Enter The Defenders – the long-awaited all-star team at the heart of the Netflix Marvel universe. Four superheroes, all loners with radically different powers and personalities. There’s blind lawyer Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox), who used to kick ass by night on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as the vigilante Daredevil; now he’s trying to stick to his day job after hanging up the mask and retiring from the superhero racket. There’s Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the bulletproof Harlem avenger, and the hard-boiled private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). And then there’s the billionaire martial-arts master Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a.k.a. the Iron Fist, whose superpower is his ability to make everyone in the room cringe. No wonder they all have their doubts about the future of the superhero racket – as Jessica Jones hisses at one point, “Don’t say the H-word!”
The Defenders thrives on the conflicts in this crew – their differences end up being a lot more fascinating than their similarities. What brings them together is an epic battle against the forces of evil, courtesy of none other than Sigourney Weaver, who rules in slinky dominatrix mode as Alexandra, the evil queenpin with ties to the elusive criminal empire known as the Hand. Daredevil, who has been mourning the death of his lover Elektra (Elodie Yung), finds that she’s come back to life. Only she’s now under the spell of the Hand, and each of these four different h-words get pulled into the fight. Hence, figures from the complete quartet of the streaming juggernaut’s Marvel franchises show up here – including Rosario Dawson as the nurse Claire Temple, who seems to function as a symbolic guardian angel for the whole crew.
Luke Cage and Jessica Jones have their own personal connection as exes – we first saw him on her show, as they teamed up to wreck her bed in a bout of cathartic superhero sex. But if anything unites this fight club, it’s that the other three can agree that the Iron Fist is a royal douche. Cage, Jones and Murdock all seem like haunted adults who’ve endured some serious shit; they have apparently let their barista tag along as part of his gap-year Outward Bound course for aspiring alienated kung-fu masters. It could have been titled Three and a Half Superheroes, though that would be too kind. As the mentor of Daredevil, Scott Glenn’s Stick says, “The Immortal Iron Fist, protector of the sacred realm, is still a thundering dumbass.”
Like most Netflix series, the show gets off to a mighty slow start – the foursome don’t get together until the end of the third episode, for a fight scene. And it’s only in the fourth that they sit down over some Chinese food and agree to join forces. As Jones, Krysten Ritter is the only one who knows her way around the business end of a one-liner, so she handles most of the banter burden when it comes to quips. All four of these Netflix Marvel shows had deeply different tones and styles, but since Daredevil was the one that came first – and the only one that’s completed a second season so far – it makes sense that it’s the template for The Defenders, especially since it has the same showrunners, Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez.
Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, the best of these series, thrived on mood, personality and atmosphere rather than story – both seemed to run out of plot before the debut season was up. But both characters remain credible full-fledged humans here. Ritter and Colter carry themselves with a protective emotional armor over their private grief and trauma; in his quieter, moodier way, so does Cox as Murdock. They’ve survived crippling pain – that’s what makes them dangerous.
The weak link: Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, is just tragically devoid of charisma. His elevator just doesn’t seem to reach the upper floors. (If this guy’s a “major” superhero, who are the minor ones?) Jessica Henwick returns as his partner and dojo-mate Colleen Wing, but she’d be a far more intriguing character if she had something to do besides shake her head at her twit of a boyfriend– if only they’d cast her as the Fist. The series tries to make the most of Danny’s limitations by making him the butt of everyone else’s scorn. That isn’t quite enough to make you glad when he shows up in a scene, but at least it’s useful for Luke Cage to have a dim-bulb rich white kid to snarl at. The Defenders is not exactly a team of equals, to say the least. But it goes three for four – and with these three different compelling superheroes in the mix, it’s a squad worth rooting for.