An ancient organisation, the Hand, is causing trouble in New York City. They've already run afoul of the Devil of Hell's Kitchen and invoked the enmity of the Iron Fist. Now, with time running short and their resources dwindling, they are forced into desperate, high-profile gambits that attract the attention of not just Iron First and Daredevil, but also Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. The four defenders of New York reluctantly join forces to bring the Hand down...if they can.
The Defenders is the culmination of two and a half years of careful planning by Marvel TV and Netflix. Back in April 2015 they released the first season of Daredevil, a TV series based on one of their lower-tier heroes, rooted in defending Hell's Kitchen, New York from more mundane threats than the aliens and demigods that the likes of the Avengers have to deal with. More series followed focusing on other characters from the same milieu: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, as well as a second season of Daredevil. The plan was always to bring them together in a big team-up to fight a mutual threat.
The Defenders has a few jobs it needs to do. It has to be a satisfying team up for these four heroes, it has to work as a story in its own right, it has to pay off the groundwork and scene-setting down in five previous seasons of television and it has to be accessible to newcomers. It's a tall order, not helped by the gradual decline in quality of the Netflix Marvel series that preceded it, but one that it kind of pulls off.
The opening episodes of The Defenders focus on our individual heroes and the problems they are going through: Matt Murdoch has dropped the Daredevil persona and is making a go of it as a lawyer, whilst Jessica Jones is still recovering from Kilgrave's depredations and working up the confidence to go back to work. Danny Rand is searching for more information on K'un-Lun in Asia and Luke Cage has just gotten out of prison and returned home to Harlem. A surprising number of our heroes' supporting casts drop in, making these individual story strands work between in linking the mini-series to the ones that preceded it. Combined with a new storyline revolving around the Hand and one of their leaders, played with traditional charisma by Sigourney Weaver, this makes for a busy couple of opening episodes even before our heroes meet up.
When the gang does get together, the writers have fun setting up their dynamics: Matt's Catholic guilt and intensity gets little respect from the rest of the team and everyone seems to find Iron Fist kind of ridiculous. Jessica Jones gets the best lines and the best side-eye moments as she tries to work out what kind of crazy situation she's walked into, and all four lead actors seem to be having a great time.
The fight scenes are a serious step up from Iron Fist, being more dynamic and brutal, even if they don't get back to the earthy, gritty rawness of the first season of Daredevil. A few of the fight scenes also rely too obviously on CG or filming trickery to pull off having four complicated battles going on in one shot, which feels a bit gimmicky. But overall, the show competently handles its action scenes.
In terms of pacing, something that has caused almost all of the Marvel Netflix shows big problems (Luke Cage worse of all), Defenders benefits from having just eight episodes to unfold across. This makes for some breezy, fast-paced episodes (although, conversely, the best is arguably one that is mostly restricted to a Chinese restaurant and featuring our heroes talking about stuff) which come as a relief after the frantic wheel-spinning of some of the forebear series. The series even finds time to set up new dynamics: Colleen Wing, Misty Knight and Claire Temple get lots of stuff to do, hinting at a possible alternative superhero team who could take shape later on (although, given the impending Netflix/Marvel divorce, this seems less likely).
Unfortunately, the series continues to have a villain problem. Using the Hand is a bad idea, as they were boring and bland in both Daredevil and Iron Fist and are still boring and bland here. The idea of using the Hand leaders (the Fingers, appropriately) as counterpoints to our four heroes is a solid idea, especially since two of them were set up in previous Netflix shows, but it doesn't quite work as other members of the group receive little to no development. Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra is a big selling point of the series and Weaver gives a fine performance, but the character is left a little underdeveloped. More capable in the role of antagonist is Elodie Yung as Elektra, returning from the dead, but she takes quite a long time to rediscover her old mojo. It also doesn't help that the Hand's plan is murky and vague, and the stakes are never really made clear other than that bad things are going to happen to New York.
The result is a mini-series that is quite a lot of fun, and a merciful step up in quality from Daredevil Season 2, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, but one that is never in any real danger of replicating the quality of the first season of Daredevil or Jessica Jones. It really needs better villains and a clearer set of stakes and goals. But as it stands, The Defenders (****) works absolutely fine as a fun action series. It is available to watch on Netflix right now.