This review attempts to be as spoiler-free as possible, though minor spoilers are unavoidable.
While the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets most of the attention, the television shows on Netflix have been, on the whole, superb. Though there have been highs (Daredevil, Jessica Jones) and lows (Iron Fist, the second half of Luke Cage), the Netflix series band together to tell a grittier, city-level story, focusing on the denizens of New York while the Avengers are off fighting cosmic rulers.
The Netflix series follow the same general strategy of the movies: The four series, each focusing on one hero of New York, serve somewhat as prequels to provide necessary backstory for when they eventually all team up. In other words, it’s all been leading up to this: The Defenders. Luke, Jessica, Matt and Danny have all had their adventures on their own (though some have crossed paths already), but the four are forced to team up when the city of New York is threatened once again.
The show’s opening episode does an impeccable job of highlighting what makes these heroes different from the rest of the Marvel Universe: none of them actually want to be heroes. The episode, appropriately titled "The H Word," depicts all of them coming to grips with their responsibility in their own ways. Danny Rand didn’t choose this life, he was chosen. Jessica Jones downright laments her gift. Luke Cage, freshly out of prison, just wants to settle in and have a normal life for once. And Matt Murdock has seen too much to want to don the mask again. Unfortunately for them, an event that shakes New York City to its core forces them to embrace that responsibility.
What threatens New York City this time? Well, as usual, The Hand. Easily the most disappointing aspect of the series is the tiring premise that brings them all together. The Hand was the core antagonist in both Daredevil and Iron Fist, the latter of which being the most recent installment of the saga. And since it’s almost unquestionably the weakest series so far, Danny Rand’s laser focus on the organization leaves an even worse taste in the mouth than the simple redundancy does.
That’s okay, though — none of these series have been particularly thrilling based on story alone. The real fun of Marvel’s Netflix efforts have come from the characters themselves. And in this regard, The Defenders delivers big. The first couple episodes serve as something of a reminder of each character, as we get a glimpse of what they have been up to since their respective shows ended. In some ways, the intro episodes feel like you’re watching all four shows at the same time, rapidly switching between them all. It’s both delightful in its own right and helps build anticipation for when the foursome finally does come together.
Each character feels designed to complement one another — the aloof Daredevil, the sarcastic Jessica Jones, the hard-nosed Luke Cage and the obsessive Danny Rand play off each other well, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them interact. The thrill of seeing them as one unit and the smart way in which they are written help overcome some of the show’s downfalls, like the aforementioned uninspiring storyline or the tropes the show can’t help but indulge. By the time the team is unified you mostly forget about such problems, and if you let yourself just enjoy the ride, you won’t be disappointed.
The Defenders does feel like it stays in its comfort zone a bit too much, however. I mean, the show literally opens on a hallway fight scene, a hallmark of the Marvel/Netflix union. Danny Rand is as petulant and one dimensional as ever, though he’s far more palatable as one fourth of a team instead of the core focus. It’s honestly somewhat surprising Iron Fist was as central to the plot as he ended up being, given that his show was so tepidly received by fans and critics alike. But the formula works, and helps flesh out Iron Fist’s story a bit, even if the character doesn’t end up changing all that much.
The flip side of that is that what worked in the past continues to work here. Jessica Jones is absolutely a highlight of the series, both in terms of actual plot progression and the perspective she brings. Her dry wit gives the show some of its most memorable moments, and she’s not averse to throwing down when the time comes, either. Luke Cage is similarly endearing, and it never gets old watching a man sprayed with bullets suffering no ill effects. Not everyone is used perfectly, though — precious few ancillary characters get much time to shine, and many, like Patsy and Karen Page, feel completely unnecessary.
There are enough twists and turns to keep the plot moving at a solid enough pace most of the time, though by the end it can feel uneven as the show grinds to a halt. A faux shock manages to keep suspense up for a little while, but after it’s resolved it ends up feeling entirely hollow. The team must do something pretty abhorrent to defeat The Hand, which at once feels intriguing and icky, especially since we’re never given a concrete reason to hate The Hand besides "they’re bad." Their nebulous plan is never really explained, making it hard to latch onto their story. Elektra is thrown in to sweeten the pot, but she too has undefined goals and her entire arc is a bore. And I’m not really one to question the verisimilitude of shows that feature bulletproof, superhuman men fighting ancient ninjas, but god damn, for the Defenders to get away scot free after that conclusion, Foggy Nelson must be the world’s greatest lawyer.
The Defenders is not a perfect show, not by any stretch. Some of the decisions made in the story range from predictable to questionable. But each of these actors seem tailor made for these characters, which are all fun to watch in their own ways and all bring something unique to the table. It’s really a case where the parts are greater than the whole. In the end, like a lot of comics and the properties inspired by them, if you turn your brain off a bit and just enjoy it for what it is, you’ll have a lot of fun. Just don’t overthink it.