Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Defenders Season 1 Review

It’s almost hard to believe that Marvel’s Daredevil premiered just two years ago. We’ve had four more seasons of Marvel Netflix properties thrown at us in the intervening time, yet all along that prevailing anticipation of a crossover loomed over us all. At some points it did feel like many people were looking forward to the crossover more than the shows themselves: constantly looking for Easter Eggs, hunting for hints at other characters, or just a general desire to see all these characters come together, even if we hadn’t met them, yet. And now, Marvel’s The Defenders, a hodge-podge of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist elements and characters, is finally here!

                The Defenders runs at only 8 episodes long, the total runtime of each episode running a bit shorter than we’re used to for most of these series. It was rare, for example, for an episode of Jessica Jones or Iron Fist to run closer to fifty minutes than a full hour. I can only guess that the shortened runtime and episode length is due to budget. All the familiar faces from these series (save for Kingpin and Punisher) are brought back in, new characters are brought in, and there are lots of big fights and stunts that require computer imaging, which means more money.
                The episode length never really got in the way of anything in terms of narrative. This crossover really does feel like an event, a single moment in the lives of these characters. Having the episodes run a bit shorter helps that aspect of the series, and it also puts things into focus. There aren’t any filler episodes, nor are there filler moments. Each main character has an arc they must fulfill, and having the episodes be a little short means that we need to get to the meat of the story for each character as fast and as efficient as possible.
                Efficiency is the key here, too. You have eight episodes to fulfill several year’s worth of fan anticipation, narrative build-up, and just tell a natural conclusion to what’s been brewing in both Daredevil and Iron Fist. Characters need to be shown in their finest, but most natural, light and they need to get to know each other in the most realistic way possible. Time truly was against them in making this show.
                I can see why some would be disappointed with this series. It’s far from perfect, and far from the best of the Marvel Netflix series. The Defenders don’t gather right away and when they do gather it’s just a lot of egos conflating around each other. That does create comedy, but it also gets a bit annoying when characters are just repeating the same tired emotions over and over again. Plus the fights, while impressive when visible, aren’t nearly as intricate as they have been in Daredevil. You’d think that, with such a big emphasis on action in Iron Fist and Daredevil, that they’d put more effort into making the fights absolutely amazing. Sadly, it’s not the best. It’s a little better than Iron Fist.
                However, there is far more to like than there is to dislike. One thing that The Defenders does well is make it easy for viewers who maybe only watched one of the Netflix series rather than all four. I never got around to watching Luke Cage and really I only remember certain aspects of Iron Fist because I’m familiar with his lore, not because I remember much of the actual show. If someone never saw Jessica Jones, they would understand right away that she’s a super-powered P.I. with a chip on her shoulder, a spunky radio-host friend named Trish, and an eccentric roommate that likes to just wander into her apartment named Malcolm.
                Even the villains of the show are fairly easy to understand: ancient ninjas want to take over New York. Pretty basic, which is a boon and bane, but I’ll get to that.
                The notable show that most people skipped out on was Iron Fist, which contained the lore of the Iron Fist, Colleen Wing, and the Hand. Most of that lore is essentially superfluous and is played for laughs a bit during the early interactions with Danny and Luke, like how Danny explains that in order to gain his power, he had to kill an undying dragon. The Hand’s lore is really stripped down to “underground bad guys that are also mystic ninjas.” There are complex characters within the Hand, but they’re actions represent so little of that complexity.
                Now, The Defenders can’t be watched without having seeing Daredevil Season 2. That really is the most necessary of the series, The Defenders incorporates several key elements, characters, and details from Daredevil. If you never watched that second season, then honestly Daredevil’s emotional arc of the season would be completely lost on you.
                The Defenders themselves all do have good arcs, though, and all are true to their characters. The one who suffers the smallest amount of development is Danny Rand, and this is where the shorter run time begins to become relevant. Danny, as the Iron Fist, was important as a service to the plot, not necessarily to his character. His arc focuses around trying to find a home, to find a place to really settle down and live. It’s hinted at in his own series, and only a couple times throughout The Defenders. Perhaps if we’d gotten even just a few more minutes for some episodes we could see that explored a bit more.
                Luke Cage has a good arc that some may see as the opposite as Danny’s. While Danny’s is brought up every now and then under the veil of subtly, Luke’s arc is very subtle and is shown entirely through his interactions with Danny while he begins to realize that there is more to the world than meets the eye. Of course he knows this, but not to the extent of there being a mystical inter-dimensional kung-fu city in the clouds where you can go and learn to punch things with a glowing fist.
                The normal stuff.
                Luke Cage shines as the true hero of the four of them, as the other three are, in the beginning, driven by at least some amount of selfish desires. Luke, though, just wants to do the good thing. He gets involved with the team as a result of poking his nose where maybe he shouldn’t, but as My Hero Academia has taught, getting involved where it’s not your business is the essence of being a hero! He wants to protect Harlem, but he’s not so naïve to think that everything in the outside world is clean. He wants to protect people, and it really shines through. Mike Colter kills it as Luke Cage once again.
                Jessica Jones has a pretty good arc over the show, tying nicely to her character development over in her own series. While she’s still cold to most people, by the end of The Defenders her coldness has an endearing factor to it. She clearly cares for her two closest friends, Malcolm and Trish, to the point where she gets involved with the Defenders to protect them, while under the guise of solving her case. Still, this series shows her prowess as a P.I. just as much as her initial series did. She’s quick on her feet and even quicker to figure things out.
                Jessica has the hardest time accepting all of this, and has an even harder time accepting the fact that she has to actually get involved with the fighting. There’s a level of unspoken exhaustion that Krysten Ritter brings back to the role, and it’s hinted at that maybe Jessica is just done being a P.I., all she does now is just wallow in some sort of self-pity, while Trish and Malcolm are really finding their place in the world. It sets up Jessica Jones Season 2 well.
                Matt Murdock is the focal point of the team in terms of character development (with Danny serving as the focal point in terms of plot). Charlie Cox absolutely knocks it out of the park as both Matt Murdock and Daredevil. His first scene in court is absolutely phenomenal and shows that he’s really undergone a nice change since the end of Daredevil Season 2, and puts up a convincing argument for him to permanently drop the Daredevil persona. He wrestles with this idea throughout the series, even down to the little things of refusing to initially reveal his identity to the Defenders when they all first meet up.
                The series has an interesting tone. It never gets as dark as Daredevil or Jessica Jones, but it isn’t entirely light-hearted or fun. I’d say it has a similar tone to Arrow, where there’s a sinister element to the villains but you’re constantly aware that a gaggle of super heroes are ready to jump through a window and punch them in the face. This is highlighted best in the middle of the series as the group begins to come together. There’s a serious atmosphere, but the action and soundtrack implies a light-hearted, fun affair. There’s not nearly as much gore or skin shown in this series, and makes me wonder if that was on purpose.
                Was this one season created for, perhaps, a more inclusive audience? Maybe they wanted to leave out gore and sex and language so that more teens could watch (as if teenagers aren’t exposed to enough freaky stuff online), or so that more casual Marvel fans would check it out without having to watch dozens of hours of television already. I’d buy it.
                That lightheartedness helps out a lot in one of the highlights of the season: when all four Defenders finally come face-to-face and have to fight off the Hand. A couple have met here and there beforehand, but the action sequence in Episode 3 is truly a treasure and shows off most of the characters abilities in a fight, as well as providing fun team-up moments, like Luke Cage and Danny Rand taking out some guards with some banter involved as well.
                However, the action is lacking in multiple places, and I think that stems from there not being a focus on martial arts this season. While, yes, the Hand are comprised of ninjas, two of the four Defenders aren’t martial artists at all. When Danny and Matt are throwing down it’s pretty intense, but with Jessica and Luke it’s more punching people through a wall than anything else. Danny’s fight scenes are also often really hard to see, I’ve noticed, and I wonder if that’s their way of compensating for the stunt actor not having a mask to cover their face. Daredevil has awesome fight scenes (save for a few, which are shot basically in complete darkness) but nothing quite like the hallway fight or the stairwell fights from his shows.
                But yeah, the fights in the dark. What was up with all that? It was impossible to see anything. Not only that, but for some reason there were lots more cuts than normal in fights, making it difficult to pinpoint where characters were. Sometimes, if it were Matt and Danny fighting side-by-side pulling off complex martial arts, it got difficult to distinguish who was doing what, and where. I also find it a little hard to believe that Jessica would have such an easy time with trained ninjas but whatever, she’s got plot armor, so it’s fine.
                Now then, let’s talk about villains. Once again the star of the show is the primary villain of the series: Alexandra, played masterfully by Sigourney Weaver. Like the Kingpin before her, Alexandra is an absolutely sinister person that you would never in a million years (at first glance) suspect anything of. Besides what she does with Black Sky, we also never see her actually doing anything evil. Sure she speaks some pretty mean stuff, but we see her: eating dinner, going to the doctor, attending a private violin recital, and taking medicine.
                She’s convincing, and not in an intimidating way. Weaver brings an element of charisma to the character that’s not unlike David Tennant’s Purple Man, only Weaver’s character doesn’t need mind manipulation to get what she wants. She has power through influence, and her mere presence is enough to send shudders down even Madam Gao’s spine. I wish they’d played down the backstory of her character a bit more before a big reveal rather than overt hints at it before just outright saying who the Five Fingers of the Hand actually are, since it’s a fairly big deal that’s never really played up for anything, especially for Danny.
                Still, Weaver carries the scenes she’s in and makes it look easy. She never overacts or makes it seem that she’s intentionally playing a bad guy. Alexandra’s line partway through the series of, “To have a war, both sides must believe they’re the good guys” is entirely what her character is about, and not in that cliché “the villain believes they are the one true good” motive. It’s more of a “My solution is simply the best in a world of unsolvable problems” and she commits to it, she fully believes in her ideals and wants to share them with people. She believes  in the Hand because she believes in herself.
                I wish we’d seen more of Alexandra countering the Defenders. She has plenty of good interactions with the other members of the Hand, but some of the best parts of any of the Netflix series are when the villains and the heroes come face-to-face and exchange no blows. One of the best moments of Finn Jones’ acting in the series is when he has to try and outsmart Alexandra, who is fifty moves ahead of him and laid a perfect trap for him. It’s brilliant.
                I’m curious how people will receive the Iron Fist aspects of The Defenders. I’ve seen initial praise for Jessica Henwick’s performance as Colleen Wing, and I agree, since I believed she was the best part of that series. I never disliked Finn Jones as Danny Rand and put most of the blame there on poor directing and writing, since Iron Fist feels like something that just came together out of necessity rather than true creativity.
                Finn Jones is much, much better in The Defenders, portraying at times a Danny Rand that is fully committed to his cause, but also a guy looking for just a group of people to relate to. He’s the one that initially wants the four Defenders to be a team, but he’s also got too big an ego to rationalize when his plans are the wrong plans. It can create some annoying moments, but the fact is that it’s still growth. One of those plans is, indeed, smart: Danny wants to use his power as owner of Rand Corporation to have a meeting with some members of the Hand. A smart person would realize this as a probable trap, but it is Danny thinking outside the box of kung-fu for once. I think, in hindsight, people will forgive Finn Jones for what happened in Iron Fist and think fondly of this Danny Rand, and hopefully this’ll be the one they stick with going forward.
                The true star of The Defenders is the interaction between the characters, including the more unorthodox ones. Everyone knew that Luke Cage/ Iron Fist and Daredevil/ Jessica Jones would click, given how their characters operate, but I found myself intrigued with Danny’s relationship with Matt and Jessica. Matt served, for Danny, as the idea that he’d always wanted to do but never could: use the powers bestowed upon you to fight for justice, especially against the hand. It’s almost as if the Daredevil is the persona Danny would have created if he weren’t forced right into the war with the Hand. His relationship with Jessica was almost like that of two cousins: constantly sparring ideas and not afraid to call each other out, but there’s still a respect of the two worlds they come from.
                Even Matt and Luke had a solid foundation upon which to grow, as while they both operate for the same cause, they go about it in different ways. Matt will fling himself into the action and start kicking butt but Luke will fling himself in the action and try and avoid the inevitable fight, as he doesn’t want to intentionally hurt someone he sees as redeemable. It stems from both their character traits and their character backgrounds, as Luke is sick of seeing people get hurt and Matt’s a Catholic, so a little punishment being doled out won’t hurt that many.
                The Luke Cage/ Danny Rand aspects are, initially, annoying, as the two characters just butt heads and can’t get over their egos, but they have fun, very minute chats throughout the series that make me hope that, in their show’s second seasons, we get at least a crossover episodes where Danny and Luke meet up for, like, sushi or something. They just looked like they were having fun whenever the Defenders had downtime, and both have the same ideology with regards to saving people’s lives.
                Jessica and Matt were, though, the better team up, as they effectively cracked the mystery lingering over Jessica for much of the season. Ritter and Cox had good buddy-cop chemistry from basically the moment the two met. When they do get together to do investigations it really feels as if they’re buckling down and getting serious while their clashing personalities provided for brief comedy. Plus she’s the one that gets in all the good jokes for how cheesy Matt’s costume is in the world of the Netflix MCU.
                One aspect of the show, from a narrative perspective, that I really enjoy is how it ties into the greater MCU: it really doesn’t. The Avengers will never know about this, the government will never know about Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, or Jessica Jones, and that’s kind of the point. The Defenders was just a moment, but it was the most monumental moment for the city of New York, as without four misfits getting together and somehow forming a coherent team of people with abilities, the Hand would’ve claimed New York and no amount of Avengers would’ve stopped them. You don’t need Captain America or Iron Man to come down and give them the thumbs-up because this is a personal story with major stakes, but keeping the focus on the person not the problem helped a bit with solving the problem.
                Imagine how weird it would be if, at the end of Daredevil, Captain America had come strolling up to Matt Murdock and said, “Good job.” It wouldn’t feel right. In terms of scope, all the Defenders do is guard a neighborhood in New York City, which in the grand scheme of the world, might not seem like much. But, again, that focus helps the show immensely.
                Was it worth waiting two years to see these four characters come together and fight ancient ninjas? Yes. It’s not perfect and at times it’s not even that great, with some slower episodes and halting of the plot to go over the intricacies of what people may have missed with the other shows, but the character interactions were great, the main villain, Alexandra, is one of the Top 3 (if we don’t include the Punisher) of the Marvel Netflix series, and it’s just a fun time. There are just a bunch of little things that help prop the show up to being memorable and enjoyable, and I do hope we get to see a second season, after they’ve all been meeting up from time to time in their own shows. It really did breathe some new life into this pocket of the MCU.

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