Three superheroes and a billionaire walk into a bar…
It's no secret that Netflix's Iron Fist didn't meet the high standard set by Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. Its failure spawned a nagging doubt for fans: Will Danny Rand, the disappointing Immortal Iron Fist, ruin Marvel's The Defenders?
The Defenders on Netflix has the same potential that the first The Avengers movie had back in 2012: To unite various actors in the Marvel universe and see what fun can be had when they team up. But while The Avengers had an unknown in the form of The Hulk--who'd been recast as Mark Ruffalo since his last standalone film--The Defenders has a bonafide weak link.
Thankfully, the show itself is aware of this, and in its first four episodes, made available to press ahead of its August 18 debut, it tackles the Iron Fist problem head-on.
The Defenders is surprisingly Iron Fist-heavy, a fact that makes more sense when you realize that it was the most recent prior series in this particular corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the new show does itself no favors when its premiere episode cold-opens with an inscrutable fight between Danny Rand and who knows who else, because it's stupidly dark and shot and edited in a way that totally obfuscates whatever the hell is going on. Maybe that's deliberate, to try and hide the fact that Finn Jones isn't a great on-screen fighter, but even then it's not a great sign.
Ill-advised Iron Fist opening aside, though, The Defenders is quick to re-introduce the Marvel/Netflix characters we know and love so much better. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Matthew Murdoch (Charlie Cox) are still recovering from the events of their respective series when The Defenders picks up. Jones is trying to retreat back into her bottles, Cage wants to get back to protecting Harlem, and Murdoch is trying to give up his horned cowl for good.
It's fun to catch up with some of these heroes, not to mention the many side characters they brought along with them, who are honestly hard to keep track of if any of the series aren't fresh in your mind. But the Defenders is slow to start, especially for its first two episodes. The action improves from that opening scene, but in the season's first half it doesn't quite hit the heights of the first Daredevil season (admittedly, a high bar). And with only eight episodes total, it might have been wise for the team to form up earlier than the end of the third episode.
Before they all finally get together to take on The Hand, the four main characters meet up in various ways, and that's when the magic starts to happen. Sparks fly when Luke Cage and Iron Fist--who are best friends in the comics--come to blows on their first meeting, and it's even more fun watching Cage shut Rand down verbally the second time they meet than it is to watch Cage beat the snot out of him.
That's when The Defenders seems most self-aware. Among the many criticisms leveled against Iron Fist--almost all of them deserved--was that Danny Rand is a gormless, guileless, whiny, privileged prat. Some of that is down to Jones's acting, which unfortunately hasn't improved much in The Defenders. But with vastly better writing than Iron Fist, The Defenders deals with Rand's character much more deftly, potentially even setting him up to experience some actual growth. If you watched Iron Fist, that may sound shocking, but it's true.
"I’m not some billionaire white boy who takes justice into his own hands and slams a black kid against the wall because of his personal vendetta," Luke Cage chides Danny, who--true to his character, at least--had recently charged fists-first into a situation he didn't really understand. "I know privilege when I see it," Cage continues. "You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born."
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The writing isn't always that good, but it happens often enough that it's worth noting. After Murdoch starts following her, for example, Jones threatens him, "If you grab me like that again, I'll punch you so hard you see." (Murdoch is blind.) And Sigourney Weaver, a newcomer to this ever-growing ensemble, is effectively menacing as a classical villain who relishes violin concertos and plots to level Manhattan with equal pleasure.
The Defenders has some problems, but there's a bottom line: It's fun to see these characters interacting. Maybe that's because they're mostly great characters (even Danny Rand could hypothetically be redeemed), or maybe it's proof that the Marvel formula--establish characters separately, mash them up for a big event, profit--just really works.
Either way, there are four more episode of Marvel's The Defenders, and there's a lot of potential in the season's first half. And no matter what else happens, it's already way better than Iron Fist.
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