And so, Marvel’s The Defenders reaches its climax. We’re going to look at the final two episodes via a single review, being as they are basically one big episode that serves to tie up the loose ends of the miniseries. Or, rather, they should do that. Unfortunately, while there are some pleasures to the finale of The Defenders, ultimately this culmination of the first era of Marvel‘s Netflix shows is too uneven, and at its conclusion feel more like a missed opportunity than a triumph.
The seventh episode, entitled “Fish in the Jailhouse” is written by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich & Marco Ramirez and directed by Félix Enríquez Alcalá, and is by far the weaker of the two final episodes. The problems here stem from some pretty stupid plotting decisions that force some unbelievable things to occur or people to be incredibly stupid in order for things to advance. Matt (Charlie Cox), Jess (Krysten Ritter) and Luke (Mike Colter) have all been picked up by the cops following the carnage that ended the previous episode. They’re now being held in the Harlem station where Misty Knight (Simone Missick) works and where all their loved ones are staying in protective custody. The trio conspires to escape and manage to bust out with a little help from Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson). So, this section had me scratching my head the whole time because if the trio are being held by the cops under suspicion of something, you’ve gotta think they’d be held separately. Maybe, maybe you could buy Matt as an attorney being allowed to see Luke and Jessica, but all three being held in what looks like the police precinct break room? Weird. Even weirder is the idea that Foggy Nelson, who is being held for his protection, remember, would be able to somehow go obtain Matt’s Daredevil suit, and then bring it to him in a bag. I can buy they let him pick up some spare clothes at Matt’s apartment, but not buy they wouldn’t check out what was in the bag. And even if you can buy all that, you really, really cannot buy that Colleen (Jessica Henwick) could just pop into the police evidence room, which isn’t staffed at all, and find a few crates of C-4. You have to believe that if the police seized highly dangerous explosives, enough to bring a building down, they’d just stick it in a closet next to some kid’s stolen bike and a car thief’s slim jim. That had me actually yelling at the TV.
After Matt, Luke and Jessica escape, they make their way to Midland Financial, certain that they “door” Danny (Finn Jones) is supposed to open is in the huge pit under the building. Meanwhile, Elektra (Elodie Yung) has taken Danny down the pit to the weird mystical wall his Iron Fist is supposed to open. Elektra becoming the big bad of the series is a nice twist, and it’s great to see her bring some her devilish personality back to the role, but her motivations are still pretty generic. She and Danny have some fairly bland back and forth that feels an awful lot like wheel-spinning.
Back up in the Midland Financial Parking garage, The Defenders meet most of the Hand’s council, doing battle with Gao (Wai Ching Ho), Bakuto (Ramón Rodríguez)and Murakami (Yutaka Takeuchi )in a fight that could probably best be described as sloppy. Once again, the action isn’t executed well, with rapid-fire editing obliterating any sense of flow or impact. At times I literally had no idea who was fighting who. It doesn’t help that this fight is cross-cut with Danny fighting Elektra, a decision that makes both fights more confusing and frustratingly choppy than they already were on their own. Though the fight above ends in a draw, Danny does the colossally stupid thing of using his Iron Fist to try and stop Elektra, which she predictably maneuvers into opening the wall, aka the exact frickin’ thing everyone’s been trying to avoid for a couple episodes now.
After the Hand’s final three “fingers” make their escape, Colleen, Claire (Rosario Dawson) and Misty arrive to meet the Defenders. It’s nice to see the allies actually taking part, especially since these are three of the most capable and smart characters in the whole show. The show nods at how awesome they are via a conversation between Colleen and Claire that overtly states how vitally important Claire’s role is within this world. The viewers at home are all nodding and saying, “Yeah, no duh!” As Matt, Jess and Luke head into the pit to save Danny, Claire and Colleen go off to set the C4 around the building and bring it down while Misty will try to stall the cops.
The seventh episode ends as Danny awakens on the other side of the wall, inside the skeleton of a giant dragon.
From there we move into the final episode, written by Hissrich & Ramirez but directed by Farren Blackburn. I’d say it’s better than the previous episode, largely in how it deals with the central conflict between Elektra and Matt Murdock, as well as how it integrates the supporting cast into the action and leaves the stage set for each of the main characters to return to their respective series.
But the main story of Marvel’s The Defenders, and in particular the threat posed by the Hand, resolves itself pretty poorly. After hinting at a larger aim and sinister schemes across multiple series and throughout these eight episodes, a larger focus for the Hand is never really revealed. All along I had hoped that Alexandra and the Hand were plotting something larger than simply maintaining their immortality. But, nope, that’s basically all they seem to be after. This “Substance” they’ve been talking about is obtained somehow from the dragon’s skeleton under Manhattan. Getting it will cause a significant part o the city to collapse into the cavern left behind, so the destruction of the city is an incidental side-effect to a bunch of people previously established to be functionally immortal. It’s never a good dramatic idea to reveal your global sinister criminal organization exists to basically keep five people alive. That’s a pretty petty threat, frankly. It’s not as if you couldn’t make up some part of the mystical dead dragon possessing some other kind of weird power that actually would do something serious. Maybe it’s fossilized brain exerts weird telepathic control over anyone they wish or something like that. But instead all the Hand seem to be interested in is staying alive, and the only one of the Hand’s council who we know well enough to be invested in their fate was killed off two episodes ago.
Instead, we get Elektra as the big bad, and aside from needing the “Substance” to continue living (I guess? I mean, do they die without it, like do they need constant injections of the stuff? Or is it just when they’re damaged or injured or ill? We don’t even learn how this stuff works) it’s clear that she doesn’t care about the Hand’s larger aims, whatever they may be. I’m still not sure what the whole Black Sky thing is supposed to mean, too. Like, is Black Sky’s whole purpose to help the council obtain immortality? That wasn’t was hinted before. And the council HAD immortality for centuries, so if this is the Black Sky’s purpose, then how does that really change the status quo of the war against the Hand? It’s just further confirmation that the production team really doesn’t know what they’re doing with the Hand, and that every time Elektra is at her most interesting here and in “Daredevil,” it has to do with her personal relationship with Matt, not her involvement in the Hand.
Also, the Defender’s plan is to stop the collapse of the pit by….blowing up the pit. We do get a big fight scene, and the best thing about it is that it’s set to “Protect Ya Neck” by Wu Tang, which is awesome. But the Defenders seems to beat up the same anonymous baddies like four times, and while the action is nowhere near as badly executed as the previous episode, it’s also not exactly climatic either. It doesn’t feel any more apocalyptic than any previous one in the series. If there was ever a time that called for classically garbed ninjas, and tons of them, this is it. I mean, we get a cadre blandly costumed fodder to beat on here, so why not make them visually interesting? Why, for instance, is Luke fighting one on one all the time? Why isn’t he barreling through twenty guys at a time? It just feels very similar in stakes and scale to all the other fights in the series. I know they don’t exactly have a big-screen budget, but there are ways they could have made this fight feel bigger and more epic.
The elements that do work both do so because we as an audience understand and are invested in the motivations behind the fights. Colleen and Bakuto’s fight, which also involves Claire and then eventually Misty, is terrific because we understand the connections and betrayals that are driving both Bakuto and Colleen. And when Claire and Misty get involved, even though things end somewhat tragically, it gets you hoping for a spin-off starting these three. The other element that is most successful is Matt’s fight against Elektra, and once again that’s due to an investment constructed in another series rather than anything that happens in Marvel’s The Defenders.
There were things to like in these two episodes, however. The team itself is a winning combination, one that allows for a lot of great character moments between four people that frankly aren’t that comfortable working with anyone. Mike Colter, Krysten Ritter and Charlie Cox have been excellent throughout the series, overcoming scripting deficiencies and enhancing scenes with their sharp and specific takes on their characters. Finn Jones did a lot to redeem Danny Rand as a character in the moments when he wasn’t being asked by the writing to behave like a lunkheaded impulse-challenged kid. When he was depicted as a naive and noble optimist desperate to make friends he was actually pretty charming. And his fighting skills have improved. At this point, if they do a “Heroes for Hire” series, I’m on board.
When there was a reason for them to be there other than being plot devices, the supporting cast all delivered as well. There were some characters that were included far too much, frankly, but Henwick, Dawson and Missick were all terrific. But, Weaver aside, the Hand were all totally boring and completely generic, with even the usually good Wai Ching Ho being reduced to a flunky and getting only a few moments to display the sinister charm of her initial appearances in other shows.
The production team behind Marvel’s The Defenders had boasted that these characters were the street-level operatives of the MCU. And that’s a strong concept. But if your season climaxes with a fight inside a dragon’s skeleton beneath NYC that is resolved by an explosion demolishing a high-rise, you might want to consider that you’ve wandered away from that street-level aim. That’s not a bad thing, but if you’re going to make the conflict more fantastical, then you have to execute on that. It’s can’t be both street-level and world-ending at the same time. But they didn’t fully commit to either in not giving the Hand a larger ultimate goal or by portraying them as little more than an organized crime syndicate, yet still injecting mystical portents and prophecies and threats of war and apocalypse.
In the final analysis, while these two episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders didn’t bring the story to a hugely satisfying conclusion, feeling like a missed opportunity, the fun chemistry and sharp characterizations of its cast of characters keeps it from feeling like a waste of time. It was never as relentlessly dumb and wrong-headed as, say, “Iron Fist.” That being said, the series never captured the brilliance, freshness or insight of “Jessica Jones” or “Daredevil” and “Luke Cage” in their finest moments. These shows have proven themselves to be capable of smart, engaging, compelling tales of compromised heroism in a real-world setting. Though Marvel’s The Defenders didn’t ever achieve those heights, it did wind up having its own pleasures from time to time. Here’s hoping the next time we see The Defenders in action, it’s in service of a threat and story that lives up to their promise. 6/10