasted because of this. She doesn’t feel like an appropriate endgame for this story (SPOILER AHEAD) and when she’s dispatched with two episodes to go in the season, you won’t care. She was simply there to spout exposition (The Black Sky!) and wear really cool coats. This isn’t the only example of the show padding itself to reach the desired show order.
This does no favors for the heroes—Luke Cage is inexplicably able to be hurt by ninjas even though it’s established that he’s impervious to punches and kicks, Jessica Jones’ powers remain as sketchy as they were in her own show, and Iron Fist is….Iron Fist. He’s somehow even more annoying than he was in his much despised show, and he’s undercut at every moment by miserable line readings by Finn Jones and scenes that make him look like a complete goof—like when he gets beaten up by Daredevil. Charlie Cox is still a joy to watch in this show, adding more wrinkles to the complicated Daredevil character, and playing well off of the other members of the team, particularly Jessica Jones. Mike Colter’s Luke Cage doesn’t fare as well as the others, and outside of the heavily stylized element of his own show, he’s left with stilted dialogue and an uncomfortable trope of hip-hop music playing whenever he appears on screen (seriously). Secondary characters like Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple don’t fare any better, and add to a buk of the shows bloatedness. On their respective shows, they are very much the backbone that keeps the main characters centered, on The Defenders, they mostly sit around waiting for things to do or are completely ineffective until the plot needs them to appear competent.
Perhaps the biggest indictment against The Defenders, is that it doesn’t feel “epic” at all. In building a team of heroes through four, okay three, acclaimed series they forgot to give them much of anything to do at all. The show acts as a micro-season for the characters, and it will probably leave viewers wanting less, not more of some of the characters. Maybe these shows need to be shorter across the board—the lore is becoming heavier and in three years, with more series’ to come, we’re starting to reach diminishing returns on these Marvel/Netflix shows. The Defenders makes a hell of a case for Marvel to start spreading these stories out, or cutting these seasons down in length. These shows have created a rich palette of characters, that can now intertwine with each other without making a completely new show that struggles to put them in situations where they can shine. As it stands, The Defenders was an interesting experiment in giving fans an adult oriented superhero team up—but it ultimately comes up short in the spectacle you’d expect.