Defenders S1E1-4 - Review: Netflix Nails The Highly-Anticipated Team-Up
It still feels weird. When you finally get to these, “end of the schedule” movies & shows after first hearing the plan laid out all those years ago. Infinity War is still a year away but still feels to strange for images and posters to start rolling in after so many years of building up to it. It’s how I felt sitting down to watch The Defenders. I could still remember reading the announcement of the Marvel/Netflix project back in 2013 for the 4 different heroes and shows culminating in the Defenders team and struggling to envision the end of that long tunnel. Now, here we are: 3 good shows (and I) later to finally bring this non-Fox Fantastic Four together. Is it any good? You bet your sweet Christmas it is!
Episode 1, The H Word – After finishing his sentence, Luke Cage is back in Harlem; Jessica Jones reluctantly ends her hiatus to take a missing person’s case, while Matt Murdock battles with giving up being Daredevil, and Danny Rand’s pursuit of The Hand leads him back to New York... where someone new is about to change everything.
Now, in the run to the show’s release, my biggest concern were reports that the story would take place entirely within 48 hours. Considering that all are beginning separated and Luke is imprisoned that set off warning bells of a rushed, “Defenders assemble!”. However, the opening section is solid re-introductory to each H-word/hero to establish their starting positions while affirming presence of known supporting characters and pointing towards their big bad being The Hand (as most will expect). There’s a clear representation of each standalone show’s tone as Jessica’s dialogue is laced with dry wit and Luke’s soundtrack is certainly familiar. The pace is ideal being noticeably quick but feeling efficient rather than rushed. There are immediately some references back to the prior shows, like Jessica’s home/office still having a smashed door and holes in the wall.
In fact, the episode keeps the 4 in isolation as they peruse their own activities that will of course eventually connect. Each face gets their story and motivation as Iron Fist grapples with the unknown fate of his home, Luke looks for post-prison purpose, Jessica reluctantly gets back on the Private Eye horse and most curiously of all, Matt well into his own, “Daredevil no more” development. Matt’s notions of his head & heart conflicting over his, “other life” carry a lot of depth by how they speculate his motives. Matt is achieving more justice than ever by his day job and crime rates are still falling without him watching over the night. So does he miss the heroism or does he miss the thrill of being a hero? This crosses over nicely with Jessica and Luke’s stories in examining what it means to be a hero. For Jessica, it’s a burden of publicity she doesn’t want; For Luke, it’s discovering that saving people is about more than pummelling those bad guys. I really don’t want to down on the character but I did find the Iron Fists scenes the least engaging. While the opening fight was great, Danny & Colleen’s chemistry felt rather flat, implying Iron Fist may still be a weak link.
We get our first intriguing looks at Sigourney Weaver’s principle villain. Her scene Madame Gao nicely affirms her as someone of importance within The Hand along with implications that she has ample wealth and power at her disposal. While in true tradition of the prior shows, her identity is withheld for the right moment. She shows the kind of promise we’d expect from such an actress. I particularly like the idea of making her terminally. It immediately sets her up as having nothing to lose.
Overall, it’s a nice steady introduction the show with an excellent ending catalyst to drawing people together and generating intrigue over the nature of The Hand’s plans.
Episode 2, Mean Right Hook – As the city deals with the incident aftermath, both Jessica and Danny’s investigations lead them to some new discoveries. Matt faces a heroic relapse while the Hand faces an unexpected obstacle.
So following the opening salvo, this is a definite“plot thickens” episode. Surprisingly, my favourite thing about was the way we’re still following each of the four heroes separately and making their eventual meeting more meaningful by creating anticipation. It’s being teased well as supporting faces crossover. Foggy has met Luke while Misty has crossed paths with Jessica all sowing the seeds of connection. Danny & Colleen even spell it out when saying that Iron Fist cannot fight The Hand alone and they’ll need to look for others.
As the episode develops, some connections get become far more pronounced to some really fun results. The last 10 minutes especially shows that the series is shifting up a gear. I also loved the subtle hint drop towards Heroes For Hire as Claire asks Luke whether his current efforts will get him paid. Speaking of Claire, despite holding station within Luke’s scenes, she’s doing great reprising her role his Luke’s love interest. There’s definitely an awkward meeting with Jessica on the horizon.
Again Sigourney Weaver’s scenes are strong as they continue to tease out her character. In this episode, it becomes clear she is the head figure of The Hand along with hints towards being a lot older than she looks. Her insider classic knowledge comes across more like personal experience, “It’s nothing, it’s just stuff I picked up along the way”. This immediately reflects in Daredevil’s second season and the idea that The Hand can bring people back from the dead. It's her character’s terminal state, not the result of illness but reaching the limit of that process. It's now facing the end of a very long life, which is why wants to accelerate her carefully laid plans.
This episode also steps up the action this time and that even includes some comedic lighter action from clashing fighting styles. It makes for some good changes of pace against for investigation-heavy content of the episode. Overall, this is episode has the same pace as the last. The difference it comes with greater variation as the rapid action compensates for longer slower sections.
So Defenders is 2-for-2 on nailing its episode endings and making me want to find out what happens next. It already feels a shame that we only have 8 episodes to enjoy this.
Episode 3, Worst Behaviour – After meeting Luke, Danny decides to use all the corporate power at his disposal to locate The Hand, leading him to a direct confrontation. After Matt gets Jessica out of police custody, she keeps investigating the dead architect.
So as we move into the 2nd quarter of the season, we’ve reached the point of heroes operating in pairs as Luke & Danny join forces and Matt provides legal aid to Jessica. The later is a nice classic Marvel touch as Matt Murdock being someone’s lawyer was a common starting point to a Daredevil crossover. Both unions come with some great banter and lines like Jessica’s uncaring response to Matt’s efforts and Luke reaction to Danny’s mystical origins. There’s a nice focus on their different backgrounds and motivations as Luke talks about helping the people in his own neighbourhood whereas Danny doesn’t have such roots with his privileged upbringing, “you may think you earned your strength but you had power the day you were born”. It supports the idea of the heroes not just helping each other in a fight but in finding their purpose. The Luke/Danny meeting also reinforces Claire’s importance as the consistent character across all 4 prior shows as she’s able immediately recognise Luke’s description of Danny and put them in the same room.
The first 10 minutes of the episode provide an interesting villain origin but it’s also the first point this season with a noticeable drag through the extended training montage. It makes all required points over their fighting ability only to hang around for a few minutes to tread on them.
In its climax, this episode handles the season’s first big hurdle: the moment of bringing all 4 together. In every way, it nails it. From the progressing introductions and escalating combat to the theme music cranking things up to 11, everything about it worked. It gives an immediate sense of the characters becoming more together as their abilities combine in fight moments while the whole sequence develops into an encore of Daredevil’s (now iconic) corridor fight. There’s still space for some good quips and things conclude with both heroes and villains in reinforced positions of strength for a feeling of, “okay.... now, it’s on”.
Each episode is so far has felt like an up shift. Whether or not the show can sustain that moment and progression to the end will be the real test but for now this really is turning into a dream team-up.
Episode 4, Royal Dragon – After fleeing Midland Financial, Matt, Luke, Jessica and Danny take shelter in a nearby Chinese restaurant to take stock of their situation and the enemy they now face together.
You don’t need super senses to hear those brakes screech to a halt. While this is still a good episode, it’s also a massive exposition dumb as the united 4 get to know each other and freak out over the idea of mystical evil organisations destroying the city. It’s a necessary step. Taking the group from 4 people fighting together to standing together and in the continuing season trend that message hammered by a strong story progressing finish. Still, there are several points where having the group hanging out in a Chinese restaurant all episode does lose its charm and some exchanges seem more like filler. Jessica’s storm out was most definitely the right move as her subplot breaks up the restaurant scenes and feels like more is being accomplished. However, this superhero sit-down is not without its charms from initial animosities over identities to costume jokes and more.
I liked the build-up scenes to The Hand uniting its 5 Fingers, particularly the introduction of Murakami over his night time bear autopsy. Not only does carry a nice resemblance to Tywin Lanister’s opening Thrones scene as he causally continues his work throughout the conversation but eludes the idea of Murakami being a man of precision and skill. I also liked the way the episode built up the idea of such a villain team-up without a more obvious assembly montage. It keeps the focus on the formation of The Defenders for the time being while saving hat union for a future big moment.
At the halfway point, as a fan, I’m thoroughly satisfied with how this long awaited team-up is developing as a bigger scale amalgamation of its core character strength. Plus that The Defenders theme music is fast becoming one of my favourite superhero soundtracks. It’s also worth noting what the show isn’t doing, a.k.a. this is not Defenders of Ultron. In this first half at least, no attempts have been made to set up the next season’s of the respective hero’s shows and that is a good thing. While of course, each will get an end position in the final episode, the show making the present count rather than looking too far into the future. Now bring on the 2nd half!