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The Defenders review: More than the sum of parts (update)

You’ll believe a man can make Iron Fist likable

Sarah Shatz/Netflix

When you put on the first episode of Netflix’s long-awaited Avengers-but-they’re-all-New-York-assholes, The Defenders, and see Danny Rand chasing someone through a sewer, you could be forgiven for flipping open your phone immediately to check Twitter.

(Or maybe you enjoyed Iron Fist, in which case, I’m glad someone did, bless your heart.)

I know I certainly felt like it. But give The Defenders just a little more of your time, and the show will very quickly take an effortless swan dive into the complicated process of setting up and refreshing four protagonists and a new villain. Critics have only been given four episodes of the eight-episode series, but those four hours gave us five tightly plotted stories that crash together in a burst of well-shot action and genuinely delightful character work from pretty much all parties.

And, as will seem entirely natural to anyone whose family and friends are from New York, the bonding agent that finally gets everybody to sit down and talk to each other is a full table of good Chinese food.

The Defenders does a great job of reminding us not only where Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand are, but also where their supporting casts are — which is good, because in the case of some folks (like Jess and Trish and Malcom) we haven’t seen them in two years and we need the refresher. In particular, after so many Hogarth cameos, it is a delight to see Krysten Ritter and Carrie-Anne Moss verbally sparring once again. On top of all of that exposition, the show also establishes Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra early and fast as a villain more powerful than any the Marvel Netflix setting has seen so far.

Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra.
Jessica Miglio/Netflix

And once all the scene setting is done, the show does a great job of being a split narrative instead of an ensemble, juggling five separate plot lines that take multiple episodes to even appear to be converging, all without feeling like the audience’s attention is being juggled around too fast. A large part of this success is that our protagonists’ plots all rise in urgency simultaneously rather than favoring one over the other, a significant feat of scriptwriting finesse. The writing also does a very admirable job of finding plausible ways for Luke and Jessica — the characters least tied up in the overall Hand plot-line — to not only stumble upon the situation, but be personally invested in sticking it out to the bitter end.

It isn’t always easy to get four lone wolves to sit down and talk to each other, in a literal sense for the characters in The Defenders, but also from a screenwriting standpoint. But in a genre where two superheroes can’t even get bottomless brunch together without at least engaging in a battle of mistaken intentions first, it’s truly refreshing that we get barely a single Good Guy vs. Good Guy fight before everyone is finally sitting down and talking — and throwing shade on the idea of “chi,” “dragons,” and ancient cults called “the Hand” and “the Chaste.”

The series matches tone and genre to its four protagonists eerily well, and then switches deftly between them, mimicking Jessica Jones’ tension-inducing camera work and Luke Cage’s musical motifs with real skill. The Defenders doesn’t feel like four characters guest-starring in each others’ stories, nor does it feel like the four of them taking lead in a fifth, original production. It feels like all four shows coming together, not just in terms of narrative, but visually and audibly.

The scene transitions, as well, add an extra level of cool to a show that necessarily has to be hopping around the Five Boroughs more often than the last week of a mayoral campaign. A quick handful of shots evoking city traffic or subway trains — as if the camera were being taken on very brief time-lapse journey through public transit — and bang, we’ve gone from Harlem to Brooklyn. Would that all such journeys in New York City could be that quick or enjoyable.

The glowing elephant fist in the dining room is, of course, the drastically different reception that Iron Fist, the most recent installment in Netflix’s series, received compared to its counterparts. And The Defenders wades into the character work it needs to do with Danny as soon as he starts interacting with his teammates. I won’t say that I found Danny likable by the end of the fourth episode. But The Defenders clearly understands what it needs to do with his character to make it plausible that, say, Luke Cage would be interested in giving him the time of day, much less fight for his cause. And mostly that means having other characters call him on his bullshit constantly — and to have him listen.

Finn Jones, Mike Coulter as Danny Rand, Luke Cage.
Sarah Shatz/Netflix

The role of conflicted and angst-ridden angry hero is instead left on Matt, a role that Charlie Cox has shown he can shoulder with grace and sympathy for two seasons now. Still mourning the loss of Elektra, and only just beginning to repair his closest relationships, Matt is desperately trying to stay out of the costume and away from anything that has to do with the Hand, for the sake and safety of his loved ones. That heaviness is counterbalanced by Danny’s optimism and enthusiasm for teamwork, and Luke and Jessica’s eternal skepticism about all this crazy conspiracy stuff.

And speaking of Danny, Luke and Jess, now that the main cast has a majority of people who can punch down a wall, Defenders is also the most superhero-y of the Netflix shows so far. But it saves and savors those moments of high comic book dramatic destruction, making sure each one a fist in the air in excitement, not the general texture of the story.

Alexandra and the revealed Hand in The Defenders are also the most multinational version of the ancient conspiratorial cult that we’ve seen so far, taking significant and necessary steps away from the Hand as a pan-Asian order of interchangeable ninjas that we’ve seen in Iron Fist and Daredevil’s second season. Writer/showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez previously helmed that very season of Daredevil in which the Hand was even more cartoonishly, facelessly evil than the Foot Clan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — an achievement, when the Foot Clan were originally created as a parody of the the Hand. Here, they seem, at least, to have taken in some of that criticism and applied it.

So far, anyway. There’s still half of The Defenders to go, and the show will face a distinct and new set of narrative challenges now that its characters have assembl— defend-embl— all come together. All signs point to the series continuing to excel ... but then again, we’ve certainly seen prior Netflix series stumble in the second half of their season. And yet, this reviewer will be counting the days to the Aug. 18 premiere.

Update (Aug. 18): The first half of The Defenders was a solid beginning — more fantastic than some of its component parts, less dour than others. A new villain and hefty doses of casual character interaction kept it moving swiftly and distracted from its stumbles. The second half of the season, unfortunately, involves a lot of stumbling.

Despite being only eight episodes long to the usual Netflix 13, The Defenders still manages to drag in its middle. The casual character work here is good — when it happens — but is too often pushed aside by a focus on drama among the ranks of the Hand and the Defenders alike.

One of the major plot threads of the season rests on the idea that the Hand believes Danny Rand is a key part of their quest for ultimate power. On the one hand, this provides an easy way to get even the most standoffish members of the Defenders to care about Danny, or at least to care about making sure the Hand doesn’t get ahold of him. On the other, it leads to Danny spending much of his time isolated from the rest of his allies.

The key to any good team hero show, from Voltron to Avatar: The Last Airbender to My Little Pony is clear variation in characters. And once Danny isn’t around to be the relatively optimistic, pro-cooperation member of the group, we’re left with cast full of deadpan snarkers and guilt-filled Catholics. And once every joke in an episode is a sarcastic or self-deprecating quip, it becomes easier to notice that they are being used, crutch-like, to handwave the characters’ acceptance of fantastical events. It also becomes easier to notice when those lines are real clunkers.

Luke, Jessica, Matt and Danny Netflix

The show concentrates on pushing Matt, Danny and Colleen’s characters forward, leaving Luke and Jessica noticeably unexplored. This isn’t the greatest of crimes — after all, Matt, Danny and Colleen are far and away more closely connected to the Hand than the other two and it is easy to hang their personal drama on the organization’s machinations. But it’s noticeable that by the finale Matt, Danny and Colleen are all having life-changing realizations and Big Nemesis Battles — and Luke and Jessica are just sort of ... there.

And the finale’s big superhero fight scene is, in unfortunately typical Marvel Netflix style, so poorly lit as to make it a challenge to watch. It also goes on for far too long with little recognizable arc of events, and eventually culminates in an overly familiar superhero trope played completely straight for an audience that has grown all too savvy to them.

My favorite element of the first half of The Defenders was that it felt like four shows converging, not simply four characters. But in total, the miniseries left me looking forward to those shows diverging again, so that Matt, Jessica, Luke and Danny can have their own drama inside their own stories.