It’s the most basic arithmetic: Add one good thing to another, and you end up with a sum that’s greater than its parts. Bake peanut butter into chocolate and presto, you get peanut butter cups. Introduce a generous dose of nitrogen to cold brew, and you’ve got a pick-me-up that drinks like a Guinness. Good plus good equals more good at worst, and even better at best. That’s just math. But there are times when math will betray you, and The Defenders is one of those times.
The Defenders is to Netflix what 2012’s The Avengers was to Marvel Studios, the great culmination of five seasons’ worth of standalone superhero content, starting with Daredevil and Jessica Jones in 2015, continuing with a second season of Daredevil plus the premiere season of Luke Cage in 2016, and just this past March, the first season of Iron Fist. The Defenders, which is now available to be streamed right into your eyeholes courtesy of Netflix, caps off that quintet with bloody action, mystic intrigue, a stacked ensemble and a character dynamic we’re all overly familiar with in our post-Avengers superhero diet: interpersonal friction sparked by about three too many egos colliding over the same crisis.
Such are the perils of franchise maintenance combined with the demands imposed by the shared universe model of spectacle entertainment. It’s the fashion now that when superheroes are given standalone movies, they are immediately placed in an invisible queue leading them straight into a team-up with a group of other superheroes. Provided (with exceptions) that those superheroes, too, are the recipients of their very own standalone films. Once upon a time, the idea of watching a handful of comic book icons brought to life by talented Hollywood actors and stuffed into the same frame as one another felt like little more than a pipe dream (especially considering the dismal failure of proto-attempts at realizing that dream, a la 2005’s Fantastic Four).
In 2017, it’s the standard. It’s an expectation. There is almost no such thing as a superhero who works alone anymore. Even in the Marvel films that followed The Avengers, the promise of an eventual reunion between Tony Stark, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Hulk and Captain America, plus whatever other characters Marvel elected to add to their roster, lingered.
Immediately, that promise opened up space for new criticisms against Marvel’s Phase 2 movies: In Tony’s battle with the Mandarin, in Thor’s struggle against Malekith, in Hydra’s coup against S.H.I.E.L.D. and America’s security infrastructure, why didn’t the Avengers show up for each other? (Captain America: The Winter Soldier being the outlier, as Black Widow and Steve fought side by side, but that collaboration only counts for so much.)
But now it’s normal that these characters should wander into the standalone movies of their pals. Tony, for instance, plays the role of Peter Parker’s mentor in Spider-Man: Homecoming, while the Hulk will return to the fold in November’s Thor: Ragnarok. It’s no longer possible for Marvel’s heroes to exist in a vacuum. It’s not even desirable.
And that’s the case with The Defenders, where Luke, Jessica, Matt Murdock and Danny Rand spill over the margins of their respective titles and find themselves first at loggerheads, then in cahoots as they level their sights on the Hand. Not that they have much choice in the matter, of course; each of them conveniently pick up the scent of the Hand’s multilayered criminal enterprises across New York City from Harlem to Hell’s Kitchen over the course of the series’ first two or three episodes. All roads lead to the Hand.
In part, this is unsurprising. Wrangling a herd of super powered types requires a common cause, usually a common foe. That’s the genre’s now-popular trope, and the trope’s seams show, not necessarily within the story itself but within the greater overarching superhero culture of fraternity. We knew back in 2013 when Daredevil was only germinating in Drew Goddard’s mind that the show would eventually lead to The Defenders. But we didn’t know just how far Marvel would take that trope in its standalone movies, turning non-Avengers titles like Captain America: Civil War and, to a lesser extent, Spider-Man: Homecoming into Avengers-lite. Stories about Avengers affiliates have, in the last four years, fallen under the shadow of the Avengers’ brand. They have come to function within its bounds rather than on their own terms.
So when Daredevil and Jessica Jones debuted to applause in 2015, knowing The Defenders was the ultimate goal didn’t matter as much. The trope was not yet the trope. Over time, though, as the remaining Netflix heroes received their standalone series, knowledge of The Defenders’ inevitability became akin to putting free time before homework, doing the thing you want to do before doing the thing you have to do. Obligation doesn’t just take the fun out of superheroism; it takes everything unique away from the superheroes themselves.
In fairness to The Defenders, it conjoins the Netflix heroes with minimal contrivance, and as a superhero romp, it’s mostly successful. Credit for that goes in large part to its cast members: Whether Krysten Ritter is tossing barbs and jibes, or Mike Colter is schooling Finn Jones on white privilege, they click. Their interplay justifies the entire Defenders experiment singlehandedly. But the nature of that interplay necessitates all of the specific pleasures of each Netflix Marvel series be diluted, a sacrifice made for the health of the whole, and therein lies The Defender’s bummer element.
The sleuthing plots and neo-noir aesthetics of Jessica Jones are not gone, but lessened. The class and race consciousness of Luke Cage is intact, just narrowed down. Daredevil’s moral and spiritual equivocating gets pared down to brief moments of screen time. If anything, The Defenders aligns most with Iron Fist, its nearest predecessor, and being as Iron Fist is by consensus the worst of these shows, that isn’t a good thing.
Maybe that’s a checkmark in the “pro” column for The Defenders: Adding good things to bad things makes the bad things less bad. Alternately, it makes the good things less good, too. Frankly, jamming superheroes into the same plot reduces these characters’ individual value.
Jessica Jones is special by dint of showrunner Melissa Rosenberg’s approach to the material. The same is true of Luke Cage and Cheo Hodari Coker. Shoehorning the protagonists of these shows into partnership with one another makes an implicit statement that they matter most as cogs in a greater and more unwieldy narrative machine, and there’s nothing cool or exciting about that. (Yes, Jessica and Luke have partnered together already, but they partnered according to the conditions of the Rosenberg series.)
There’s undeniable excitement in superheroes working together to bring down a villain they can’t tackle on their own; you’ll feel a crackle in the air around you during the climax of “Worst Behavior,” The Defenders’ third chapter, where the cast finally works its way into the same room and beat up a slew of faceless bad guys. It’s gratifying, and yet it’s sadly dutiful, too, a requirement of the genre established by the film that made ensemble superhero blockbusters into a norm instead of an event. Interesting though it is to observe characters of varying backgrounds and mindsets learn to cooperate, that blueprint is profoundly less appealing when applied to an assembly of characters as rich as those of The Defenders (figuratively rich, or in Danny’s case, literally rich).
And that’s the worst consequence of the superhero team-up trope: The certainty that, whether sooner or later, characters will be yanked from their own unique creative space and forced into service alongside other heroes similarly snatched from theirs. If Marvel’s big-screen good guys don’t need the Avengers’ name to stumble into one another’s lives, then we can reasonably expect that the Defenders’ name won’t be an impediment for Netflix’s small-screen gritty gallants. Maybe there’s logic to that. Maybe, as these characters all live in NYC, it makes sense they’d run into each other every now and again. But if that happens post-Defenders, it’ll only be out of fealty to the team-up trope. And when standalone series exist in deference to the trope, then they aren’t really standing alone at all.
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009; he contributes words to Paste Magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.