Just finished the first episode. Can I finally say, “Defenders asse…”?
Not so fast. We’ve got to set the mood, reintroduce the characters, tie off all of their cliffhangers and chart a new path for each one of them, one which will, yes, eventually lead to Netflix’s wannabe Avengers finally assembling to probably fight a bunch of zombie ninjas and greedy real estate tycoons or something. I don’t know. It’s Defenders: Season 1, otherwise known as the contractually obligated superhero pairing we have to get through before The Punisher and additional seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist can finally arrive.
To recap, Jeph Leob at Marvel Television looked at Marvel Studios’ Phase 1 + The Avengers and asked, “Why can’t we do that on TV?” Fast-forward a couple of years later and here we are, staring at Leob’s crowning achievement. He actually pulled it off and managed to even best his Marvel Studios counterparts with better defined heroes (well, not so much Danny), actual compelling villains (e.g., Kingpin, Killgrave, Cottonmouth, Mariah) and a more aggressively progressive agenda (e.g., Luke and Jessica got their own TV shows long before Black Panther and Captain Marvel’s solo movies). Now his mini-Avengers can finally happen.
However, it hasn’t been a perfect ride getting here. Just about every show has suffered from the dreaded Netflix strain, which is when a series hits a wall around two-thirds of the way through the season and flounders for a bit before pulling it together for the finale. Moreover, while it’s great that the Marvel Netflix shows have better villains than the Marvel movies it’s sometimes been to the detriment of the heroes, with Kingpin, Punisher and Elektra arguably overshadowing Daredevil and Killgrave doing the same with Jessica. And now we’re heading into this with a bad taste in our mouth from Iron Fist, easily their least successful show and the only to be flat out rejected by critics.
Showrunner Marco Ramirez to the rescue?
The challenge with The Defenders, on-screen, is obvious: seamlessly bring these four characters together while also trying to correct past Marvel Netflix mistakes AND providing enough exposition for those who may have skipped some of the prior shows. However, the true challenge is behind the scenes where one man, Ramirez, has been tasked with assuming (temporary) ownership of these characters and thus mastery over their differing cinematic languages. That’s not going to be easy. Yes, Daredevil, Jessica, Luke and Danny all live in the same city, even in the same neighborhood in some instances, but they each occupy very different cinematic worlds, as befitting the differing visions of distinct showrunners:
Steven S. DeKnight made Daredevil a world of perpetual night and brutal violence, and Ramirez and Doug Petrie picked up that torch in season 2. Melissa Rosenberg turned Jessica Jones into a psychological, feminist film noir. Cheo Hodari Coker blasted us with a rich combination of blaxploitation, hip-hop, pulp and all things Harlem in Luke Cage. And Scott Buck, who has since been let go in advance of Iron Fist’s second season, at least tried to meld the worlds of kung-fu and corporate politics.
So, while it might not seem so hard to assemble these Defenders since they share common geography and enemies there’s no way for it to not feel at least a little awkward because the cinematic language used in their separate corners of this little universe has been so different.
MILD SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
Thus it is that The Defenders’ first episode feels…well, awkward. Frankly, it’s choppy as hell with one bad scene transition after another, less seamless and more like we’re simply switching channels between similar, but different TV shows. It almost becomes funny how blunt it feels, such as quick cuts to close-ups of a crucifix to establish Daredevil=Catholic guilt or hip-hop/rap music following Luke Cage wherever he goes.Thanks, show. Got it.
Of course, that’s also part of the trade-off between making The Defenders for those who’ve seen every prior show (like me) and those who’ve only watched some or even none. There’s going to be the inevitable “let’s all get on the same here, alright” transition, which is why exposition inevitably flies at us fast and furious in this episode with endless check-ins and status updates on everyone – Jessica’s not taking new cases, Luke’s out of prison and eager to help Harlem, Daredevil wants to just be Matt, Danny is wrecked with guilt. Really, the only one of them right now in full hero-mode is Luke, even though he rejects those who give him that label.
But you know what else also feels terribly put together and choppy as hell? The first quarter of The Avengers. It seems weird to think this now, but I spent almost the first half of that movie thinking it kind of sucked. Then, ya know, Hulk Smash, awesomeness and geek nirvana. The Defenders seems set to repeat the flawed, though perhaps unavoidable formula, but I doubt its’ geek nirvana moments will work as well simply because the novelty is gone. Seeing heroes team-up together is not new anymore. In fact, we kind of know exactly how this is going to go already: they won’t like each other at first, won’t want to team-up, even eventually part ways when the villain preys on their individual weaknesses before finally coming back together for a triumphant, hero-making victory.
Prove me wrong, Defenders. Prove me wrong. Heck, even if you don’t, at least do a really good version of a predictable story. Because much as my critical tone might suggest otherwise I am genuinely looking forward to seeing these Defenders assemble, even if it’s just to hear Jessica and Luke’s inevitable put-downs of Danny. Seriously, Danny, you’re the worst.
THE NOTES (WITH SPOILERS)
- Maybe this is Game of Thrones reunion/first-meeting fatigue talking, but Luke and Foggy meeting barely registered for me.
- I officially miss Foggy’s shaggier hair.
- If Luke was going to get out of prison that quickly what was the point of putting him in there in the first place?
- So, Karen and Matt aren’t in a great place. We forget this, but he was kind of an awful person to everyone in that second season. The “BTW, I’ve been Daredevil this entire time” cliffhanger was just the icing on the “we need to spend some time apart” cake for her.
- Luke’s gonna need a job just to pay for all the furniture he’s going to break having sex with Claire.
- Speaking of which, after his bed-breaking, eat-your-heart-out-porn-stars superhero sex scenes with Jessica was I the only one fearful for Claire’s safety? Or am I just venturing into ultra-nerdy/pervy Mallrats territory here?
- Classic Luke Cage: That he would recognize Claire plagiarized one of her poems to him. Dude loves to read.
- So, Sigourney Weaver is dying. Now we have a basic understanding of what might be motivating her. Cool.
- Still not used to seeing Jessica’s neighbor in his normal, non-junkie mode.
- Danny still doesn’t like turbulence. Understandable. He did once crash and spend the next decade at a mystical monastery.
- Foggy, Misty Knight, Karen, Claire, Colleen, even Jessica’s neighbor. So many co-stars. Probably unrealistic to expect the Meachums from Iron Fist to put in an appearance, though, right? Because I’m secretly hoping they do.