Review: Netflix's Defenders Is Less Than the Sum of Its Superheroes

From left, Mike Colter (as Luke Cage), Krysten Ritter (as Jessica Jones) and Charlie Cox (as Matt Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil) in "Marvel's The Defenders" Credit Jessica Miglio/Netflix. Netflix and Marvel have collaborated on four comics-based television series over the last few years, and while they share a setting (New York) and a few overlapping characters, they’re pretty distinct. You wouldn’t confuse "Jessica Jones" with "Iron Fist" or "Daredevil" with "Luke Cage.". Now there’s a fifth show, "Marvel's The Defenders," available Friday on Netflix, that brings the four heroes together to form a superpowered crime-fighting team. Marvel has done this before, combining characters to assemble the blockbuster Avengers movies.

Review: Netflix's Defenders Is Less Than the Sum of Its Superheroes
But the challenge for the showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez (who were in charge of Season 2 of "Daredevil") is a little different. Coming hot on the heels of the individual shows, each of which has already devoted 13 to 26 hours to its story, they’re not just juggling personalities and plot points. They’re also trying to mesh four different tones, styles, rhythms, color palettes, music philosophies and acting styles. Through four of the eight episodes, they do an impressive job on that score. Without feeling like a paint-by-numbers kit, "Defenders" maintains the essence of the misanthropic private eye, Jones; the haunted blind vigilante, Daredevil; the bulletproof Harlem mensch, Cage; and the hippy-dippy martial artist, Iron Fist. It’s even deftly faithful to the original shows’ looks, going blue and steely when the action centers on Jones, white and misty for Iron Fist.

But the professionalism — and have no doubt, Defenders is very well put together — comes with some costs. One is the standard problem for this kind of assemblage: the need to give everyone equal screen time, and the exposition required to make sense of their getting together, means less of the things we come to comic-book stories for. There’s a lot of getting-to-know-you and here’s-what-we’re-doing talk in the early episodes, and not a lot of action or emotion. Never-Ending Superheroes: Here Come the Defenders and the Tick AUG. 11, 2017. Review: Krysten Ritter Is a Gumshoe With Superhero Troubles in ‘Jessica Jones’ NOV. 18, 2015. Review: In ‘Daredevil,’ a Superhero Is Sightless but Not Blind to Crime APRIL 8, 2015.

And the corollary to that: It takes a while for things to get going. A long while. "Defenders" is an egregious offender in this regard. Minor spoiler alert: The team doesn’t truly come together until halfway through the season, which doesn’t leave as much time as you’d like for villain-bashing and heart-tugging sacrifice. One final problem, at least for real fans: The producers have chosen the shadowy ninja syndicate called the Hand as the enemy that unites the Defenders. Because of the histories of the various Marvel comics from which the show is drawn, this results in the story flowing primarily through Iron Fist, the least interesting and least popular of the Netflix-Marvel characters.

Finn Jones in "Marvel’s The Defenders." Credit Jessica Miglio/Netflix. That story picks up shortly after the time frames of each of the antecedent series, with Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Daredevil (Charlie Cox) licking their wounds after deadly battles, Cage (Mike Colter) newly released from prison and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) traveling the world seeking revenge. Seemingly unconnected events — a new case for Jones, a Harlem crime wave, an earthquake centered in Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood — are all connected to the Hand, drawing the four together.

None of it seems very urgent, though. It would help if the series had a better villain. The nebulous, largely faceless (ninja robes, after all) forces of the Hand were a drag in "Daredevil" and "Iron Fist," and even with the addition of Sigourney Weaver as their leader, they’re pretty dull here, too. The best Marvel-Netflix seasons have benefited from larger-than-life bad guys: Vincent D’Onofrio’s raging Kingpin in Season One of "Daredevil" and especially David Tennant’s icy psycho, Kilgrave, in "Jessica Jones."

"Jones," the best of the Marvel-Netflix bunch, offers Ms. Ritter’s barbed but compassionate portrayal, and Defenders perks up whenever she’s on screen. (In fairness to Mr. Colter, Mr. Cox and Mr. Jones, they have to do a disproportionate amount of the obligatory arguing and explaining.) The show also comes alive when Scott Glenn shows up as the no-nonsense sensei, Stick. There’s nothing terribly wrong with Marvel's The Defenders but there may not be enough right about it to make it worth the time of anyone but the completist. By the end of the year, there are set to be 11 live-action Marvel shows spread across five TV networks and streaming services. You can afford to be choosy.


Marvel’s The Defenders
Streaming Friday on Netflix


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