'The Defenders' Spoiler Review: Marvel's Latest Team-Up Is A Big Disappointment

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the first season of Marvel's The Defenders.)

When the entire world needs saving, the Avengers are the team you probably want on the job (if this particular world exists in the MCU, that is). But when the local neighborhood needs protection, maybe it's time for some smaller fish to spring into action. Enter The Defenders, the latest Marvel show to drop onto Netflix for fans to binge over a weekend and then swiftly forget about.

There was a time when a series like The Defenders would feel like a major event, yet there's a curious lack of excitement revolving around the project. Perhaps it's become harder to be enthusiastic about an event like this when every form of superhero entertainment is treated like an event now. In other words, it's become exhausting.

When Marvel slowly built up the MCU and then unleashed The Avengers into theaters, it felt fresh and exciting – movies hadn't attempted something like this before. How then does the same approach fare on TV with The Defenders? For one thing, Marvel has learned from some of the mistakes of their previous Netflix series. While the shows that led into The Defenders were often painfully drawn-out into 12 episodes, The Defenders is a much-more manageable eight. Yet even eight hours is just too long in this case. The Defenders is a 2-hour movie stretched into a series, and it suffers as a result. Not helping matters is the fact that The Defenders is plagued with strange wipes and smash-cuts to get us from scene to scene, fight sequences bogged down with slowness, a completely wasted villain, and, of course, more Iron Fist, the character none of us need more of.

There's a lot to unpack here, yet at the same time there isn't. This is truly the strangest Marvel series to date, not because of its content, but because of how curiously empty it ends up feeling. It's a whole lot of build-up leading into not much pay-off. It's entertaining yet somehow completely joyless. It's a conundrum.

To examine The Defenders, we must first look at the four heroes at its center, and then beyond. Consider this an informal power-ranking, where we look at them from best to worst (I'm pretty sure you can guess who will end up in last place).

jessica jones defenders

AKA Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones is not only the best of the Marvel/Netflix series, it's also one of the best things Marvel has done so far with their new-found powers of entertainment domination. It was a series that tackled incredibly weighty material – sexual abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism – and found ways to fit it all into a superhero saga. While the Marvel films shy away from these very adult themes, the Netflix shows have allowed darker, heavier subject matter to flourish, and Jessica Jones was the show that handled it best.

So it's no surprise that Krysten Ritter's Jessica Jones is the most interesting element of The Defenders. Of the four leads, Jessica is the one who comes across as the most genuine; the most believable. And while Daredevil is the only member of the team who actually has anything approaching an emotional arc here, it's Jessica who steals every scene she's in. Jessica is still reeling from the events of her own series, and the specter of her vile arch nemesis Kilgrave still haunts her. One interesting factor is the reveal that since her tangle with Kilgrave, Jessica hasn't really changed much. While it would've been very easy to have the character start to clean up her act and cut down on her hard drinking, that's also not very realistic. Just because Jessica finally vanquished Kilgrave it doesn't make her any less traumatized. She's still inherently emotionally damaged, and she's combating that the only way she knows how – with copious amounts of liquor.

What makes Jessica the best Defender is the fact that she's the only member who has a sense of humor about, well, anything. All the other characters are incredibly self-important and oh-so-serious about who they are and what their mission is. Jessica, in stark contrast, just doesn't give a shit. She wants to get this all over with so she can back to her own life. There's something freeing in that, in a character who wants to wrap things up as quickly as possible.

Still cobbling together an existence as a private eye, Jessica gets hired – sort of – to find a missing architect. She's hesitant to take the case simply because she believes the architect has run off to have an affair, but she eventually tracks him down to an apartment where he's stored an alarming amount of explosives. The architect, brandishing a gun and clearly scared out of his mind, confronts Jessica in her own office, where he's promptly attacked by none-other than the resurrected Elektra Natchios (Élodie Yung), although Jessica has no idea who she is at this point. The architect would rather take his own life than face Elektra, an act that ends up getting Jessica arrested by Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Every criminal suspect is entitled to legal representation, which gives the show the perfect excuse to bring Jessica and Matt Murdock together.

The show keeps coming back to the late architect character, who is peripherally involved with the bigger plot. Jessica awkwardly tries to reassure the dead man's traumatized family, but The Defenders eventually drops this entirely to focus on half-assed fist-fights. It's a pity, because these moments where Jessica, who is not the best communicator, struggles to talk with the dead man's daughter (Chloe Levine) are handled quite well. These emotional moments are few and far between in The Defenders, and would likely be better explored in a new season of Jessica Jones rather than as part of the convoluted plot of The Defenders. This is a flaw that appears again and again in this show – smaller character moments are sacrificed to make room for flimsy spectacle. Hey, is it time for Jessica Jones season 2 yet?

luke cage defenders

Power Man

Let's all take a step back and appreciate how cool, and charming, and handsome Mike Colter is as the noble, super strong, bullet-proof Luke Cage. Colter has so much damn charisma that it should probably be illegal to pair him up with someone like Finn Jones, but hey, that's where we are.

Unfortunately, Luke Cage has very little to do in The Defenders. Colter is so wonderful in the part, though, that his ranking here is high, but gosh it would've been nice if the writers had given him some more stuff to do.

At the start of The Defenders, Luke is in jail, but don't worry: he gets out instantly and returns home to his neighborhood, where he hooks back up with Rosario Dawson's ever-present nurse Claire Temple. Luke wants to become a shining light in his community; a hero who can do some real good beyond just clobbering people. This stuff is set up very early, and it hints at greatness. Luke gets involved trying to help a young man in over his head, and Colter shines in these moments. But don't worry – the show quickly dispatches with this so Luke can just stand around and occasionally do strong stuff, like bending pipes or let bullets bounce off his chest.

One thing The Defenders does do right: it reunites Luke and Jessica, who hadn't seen each other since the events of Jessica Jones. These few and far between moments, where the former lovers awkwardly talk about their history, are stellar, and Colter and Ritter have dynamite chemistry together. But who has time for all that character work when we've got poorly lit fight scenes to get to?

daredevil defenders!

The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen

Make no mistake: even though this is supposed to be a show about a team, Daredevil is the focal point of The Defenders. He's the Iron Man/Tony Stark of the Marvel-Netflix world, the character who came first and is therefore the default lead. Charlie Cox is pretty good in The Defenders, and seems to be the most comfortable in his role, probably because he's the only one who already has two whole seasons in the bag. But that doesn't really make him the most interesting, and of all the characters, Daredevil seems to be the one most stuck in a rut, retreading the same old ground.

Matt hung up his horns at the end of Daredevil season 2, and is instead trying to focus on being a lawyer while making amends with the people in his life he's alienated, Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll). He's also still reeling from the death of Elektra, who, of course, isn't very dead after all, which Matt will learn soon. The Defenders wants Matt's journey to be its emotional core: time after time, Matt strives to save Elektra, often while putting others at risk. The problem: this is all kind of boring. It's also ground that was mostly covered in season 2 of Daredevil, so rehashing it here gives The Defenders a spinning-the-wheels vibe that nearly sinks it.  

Still, The Defenders does the impossible: it makes Daredevil's costume look cool. I don't know if it's just a matter of direction, lighting, or the fact that I'm finally used to it, but this is the first time the Daredevil suit looks formidable and imposing rather than a collection of elbow pads. Part of this is the way Cox carries himself in it, often taking a stance of a boxer ready to deliver a killing blow.

Matt struggles with the whole "team" aspect at first, maybe even more than Jessica. He doesn't want to reveal himself to his new super friends, because he's tired of people around him getting hurt. But he  eventually comes along and the show gives him a somewhat sweet moment in the final episode where he tells his hero buddies "I'm glad we found each other." The show immediately tries to rob this moment of its emotional heft by having Jessica and Luke downplay it as corny, but it works thanks to Cox's performance.

Matt's arc here involves him coming to terms with his relationship with the brainwashed Elektra, trying to save her, and realizing that even if he can't, he still won't leave her. It should be powerful stuff, but it's not, really. Mostly because Cox and Élodie Yung have very little chemistry together, so their big emotional moments fizzle. The true emotional weight rests with Matt's relationship with Foggy and Karen, and all of Matt and Elektra's scenes have nothing on a moment in the last episode where Karen and Foggy hopefully look towards a doorway, waiting in vain for Matt to stroll through it after Matt has been "killed" (which, of course, he hasn't, since Daredevil season 3 still has to happen).

Marvel's The Defenders

Ugh, this guy.

Ugh, I Guess I Have To Talk About Iron Fist Now?

Iron Fist stinks, let's move on!

Alright, fine, I should say a little bit more. Look, Iron Fist is the Hawkeye of The Defenders – the character no one really cares about but we're stuck with him. And just as Hawkeye was mostly sidelined for the first Avengers here, so is Finn Jones' Danny Rand, who spends a good chunk of the series tied to a chair or strapped to a table.

Danny does work considerably better as a supporting player than a lead, and The Defenders gets points for having the other characters continually roll their eyes every time Danny lamely announces that he's "The Immortal Iron Fist!" But the show also makes the misstep of having Danny be sort-of the focal point of the whole shebang – the bad guys want to use Danny to set their evil, vague plans in motion. Danny's like a human Infinity Stone here; a McGuffin that everyone has to keep focusing on when they could probably be focusing on more interesting things.

Also following Danny into The Defenders from Iron Fist is Jessica Henwick's Colleen Wing, who is so much more interesting. Honestly, The Defenders would've done everyone a favor if it had opened with Danny leaving the show completely and having Colleen become the Iron Fist instead. Win-win.

defenders supporting

And the Rest!

The Defenders heroes bring along all their supporting characters from their respective shows (the ones that are still alive, at least), which could've lead to something captivating, but ultimately goes nowhere.

Front and center, of course, is Rosario Dawson, who continues to be stuck patching up characters who get hurt while not having time for anyone's bullshit. The Defenders makes Dawson's Claire and Henwick's Colleen a dynamic duo of eye-rollers; the characters who have had just about enough of all this craziness. Honestly, a spin-off series about these two ladies would probably end up being better than The Defenders.

The other big supporting lead is Scott Glenn's super badass Stick, who is pretty much the fifth Defender. Glenn is continually delightful in this part, and one of the funniest moments in the show comes when he casually cuts his own hand off to escape a sticky situation. Stick meets his untimely end in The Defenders, but if Daredevil season 3 finds a way to bring him back, I won't complain.

There's a moment in The Defenders where our heroes gather up their friends and loved ones to spirit them away to protective custody, and all the supporting players are sequestered together in one room. A smarter show could've turned this into an entire episode itself; a bottle episode about what it's like to be on the sidelines; what it's like to be a friend of a superhero. But The Defenders isn't that smart of a show, and so the scene amounts to little more than the audience saying, "Oh look, there they all are together."

Simone Missick's Misty Knight gets the fourth most supporting-character focus behind Claire, Colleen and Stick, and while Missick is strong in the role and Misty has the potential to be a great character, The Defenders turns her into little more than a huge buzzkill. Pretty much every scene with Misty involves her showing up and telling our heroes that they need to start answering her boring police questions. Look, I get it: this is actually pretty realistic. Misty is doing her job, and she's doing it really well. The problem is, we as an audience are already way ahead of her, so to have her continually ask everyone questions we already know the answers to gets real old real fast.

One missed opportunity: Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, does not make an appearance here, despite being featured in some promo material. The Punisher is a lone-wolf who wouldn't fit in with the whole team element of The Defenders, but they likely could've worked him in there somewhere. I'd rather have seen him than any of the boring villains who show up. Speaking of which, let's talk about them.  

Weaver Defenders

The Boring Villains

First thing's first: I really hope Marvel paid Sigourney Weaver a boatload of money for her comically underused character. Get that cash, girl.

Weaver is Alexandra, one of the five "fingers" of The Hand, and I guess the leader? Who knows? Who cares! Not this show. Alexandra is apparently very, very old (we're talking centuries here) and also dying. She's the one in charge of resurrecting Elektra from the dead so that the formerly deceased ninja can become the unstoppable killing machine known as the Black Sky.

There are some eerie moments between Alexandra and Elektra that show an almost twisted  mother-daughter relationship, but it doesn't amount to much. In fact, nothing Weaver does here amounts to much.

This isn't Weaver's fault: she does the absolute best she can with the material she's given, and brings an icy charm the part. There are some particularly great moments between Weaver and Glenn, two consummate pros who can out-act pretty much the entire cast. But Weaver's part is ultimately a big waste. The character is set-up to be the Big Bad only to get killed off before she can do anything serious. This seems to be a favorite trick of Marvel's Netflix, since they did pretty much the same thing with Mahershala Ali's super slick bad guy Cottonmouth in Luke Cage.

The whole thing comes off as an elaborate joke the showrunners are pulling on the audience. "Wouldn't it be hilarious if we cast Sigourney Weaver and made people think she was going to be this super cool villain, only to have her get quickly killed off?" No. It wouldn't.

The real Big Bad of The Defenders is Elektra, who spends a good chunk of the series as a brainwashed killing machine, then sort-of gets her memories back but not really. It's all very vague. In fact, every single thing the villains in The Defenders do is very vague. The Hand may have been interesting when Frank Miller created them for the Daredevil comics, but in the Marvel-Netflix world, they're inept and boring. Honestly, does anyone care about Madame Gao anymore? Or Bakuto? Do you even remember who Bakuto is? Don't lie.

defenders group 2

Heroes Get Remembered, But Franchises Never Die

Despite all the aforementioned flaws, The Defenders is oddly watchable. You'll be able to binge it with ease, and then we can all get back to waiting for new seasons of the better Marvel-Netflix standalones. Those shows would be best served following The Defenders' lead and cutting the episode count down to eight, but perhaps even that is too many.

The first three episodes of The Defenders are the very definition of stretching for time. Even though there have been multiple seasons of TV introducing us to who these characters are and what they do, The Defenders unwisely devotes three whole hours to reintroducing them. The sooner Marvel and Netflix learn that less is more, the better off we'll all be.

The Defenders should've been a huge event, something that people just can't stop talking about for weeks, something worth revisiting. Instead, it's just another stepping stone. Wouldn't it be much more exciting to create a memorable stand-alone work rather than just another smorgasbord of scenarios to keep a brand churning along? Hell, if you ask me, that would be downright heroic.