2 out of 5
Created by: Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez
covers season 1
I do think this accomplished what it was supposed to – it got our Netflixed Marvelites semi-plausibly together for a relative threat and motivated them all to throw punches – but I also think this was ill-conceived from the get-go. I mean, I’m a fan of this thing Marvel is trying to do on various screen sizes – and I say that as not a saluting comic reader of many of either Big Two publishers – and I, like many, will continue to watch out of interest (even when that interest is tested, a la Luke Cage), but quality of the individual shows aside, this is not the most interesting super hero team. Most team dynamics, powered up or not, divvy up personalities and expertises – the classic, Always Sunny-cited A-Team formula; your JLA / Avengers with your fliers and runners and super-strongers; and a shout out to my TMNT boys for the distilled version (okay, maybe another A-Team variation) of leader, thinker, brawler and goofball. Do any of those traits apply to the original comic book Defenders? Absolutely. Do any of those traits apply to the streaming network version? …Sort of? It’s more like a mish-mash of brawlers and half-cocked thinkers. There’s definitely no goofball, and though Daredevil takes over the de facto leadership role by dint of his being just generally authoritative, he sorta leads either by being shoved or by shrugging, so, ya know, confidence instilled. And if we do take a look at the individual shows, while I was part of the minority who didn’t mind Iron Fist, I will fully admit that Danny Rand was not the highlight of that series, but rather his supporting cast – who either don’t appear at all or are necessarily sidelined to feature our stars – and Luke Cage was a boring stinkhole thanks in part to an un-enigmatic leading man. Jessica Jones was fantastic, but only worked with Jones as a recalcitrant curmudgeon. So that’s two leads I don’t care much about, one that works best on her own, and Daredevil.
There’s also the poorly balanced decision of scope. The pitch for these guys and gals, and a neat one that’s made it a nice divide from their big screen mates (and provided an implicit reason as to why they don’t have to interact), is that they’re “street level” heroes. Their problems are local. Luke Cage, at the very least, had a sense of place in Harlem; Daredevil and Jones and Iron Fist all had fights that dealt with them and theirs. It does make logical sense, when you put them together, to expand the threat to all of New York, which Defenders attempts to do via the head honchos of The Hand, led by Sigourney Weaver, and some “this city will fall” plan that never quite becomes clear. Besides the bad guys’ evil machination fuzziness, the show’s writers realized they needed to up the ante but not to the level that might, like, require non-street level heroes, so the whole thing gets generalized and we lose the relative personal connections of the previous series. This is inevitable in team shows. The Avengers films are not the best Marvel films, and one could suggest they only work as popcorn because they have a limited amount of time in which to distract us. Ensemble series might take a season to solve a mystery or issue, but they generally haven’t been spun up from individual constituent shows like Defenders, making it okay to throw resources toward the seasonal problem and not, necessarily, character work. I don’t envy the juggling act this show needed to learn, and I’m not surprised it wasn’t really able to learn it. I wouldn’t know how to teach it. We can at least appreciate that they narrowed it down to eight episodes.
Next in our shooting gallery: style. The Defenders makes a cute play of its color work – reds for DD, blue for JJ, yellow for LC, and green for IF – but just like the problems I’ve cited above with mashing these elements together, you can’t do much more than that ‘cute’ when trying to keep all the characters in the room. The show settles on a blase color scheme and a lazy camera that keeps swirling around scenes, hopeful to find a bit of choreography or panache that wasn’t better served previously. (It fails.) The greatest sin here is that the show is primarily boring to look at it. It has the most cut-and-paste m.o.s of all the Netflix series, because, again, it’s trying to play evenly to all sides while also establishing some kind of unique vibe for the hero meet-cute. Script-wise we find this in weak bids to touch on each series’ themes – the five second tossed to racism via Luke Cage and Danny Rand is embarrassing – and there’s a cutting-room floor vibe to how everyone gets from A – the scenes which bring them all together, which are handled well – to C, the final battle, which has zero stakes upon arrival and has either directly or indirectly sidelined everyone (the latter by making them all idiots who seem surprised that there’s something at the bottom of a hole) in order to play it bi-partisan and let everyone be a star for a few minutes. Musically, John Paesano goes for ‘generic motif #62’, marking this as the first Marvel show that doesn’t emerge with, at the very least, a memorable title sequence tune.
And yet, none of this is particularly bad. I mean, I watched it. I didn’t roll my eyes too much, and giggled at the inter-character ribbing. It was just… ill-conceived. We could, eh, quadruple down by reaching back to the original comic book incarnation, which was an amusing shamble of misfits, and compare to this 2017 version of various cool kid archetypes to say: man, they really didn’t get this concept at all. But that seems like kicking the horse.
I’m glad this happened. I’m glad they gave it a go. I’m sure numbers on viewership will be high, and I’m sure the general consensus will be ‘meh.’ So hopefully that’s enough money and incentive to learn some lessons and approach this differently next time, so that it doesn’t seem like a poor idea before it’s gotten started.