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TV Review: Marvel's The Defenders, Season 1

Ths Defenders
They're raring to go

[This review contains minor spoilers, but nothing serious.]

With five solo seasons to build on, Marvel and Netflix have finally put the whole team together in Marvel's The Defenders, which dropped today. With critical response for the various shows on a downward trajectory, a lot is riding on the success of this culmination. Does it deliver a knock-out punch to critics, or is the Netflix MCU still on the ropes? While it does get in some good licks and is clearly having a good time, I'm sad to say there are a few unfortunate stumbles.

The good news is that most of the show's biggest weaknesses are in its first few episodes, and as things ramp up toward their climax, a lot of the flaws can be forgiven if not forgotten. Foremost among these is the cinematography. The very first episode is the greatest offender here, with a frenetic camera that is almost always in motion, unless it's being put at an awkward Dutch angle or in an incredibly pretentious framing shot. There's also a lot of fast editing alongside some questionable scene transitions involving out of focus snippets of elevated trains, buses, subway cars, and zoomed in skylines. The editing slows to manageable levels as the show goes on, but the scene transitions persist throughout.

Sigourney Weaver is excellent

Emblematic of these early problems is a scene involving Matt in the courtroom. He talks like he's on amphetamines, the camera is dancing and zooming all over the place, and there's nowhere near enough time to get a handle on what's happening before the scene cuts to something else. The first two or three episodes suffer from this rush to get through scenes, and with a minimum of four storylines all going on simultaneously, it gets exhausting. The show might have benefited from an extra episode of set-up, so that each character could get an entire episode to his or her self with enough breathing room to do them justice. Then again, it feels like a painfully long road getting them all together, and when they finally do (at the end of the third episode), it still feels a bit rushed and contrived at the last minute.

Where the other shows probably could trim down their thirteen episode seasons to tighten up the storylines, The Defenders needs more than the eight it is given. It was always a perplexing choice: why give the solo characters thirteen episodes a season, but the big team-up season only eight? Throughout the series--most noticeably in the beginning but also many times up to and including the conclusion--the plot moves so swiftly it forces our heroes slightly out of character. There is friction between them, as there should be, but one argument in particular that leads to blows doesn't make any sense at all.

There are also fewer action scenes than you probably expect, and every single one of them has already been spoiled to one degree or another in the show's prerelease trailers. While many of these scenes are memorable and cool, none of them rise to the level of the now famous hallway fights of either season of Daredevil. Finn Jones does a slightly better job with his fight scenes than he did in Iron Fist, but some of his sequences use familiar close-up shots and quick edits to hide his lack of prep time. Meanwhile, Daredevil continues to kick ass and Luke Cage has fun barreling his way through fights, but Jessica Jones gets short shrift. The best action sequence by far is the climactic battle, so if you're patient with the show, you will be rewarded.

I'll save you the trouble and tell you, no, they still don't explain what a "Black Sky" actually is

Other notable problems involve a few cheap sets, some wonky dialogue, one embarassingly bad bit of visual effects near the end, and one or two villainous characters who feel underutilized. However, with these stumbles out of the way, the show is still a treat for fans, and it delivers on the promise of merging all four of these worlds into one. The heroes have some good chemistry--fans of the Power Man and Iron Fist dynamic will absolutely love every scene with Danny and Luke--and there is a lot of entertaining intermingling of secondary characters. A few of these are notably absent, such as Ward Meachum and Bobby Fish, though they are referenced. There are also some good, if expected, cameos from characters like Turk, who appears in the very first episode.

Where the show shines brightest is in the primary duo of villains of Alexandra and Elektra, played by Sigourney Weaver and Elodie Yung respectively. Weaver is absolutely brilliant as the composed and steadfast leader of the Hand, and Yung as the resurrected and emotionally distant Black Sky is better here than she is in Daredevil. While I wouldn't put Weaver's Alexandra on the same high pedestal with Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin or David Tennant's Kilgrave, she is a fascinatingly drawn character with multiple layers that Weaver plays with understated calm. Every scene with both Weaver and Yung on screen is golden, though there are some flashbacks with a more feral Elektra being soothed by Alexandra that are hard not to compare to Ripley and Newt from Aliens.

As for the four main heroes, Daredevil and Iron Fist are handled the best, though Daredevil's tortured soul gets a bit tiring and Danny continues to be the same naïve kid he's been thus far. Plenty of lanterns are hung on Danny, at least, with almost every character at one point or another complaining that he's a bit of an idiot. One of the villains even remarks, "You are the dumbest Iron Fist yet," and it's a pretty great moment. These are also the two most important characters to the plot, as they are the two with the most experience fighting the Hand, and their interactions are interesting, if surprisingly limited. I'm more excited to see how the events of this show lead into their respective solo series than I am the other two.

Power Man and Iron Fist
This is one of the best scenes in the whole series

Again, it needs to be said that Iron Fist's best scenes involve Power Man. Luke Cage and Danny Rand play off each other brilliantly, from their disagreements to the scenes where they're fighting side by side. If Netflix and Marvel aren't building to a team-up of these two in the very near future, they are fools. However, aside from his chemistry with Danny, Luke Cage doesn't get a whole lot to do. His story is compelling early on as he struggles to figure out where to go after prison, but once he gets caught up in the roller coaster, a lot of that story disappears. Also, his power set seems a little diminished. For example, he is knocked unconscious by a kick to the head, where previously only a shotgun blast at point blank range could pull that off.

That leaves Jessica Jones, and she is the odd woman out. She is deeply reluctant to go along with any of this, and she spends more time mocking the silliness of the plot than she does contributing to it. She has her moments--don't get me wrong--but she doesn't gel with the team as well as the other three. It feels like the writers never quite know what to do with her character (they seem to even forget that she can fly), and so she just drinks her way in and out of scenes without much consequence. This is particularly disappointing as her solo series is as good, if not better, than the first season of Daredevil.

In the final analysis, this isn't a bad show and fans will definitely enjoy it. The acting is good, the action is thrilling, few characters are left out, and the plot moves at a good clip. Still, it's deeply flawed in places and not as good as it could be. Much of this stems from the inherent difficulty in having these street-level, grounded characters deal with the more supernatural, comicky threat of the Hand. Danny and Matt come out on top, since their shows have covered this ground before, but Jessica and Luke are too far out of their elements. Also, eight episodes aren't nearly enough to pull off this juggling act.

The Defenders may be good, but they're no Avengers.


Marvel's The Defenders is a fun ride that ticks all the requisite boxes, but it's not as special as it should be.

-e. magill 8/18/2017

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