‘The Defenders’ gets the gang together and it pays off
Marvel’s street-level team-up has fun capturing the cool dynamic these characters have with each other, while setting the stage for where they go next
First announced in late 2013, with four individual series of lead-up over the course of the past two years, Marvel’s The Defenders has officially arrived. Each of these characters — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — has thrived in their respective series (okay, yes, the Iron Fist not so much), and The Defenders brings these street-level loners together in an organic way after laying out the main focus of the plot across Daredevil season 2 and Iron Fist season 1. The plot has its flaws, and the first two episodes are a bit slow, but the pay-off of seeing these characters collide in a thrilling hallway fight scene (these shows love a good hallway fight scene) is an absolute joy.
The Defenders re-introduces us to its core heroes basically where we last left them — Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) has hung up the Daredevil costume and is focusing on pro bono legal work, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) hasn’t taken a case in ages and is mostly drinking, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has been exonerated and returns to Harlem to protect his neighborhood, and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is off hunting members of the shadowy ninja organization known as the Hand. It doesn’t take long before each of them starts investigating cases, all of which are somehow connected to the Hand, and fall into each other’s orbit.
The Defenders is at its best when its leads are playing off of one another. Comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis’ influence is truly felt here — not only is he the co-creator of Jessica Jones and her first comic series Alias (2001–2004), but he also wrote an outstanding run on Daredevil (2001–2006) and is largely responsible for re-popularizing Luke Cage through both Alias and his run on Avengers and New Avengers (2004–2012). His work on Alias, with artist Michael Gaydos, and Daredevil, with artist Alex Maleev, were notable for standing out among Marvel’s other titles as gritty crime books that also broke their respective leads down to tell deeply human and personal stories. Bendis was the guy who knew what to do with these characters and was smart enough to use them in each other’s worlds. One scene in particular, in which the four heroes are holed up in a Chinese restaurant arguing about what they’ve gotten themselves mixed up in, really captures the essence of Bendis’s work with these stubborn characters. While these shows aren’t necessarily pulling directly from the source material, Bendis is responsible for building the foundation of the dynamic between these characters, and his work feels most present when Jessica rolls her eyes irritably with a snarky one-liner directed at Matt, or when Matt stubbornly tries to insulate himself from the others, or when Luke needs to step in and serve as the voice of reason.
It’s not just the core four characters who are thrown together, but their respective supporting casts are now in each other’s worlds. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick), from Iron Fist and Luke Cage, respectively, play key supporting roles here, much like their comic book counterparts (Daughters of the Dragon fans, it’s all happening!). Rosario Dawson’s role as Claire, who’s served as the Nick Fury of the small screen by appearing in each character’s lead-up series, is finally paid off here when she formally introduces Luke Cage to Danny Rand.
The Luke/Danny dynamic is pretty important to get right, as they share a long history in the comics paired as best friends, specifically in the pages of Power Man and Iron Fist and Heroes for Hire. Their relationship has an interesting arc as they come from different worlds but come to gain a mutual respect for one another as they find that they can learn from one another. Perhaps more importantly, and played incredibly well in one early meeting, Luke gives a mouthpiece to the majority of criticisms of the Iron Fist series. Those critics will be pleased to know that the Danny Rand character worked a bit better in a group setting with characters like Luke and Jessica around to criticize his naivety and question his approach, but Danny’s arc in The Defenders may have paved the way for him to be a stronger and more self-aware protagonist in Iron Fist season 2.
Sigourney Weaver is introduced as Alexandra, a leading member of the Hand, but unfortunately doesn’t offer anything new or interesting as a primary villain. Although Alexandra and the Hand’s motives felt a bit flat, they served their purpose in providing the narrative threads for the four heroes to pick up and follow, ultimately converging on Midland Circle, a building that suspiciously served as the common denominator of each of their respective mysteries. The newly resurrected Elektra (Elodie Yung) — last seen in Daredevil season 2 — provided a much better foil for the heroes, and specifically helped drive the story in giving Matt a meaningful arc as well as a more personal stake.
Some spoilers follow –
The Defenders leaves off in an interesting way that sets the stage for what could be viewed as Phase 2 of the Netflix series with these characters’ worlds more closely tied together. It’s already been confirmed that Misty Knight will appear in the next seasons of both Luke Cage and Iron Fist (and will sport a look closer to her comic book counterpart), and it’ll likely be pretty common for other supporting players like Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) to turn up on an episode of Luke Cage or Jessica Jones.
But the real catalyst for where these shows may go is the supposed death of Matt Murdock in The Defenders finale. Having last seen him well below Midland Circle just before watching the building come crashing down, Luke, Jessica, and Danny are left to assume Matt perished with it. However, the last scene doesn’t simply show that Matt somehow survived, but laying in a hospital bed tended to by nuns more specifically teases that season 3 of Daredevil is likely going to delve into Frank Miller’s classic “Born Again” storyline, in which the Kingpin learns Daredevil’s identity and slowly rips his life apart. With any luck, we’ll finally get Bullseye as well.
Based on filming schedules, it looks like we’ll be seeing second seasons for Jessica Jones and Luke Cage before a third for Daredevil though, and the supposed death or disappearance of Daredevil may echo through those series. Jessica’s arc in The Defenders seemed to focus on her ability to put her trust and faith in others, and maybe she’ll be more willing to call on Luke or Misty for a favor. Alternatively, her supporting cast has a lot of room to grow, namely her best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). In the comics, Trish Walker is also the crimefighter Hellcat, and in the first season she was actively training in Krav Maga — maybe the void left by Daredevil inspires Trish to take her training to the next level?
As for Danny Rand, he may have experienced the most growth coming out of The Defenders. Not only did Luke serve as a strong guiding force for how Danny can use his power and advantages, Matt’s parting words to him — “Protect my city” — left him responsible for taking Daredevil’s place. I’m sure the next season of Iron Fist won’t solely focus on Danny patrolling the city as a crimefighter, there’s still a lot of territory to mine related to his mysterious origin in K’un L’un and the legacy of being the Iron Fist. Specifically, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, and David Aja’s run on The Immortal Iron Fist comic from 2006–2009 could offer some good source material. Better yet, maybe we’ll see the next season of Iron Fist somehow introduce another kung fu Marvel hero, Shang-Chi?
There’s been no confirmation on if or when we can expect a season 2 of The Defenders, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens, or if the cast continues to grow with the introduction of other street-level heroes. If nothing else, we can certainly expect these characters to cross paths again, and be all the better for it.