From 2008-2011, Marvel Studios provided an excellent blueprint for setting up what we now refer to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe: two Iron Man films, a Hulk film, a Thor film, and Captain America: The First Avenger. All standalone movies, but with various common elements and through-lines (the Stark family tree, S.H.I.E.L.D., the Infinity Stones) to come together in Avengers, which remains the gold standard. It works as the first Avengers movie as well as the next movie for each of the above characters.
In 2015, Marvel went back to that blueprint for their more ground-level Netflix television series based in New York. Two seasons of Daredevil, and one each of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, culminating in The Defenders, now live on Netflix.
Here’s a quick look at the first three episodes and whether or not they bode well for history repeating itself. (There will be a full review on Monday.)
SPOILERS for The Defenders, as well as Daredevil seasons 1-2, and the first seasons of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.
The four characters don’t actually come together until the climax of the third episode. In fact, no two of the quartet actually meet until the very end of the second episode, when Matt Murdock shows up as Jessica Jones’s lawyer while she’s being interrogated by Detective Misty Knight.
Prior to that, the show does an excellent job of picking up where each of the four series left off. Jones is at loose ends, not actually moving forward with her life in the months since she killed Kilgrave, despite the best efforts of Trish Walker and Malcolm. She hasn’t even fixed the broken glass on her door or the big hole in her wall. What gets her back into the swing of things, unsurprisingly, is someone coming to her with a case and someone else warning her off it. She wasn’t actually going to take the case until she got that warning. Best way to get Jones to do something is to tell her not to do it…
After ending Iron Fist with the disappearance of K’un-Lun, Danny Rand and Colleen Wing have been traveling all over the world trying to track down the Hand. Their first lead after months of searching leads to a person who is killed by someone everyone in the audience recognizes as Elektra (well, okay, I recognized Elodie Yung, she was cloaked and shrouded), but his dying words send them back to New York City.
Luke Cage is out of prison and back in Harlem, reunited with Claire Temple and wanting to help people. Mariah and Shades appear to be laying low, but Knight puts him on the scent of someone who is hiring kids in the neighborhood for hush-hush work that is getting some of them killed. Knight just wants Cage to reach out to the kids and help them, like Pop did, but Cage, naturally, goes further and tries to investigate.
Murdock is done with being Daredevil, though temptations keep rearing their ugly head. He’s doing lawyer work, mostly pro bono (which makes you wonder how he pays his rent and feeds himself), and Foggy Nelson throws some side work from his new employer, Jeri Hogarth, at him. (This includes representing Jones, which Hogarth instructs Nelson to do off the grid.)
Cage and Rand come together when the Harlem kids turn out to be working as cleaners for the Hand. We also learn that the head of the Hand—the person from whom Madame Gao herself takes orders—is a seemingly immortal woman named Alexandra (she keeps referring to historical events as if she was there, and she mentions dying and coming back to life).
What’s most impressive about the first two episodes in particular is how director S.J. Clarkson (who directed both) uses colors to differentiate each of the threads. Murdock’s scenes are all tinged with red, Cage’s with yellow and gold, Rand’s with green, and Jones’s with blue. All dark and muted, too, in stark contrast to Alexandra’s scenes, which are all incredibly brightly lit.
That mostly gets dropped in episode 3, directed by Peter Hoar. Alexandra’s scenes are darker, as we open with a flashback to her resurrection of Elektra, dead after Daredevil season 2, and with Jones and Murdock thrown together and Cage and Rand thrown together, there’s less distinctiveness among the parts. But it’s okay, because by this point, we’re reintroduced to everyone. If you haven’t seen one or more of the individual series, or you don’t remember details, enough has been done to fill in and bring you up to speed.
The first episode is called “The H Word,” that word being “hero,” and it’s fascinating to look at how each of the foursome approaches heroism. For Jones, it’s something she hates (“the H word” is her phrase, cutting Trish off when she tries to get Jones to embrace her fame for taking down Kilgrave to become a superhero), but her instinct to help people does kick in eventually whether she wants it to or not. Cage wants to help people, though he refuses to take any credit for what he does. He uses his rep up to a point, but refuses to cash in on it. Rand is mostly focused on atoning for his abandoning his post as K’un-Lun’s protector, so he’s more in this out of revenge and guilt than heroism.
And then we have Murdock, who is addicted to the violence. We saw this in two seasons of Daredevil, but we also saw the cost, as his friendship with Nelson and his relationship with Karen Page were both badly damaged, though he is now working to repair both. He’s tempted by the red suit more than once, but he doesn’t put it on. When an earthquake hits Manhattan—the first stage in Alexandra’s plan that will apparently spell doom for New York—Murdock is unable to resist the temptation to help people, and he breaks up a robbery. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go quite as he expected, and he regrets it later. He’s acting exactly like an addict, in fact, down to Nelson giving him work to distract him.
Of course, that leads to him encountering Jones, and the two of them wind up in the same place as Rand and Cage, who separately all arrive at the headquarters of Midland Circle, the bank through which the Hand does business.
Just as with the four individual series, the weak link in these first four episodes is Finn Jones as Rand. Iron Fist is still a whiny twerp, and it’s hard to be invested in his rather self-centered quest to stop the Hand, as he’s more interested in assuaging his guilt than in actually helping people. Jessica Henwick does the best she can as Wing, but she’s reduced to being Rand’s sidekick, which just isn’t that interesting. (It’s telling that Henwick’s two best scenes in the first three episodes are when she’s paired up with Temple in another room while Cage and Rand get to know each other and when Stick shows up at her dojo, her only two scenes so far without Jones.)
Luckily, the others make up for it. Mike Colter’s earnestness and casual heroism is perfectly played. Murdock’s internal struggle is magnificently etched on Charlie Cox’s face and in his body language. Krysten Ritter’s superlative smartassery lights up every scene she’s in. And while Henwick is stuck trying and failing to prop Jones up, Simone Missick as Knight, Eka Darville as Malcolm, Carrie-Anne Moss as Hogarth, Elden Henson as Nelson, Deborah Ann Woll as Page, and especially Scott Glenn as Stick are all spectacular in supporting roles.
Sigourney Weaver is quietly menacing as Alexandra, and it makes her scarier than the other effective villains of the Netflix corner of the MCU. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk, Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth, and Alfre Woodard’s Mariah all had the calmness but it was leavened with their tendency to fly off the handle at any second. Alexandra, at least in the first three episodes, only has the calm, and it’s frightening as hell. Probably the best compliment one can give her performance is that you actually believe that Madame Gao—who has quietly been the nastiest and scariest presence in the Netflix MCU so far, thanks to Wai Ching Ho’s understated brilliance—takes orders from her. Gao has never been subservient to anyone prior to this, but you buy it with Alexandra.
Of course, the big star of The Defenders remains Rosario Dawson’s Temple, the Phil Coulson of the Netflix series, as she’s the glue linking everyone. She’s the one who brings Cage and Rand together, and tries to get them to talk. It fails, mostly because Cage is disgusted with Rand’s oblivious privilege (a nice commentary on one of the many flaws in Iron Fist‘s first season), but Dawson remains a delight. It’s also fun to watch her nudzh Cage about the fact that he has to actually make a living somehow (possibly eventually becoming a hero for hire?).
Thus far, The Defenders has done an excellent job of bringing these four characters—and these four series, particularly Daredevil and Iron Fist—together. Monday, I’ll have a more in-depth review of the entire eight-episode season.
SPOILER ALERT! Please try to keep the comments as spoiler-free of episodes 4-8 as possible.
Keith R.A. DeCandido writes “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” for this site every Tuesday. He has also written about Star Trek, Stargate, Batman, Wonder Woman, Doctor Who, and other Marvel Netflix series. In addition, he’s the author of a metric buttload of fiction, most recently the Marvel “Tales of Asgard” trilogy featuring Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three, three Super City Cops eBook novellas about cops in a city filled with superheroes, and short stories in Baker Street Irregulars, Aliens: Bug Hunt, Nights of the Living Dead, TV Gods: Summer Programming, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, and Stargate SG-1/Atlantis: Homeworlds.