The fifth episode of Marvel’s The Defenders tries gamely to recapture the high-energy action after the more restrained previous episode, but unfortunately winds up being an uneven affair that seesaws between solid action moments and lacklustre drama.
It’s about time to finally admit that, for the most part, the Marvel/Netflix shows don’t really understand what makes the Hand interesting. They first popped up in the 1980s during Frank Miller’s time as an artist on “Daredevil” and the Wolverine miniseries. What made them resonate then had a lot to do with their visuals, especially when handled by Miller, who used them as an overpowering force. Seeing Daredevil or Wolverine face off against a veritable horde of faceless fodder in traditional ninja gear, all hacking and slashing and karate-chopping, is irresistible to adolescent comic-book fans. And if the Netflix series embraced that approach, then they might have had something. But rarely do they go whole hog and make these ninjas actually look like ninjas, so we don’t get the cool visual. The Hand we get on TV does embrace the mystical mumbo-jumbo that also underpinned the comics’ version, and ties that in nicely with the larger K’Un L’Un stuff. But ultimately the larger aims of the Hand are so nebulous and ill-defined that it’s hard to care. They come across as not any more or less compelling than any other generic sinister cabal from any other genre-TV show. What could mitigate that is what the comics have long done, which is to place colourful people at the head of the Hand, such as Gorgon or Madame Viper. And Marvel’s The Defenders has that compelling figure in Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), but only because she has been given enough attention for me to understand what her quest for immortality means to her in a personal, specific way. And her relationship to Elektra and commitment to the Black Sky prophecy is nicely explored in the series, which makes their relationship mean something. Weaver has given Alexandra both strength and depth and vulnerability, and even if each episode sees her becoming more and more moustache-twirly, Weaver always finds moments to offer something more.
But the other members of the Hand’s ruling inner council seem to just generically want to live forever and/or jockey for position. It’s fine, it works, but it’s not terribly engaging, and they don’t hold a candle to a character as interesting or specific as Mariah Dillard from “Luke Cage,” and are light years beneath such brilliant foils as Kilgrave from “Jessica Jones,” or Frank Castle and Wilson Fisk in “Daredevil.” If these Netflix shows ever fully embrace the 1970s chop-socky visuals of an army of literal mystical ninjas, then the Hand should stick around. Otherwise, if The Defenders is their swan song, I’ll be glad to see them go and let this universe move on to bad guys with some actual personality.
As for the main plot of the episode, we pick up where we left off, with the Defenders assembled to take on the Hand inside the besieged Royal Dragon. There’s energy and some excitement on display in this sequence, which does manage to thrill as the team tries to escape the situation. But the resulting action set piece isn’t edited or shot as clearly as it should be by director Uta Briesewitz, and as a result it’s easy to lose the story of the fight itself. The director’s job in these scenes isn’t to just communicate energy and speed and chaos, but to ensure that the action has emotional and visceral impact through a clear communication of the story beats. A fight has a narrative just like a dialogue scene does, and they’re just as important. The scene in the Royal Dragon only intermittently leads the viewer through those story beats, so characters seem to disappear here and there and events don’t really make sense in a linear way.
After the fight, our heroes disperse to get their loved ones out of harm’s way, and this is where the energy dissipates and I started to roll my eyes at the piling up of cliches by writers Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, Douglas Petrie & Marco Ramirez. Each of these heroes have people in their lives that know pretty much everything that’s going on, so I’m not sure why each of the Defenders have to spout garbage like, “the less you know, the safer you’ll be.” It’s a ridiculous statement in particular when it comes from the typically straight-shooting Luke Cage (Mike Colter) to as smart, competent and useful an ally as Claire (Rosario Dawson) who arguably has more knowledge about the situation than Luke at this point.
The gathering of friends does offer a fun moment for fans when all our supporting casts from different series come together in one locale, particularly in the case of Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), otherwise known as Marvel Comics’ Daughters of the Dragon partnership. But Luke once again bafflingly refuses to let someone as tough and resourceful as Misty in on the situation, which is irritating. And in this episode the series tries out of nowhere to give Colleen some kind of arc for the series (which I don’t have a problem with, except it’s a vague and mushy thing about looking for stability when maybe it could be more focused on why she isn’t taking a center role in the action given how badass and smart she is). The fact is, this episode doesn’t give the small moments here enough time to be anything more than the most superficial swipes at character dynamics, so the question becomes why even do it in the first place? I guess to communicate a larger world outside of the Defenders and their war on the Hand, but as we head into the climax, I can’t say I really want the main narrative to slow down in this way, and certainly not just to say, “Hey, Trish just noticed Karen and Foggy, wow.”
This roundup of allies does give us probably the best moment in the episode, which is when Matt Murdock finally suits up as Daredevil to help Jessica (Krysten Ritter) save Trish (Rachael Taylor) from the Hand. But although this fight is the most effective and well-executed in “Take Shelter,” it still doesn’t have the impact that the first honest-to-god appearance of Daredevil should really have. It should give us chills after four and half episodes to see an honest-to-god costumed crimefighter in a costumed crimefighter show, but the scene in question isn’t confident enough to slow down and give us a second to appreciate it.
From there we get a pretty cliched episode, frankly. The Defenders find themselves in the driver’s seat when they manage to capture one of the Hand’s ruling council, but then all we get is the kind of “captured bad guy taunts the heroes while tied up” thing that we’ve all seen a million times before. The bad guy in question doesn’t have any panache or flair, so it’s not fun or particularly witty to watch him trade barbs with the good guys. And it’s not as if anyone really learns all the much of importance from each other. It’s basically not much more intriguing or original than a mid-level episode of something like “Angel” or “Supernatural,” not even one of the better episodes of those shows.
There’s enough to this fifth episode of Marvel’s The Defenders for me to recommend it, primarily in the way it continues to advance the narrative. But this is the episode that came closest to the spottily executed mishmash of “Iron Fist” or the worst moments of “Daredevil” Season 2 and the sillier parts of “Luke Cage.” It’s still enjoyable, but feels much more bog standard and uninspired. Here’s hoping it picks up speed heading into the final episodes. 6.5/10