Monday, August 14, 2017

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'The Defenders'

Netflix will premiere its new original drama series The Defenders on Friday, August 18. The drama stars Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Eka Darville, Elden Henson, Jessica Henwick, Simone Missick, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rachael Taylor, Deborah Ann Woll, Elodie Yung, Rosario Dawson, Scott Glenn and Sigourney Weaver.

Read on for my thoughts on the Marvel drama after screening its first four episodes.

Four years ago, Marvel and Netflix announced a major programming partnership that would see series adaptations of four heroes from the comics that would build up to an epic miniseries event uniting them all together. It was a huge deal back then because Netflix was still in the infancy of its quest to completely change the entertainment industry. Now, the streaming service is releasing new content on a weekly basis. It can be very overwhelming. But the Marvel shows have stood out as tentpole events as well. The first three - Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage - came with critical acclaim for the performances and the gritty, specific tone of this world. The fourth - Iron Fist - was a massive flop filled with criticisms about whitewashing, wooden acting and erratic action directing. It definitely tempered expectations heading into The Defenders. All of these shows have been renewed for additional seasons. That wasn't a part of the original deal Marvel made with Netflix. But the success has been good for both sides. And now, the initial plan is finally reaching its conclusion. The four heroes are coming together to save New York against a grave threat. It's a thrilling prospect because it's been years in the making.

However, The Defenders makes the audience wait for that big team up to actually occur. In the early going, there are supporting characters from one show now interacting with the leads of another. So, it's amusing to see Jessica Jones getting interrogated by Misty Knight and Luke Cage getting legal advice from Foggy Nelson. But the show is being very deliberate in keeping Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand separated for a good chunk of these opening episodes. It's a frustrating detail as well. The audience is promised a team-up of these four superheroes. They need to rely on all of their skills as a team in order to defeat a powerful enemy. It's the same approach the Marvel movies took in assembling The Avengers. They each had their own introductory movies before coming together as a team. The Defenders is different because the forces bringing the four leads together is less urgent and apparent. They each have their own individual stories. The connections are there from the very beginning that will ultimately bring the four of them together. It's more than just Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple who appeared in the four respective shows. But it's still a test of patience for the audience. Pacing has always been an issue with the Marvel shows on Netflix. Bad storytelling decisions can be made and be very frustrating because of how long they play out. Meanwhile, even the best stories from Jessica Jones and Luke Cage suffered from needing to be dragged out to 13 episodes. At 8 episodes, The Defenders has no time to spare but it's also not in a rush to move forward as quickly as possible.

So for a long time, the four leads are still carrying their respective shows. It's a necessary product of there being huge gaps from the last time the audience saw some of these characters. In the timeline of the show, only a few months has gone by. But for the audience, it's been over a year since we've seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones in action. As such, the premiere functions as a catch-up for the audience to remember where all of the characters are at emotionally and physically. It's also helpful for people - like me - who chose to skip Iron Fist altogether. It's easy to understand how he fits into this world. The show makes it clear what plot points are important. So, it's not necessary to have sit through all 13 episodes of that troubling show. However, it's still painfully clear that Finn Jones is the weak link amongst the core cast. Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter are able to bring nuances to their characters and their lives in a realistic and meaningful way. Of course, Danny Rand also suffers from being a more conventional and lame comic book archetype. But it's still difficult to take Danny seriously when he's trying to threaten someone. It still comes across as a petulant child throwing a tantrum after not getting what he wants. The show doesn't have much patience for that either. It is aware that it's a problem. But it still needs to actively do it anyway.

The Defenders being four shows at once also limits the amount of time and action can be given to each individual beat. As such, everything seems like plot in the early going. There really aren't moments of strong character beats. Time can't be given to make the big twists have an impact emotionally because the show needs to move on to the next plot point. So, the character histories from the four shows is extremely helpful in making some of these problematic moments work. Matt is trying to make a genuine go of it as a lawyer and not a masked vigilante. Jessica is still drowning her sorrows and not taking on any new clients. Luke is newly released from prison and becoming familiar with his community once more. And Danny is traveling around Asia hunting down the criminal organization that killed his parents. These backstories are explicitly told to the audience in some very broad and expositional ways. So if you were just watching The Defenders and not the previous four shows, it would be easy to follow. But it still feels like a battle for the most screen time amongst the core cast. In the beginning, it seems like Daredevil has the edge largely because Marco Ramirez and Douglas Petrie served as showrunners on that show's second season and these new episodes. But as the season goes along, the writers really capture the respective voices of Jessica and Luke in a strong and engaging way as well.

Of course, all of this doesn't mean anything if the four heroes don't have an entertaining villain to face off against. These shows have either succeeded or failed because of the central villain each season. Daredevil works in Season 1 because of Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. It fails in Season 2 because it was about Matt fighting a bunch of faceless ninjas. In Luke Cage, the story was better when Oscar winner Mahershala Ali was the main villain instead of Erik LaRay Harvey. The Defenders seems very much aware of this and cast an incredible actress as its lead villain. Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra is the woman in charge of the shadowy organization that is trying to destroy New York City. It's a remarkable performance as well. Weaver has always done well in the science fiction genre. And now, she puts all of that great acting to good use in this role. She's captivating to watch in every single second of screen time. She's made into a complicated villain as well. The audience goes into this show understanding the four heroes. But enough time is put into Alexandra's cause as well to make it clear that every single action she takes is very deliberate and for a greater good. Of course, her motivations are shrouded in secrecy too. Plus, she spends too much time engaging with Iron Fist. But when Alexandra and Scott Glenn's Stick are in the same room, it's some of the most engaging moments that any of these shows have produced so far.

As such, there's the confidence that the show will have a terrific second half to its season. By the end of the four episodes sent out to critics, the team has assembled and is united in this fight. It seems clear that the first half is all of the necessary groundwork to make the second half truly engaging. It's one way to approach this type of story. Only seeing the full season will reveal whether or not that was a smart creative decision. It's frustrating in the moment. But the audience can still binge the show and get to all of the good moments. Plus, these opening hours still have their strong moments as well. Like I've said, the creative team does a strong job of finding the voices of each character. Plus, the fight sequences are more like the showcases from Daredevil and not Iron Fist. Jessica Jones is still capable of delivering a very funny dry line with her being incredulous about everything going on around her. These moments of awareness from the writers would suggest a smart approach to the big climatic moments. My interest has been piqued. And now, the show just needs to deliver on all of the promises.