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The Defenders amplifies Marvel’s Netflix ideology, warts and all

A slow start to a long-anticipated show

It’s hard to pinpoint what, exactly, The Defenders stand for. Good and justice in the world, obviously, since they’re superheroes. And then… what else? If past Marvel shows like Jessica Jones are an instrument, delicately tuned for individual stories about the complications of vigilantism, the new Netflix crossover series The Defenders is a blunt object swinging into a car window.

The Defenders unites the protagonists of Netflix’s Marvel shows Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Iron Fist. It picks up after the end of the latter series, with Danny Rand still hunting down members of the deadly organization known as the Hand. His findings lead him to believe the Hand is preoccupied with New York City, also home to the rest of the would-be Defenders. Jessica Jones is tracking a case, Matt Murdock is brought in as her lawyer, and Luke Cage is trying to help a local kid who’s gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd. Their individual pursuits eventually lead them all to the same place at the same time, and chaos ensues. The group grudgingly has to unite to take down the Hand.

The Defenders pairs its heroes nicely, allowing Luke and Danny, or Jessica and Matt, to play off each other in ways that benefit them all. Danny is a poster boy for privileged white-guy appropriation, thanks to rich parents and a dive into the mystical martial arts. Luke Cage is a compassionate, level-headed hero with an eye out for the little guy. Daredevil is a vigilante with a guilty conscience and a tendency to jump into super ninja mode at a moment’s notice. Jessica Jones is witty and no-nonsense, more likely to snap a photo as hard evidence of someone acting strangely than to chase them down.

There’s genuine joy in the moments when the gang is together. Fight scenes unfold as beautifully choreographed free-for-alls, where a rewatch is encouraged to visually scoop up every last bit of action. The show understands physical camaraderie. Everyone feels like they’re pulling their weight, whether their power is bulletproof skin or a glowing fist. And the comedy between them is real, whether it’s Jessica dressing down Daredevil with a sharp observation, or Danny Rand finally playing the comedic role his character seems best suited for.

But before The Defenders can gather its eponymous supergroup, it has to get them all together. The show suffers from a slow start and a disorienting tonal mix that makes its early episodes feel off balance. In their individual series, these characters have definite themes or feelings. Jessica Jones is a dark noir infused with trauma; Luke Cage is a mix of funk and hip-hop poured over an exploration of modern problems in Harlem. Compared with the more ludicrous ideas of these series — Daredevil and especially Iron Fist’s obsession with ninjas and the mystic — The Defenders shifts in ways that demand constant adjustment.

Rather than creating a single, new vibe for the show, The Defenders gives each character their own mini-stories. It’s like a summarized version of each series, boiled down to the base-level ideas to familiarize viewers with each hero’s agenda. And in case you’ve forgotten who’s who, the show is shot in a way to visually remind you every time. Heroes are often lit with their theme color: red for Daredevil, yellow for Luke Cage, and so on. And when they’re all together? The show not-so-subtly has all colors present. It’s a bizarre, often distracting choice, and it adds a layer of camp to the show that its heroes never quite match.

But superheroes only need one great unifier: a villain worth fighting. The Defenders has a strong choice in Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, a villain by way of Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk. She’s deadly and cunning, but she masks her threat with taste, elegance, and class. Weaver is a commanding force in the role, a perpetually calm voice in even the most ridiculous scenarios. Like the ragtag group of superheroes she faces, Alexandra has a counterpart of her own in Elektra, first introduced in Daredevil as a love interest. The once complex antiheroine has been stripped of all personality to become a human weapon, and a point of conflict for the blind vigilante.

Coming off Iron Fist, inarguably the worst of the four Netflix / Marvel series, The Defenders bears hallmarks of that show’s shortcomings. It sometimes flails in its writing, especially in exploring the Hand and its devious doings. But where Iron Fist took itself too seriously, The Defenders has the advantage of better-grounded characters to offset its most ridiculous moments.

Series like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have taught us that Marvel shows have the potential to say something outside of the superhero realm. The Defenders never captures that level of intensity or inquisitive thought. It’s a team-up story: good guys coming together to thwart evil in the simplest sense. Its nuance is on par with Iron Fist punching people through walls.

And it can’t replicate the free-flying spirit of a super-saga like The Avengers. Instead, it lands somewhere between. It’s a more playful turn for these heroes, who rarely have so many chances to joke and banter with other friendly faces back in their own shows. It never earns its over-active taste for flair and occasionally stumbles to find the right balance. It’s a crowd-pleaser that hits just enough notes to succeed — nothing more, and nothing less.