The Defenders premieres on Netflix on Aug. 18
Look, you don’t need to have watched Iron Fist to enjoy the brisk, brawling silliness of The Defenders, a team-up adventure that’s something like a surprising return on an investment you thought had soured. In fact, not knowing all the plot details of all the earlier stories brings the experience of this latest series — the least glum of all the Marvel/Netflix shows — closer than ever to their source material. To read serialized superhero comics is, except for the most fervent masters of past continuity, to accept that you’ll just have to roll with the quirks of backstory covered in all the comics you haven’t read — and trust the recap page to explain why Spider-Man’s a billionaire tech CEO in this current storyline, a penniless teen in another and married with a spider-kid in a third.
The Defenders (at least in the four episodes available for review) invites you to shake off the specifics of its heroes’ personal mopeyness and just roll with all the ka-powing and car-chucking. It moves fast, by comparison to the other Marvel-Netflix series, cutting from one name-brand hero to another so quickly that it has no time to let its leads sulk for a couple of hours the way they tend to on their own shows. All you need to know are the essences of the characters, not the minutiae of their ongoing dramas: Here’s Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the bulletproof Harlem hero who wants to do good but also lead a quiet life. Here’s surly Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), who dresses like a Ramone, swigs her liquor from the bottle, and regards her first big multi-hero confab with the aloof distaste your coolest young cousin exhibits at a family Thanksgiving. Here’s Iron Fist (Finn Jones), a billionaire white dude/ninja messiah with the ability to throw a magic glowing superpunch that, as in videogames, has some kind of cooldown time limit. And there’s ol’ Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the blind lawyer boxer ninja lover-man who, burdened by guilts that he must confess to his priest, dresses like a horned devil in leather. In two full seasons of his own series, Murdock has never cohered into anything like a knowable character — he’s ruled by whichever random trait developed over decades of comic-book history currently interests whoever is writing him. On The Defenders, spared the burden of shouldering the story himself, Murdock can breathe a little. We see him win a court case in two minutes flat that on Daredevil would have taken five episodes, probably padded with grunted-out rooftop discussions about the nature of justice.
Of these heroes, only Jessica Jones managed to remain compelling throughout an entire solo season. In the first installments of The Defenders, just when one gets tiresome, we vault across town to another (cue a transitional montage of subways and skyscrapers). Much like most viewers, none of the heroes here likes the whole roster. As they assemble into a team, Marvel-Netflix’s New York crew carp and gripe at each other, with Cage and Jones lambasting Iron Fist with complaints right out of their fans’ Twitter feeds: Cage shuts him down with the word “privilege” and Jones — Ritter boasts an incomparable sneer — dismisses him as “Karate Kid.”
And like the heroes in a vintage issue of Marvel Team-Up or Two-in-One, some of these heavy hitters will hit each other before even getting to the bad guys. It’s to the credit of the series’ creators (Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez) that there’s compelling reasons for the initial hero-on-hero throwdown, although after five seasons of dutifully grim solo vigilantism, a little nonsense might be welcome. Why, upon first meeting, must Cage battle Iron Fist? The same reason kids mash and beat their action figures against each other. (Besides who doesn’t want to punch Iron Fist?)
The plot is the purest Marvel hokum, this time involving the Hand, a secret order of immortal ninja assassins ruled in part by a real-life immortal Sigourney Weaver, whose height and power give her the edge in all her scenes, no matter how much beefcake she’s surrounded with. Sleeveless at 67, and still more intimidating than any superpower an FX department might conjure up, Weaver quickly establishes her character — indomitable CEO Alexandra — as possessed of both a quiet ferocity and surprising, misplaced tenderness. Her best scenes center around — well, this might seem like a spoiler if you’re one of those people who believe the pleasure of pop narratives lies only in not quite knowing which licensed characters will turn up in their corresponding media properties. If that’s you, why not take this chance to go do something besides peruse reviews of entertainment whose basic premises you believe must be kept hidden from you?
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OK: Alexandra’s strongest moments concern training and caring for her chief lieutenant, Elodie Yung’s brought-back-from-the-dead Elektra, Weaver’s most perverse screen partner since all those writhing tentacles and teeth that Ripley hooked up with in Alien: Resurrection. She pits her warrior against waves of ninja adversaries, the camera gliding slowly forward to catch curiously elegant one-take skirmishes; she also surveys Elektra’s wounds and talks her through her first day of immortality the way a real-world mother might talk a daughter through puberty. Too bad that Alexandra’s goals are cartoonish, and that she too often spouts pulpy cult-leader gibberish for her to rank as a villain as fascinating as David Tennant’s Kilgrave on Jessica Jones — and no actor could save the scene where the plot demands that Alexandra and Elektra get briefly outfoxed.
The Defenders is mostly smart about its silliness, amusing in its almost aggressive lack of meaning. New York is in danger, and heroes who don’t like each other must each, for their own clashing reasons, work together to save it. It’s apocalyptic in tone, as film and TV adaptations of comics tend to be: Outside of Spider-Man: Homecoming, producers don’t seem to get that audiences enjoy watching the characters simply hang out every bit as much as watching them pushed to their limits or relentlessly harrowed. For all that, crispness and vigor distinguish the new series, an inventiveness in scene craft and crosscutting, plus an eagerness to get to the point. (The series runs only eight episodes, which helps.)
The Defenders borrows Daredevil and Iron Fist’s fascination with martial arts combat, but it dials back Daredevil’s brutality and offers a welcome variety of fighting styles and action beats. The ninjas dance and whirl about sewers and boardrooms, but then crash into Cage, that one-man wall, while Jones chucks pieces of city at them — and lashes them with cutting remarks. Cage proves more into the idea of a team-up than she does, but together these two skeptics ground all the mystic ninja business and handily save the series. Their finding it all ridiculous makes it all that much easier to swallow. This Marvel show’s not quite epochal, but it’s also, for once, not a drag, either.