Netflix’s long-awaited Defenders finally came together on Friday and we largely enjoyed it. There was plenty to love, mostly in how the four main characters worked together and the banter between them. Technically the show was also firing on all cylinders. And yet, there were some things—things Marvel’s messed up before—that didn’t work. Here are the six things we loved most and four things we loved least about The Defenders.
So many big crossover events can feel isolated from what’s going on in each individual character’s lives in their own series—unimportant enough that everyone can come together, quip, and punch bad guys for a bit, and then be on their merry ways for the real character development to happen in their own series. But The Defenders feels huge not just for the culmination of years of build up, but for how vitally important it is for the main characters and supporting characters involved beyond introducing them to a wider world... or a wider New York, in this case.
With the death of Stick, Daredevil re-confronting a resurrected Elektra, and then, you know, the whole “had an entire building and ancient dragon skeleton collapse on him only to survive somehow” thing, it’s arguable Matt Murdock came out of Defenders as the most impacted, but vital beats happen for every character. Jessica Jones is re-aligned as someone willing to be a hero to other people in her investigative work, as does Luke Cage in reconciling how he wants to be the Hero of Harlem. Arguably, from an audience perspective, Danny Rand is the one most importantly built on here, given a new purpose, inspired by Daredevil’s seeming sacrifice, to protect New York, and having had some of the pompous naïveté that made him so unlikable in Iron Fist checked by his time with his more jaded counterparts. Even major side characters—especially Colleen Wing and Misty Knight—get their dues here, with Colleen bookending the journey she took in Iron Fist by closing the book on Bakuto for good, and Misty taking one step closer to superheroics by... getting her arm sliced off so hopefully we can see her with a robot one by the time she appears in Iron Fist’s second season.
You could’ve skipped some of the series before Defenders and been fine to jump in here (with a little research)—but honestly, at the moment, this crossover feels crucial to the future stories and character arcs to be told across the four other shows.
There are many things to love about Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Alexandra, leader and one of the original members of the Hand. She’s stately, intimidating, and calculating, and sincerely believes that she’s in this fight for all of the right reasons, which is what makes her the ideal villain for the Defenders to take on. As electric as all of the scenes involving Alexandra are, though, after watching about two or three of them, you begin to realize that the presence you’re responding to on screen is Sigourney Weaver’s and doesn’t exactly have all that much to do with Alexandra.
The mark of a fantastic actor is their ability to so wholly inhabit a character that you lose sight of the actor themselves and only perceive the character. Oddly, the opposite is what happens with Alexandra. Alexandra’s a captivating adversary because of what Sigourney Weaver is doing with the part and not so much how the character was written. All of Alexandra’s goals and desires are objectively understandable, but there isn’t a single moment where you forget that you’re watching Sigourney act her ass off as she glides across the screen swathed in varying styles of gold lamé, reminding everyone just how many lifetimes she’s lived.
There were a lot of moments that felt like the writers of this show knew things that fans were thinking and sought to at least hang a lampshade on as a result. Things like Colleen saying that Danny will tell anyone who will listen that he’s the Iron Fist, or Luke lecturing Danny on his privilege all seemed designed (even if the showunner says they weren’t) to mitigate some of the problems people had with that character and Finn Jones’ portrayal of him. It also helped that Danny got walloped a lot.
Another bit that stands out is when Matt has Jessica’s scarf tied around his face while the rest of the Defenders are out there with nothing but regular day clothes. Everyone pointing out that it’s weird and ridiculous that he’s the only one that does that—and Matt’s valid retort that people knowing who you are puts them in danger—nicely dealt with the fact that he’s the only one who wears his comic book costume. Jessica also made fun of his outfit every time he showed up, putting a nice button on that.
Everything about the heroes that a normal person would react to with incredulity was met that way in-universe, which made watching the show way more fun than if it had all been played straight.
One of the larger critiques of Netflix’s individual shows has been that, at times, they feel as if they’re all set in wildly different versions of New York City. Defenders cleverly addresses this point in its opening credits by showing us each of our main heroes, color-coded and projected onto various New York neighborhoods.
Those colors reappear later in the series as a series of general lighting choices, and color cues were used to reflect when a scene was oriented toward a particular character. Luke’s early scenes in Harlem, for example, are drenched in yellow tones while Jessica’s life in Midtown is largely purple and blue. Though the color palette gimmick can at times be a little heavy-handed, it feels like a natural and smart choice if you think of the show as trying to skew more toward its origins as a comic book and less as a prestige action show.
The much-anticipated hallway fight might have preceded it, but the climax of episode four, “Royal Dragon,” is one of the most satisfying moments of all of The Defenders. With the team already fractured—thanks to Jessica’s abandonment of the whole venture and the three guys hesitant to trust each other—and the returned Elektra ready to strike, it feels like shit is about to go down in a major way. But then Jessica, having realized she actually wants in on this whole mystical Hand mystery too, makes a grand return by smashing a car through the restaurant’s storefront and right into Elektra, making her way to stand side-by-side with the group once and for all, as the show’s theme tune blares in triumph. It’s the most brazenly comic-book-y moment of heroics in the whole Marvel/Netflix-verse.
The Defenders had been together before this in the series, but this is the moment they were truly united and committed as a team for the first time. Plus, there are few things as hilarious as Jessica Jones nonchalantly ambling through the mess she made, knowing full well how goddamn cool she looks.
This was the big surprise of the show. Colleen and Misty meeting up and Luke and Danny spending time together were pre-ordained by the comic book gods. Jessica and Matt were paired basically because they had to be, and they ended up being great together. Matt’s drama with Elektra, Stick, and the Hand were made much more palatable by Jessica taking the piss all the time. Jessica and Matt’s mutual stalking of each other was a stand-out scene in a pile of them.
It’s obvious that Krysten Ritter and Charlie Cox are the best actors out of the four main Defenders and that, even if their characters were being serious, they were having a ball playing their parts. Even though the team as a whole had good chemistry, this was the pairing we wanted more of.
The second season of Daredevil spent an awfully long time trying to impress upon us just how dangerous the Black Sky would become were it ever to be secured by the Hand. When we all watched Elektra die and then end up in that terra cotta pot, we knew that when Elektra made her inevitable return from the dead, she was going to be a much more significant threat than any of Marvel’s NY-based heroes had faced before.
But then, when Elektra’s resurrected in Defenders, we see that the Black Sky gave Elektra a few lifetime’s worth of knowledge about fighting and weaponry. And that’s it. It certainly made her more dangerous than she’d been, but she also just became kind of a knock-off living weapon to face off against the Iron Fist. Considering how the Hand of Marvel’s comics is often seen trying to summon a literal demon from another dimension to achieve its evil plans, the idea that the MCU’s Hand just wanted to teach a fighter how to... fight better(?) was a bit of a letdown.
This was actually how we felt about the Hand as an organization now that we’ve met the Hand as people. Part of the allure of an international, shadowy organization is that no matter how high you go up, you never quite learn all of the reasons why they do what they do. Now that we know that the Hand’s entire reason for existing is to ultimately find more dragon parts to make the substance, the Hand feels kind of petty and dumb. Like, yeah, a bunch of rich old people wanna live forever. What else is new?
So we know the fingers of the Hand, having used mysterious dragon goo—frustratingly referred to in the style of “the Incident” as “the substance”—to keep themselves alive for centuries, wanted to go back to K’un-Lun after being exiled for years and years. But... what did that have to do with whatever the hell they were trying to accomplish in New York?
We have so many questions about what the Hand was actually trying to accomplish, and even how they were doing it. What was responsible for the tremor that rocks Hell’s Kitchen at the end of the first episode? What was the point of having Elektra, resurrected as the Black Sky, on hand? Why did they need to dig down to the big ol’ hole from Daredevil season two—god bless that confounding thing—and get at the dragon bones hidden there if they just wanted to get back to K’un Lun? And how on Earth would getting access to them somehow level the entirety of New York?
The Hand’s plot was so obscure and mostly unanswered that the fact they represented a huge threat—one that Daredevil and Iron Fist had spent the last few years building up to—never really felt apparent in The Defenders. Hell, outside of the bickering among themselves until Alexandra is deposed by Elektra, the fingers of the Hand didn’t really do much at all. They came, they blabbed on about the substance a lot, and then most of them got their heads lopped off. And we’re still really none the wiser as to what they wanted other than to go home, a goal seemingly far separated from their obscure plans for New York.
It’s shocking that even with four leads and a truncated episode order The Defenders still managed to have the same problems with pacing that have plagued almost every Netflix show. Once the team actually got together and Jessica drove a car into the restaurant, everything should have taken off.
It didn’t. Instead, everyone split up again. And while that was a boon to seeing more of Matt and Jessica together (Daredevil found a vital clue by playing his own theme song), it meant that we had taken a giant step back. We also kept going back to the police precinct where, realistically, only a few supporting characters actually made an impact on the plot. Foggy, Misty, Colleen, and Claire all had things to contribute, but the rest of the characters gummed up the works. Malcolm especially seemed to be there just cause he was. The show could have used more development time that was wasted in other areas.
Part of the joy in comic book crossovers like this is getting to see the first meeting between heroes who, thanks to the comics, we know will go on to form incredible bonds with each other. But in some instances, The Defenders leaned a little too hard on its audience already being aware of those partnerships to sell us on team-ups that haven’t quiet yet earned it yet.
This most notably can be felt in the connection between Luke and Danny in the series. In the comics, they’re life-long friends known as the Heroes for Hire; here, they feel far too different from each other to gel quite so much. Their first meeting best reflects that divided relationship as Luke angrily checks Danny on his privilege and naïveté. But by the time they’re slowly starting to buddy up—while the former keeps the latter tied up to stop the Hand from capturing him in episode six—the banter doesn’t hit right. It’s as if the fact we already know Luke Cage and Danny Rand are destined to be best friends is being used to try and jump to that point quicker, even if character-wise the two aren’t there yet.
A similar thing happens among the supporting cast too, with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing being thrust together at any available opportunity, no matter how awkward it is, to get them in each other’s circle of awareness so the show can nod at their future partnership as the Daughters of the Dragon. But given that Defenders is already trying to do so much in a reduced number of episodes, any attempt to fast track these duos feels rushed, and done for the sake of checking off a long list of comic book references rather than a move that really makes sense for the characters.
Where The Defenders’ team chemistry really worked was ultimately in the unexpected partnerships it created. Where it did not: trying to force together characters who we know have close ties—thanks to years of comics history that let those ties develop naturally—in such a limited period of time.