If you go into Marvel and Netflix's new epic superhero mash-up show The Defenders expecting a small screen version of Marvel Studios' Avengers series, I've got some shocking news for you: it's a TV show, not a movie. And, as it turns out from the four episodes we've watched of the show, that's a good thing.
You'd be forgiven from making that mistake, though. Just how the first Avengers movie was a culmination of the five movies before it, Defenders brings together nearly every major and supporting character from five seasons of television. Specifically, the first two seasons of Daredevil, and the first seasons of Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist. That's approximately 65 hours of character development and interactions that come to bear, and it's to showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez's credit that they don't try to jam all the necessary exposition into the first five minutes so they can get to the superhero fights.
Don't get me wrong: there are a lot of superhero fights. But where Avengers was epic spectacle on a global scale, Defenders is far more concerned with the characters. It's a slow burn, not an explosion.
For some fans coming in expecting fireworks immediately, this might seem to be a detriment; but I'd argue that's where the Netflix model excels. Each of the first four episodes has its own focus and setting, but also leads relatively seamlessly into the next episode. Defenders finds the happy medium between being an eight(ish) hour long movie (don't call it a movie!), while still leaning into the episodic format.
(Also of note, at least each of the first four episodes are less than an hour; which, as anyone who has slogged their way through Netflix's fluctuating episode length knows, is a blessing).
They also take their time getting the band together (I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the four leads eventually team up), which leads to Defenders' most interesting tactic: attempting to blend four very different shows, each with its own unique color palette, shooting style and musical tapestry. At least initially, when Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and his cast are focused on, red lights shine in the background (or the color is featured prominently as part of the set). The angles are often more canted and stylized, like the series that preceded it. Luke Cage's (Mike Colter) scenes get a hip-hop soundtrack, a yellow tinge, an often handheld camera, and seem to take place in an alternate New York where it's always Fall. The scenes focusing on Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and her cast are tinged with blue (and maybe a little purple?), the colors faded and washed out. And Iron Fist (Finn Jones) is green.
Eventually they start to blend, though depending on which character's point of view we're following in a scene, their primary color will still shine through.
This points to one of the greatest weaknesses of the show, though — at least in the initial going. Depending on where your favorites lie in these four series, your mileage will very much vary. For me, it was a thrill to see Ritter in action again as the hilariously caustic, often drunk Jessica Jones. Same with Colter's steadfast Luke Cage, and Cox's constantly conflicted Matt Murdock. Iron Fist was easily the weakest of the four series, and Finn Jones' portrayal often bordering more on a petulant child, than the martial arts badass fans knew from the comics.
The good news? Defenders isn't here as a placeholder until the characters get back to their main series (which is often how mashup movies like Avengers or Captain America: Civil War feel, at least on the individual scale versus pushing the whole universe forward). There are major character developments for all four throughout the episodes screened, and nobody benefits more than Jones. In interviews, the actor is funny and charming; on screen, his Iron Fist was saddled with half-baked PTSD that made him a shaky, frustrating mess. And it takes a bit to get there, but once he's able to play off the rest of the cast, new dynamics emerge that allow his billionaire Danny Rand to be — gasp — funny. Where he was deadly serious in his own series, here the characters all take the piss out of each other, Iron Fist in particular. It loosens Jones up exponentially.
Other characters don't fare quite as well (again, until they start to team up). The intense focus on race that elevated Luke Cage is here, but it's broader, more a character trait than a mission statement. Same with Jessica Jones. Ritter is a shining light every time she shows up on screen, but she's saddled with a less interesting part of the story for the first few episodes, a mystery that doesn't even come close to the stunning exploration of sexual assault that consumed her series.
Cox, arguably, gets the most to do in the first half of Defenders. Where the other three characters have "only" had one season to develop, Daredevil has had 26 hours. The comfort Cox and his supporting cast have slipping back into their roles shows here. His arc is also the most compelling: where the main drive of the series is "what makes a hero?" Murdock has already given that up at the end of Daredevil Season 2. He's decided to save people as a lawyer, not a man dressed in red spandex and body armor. Again, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say his slow journey back towards his destiny is compelling to watch, and Cox makes it feel grounded and real.
That's the biggest way Defenders differs from Avengers, something the showrunners have talked about extensively: while the Avengers fight in the sky or space, the Defenders don't have a headquarters, or coordinated costumes. They fight in dirty bars and — yes, it's a running joke at this point — hallways. And ultimately they're not looking for a long term team-up. They probably won't even call themselves Defenders at any point. It's convenient for them to get together, and when they finally do get together, it's as thrilling as anything on TV. But ultimately: it's the characters, stupid. From the heroes, to the villains, Ramirez and Petrie remember that a fight scene for the sake of a fight scene might be fun to watch, but it doesn't serve the characters. Every punch-out has a motivation, a reason for being, which puts some real stakes behind it. You don't worry about Hulk or Thor when they fight; they're so much larger than life, they'll be fine. On the other (bruised) hand, we've already seen all four of these characters get monumentally hurt in their previous series — but even given that, they're just regular people. People with incredibly heightened senses, super-strength, bulletproof skin and a glowing fist, sure. But people nonetheless.
And one other bit that makes Defenders different than most of the Marvel movies: it has a great villain. This is somewhere the Netflix/Marvel shows have always had an advantage, from Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin in Daredevil, to David Tennant's monstrous Kilgrave on Jessica Jones. Sigourney Weaver joins that pantheon as Alexandra, a businesswoman with a mysterious past who is the main antagonist of the show. It's no shocker to say that Weaver brings weight to her role, but this is a very different villain than the other monsters who have terrorized our heroes. She's quiet, careful, and precise in her speech. She uses people as weapons when she needs to, words when she doesn't. And she is always in control of the situation, and a room. What works so well about this is pitting four heroes who would like to use their fists as often as their mouths up against a villain who doesn't need to lift so much as a finger in order to utterly destroy them.
There are other villains introduced, characters who make surprising returns. And when I say Defenders isn't like Avengers, don't worry: there's an inciting incident at the end of the first episode that creates gigantic stakes for the heroes. This series is still pretty huge. But like we mentioned earlier, it comes down to them as individuals. It's about how their separate journeys bring them together. The episodes build, and build, getting faster, funnier and better as they go. If that continues in the back half, Defenders is going to be one hell of a ride.
Just don't call it an eight hour long movie.
Marvel's The Defenders premiers on Netflix on Friday, August 18.