We’ve Seen Friends Team Up. We’ve Seen Rivals Team Up. But Now We Finally Get a Superhero Team-Up of…Reluctant Acquaintances? (The Defenders)

Four people standing in front of the New York City skyline.
Image: Netflix via ComicBook

Genre: Superhero

Synopsis: New York vigilantes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist all team up–quite reluctantly–to combat an old organization of immortals who will destroy the city to get what they want. (Reluctantly, except for Iron Fist. He just wants friends.)

Series: One season, eight episodes. Continues the stories of these four protagonists’ individual series.

I’ve Watched: The whole first season.

Verdict: Good, but dilutes its character development between too many characters.

Defenders takes the stars of four independent Netflix series, and creates a team-up show about them. Well, kind of a team-up. I’ve watched two of the four preceding shows (Jessica Jones and Luke Cage), and been at least passingly familiar with some of Daredevil’s story. I would not recommend being familiar with less than two of the four going in, because each character’s story is too intertwined with their history. This is not a good entry point to Netflix’s Marvel universe.

The show starts slow, and while Defenders is overall enjoyable, it also doesn’t reach its full potential. That’s almost inevitable, considering the structure of the show. All four main protagonists start investigating independently of each other for the first 2-3 episodes–each of them accompanied by their own supporting cast. To add to that, the villains also get their own point-of-view and supporting cast.

I genuinely like ensemble casts–but those work because they develop their protagonists by having them interact with each other. In Defenders, the main cast spends nowhere near enough time building relationships between themselves. By the end of the season, they’re less like a group of reluctant friends coming together through their hardships, and more like a bunch of polite acquaintances.

It’s all believable, and the character work is genuinely good. There just isn’t enough of it–not between the main protagonists, anyway. They’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of forming actual relationships with each other. So it could’ve been better, but it could’ve been worse. There wasn’t Avengers-style relationship building and conflict. But it also wasn’t a terrible, Suicide Squad-like mess.

Among the relationships between the main cast that actually stood out, were these:

Luke and Danny. They’re very different people who have led very different lives. Luke is a kind-hearted man who’s seen the ways the world forces desperate people into a corner. Danny is rigid and determined–often seeming like the naive kid of the group–but he’s not completely unwilling to listen. They don’t agree on much, and approach problems in different ways. Still, even when their ideals and decisions are in conflict–even when they’re physically hitting each other–it comes from a momentary anger rather than something more personal.

At least one of them is always willing to reach out to the other. Danny, because he’s ready to reach out to someone, to anyone. He wants it. And Luke, because he responds to other people’s pain. Out of our four protagonists, these two are the ones most willing to form new relationships. So maybe it makes sense that they form perhaps the strongest one–or at least the strongest one that starts from scratch.

 

Luke and Jessica. These two are the only ones who know each other going into the show (Luke appeared in Jessica’s series). And I’m actually surprised by how chill their interactions are, given how messed up their past is. Literally the last time Jessica saw Luke–aside from when he was mind-controlled into being nice to her–he’d hated her. Absolutely hated her, for being the weapon that killed his wife (also via mind-control) and for letting him sleep with her before he found out about it. (I mean, how much more messed up does it get?)

They never bring this up until the last episode, in a subtly brilliant scene that skirts the details while still conveying the most important sentiment–which is that Luke wants to move past what happened, and for the two of them to be friends. Whether or not he actually forgives her remains unaddressed. Perhaps he does, after experiencing the mind control for himself. Or maybe he still can’t. Like Luke said himself, Jessica’s hands physically killed his wife. And she didn’t tell him. One of those things isn’t her fault, but the other one is. And I absolutely love Jessica as a character, but that doesn’t keep the situation from being so incredibly messed up.

Luke and Jess being okay, even awkwardly so, wasn’t a given after what they’d been through. In the last interaction the two of them ever had in the Jessica Jones series, he managed to say one thing that was real while his brainwashed self was trying to kill her–she was hesitating to shoot him with a shotgun to save herself, and he said, “Do what you gotta do.” So literally all we knew going into Defenders was that he didn’t want to kill her while not under his own power. That’s a long way from forgiveness, or even being able to talk to her without wanting to scream.

Then they see each other in this show, for the first time since she shot him, and they’re just…slightly awkward, but mostly cool. Which is totally one way this could’ve gone. Their characters could plausibly have reached that point over the time they didn’t see each other. I absolutely expect that from Jessica, at least. From Luke…this is probably the best, most mature, most forgiving he could possibly have been to her.

And I guess that’s why this make sense, despite my initial surprise. I was expecting their issues to become a problem sooner, not for them to wait until the conflict was resolved to even address them. But while Jessica is a total mess, Luke is genuinely a sweet person. In retrospect, of course he’d take the more mature course. Of course he’d choose compassion over anger, no matter how difficult.

That’s just what he does. It’s the culmination of everything he’s experienced, all the people who’d ever taken chances on him, everyone in shitty circumstances that he’d wanted to save. His story has always been about experiencing the bad, while holding onto the good. 

Matt and Elektra. By far the person that Matt–Daredevil–had the most connection and character work with in Defenders, was Elektra. Another relationship that already existed before the start of the series, Elektra is Matt’s dead ex-girlfriend who’s been resurrected and kinda brainwashed into fighting for the enemy.

This is a staple Marvel plot for the two characters, and wow, does it deserve a lot more time than Defenders had to dedicate to it. We get some sense of Matt’s anguish, and how far he’s willing to go to try to reach Elektra. How important it is to him, to save her this time. How much guilt he’d carried over her death the previous time, and what he would sacrifice to keep it from happening again.

There was a missed opportunity here, in terms of exploring just how unreliable an ally Matt could become when it matter so much to him that he save the enemy. (It was briefly touched on, but again–Defenders just doesn’t have the time to get into it.)

Elektra, for her part, doesn’t want to be saved. She spends the series reawakening the parts of herself she’d lost, and is perfectly capable of reclaiming her own agency without Matt’s help–in ways that he doesn’t want for her. No matter how much Matt tries to appeal to her, no matter what he says to try to bring her back to his side, Elektra’s already decided what she wants. So he has to rethink his choices, because he’s not getting his first one. And decide what he can live with.

What we had was good, sure, but there was too much other stuff going on to do this plot point justice.

Matt and Jessica. These two were both the most jaded, reluctant members of the not-quite-a-team. Jessica is always distrustful and abrasive, while Matt tries to keep his distance from the others because he wants out of the vigilante thing. Jessica knows his identity pretty early, since she meets him as a lawyer before he starts heroing it up, and thus automatically gets to see more of him than the others.

They fall in with each other more out of circumstance, than anything–they meet each other first, and happen to be on the same side. Yet there’s this quiet, almost unspoken understanding between them. It never sees much development, but that makes it more nuanced–because we know it’s there anyway, even with no one pointing it out. Honestly, watching these two fumble through the first opening steps of making a connection despite how closed-off they are, is kind of sweet.

Too much plot, too little time

I’ve mentioned several times that there were interesting things the show could have touched on, but ran out of time.

There are only eight episodes. Those episodes manage not only the four main protagonists, but also two major villains and a good dozen supporting characters. And even more time is eaten up by unnecessary conflict between the police and the protagonists. They even repeat almost the exact same talking points each time one of our characters tries to stonewall the cops.

The villains are even more divided than the heroes, which means we spend a lot of time listening in on all of their conflict. But it’s unclear how that conflict figures into the story. They aren’t being set up to cooperate despite their issues like the heroes are. Their characters are not in-depth enough for their conflict to be interesting in its own right. In all, it only makes them seem less threatening. And wastes the show’s time.

All of that time could’ve been spent building relationships between the main cast, making them feel like a real team, instead a flimsy thing that will blow apart the second nothing’s pushing them together. Defenders was still worth watching, and I genuinely enjoyed it. But it made me want things that it didn’t quite deliver, because it had spread itself so thin.

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