Defenders Season Review
It was meant to be a no-holds-barred, rollicking finale to the first arc of Marvel's Netflix universe. At least, that's what we wanted it to be. I wanted to love Defenders. I really did. But ambivalence is the predominant feeling I have once the curtains have closed.
The Good Guys
The episode 4 pow-wow at the Golden Dragon is where we start to have some real fun. There's a discernible family-type dynamic going on.
Luke is the wise, practical and principled older brother. Matt is the charismatic yet (at times) emotional middle brother. Jessica is the angry and cynical teenaged sister. Danny is the youngest bro, naive and capricious. And Claire does double duties as the oldest brother's girlfriend and surrogate mom to the others. Finally, Stick is the absentee curmudgeon dad/uncle. We almost discern a Joss Whedon-esque family theme going on, which adds some meat to the bones and maintains our investment in the characters.
I'm still struggling to understand why, after being raised by mystical battle monks and besting a mythical dragon, the Immortal Iron Fist just doesn't fight very well. Continuing the theme from Iron Fist, Finn Jones is lacking as a physical actor, with many of his fight scenes appearing to involve unimpressive hand-flapping.
Perhaps more significant is the characterisation of Danny Rand. One would imagine that rigorous martial arts training under the watchful eye of strict monks would produce a calm and centred pugilist, one who is wise and tempered. And so, as a comic book fan, I was expecting the type of Iron Fist from Matt Fraction's notable run. Instead, we get a temperamental, impetuous kid. For (among others) said reasons, Netflix's Iron Fist was a major let-down for me.
I will however (begrudgingly) admit that Danny shows marginal improvement in Defenders. Iron Fist actually begins to be a little more likeable, primarily because he is the most collaborative of the Defenders. As each of the other members squabble in the Golden Dragon, Mr Rand tries to take the initiative to bond the team.
Danny is also the most light-hearted of the bunch. The various retorts to “I'm the Immortal Iron Fist” are quite entertaining, not to mention meta. In this regard, Sowande's quip about Danny being “the dumbest Iron Fist yet” drew a smirk. Rand's child-like innocence / naivety is clearly demonstrated in several scenes, like how he gushes that it's “so cool” as DD brutally interrogates Sowande.
The aforementioned qualities actually go to making Danny more relatable and also, dare I say it, endearing. Since it is already too late to re-cast Iron Fist, we will have to accept Finn Jones as Danny (sadly, neither the hero we deserve nor need). One lesson for the producers of the next Iron Fist series should therefore be that a light-hearted Danny is a better Danny.
Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock remains my favourite of the lot, and our champ continues to put in a credible shift as the Defenders' legal eagle / most capable brawler. There are certain times when he borders on being whiny, as he pines for his lost love Elektra. But, the Murdock-Natchios backstory and chemistry do provide some basis for that emotional development.
Cox manages to keep his MVP role in no small part due to his wide acting range – effortlessly switching from light to heavy-hearted. His physical acting remains impressive, as demonstrated in the Daredevil-Iron Fist duel in episode 6 and, more significantly, the gloves-off Natchios-Murdock confrontation in the finale.
And, in the last episode, there is a palpable sense of loss as Matthew seemingly sacrifices himself. That is soon overcome by a sense of relief upon seeing him lying bruised and battered, but alive.
Luke Cage – Danny Rand
There was a promising bonding scene at the Chikara Dojo in episode 3 between the two. It is however invariably undercut by an unnatural and quite contrived segue into themes about privilege and poverty, as the pair start bickering about the plight of the Hand's foot-soldiers (boo-hoo).
That's not to say there aren't any good scenes featuring the dynamic duo. The “do you want the last dumpling” snippet in the Golden Dragon was good fun, and perhaps one of the first times when Danny started to be a little more endearing. Also, there's the conversation between them while Danny is tied up, as the pair trade tales of vanquishing Shou-Lao and taking rocket launcher hits. The decent chemistry between Power Man and Iron Fist does raise a (small) hope of there being a future buddy cop-type story involving them.
Daredevil – Jessica Jones
This is probably my favourite team-up. It starts at the end of episode 2, as Matthew pops up at the precinct and informs Jess: “I'm your attorney.”
The scenes between the two are among the best in the series, with DD's seriousness invariably being deflected / undermined by JJ's flippant, comical remarks, e.g. “you look like an asshole” upon seeing Matt's improvised scarf bandanna / mask.
There is also an almost tender scene involving Jessica not-so-subtly discussing Matthew's past and his father. On that note, props to Alias Investigations for quickly figuring out that Murdock is the Devil of Hell's Kitchen.
Luke Cage – Jessica Jones
Based on the subtle, yearning glances between the two, the embers of their past romance appear to glow. Netflix could well be paving the way for the characters to, as with their comic book iterations, pair up once again. The dynamic between the two is also interesting because, as is demonstrated in episode 4, the eternal optimist and the jaded malcontent need to come together to strike a balance.
Scott Glenn's gnarly, quarrelsome Stick adds some gravitas to the proceedings in his usual devil-may-care manner. The irony is not lost on us in episode 3, as he lops off a hand in order to escape the Hand.
Stick serves two primary purposes – as an exposition tool to explain the overarching plot and to inject some drama into the should-we-free-or-subdue Danny sub-plot. True to his name, he is unyielding and unbending as he makes his final decision to execute the (not-so-Immortal) Iron Fist. This emphasises his cynical, utilitarian side, contrasting him with the idealist that is Matt. It also brings to the fore Stick's true function as a soldier / warrior.
It was a little sad to see Stick leave us. DD's regret and grief were, no doubt, in large part due to the fact that the prodigal father and son are ultimately unable to find any proper closure.
Unsurprisingly, there is little development or depth with the supporting characters.
Jessica Henwick is one of the better members, but really hasn't much material to work with. For instance, Ms Wing is shafted with a number of unfortunate, cliched lines such as (to Bakuto), “you took my life from me.”
Misty Knight has one primary, unyielding look – that of cynical bemusement. She does however end up being less irritating in Defenders than in her shift on Luke Cage.
Foggy and Karen do what they do best – act as a sounding board and source of stability for Matthew. In the final episode, we feel their sense of grief at their perceived loss of their old compatriot.
Rosario Dawson continues to shine as the likeable, salt-of-the-earth Claire Temple. She is likely the most real and relatable of the characters, and is important in providing a grounding role.
The Hand is a significant let-down. In Daredevil, hordes of undead ninjas overwhelmed our hero. The danger felt palpable. What happened to those ninjas? Here, the henchmen are suit-clad corporate-types wielding batons. It just seems silly. Perhaps the budget was tighter, but the net effect is really that the Hand fails to evoke any kind of real fear or threat.
The five leaders of the Hand also display really poor combat prowess. Lest we forget, these are purported to be K'un L'un-trained, shadowy criminal masterminds adept in the arcane arts. Also, they've had centuries to hone their craft. Sadly, every time the Hand leaders assemble, it just looks like a bunch of middle-aged people standing around rambling. There's really no sense of menace.
In the course of Daredevil and Defenders, the producers have tried to build up the suspense to the Black Sky. It/he/she is clearly meant to be something terror-evoking. Turns out, it was just good old Ms Natchios.
It is unclear why the fabled Black Sky is so anticipated and valued. Yes, she fights well, but that's pretty much it. It's also not explained why she has such mad pugilistic skills. In Daredevil, she was an effective assassin. But here, her skills are (or at least are supposed to be) off the charts. Why is that so? It is something to do with her resurrection? Or just the fact that Alexandra is a really, really good coach / trainer?
There is also hardly any exposition or explanation in terms of Elektra's character development. She comes back to life with hardly any memories. She is then trained by Alexandra and the Hand. She develops some memories of her ex-paramour, triggered by their encounter. There is a graveyard scene where she discusses the “substance” with Alex. She then kidnaps Mr Rand, only to subsequently and abruptly back-stab (literally) Ms Weaver, and announce to the remaining Hand council that she is taking over and just wants the “substance”.
At each stage, we are left to our own devices as to the reasons for her behaviour. It felt like there was a real mother-daughter dynamic going on between Alex and Elektra. Perhaps the only plausible explanation for her dramatic character shifts is that she has just gone batty from being brought back to life.
Having said that, Elodie Yung remains one of the stronger cast members. Despite being slight of build, she effectively conveys a physical threat. Yung's emotive acting is also displayed well at the end of episode 5, when Elektra makes her way to Matt's apartment and falls asleep on his bed. The finale is where she finally comes alive – now this is the crazy Elektra we know, with her love-hate relationship with Matthew coming to the fore once again.
Sigouney Weaver adopts another chief baddie role that is reminiscent of her performance as the Director in Cabin in the Woods (incidentally, Drew Goddard's debut film as a director). The veteran thespian does what she can with her cheesy lines, alternating from cold and calculating to (what appears to be) genuine warmth towards Elektra.
It is gradually revealed that Alex has lived for a long time. She knows Brahm – not just the music of, but probably the man himself. She's seen Istanbul back when it was Constantinople. She even has Botticelli's Birth of Venus hanging on her office wall. Probably the original one at that (someone call the Uffizi Gallery). And, in the Hall of Records, Jessica's eagle eye spots Alexandra's unique penmanship – she's been adopting various personas for centuries.
Alex begins to sound a lot like Ra's al Ghul when she launches into a spiel about the Hand having a hand in Pompeii and Chernobyl. Unfortunately for Netflix, as terrible as Arrow is, at least the League of Assassins there conveyed a way larger threat than the Hand.
Mdm Gao / Murakami / Sowande
Gao started off strong in Daredevil, but was given the short end of the (walking) stick in Iron Fist. In Defenders, she is given a marginally better role and lines. Her “the past is the past” retort to Alex's reminder that Gao had previously attempted to usurp her drew a laugh. Gao's fighting skills also ironically appear to be the best among the Hand leaders, with her relatively impressive tai chi / concussive palm technique.
Murakami is introduced on a high note, but then it simply goes downhill for him quickly. The veteran Yutaka Takeuchi's charisma cannot overcome the role that is written for him. His bear-skinning antics were a terrific introduction for one of the Hand's leaders, and we were expecting a formidable villain – at least a Nobu-level (not the culinary institution) nemesis. But, Murakami, as with his compatriots, doesn't fight very well. He's constantly upended by various Defenders, and to comical effect on some occasions.
The bilingual exchange between Murakami and anyone else also just doesn't make any sense. He only speaks Japanese, and everyone responds to him in English (which he understands). So, the irresistible conclusion really is that the producers just wanted someone to speak Japanese because it sounds cool. Right then.
Sowande, the supposedly feared African warlord / Hand leader is another disappointment. He is all-too conveniently and easily captured by Luke. And then there is a rant about driving his captors mad, after which Sowande promptly loses his head (pun intended).
Bakuto's back!!! Who is this mysterious man? He has a Japanese-sounding name! But he looks like a telenovela day-time soap star! And, he speaks every-so curiously, with really odd enunciation! What an odd little man he is. Bakuto rarely fails to make me smile. The man is odds-on favourite for the worst actor award in Defenders.
In case one forgets, this is supposed to be the South American finger of the Hand, a K'un L'un-trained fighter who has lived through the centuries, and himself trained warriors for years. Yet, Bakuto looks and behaves like he belongs in Commando as a baddie. Or, just any one of those generic 90's action flicks. Some of his lines are just pure gold. For instance, “I tried death. It didn't take” and “I told you our fates are aligned“. Nice 90's villain script.
Also, in so many scenes, Bakuto just … stands around doing nothing, spouting random curiously-enunciated, meaningless words. So it's not at all shocking to see that he possesses poor combat skills. There is a (unintentionally comedic) scene in episode 5 where Luke tosses Bakuto aside like a rag doll.
We know there are 5 fingers of the Hand, and one can only surmise that ol' Bakuto is the middle one.
The script and story are generally bland. I felt myself zoning out from time to time, as the characters frequently went through the motions by reciting a series of cliches. For example, there is an inconsequential argument in episode 6 where the other characters chastise DD for failing to disclose information in a forthcoming manner. Hardly any drama or purpose, really.
It also feels like there's a pacing issue. In the Second Act of the series, nothing overly significant appears to be happening. Or at least, that's how it feels. The level of drama and suspense in the middle section doesn't seem to be there. And so, we are left with inter-teammate quips and jokes, as well as the occasional (not very well choreographed) fight scene, to keep us going.
Many a time, the causality between scenes is lacking, or at least too simplistic. A few observations in this regard include:
- In episode 3, there's a whiz Rand Corp secretary / office executive who, in double-quick time, tracks down some financial information leading one to the conclusion that Midland Circle Financial is at the heart of the conspiracy.
- Just before the big boardroom brawl, all four Defenders turn up at the Hand's office at the same time. It's quite meta (and ironic) when Danny later suggests that there was a reason for them being brought together at the same moment. Pretty sure it's that the writers couldn't be bothered to think of a reason.
- In episode 5, DD apparates out of nowhere to save Jessica from being sliced up by Murakami. Devil ex machina, indeed.
- In episode 6, the manner in which Jess and Matt discover John Raymond's hidden plans in the piano is unexplained and just … so random.
Something feels wrong with the action shots in Defenders. Daredevil gave us some gripping, memorable continuous fight scenes. I particularly recall one high-octane battle involving DD, Frank Castle and a stairwell.
Here, the action often feels amateurish. It is usually difficult to follow, and one has to pause to identify who is bashing who. The royal rumble featuring the Defenders and the remaining four Hand members in Midland Circle is a prime example. The inevitable corollory of this is that the tension and drama is drastically reduced.
It is surprising that for a show featuring numerous (supposedly) lethal martial arts exponents, the fight scenes tend to fizzle out. One exception is the Daredevil-Elektra battle scenes, which are carried by the intensity and physical acting skills of Cox and Yung.
Score / Soundtrack
I hardly noticed the score, except for the painfully awkward, inappropriate insertion of rap music into various scenes, including the episode 3 boardroom battle and the final underground battle royale.
After the hype leading up to Defenders, I'm sad to say that it turned out to be not very good. That is not to say that it's terrible. It isn't. It's just … OK. There are entertaining and fun scenes, but nothing exceptional, really.
After the MCU slowly and deliberately built up the anticipation for Avengers, not many were disappointed with the final product. I hardly feel the same way about Defenders.
Rotten Tomatoes states that Defenders' “payoff packs more than enough of a punch to offset its flaws“. I take a contrarian view. What ought to have been an epic, rip-roaring culmination of the first story arc for our favourite street-level Marvel pugilists ends up just kind of petering out.