Toward the end of the third episode from Netflix’s and Marvel’s The Defenders, the four members of the embryonic team each find themselves approaching Midland Circle Financial, all for different reasons. Jessica Jones is there to investigate the suicide of an architect. Luke Cage arrives to avenge the death of a kid from Harlem. Daredevil is there because he believes he needs to protect Jessica Jones. And Danny Rand is there to destroy The Hand.
Rand trades on his name to get access to not only the building but to a boardroom within. It would appear to be a meeting of functionaries, but upon Rand announcing that he has arrived for war, he is greeted by Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, one of The Hand’s five fingers. She indicates that she is more than willing to fight, and the functionaries become baddies, each armed with clubs and darts needed to immobilize Rand. Rand fights off three waves worth of baddies before finally succumbing to their numbers and being pinned to the boardroom’s table. He pleads with his hand for the power it contains within but…nothing. Then, faintly, Run The Jewels, harkening Cage’s arrival. Harlem’s Hero opens the doors by throwing two henchmen through them, then punches a man halfway through a second wall, then exits the boardroom using yet another henchman to make a hole in the wall. Rand and Cage run into Jessica Jones and Daredevil, and thus, The Defenders are born.
The show goes steeply downhill from there.
The Bad Guy Conundrum
Netflix and Marvel have spent five seasons getting us to this point: two for Daredevil, one each for Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Four of those five seasons suffered from the same lack of particularly interesting threats. Daredevil faced off with Wilson Fisk/Kingpin and then The Hand, Luke Cage faced off against Cottonmouth and then Diamondback, and then Danny Rand/Iron Fist faced off against The Hand. Only Jessica Jones’s nemesis, Kilgrave, was compelling. We will get back to that.
In the opening moments of the very first X-Men movie, a young boy is torn from his parents in a concentration camp. He reaches out to them but is separated by metal fencing and barbed wire. As he screams and reaches toward them, the metal buckles. Soldiers grab him and are pulled toward the gate. Another soldier knocks him out with the butt of a gun, ending the scene. It is as difficult a scene as there has ever been in a Marvel production. But it isn’t there simply for the drama it achieves in that moment; it also serves to motivate Magneto’s behavior throughout the film (and later films). Magneto wants to wipe out humanity before it wipes out mutants. He is uniquely qualified to fear precisely such a thing, having endured precisely the same goal in his own childhood.
Compare Magneto’s motivation to the majority of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (bad guy who wants to control stuff), The Hand (bad guys who want to control stuff), Cottonmouth and Diamondback (bad guys who want to control stuff), The Hand (bad guys who still want to control stuff), and The Hand (bad guys who continue to want to control stuff). The only one of The Defenders who ever faced down somebody whose ultimate goal seemed to stray from the aforementioned model was Jessica Jones; she stared down Kilgrave, a man whose ability to verbally control his victims was significantly limited in its scope and seemingly focused entirely upon acquiring Jones herself.
Kilgrave’s success is that he did not seek incredible power and influence; his powers, although used to terrifying effect, are limited by physical proximity and time. He is a threat, but what he wants is Jones herself, not neighborhood or city or world domination. Because it is different, it is compelling and interesting.
The Hand is neither compelling nor interesting, despite being lead by five ancient and potentially immortal fingers. Their motivation – regaining access to their home city of K’un Lun – would be compelling in theory, but in practice, The Hand appears to simply be a collective of powerful bad guys motivated by the pursuit of power. Is it interesting that they reincarnate Daredevil’s Elektra as their own weaponized Black Sky? Not really. Does their plan to capture the Iron Fist to force him to open the door protecting K’un Lun make any sense at all? Not really. Is their downfall worth sticking around for? Not really.
Without a compelling opponent, The Defenders lags considerably, great moments – including Cage’s arrival in the boardroom fight, but also the team’s first meal together at the Royal Dragon, Madame Gao being forced to fight – notwithstanding. In the end, the show hints at something better without ever getting there.
The Unevenness Of Power
In earlier seasons, an entirely reasonable question to ask was why these opponents were not being elevated up the superhero ladder. Comic book dorks inevitably parachute in to observe that The Avengers, for example, are not available for day-to-date crimefighting in New York City, and as such, dealing with Kingpins and Diamondbacks and Kilgraves fall to the Marvel Comic Universe’s lesser heroes. “The Avengers are only for the BIG stuff!” goes the argument, which is fine as far as it goes, even if it is also wildly absurd.*
The threat underlying The Hand’s attempt to return to K’un Lun is the literal destruction of New York City. In the first Avengers movie, that threat came from the sky, via a giant space hole from which poured millions of aliens baddies. In The Defenders, that threat is coming from a giant hole in the ground. The end result though – the literal destruction of New York City – remains the same. But nobody makes a phone call. Nobody sends up a flare. Nobody even mentions the fact that there are far more powerful characters available to solve a problem of such an epic nature. Instead, the show’s four heroes choose to tackle the issue themselves, because they are powerful enough to do the work themselves.
Which, uhh, fine, in theory, except these characters and their powers shift wildly, so much so that when Daredevil’s (and Elektra’s) tutor Stick shows up, he takes Luke Cage aside to ask him why he is pulling his punches. Cage’s explanation is that he doesn’t want to kill, which is fine as far as it goes, but what it gets at is that these characters are fighting at…half?…quarter?…tenth?…strength when they are fighting off a threat intent on destroying New York City.
Return to that scene I mentioned at the jump: Cage bursting through the doors as the second Defender on the scene. He picks up a man by the collar and punches him into a wall hard enough to shatter the drywall. He throws a man the length of the boardroom’s table. Later, Jones – a character strong enough to go toe to toe with Cage in her own series – is wrapped up from behind, a hold she can presumably break with ease, but rather than doing so, she kicks off a wall, backing her holder into his own wall. The drywall doesn’t even crack. We know that both Cage and Jones are fantastically powerful and yet they are repeatedly decaffeinated.
Stick’s point is meant to emphasize the dire situation that The Defenders find themselves in: violating their own moral outlook on killing (although, of the four, we have literally seen Jones kill) might be necessary given the severity of the threat. And yet during the season’s final fight, knocked-down baddies pop right back up. Even at the very end, when the future of the city is literally at stake, they pull their punches. It is a genuinely baffling thing, not because we expect them to kill, but because we know that they are capable of being significantly more powerful than they end up being.
So is it worth watching? Ehhh…maybe? This is not a glowing review and it should be understood to be anything else but. The show simply has too many problems to be highly regarded. And yet, as underwhelming it is, there is no shaking the inherent potential from the whole thing. There is something there, and it might someday be great. It just is not yet.
*Within X-Men, we are meant to believe that mutants are barely trusted characters who nevertheless routinely fight off threats big and small. One imagines that Storm, who controls the weather, would be awfully great propaganda against this sort of nonsense. “Oh, hey, it’s the lady that ends droughts! She’s great!” But, no, for some reason. Whatever.