This story contains spoilers through all eight episodes of The Defenders.
The premise of The Defenders was a doozy: Netflix’s four Marvel superheroes, with their various powers, and foibles, and neatly color-coded worlds, would team up to battle an antagonist so powerful and so nefarious that it required their collective might to defeat it. What’s not to like? As The Avengers has proven, the only thing better than a superhero is a team of superheroes, griping, and squabbling, and eating shawarma together after saving the world again.
And yet, working through all eight episodes of the miniseries uniting Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, it became apparent around the fifth episode that something crucial was missing. This was (spoilers ahead) when it became clear that the primary goal of the evil organization the four heroes were fighting, The Hand, was ... to go back to K’un-Lun, a mystical city in a parallel dimension. Forget penetrating the upper echelons of government, or building a criminal empire by consolidating rival factions, or even getting New York City addicted to an extremely potent form of synthetic heroin. Instead, the five fingers of The Hand simply wanted to secure enough ground-up dragon bone (conveniently fossilized several thousand feet under Hell’s Kitchen) to secure their immortality and then go home, with or without the Iron Fist in tow.
It was a plot that drew heavily on events from both seasons of Daredevil and the most recent debut of Iron Fist, in which The Hand was revealed to have infiltrated both New York’s criminal underworld and its corporate boardrooms. And yet, whether because of the show’s limited number of episodes or simple budgetary restraint, The Hand seemed positively subdued in The Defenders, lacking in motivation and manpower. Compare the final episode to the epic battle in the last episode of Season 2 of Daredevil, where Matt Murdock (in costume) fought a horde of several thousand ninjas led by Nobu Yoshioka. But in The Defenders, down in
the Chamber of Secrets the mysterious midtown hole filled with dragon remains, The Hand’s four remaining fingers were left to do most of the fighting themselves, with only a sparse collection of henchmen helping on the sidelines.
If The Defenders proves anything, it’s that villains are as important to the success of a Marvel story as heroes are. To neglect them, or (as seems more likely) to be stymied by a confluence of existing narrative events that require reconciling, is to end up with a series that squanders its premise. In the third episode, when the four primary characters finally got to fight together for the first time, The Defenders proved its potential, showing how dynamic and fun it could be to have the squad’s various powers united for good. But as the series went on, it became progressively less clear what exactly they were fighting for. The threat of an earthquake that would destroy Manhattan loomed mysteriously large, even though the solution—detonating enough C-4 to bring down a midtown building—seemed more destabilizing to the city’s geology than smashing a mystical door to mine dragon bones could ever be.
Unpredictably, one of the biggest flaws of the miniseries was Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra Reid, a paint-by-numbers aesthete of a villain with a yen for fine art and a wardrobe full of neutral separates from Akris Punto. Weaver brought exactly the same steely poise to the role that she did to her last major dramatic role, the Hillary Clinton-a-like Elaine Barrish in 2012’s Political Animals, with little of the underlying menace or sadism required in a woman intent on owning the world’s greatest human weapon. Even with the backstory that her daughter’s death had spurred her own quest for immortality, Alexandra was considerably less intriguing than Wai Ching Ho’s Madame Gao, whose own apparent super-strength almost bested Jessica Jones.
The show even seemed to acknowledge Alexandra’s flimsiness as an antagonist in Episode 6 when she was abruptly and unexpectedly murdered by Matt’s former lover/the Chaste warrior Elektra (Elodie Yung). But the sudden switch in enemies only pointed out the deficiencies in a different character. Elektra, brought back from death by The Hand with the last of the “substance” used to revive its leaders, has always been a difficult character, a sociopathic femme fatale bent on bringing out the bad in Matt Murdock. Revived, she was even more two-dimensional, intent on taking over leadership of The Hand for reasons that seemed opaque at best. The only plot element more irritating was Matt’s persistent belief that he could detect good in a woman whose favorite hobby is killing people with Okinawan sais.
The weakness of the villains in The Defenders comes into sharper focus next to some of the better Marvel series Big Bads. The most fascinating ones, like Jon Bernthal’s antiheroic Punisher, or David Tennant’s manipulative Kilgrave, have stepped outside of the comic-book realm to illuminate darker tendencies in the real world. Kilgrave, able to verbally control anyone in his presence thanks to a virus he emitted, served as an allegory about abusive relationships and controlling partners. And the disturbing appeal of Frank Castle/The Punisher, as my colleague David Sims wrote in 2016, pointed to the increasing appeal of simplistic, ferocious enforcers with guns who specialize in rough justice.
The first teaser trailer for the upcoming spinoff The Punisher, hidden after the credits of the final episode of The Defenders, hints at Marvel’s grimmest series yet—a bloodthirsty, noirish world of crime and … well, punishment. (If Daredevil’s color palette is red, Jessica Jones’s is blue, Luke Cage’s is yellow, and Danny Rand’s is green, The Punisher’s appears to be a queasy shade of aquamarine.) In Bernthal’s Castle, the franchise already has one charismatic, haunted antihero to enact his personal code on the world. But if he doesn’t have the antagonist he deserves, he’ll be missing the most pivotal thing a superhero needs.