Marvel’s The Defenders is the culmination of the ambitious partnership between Marvel Studios and Netflix, functioning in a way like “The Avengers” for the small screen. As we look at the first episode in our series of reviews of the first season, the first question is, will this eight episode miniseries be as successful as it’s aiming to be, or is it a continuation of the slide in quality of the Netflix shows seen in the uneven but refreshing “Luke Cage” and mediocre at best “Iron Fist.” Thankfully, aside from a significant but not fatal flaw, the first episode of Marvel’s The Defenders is an engaging and enjoyable beginning.
Show runners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez write this debut instalment, with SJ Clarkson directing “The H Word,” and it’s clear from right off the bat that this is a tighter and more effective production than, say, “Iron Fist.” Clarkson was one of the best directors on “Jessica Jones” and she brings her skill and balletic style to The Defenders as well. The opening scene is in the sewers of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Danny Rand (Finn Jones) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) are trying to save an unknown man from a vicious attack by an assassin of perpetual Marvel/Netflix bad guys the Hand. Clarkson’s effective handle on action, quick cutting, and some solid fight choreography proves that much of Iron Fist’s problems were its deficiencies in those areas.
Danny and Colleen, in the course of the battle, reveal to us that Elektra (presumed dead assassin and ex-lover of Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil) is the Hand assassin. And though they fail to save their quarry, Danny and Colleen learn before he dies that if they want to win their war and discover what happened to Danny’s mystical city of K’Un L’Un, they have to return to NYC.
This takes us back into the lives of our three other protagonists. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), still reeling from the events of her series, is still engaging in self-destructive drinking and ignoring the pleas for help from prospective clients. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) completes his stint in prison and heads back to Harlem, searching to find his place in the world. And Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), having given up his role as Daredevil, is struggling to find satisfaction with helping people as a pro bono lawyer. All of these characters are about to find their paths converge as a mysterious woman (Sigourney Weaver) with ties to the Hand unleashes a sinister plan the threatens to destroy Manhattan.
There’s no denying that this first episode is focused mostly on establishing these characters and the state of their lives as the miniseries begins. And, for the most part, this is the right move. With one exception, each of the main characters and their supporting casts are engaging and compelling. It’s enjoyable to check in with all of them, and if this means that the main narrative barely gets under way, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Some of these characters have been off-screen for awhile, so there’s no harm in reminding us where we left them. And Petrie and Ramirez know how to give them witty and fun dialogue that brings out character in enjoyable ways.
And if the main plot just starts to get under way here, at least it’s not entirely forgotten for the sake of character. Things do happen here that are intriguing and that supply the story with enough foreshadowing and foreboding to give the viewer an idea of what they’re in for. A lot of this sense of dread is supplied by the brilliant casting of Weaver as the antagonist. If you want to establish a character as formidable and interesting, you can’t ask for a better choice than an actor like her. Weaver dominated the screen in every moment she has in the episode, even in an opening scene that offers her only one piece of dialogue. The viewer has no trouble believing this woman could be an evil and powerful mastermind, and Weaver does it mostly through how she employs the silences between her lines as much as the dialogue itself.
The weak link is still, sadly, Finn Jones as Danny Rand. Luckily, the fight scene moments he’s given in this episode are much better executed than in the series that bore his character’s name, so in that way Iron Fist is already rehabilitated. However, the production’s approach to the character rand their actor continue to be frustrating. Jones simply doesn’t convey being tortured very well, coming across as petulant or self-absorbed. I’m not sure why they have chosen this direction anyway. The Defenders is packed with heroes who are on the darker, edgier side. Charlie Cox out-broods Jones at every turn, which is exactly how the guilt-ridden, questioning Matt Murdock should be. It works on him. And Krysten Ritter delivers every snarky one-liner and cynical aside with perfection, having a masterful handle on the spiky, damaged Jessica Jones. Mike Colter continues to demonstrate the charm and no-nonsense integrity of Luke Cage, actually making an innocent ex-con who was experimented on the “lightest” character in the bunch. Frankly, if anyone should be delivering the earnest optimism of the team it’s Danny. But the people in charge continually write the character as a humourless, bland and charmless child of destiny. At this point, they ought to know firstly that their actor isn’t hitting those notes particularly well, (tho probably could deliver a callow but well-intentioned hero pretty well) but also that The Defenders could use a little old-fashioned optimism. And that’s kind of how I’ve often seen Iron Fist written in the comics anyway, so not sure why they feel the need to continue along this way when it’s not working. Make no mistake, I think he’s better used here than he was in his series, and I’m getting more confident that Jones could deliver a goofy kung-fu hero, the producers just have to let him actually do that.
But, for me, the real standout was the direction of the episode. Clarkson keeps things moving extremely well, and uses long single-take steadicam shots that glide around in a graceful way, giving scenes extra jolts of energy and keeping the pace of the episode moving along quickly. Each character gets different color palette to their scenes, which provides a unique tone and atmosphere to their sections. It’s a bit obvious, but it keeps things visually interesting. And the transitions between scenes reinforce the idea (which is a major part of the cool titles as well) that Manhattan is another character in the story. And its one under threat.
As the kick-off to this epic miniseries, the first episode of Marvel’s The Defenders does come across as a bit low-key, but if you like these characters (and why are you watching if you don’t), then it’s an enjoyable and engaging way to get things going. 8/10