In Moderate Praise of… the Defenders

My partner’s mother was over to visit, but that was not going to interrupt the sacred duty of watching The Defenders when it was released on August 18th.  Come that Friday evening, out came the pizza, down when our backsides and binging commenced.

Some context.

Defenders is the long-awaited team-up of Marvel’s Netflix heroes, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  They’ve all had stand-alone series.  They will have several more.  I have seen all of them.  Yes – I’ve even sat through Iron Fist.

I only made it through Iron Fist by watching it in other languages.  Everything about it – the dialogue, large parts of the acting, the plot – was too painful to endure in English.  In German is was marginally ok, in Spanish the women all sounded very breathy and fey, instead of kick-ass, and in the end we went with French after it became apparent, for various reasons, that we wouldn’t be able to do the whole series in German.  (Also tried a few minutes of Polish, where like TV in Poland rather than dubbing, a single male voice just read all the lines, deadpan, in Polish on the top of the English soundtrack.  Bizarre, but alas not enough to redeem Iron Fist.)

In case you can’t tell, the other series I prefered a lot.  I liked Luke Cage for its characters and its sense of a place, a culture, a city and the value all these things bring.  I loved Daredevil season 1 for being kick-ass awesome, and enjoyed season 2 despite the fact it didn’t have the Kingpin in it any more (the Kingpin was the best) and a few personal quibbles about how Elektra was done.  I thought Jessica Jones was stone-cold brilliant.  Almost unwatchable in places, in a ‘dear God no can’t look away’ kind of way, but absolutely incredible.

Given all this, I was… excited but anxious… about Defenders.  (Almost as excited and anxious as I am about the new Blade Runner movie, because obviously they’ll screw it up, because they have to, that’s destiny, but also the trailer looks sorta… in a weird way… good…?  Gulp.)

Some reactions, from bad to good.

Iron Fist still sucks.  Given how determined I was to watch this series, whenever my partner’s Mum (a newbie to this universe) tried to ask a question, she was sternly shushed… until Iron Fist spoke.  At which point questions and answers could flow freely until more interesting, less whimpery and dumb characters were on screen.  But worse: Iron Fist being crappy, I can sorta deal with, but he takes down the should-be-awesome that is Colleen Wing with him.  When she first burst onto the screens in the original Iron Fist series, samurai sword flying, I was totally ready to cheer for her in every way.  Within a few episodes she was simpering at the power of Danny Rand’s chi, and the world wept for its loss.  There were some ways in which Colleen Wing was allowed to exercise some of her own awesome, and Danny was sorta kept in check a bit by the excellence of everything else, but still… we can all be a bit sad that the low IQ of this character infects us all.

The Hand.  Iron Fist went a long way to ruining the hand, by turning them from an organisation of uber undead ninjas into a bunch of incompetents who couldn’t kill two people if they tried.  Defenders did, I’d argue, to a certain extent redeem the Hand via the twin awesomeness of Alexandra (villainess de jour) and Elektra.  However, after all that build-up, the final revelation as to what the Hand is and does felt a bit like that moment at the end of Lord of the Rings when Sauron was reduced from being the ultimate evil of corrupting doom… to being a rather inept spotlight on a stick.  That.  That happened.  And it was a shame.  (And incidentally… why when all the friends of all our threatened heroes are couped up in the police station, didn’t the Hand poison the coffee?  I genuinely thought, when a guy drank the coffee and pulled a face, that this was a thing that would happen.  I was there.  I was ready.  I was braced for Dire Emotional Consequences and for the Hand to prove that it really is the ruthless threat of amazing.  But no.  Not even the architect’s wife and her kid snuffed it.  I’m not saying people have to die gratuitously.  I’m just saying that sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do.)

As we’ve mentioned Colleen Wing… can I join that clarion call for a Daughters of the Dragon series please?  Because the awesome-sauce team-up of Colleen and Misty Knight is ketchup to chips, gravy to Sunday roast… it is the sauce we all want, need and frankly, have earned.

Neither the plotting or the pacing are great.  But hey, after Luke Cage and Daredevil, if you’re still here, you probably don’t care.

Aware that I’m griping here, let’s do some excellent things…

I thought it was beautiful to look at.  As a lighting designer with a thing for colour, I loved the colour palettes, I loved the way it was designed, mostly loved the way it was lit, and generally speaking was cheering throughout for the production management team.

It was genuinely very funny in places, and self-referential in many of the correct, irreverent ways.  It correctly called out stupid things – such as pretty much everything Danny Rand – as well as Daredevil’s costume – while enjoying the opportunity of pairing up these characters.  In fact, many characters, from many places, all coming together was both satisfying as someone who’s followed the world, and also for the clashes and friendships that grew.

On this note, in general… the characters are what kept me going through some deeply questionable decisions.  Leaving aside Danny Rand’s determination to walk into the lair of his enemy without so much as a fire cracker or stink bomb, it was lovely to see Daredevil, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones doing their thing, and sometimes more so.  By the end of season 2 of Daredevil, it was fairly clear that Matt Murdoch was a messed up load of dribble, and it was lovely to see that playing out in Defenders.  I also genuinely liked Luke Cage more in this series than I did his own, as he spent most of the time being a voice of mellow morality and ‘guys, shall we not be dumb?’ that I massively, massively cheered for.  Not enough superheroes embody these excellent qualities.  Finally, Jessica Jones was is and remains the funniest, most interesting and torn-up of all these characters, and my only sorrow is that she wasn’t used more.  (She jumped once.  ONCE.  I mean, it was a great bit of jumping, but it’s like they got to episode 8 and were like ‘doesn’t Jessica have more than super-strength on her side…?’)  More of Jessica please, more of Claire Temple, more of Misty Knight, and yes, more of Colleen Wing once she gets over her chi-fantile thing with Danny Rand.

I even began to cheer more for Elektra, which is a big deal for me as I sorta want to be that cool when I grow up, and have lamented most of my adult life the failure to do Elektra well on screen.  I wasn’t convinced by her in Daredevil, but by the end of Defenders was beginning to come round to Team Netflix Elektra.

All in all….

… was Defenders great?

I’m gonna give it a yes/no/mostly yes.  I’m being more charitable with it than I might have been, because having committed so much time to watching these series, I sort of need it to be great, and am perfectly prepared to suspend critical faculties for a while in order to make this come true.

I’m probably also being harsher with it, because it does come from a background of several series that I love deeply and with all my heart, and from a place of deep relief in my soul that, say, this Daredevil is better than the film we do not name, and that superhero stories can be grounded in something as powerful as Jessica Jones’s was.  It’s very, very hard to live up to the standards set there, and to ask Defenders to do so is to ask a lot, more than I’d ask of most TV.

Consequently, I have no objectivity.  I cannot disconnect my previous viewings from this experience, and arguably if you don’t have previous viewings anyway you’re gonna struggle to cheer for Defenders anyway.

I would happily have kept watching more; but hope next time for a little bit more ruthlessness, from everyone, all round.

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