Is The Defenders a good show? Not if you take “good” to mean that it’s well-written, or deftly plotted, or boasts particularly transcendent performances. The script includes lines that belong nowhere outside of a Ferrero Rocher commercial, like, “Your insight on music history—it never ceases to amaze me,” or, “Please tell your wife she makes it even better than they did in Constantinople.” Though Netflix has wisely trimmed the new spinoff of its four Marvel superheroes down to eight episodes, the first two still feature a laborious amount of wheel-spinning setup. And even if the actors are all doing their best, they can’t shake the bleak pomposity that infuses all of Marvel’s Netflix shows—a characteristic commitment to clenched jaws and deathly earnestness.
But none of this matters when the four characters finally come together, in a fight sequence of such exuberance and energy that the whole universe seems to click into place. Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) have each appeared in their own series up to this point, to varying effect and critical reception. But together, they’re a riot. Both their heroic vulnerabilities and the franchise’s weaknesses are superseded by the collective and the joy of watching a super-sensed, ultra-strong, bulletproof, luminous fist-wielding foursome smash soulless corporate henchmen into smithereens.
There is, of course, some exposition to get through before this point, just in case there are curious viewers tuning in who haven’t kept up to date with all four heroes individually (pretty much the only reason to soldier through the 13 episodes of Iron Fist). The first episode offers a quick catchup: Matt’s put away his costume and is focusing on pro bono work, Jessica’s still drinking excessively, Luke’s out of prison thanks to a timely intervention by Foggy (Elden Henson), and Danny and Colleen (Jessica Henwick) have chased the Hand to Phnom Penh, where they seem to hit a dead end. But all are back in New York by the time a strange event occurs that pulls them into the orbit of Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy and enigmatic woman with a fascinating past but only a single emotional register.
Weaver, despite her immense talent and ferocious poise, makes for the weakest villain the Netflix Marvel universe has seen so far, burdened with all of the tedious epicurean hallmarks of an arch-nemesis (she loves classical music and Botticelli masterpieces) but none of the personality, at least in the four episodes distributed to critics. Unlike Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk (Daredevil) or Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth (Luke Cage), she exudes bland elegance rather than menace. To that end, The Defenders relies on another familiar face for most of its epic set pieces, but it’s still hard not to long for a more genuinely ominous and unstable villain like David Tennant’s Kilgrave from Jessica Jones, who beyond threatening the physical safety of the four heroes could actually get inside their heads.
To the credit of The Defenders, though, it’s obviously learned from the pitfalls and rookie errors of the previous four series. Episodes are shorter, fight scenes are tighter, and the sheer volume of characters to deal with means there’s much less throat-clearing going on. Most of the criticism leveled at Finn Jones’s oft-petulant boy billionaire is incorporated into the show via Luke, who treats Danny to dressing downs and occasional physical face-offs that for viewers are likely cathartic. It’s oddly a lot easier to accept Danny Rand as a mystical-wisdom spouting, Converse-wearing brat when there’s someone onscreen making fun of him for it.
The flip side of the pared-down structure is that it allows for only a brief amount of time with each character, particularly Jessica, whose show debuted almost two years ago, and who hasn’t been heard from since. But that’s presumably the point of The Defenders—to remind viewers that these heroes are here to stay. The thrill of Marvel’s TV shows has always been the recurring characters who pop up in unexpected places, like the Madame Gaos and the Jeri Hogarths who add cohesion to their shared universe. (Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle/Punisher reportedly shows up in later episodes of The Defenders, and there are rumors Kilgrave might also make an appearance.) It’s now at least clear why Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) has been such a sparse but reliable presence all this time: Someone had to be the mutual friend who brings the gang together.