Before 2012 when Marvel ushered in The Avengers, the only place to get the excitement of a superhero shindig would be at your local comic book shop. Throwing together characters strong enough to carry their own titles and seeing how they react has always been an exciting prospect. So when the road to Avengers began in 2008 with Iron Man, a trip to the local multiplex was all it took to be embroiled in a shared universe. Then in 2015 Marvel teamed up with Netflix to re-produce the formula, they started with Daredevil, then Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. All we had to do now was lift the remote and stay awake long enough to binge a whole season.
The street level tales Netflix brought allowed us to walk on the darker side of the super-street. More adult themes, damaged characters and a 13 episode canvas gave us something more gitty to explore in our heroes. Just like each series' eponymous character, the shows had their strengths and weaknesses. Daredevil had brought us a super-crime-caper, but it's second season was laden with contrivances to introduce a mythical enemy, The Hand. Jessica Jones entered with something a little more dysfunctional and looked unflinchingly at abuse, but wasn't quite as comfortable with it's meta side. Luke Cage added a bit of fun into the funk and took an honest snapshot of the African-American experience. Then entered the Iron Fist. Picking up the mystical strands and running with it, this could've been the most fun if it embraced the 70s chop-sockey of it's inspiration. Unwilling to commit, Iron Fist became diluted and schlocky.
From the opening, The Defenders deftly picks the strongest themes and story lines from all five series that proceed it. Iron Fist is still chasing the hand in Asia and still getting his ass handed to him. Jessica Jones, still overloaded with self-loathing, drinks 'til the sun comes up. Daredevil's rewarding intro sees his lawyer-by-day, Matt Murdock, skillfully bring a courtroom to it's knees - something it's second season dropped the cane on. Luke Cage is freed from Seagate and returns home; all the while his swagger is soaked in hip hop and soul...and that's just the opening of the first episode. Netflix The Defenders is respectful enough to include the best parts of it's TV origins and all the while remember the things that draw us to comic book team ups.
Having to entwine 5 seasons of backstory could break the back of The Defenders. However, Marvel are smart enough to remember that storytelling is just as much about knowing what to leave out. While those of us are looking for the payoff of staying with it, those just joining us need to be given an in. Somehow The Defenders manages to tie up loose plot strands (giving the newbs some backstory), include side characters (to reward the loyal), streamline the story to 8 episodes and introduce a new big-bad without bringing it crashing down around our horns (or ears).
Watching The Defenders bounce off one another without contriving the characters is a rewarding joy. Luke and Danny's first interaction is an exciting anticipation of an unstoppable force trying to punch an immovable object. Jessica's ungrateful rebuke of Matt's help is just as much fun to watch. Regardless of the playing field, knowing more than they do about one another, gives the audience a knowing anticipation.
Watching them fight together (and each other) is also a giddy thrill that raises the bar on quality and just how much you can cram in to an episode. What's a Marvel series now without a trademarked hallway fight? The ruckus that closes out the third instalment is a tightly choreographed conception of combat. There are tiny moments that punctuate the obligatory balletic boxing. Luke taking bullets for the guys, Daredevil running scrappy interference. The whole thing is a nerd's checkist of heroes learning to work together as they use their powers on nameless hordes of suited henchmen and ninjas alike.
However, it's not all about them. One of the strongest tropes of The Defenders solo outings were their villains. Kilgrave and Fisk were some of the most underrated adversaries ever to grace our screens. It's going to take a lot to overcome the combined might of our super-powered brawlers. Whom better than the bitch that had Aliens running scared for decades? Shrewdly, Sigourney Weaver channels a more confident and laid back baddie. Her origins are shrouded, but her ability to parlay with enemies and allies alike and always come out on top seems to be her super power. Wai Ching Ho's Madame Gao is still sublime in her undefeated manipulation. Raising the bar on baddies you love to hate.
Amidst all the fun, fighting and fan-serving, there's still an emotional heart. The Avengers had stoicism, bravery and Coulson's death to galvanise the team. The heart of The Defenders sneaks up on you like a member of The Hand. Never before has an empty doorway left such a a lump in the throat. While Danny does take a back seat, each of our characters are convincingly developed and even get their moments to shine. Much like the start of Defenders, come the conclusion, each character will be left to pick up the pieces from the combined show. There's more than just an audacious gimmick here and, much like Iron Man 3, Netflix/Marvel have offered anticipation for whatever comes next in their solo outings to come.
5* - Stand By Chi