'The Defenders' Season 1 Spoiler Review

*Warning: The following is a spoiler review of Marvel’s The Defenders. Read ahead at your own risk!

The best scene in Marvel’s The Defenders comes near the end of the last episode. The titular group of heroes is finally assembled and united, and in their final encounter with The Hand at the bottom of the Hole introduced during the second season of Daredevil. The Hand's ultimate plan to mine the bones of K'un Lun's dragon in order to achieve immortality has been revealed, and the city of New York is in danger of collapsing in on itself if they go through with it. With several fingers of The Hand already dead and Elektra/The Black Sky serving as their new leader, The Defenders must stop them no matter the cost. The result is an epic fight scene set to Wu Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” where each of The Defenders gets to showcase their skills, and it’s everything we’ve wanted from this Marvel teamup show since it was announced.

The problem is that while it’s not the only time we see all four or a combination of The Defenders team up and get into a fight, it's something that doesn’t happen nearly often enough especially considering this is a show with only eight episodes, and where Marvel had five seasons and 50 episodes of opportunity to set things up and ensure that The Defenders would be the nonstop action and fun we all wanted it to be. Instead, they sort of dropped the ball by needlessly slowing down the pace, starting things off basically from scratch and sacrificing action and pace in exchange for character development that I'm not sure this show really needed. In other words, the show doesn’t realize what it’s got, and it dooms it from the very beginning. And while the season is not a complete failure, and moments like the one described above are its saving grace, as few and as far between as they are, it just becomes one of those things where you can't help but think of all the ways the show could be better and leaner.

For example, the four main characters don't really get together until the end of the third episode (as it's been heavily dissected in pre-air reviews). They’re completely isolated from one another in the first episode, as the show decides to check in on their lives and slowly lead them into The Hand’s conspiracy. Eventually, in episode two and three, Jessica Jones and Matt Murdoch pair off, as do Luke Cage and Danny Rand. Both duos are mostly at odds with one another, as they slowly but surely learn to trust one another on their way to finally being together as a reluctant team later in the season. Each character has their own motivations and reason to pursue the conspiracy, some flimsier than others, but the point seems to be about getting everyone to a place where they accept their fate and accept their place as a defender of New York. It's a good idea in concept, but in practice, it makes a show that's already on the short side simultaneously feel like a slog and as if it's wasting time, an impressive feat on its own. The superhero team up show spends way too much time without any superheroes teaming up.

On one hand, I appreciate the show’s effort to try and develop all four of these characters as much as possible, but this shouldn't be that kind of show. This is supposed to be Marvel’s TV version of The Avengers. On the big screen, Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers have figured out that you can’t really overthink what you’re doing with these things. People want to see these characters together, they want to see them fighting and doing cool shit. And while within that there’s room for good storytelling and good character development, like for example Hawkeye's family or Tony Stark's god complex, it never seems to sacrifice one set of things for the other, and it never attempts to replace what people clearly come to Marvel for. The Defenders never learns the same lessons.

And yet it still only feels like two of the four characters have proper stakes in anything that happens. Daredevil's are easy to explain, as he's had run ins with The Hand in the past and his complex relationship with Elektra essentially writes itself. Iron Fist's sole purpose is to fight The Hand, so Danny's singular, often whiny insistence on doing so makes sense from a character perspective. But the show doesn't show its work in terms of getting Luke Cage invested, other than repeating his tendency to want to do the right thing, and they hand-wave why Jessica Jones would even want to investigate the case that leads her into the conspiracy. Despite the fact that I don't know why half of The Defenders are even Defenders, the show spends the better part of its run trying to explain it to me.

And speaking of wasted things, let this show introduce you to Alexandra, the leader of The Hand, portrayed by the amazing Sigourney Weaver. Let them show her in many scenes enjoying what appear to be her final weeks and months alive, mentoring Black Sky and maintaining her shaky grip on the rest of her Fingers, only to be unceremoniously murdered by Elektra with several episodes to spare. Sigourney Weaver is so good here, yet like so many other Marvel villains, her appearance on this show is but a flash in the pan, a tease for something so much more than what we get to see. Her story doesn't get resolved, her character is nerfed from the beginning and is essentially irrelevant to the story once Elektra becomes the Big Bad of the season.

I believe this might be one of those cases where I'm probably sounding harder on the show than I intend to be. Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed many elements of The Defenders. There is some interesting character work, each of the main characters gets a good amount of time to do their thing and reconnect with the audience, and outside of maybe Iron Fist it mostly lands. The show also introduces an interesting and new villain, which adds to a group that’s already well-established in this universe. The story also mostly works in a coherent fashion, most of the twists are pretty good, and the action, when there actually is any, is better than, say, Iron Fist, albeit not as good as we know it can be in Daredevil.

So when The Defenders sticks its landings, it really sticks them. The problem is that it’s prone to trip over itself every second or third trick, and that’s concerning when all it really has to do to dazzle the judges is an ollie or a kickflip, and only has an eight episode time limit to do so. The things that are mishandled seem so minor in retrospect that it’s maddening how they weren’t remedied, and it often seems to boil down to choices. Why do we need two recap episodes where the Defenders don’t actually meet? Why does Alexandra need to die in a surprise twist? How come Matt Murdock accepts that he's the Daredevil but hesitates to put on the suit, and conversely why is Jessica Jones hesitant to do anything but yet always still does it? I’ve spent the time since I finished watching the show fixing all the problems I had with it in my head, and while that’s traditionally always been the way superhero media has been dissected, it shouldn’t have to be this way. A show half a decade in the making shouldn’t feel like it was quickly and sloppily put together, that it doesn’t have a worthy story to tell, that it needs to drag itself out when it only even has eight episodes to fill. And to cap it all off, the season ends with a ridiculous Daredevil fakeout that we all know isn't real but yet the show milks it for a good fifteen minutes before showing us that he's alive, as if this is the first time we've done this (although, to be fair, it does set up Daredevil season 3rather beautifully to adapt the famous Frank Miller Born Again storyline from the 80s).

So The Defenders winds up being somewhat of a mixed bag. There are some good twists, some bad. Good character development, but it takes too long to get anywhere interesting. Jessica Jones is used perfectly but her character motivations are flubbed. Iron Fist arguably does nothing wrong but Finn Jones fails to make himself at all relatable. There's a lot here, even though it doesn't always work in these eight episodes. And if you're a fan, it's worth watching. But by now, these shows should be getting better, not worse like the have since Luke Cage. We can only hope that Marvel takes this as a lessor and goes into their second Netflix phase with more of a plan, and we have no choice but to give the first season of The Defenders 6 fingers of The Hand out of 10.