Friday, August 18, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Defenders' - A New Enemy Threatens to Destroy New York City in 'The H Word'

Netflix's The Defenders - Episode 1.01 "The H Word"

Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand investigate criminals and fight injustice, unaware their paths are about to cross.

There's an excitement that comes from four shows crossing over for a miniseries event. The Marvel shows on Netflix have had crossover elements in the past. Rosario Dawson has played a significant part on all four seasons, with other characters doing the occasional guest spot as well. But The Defenders promises to bring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist together to face a threat trying to destroy New York City. That's an enticing premise for this show. And yet, it's also understandable why the show doesn't rush into that premise in "The H Word." As an episode, this hour largely serves as a way to re-introduce this world and these characters to the audience before the plot can really get started. In some cases, it's been years since we last saw these characters. Jessica Jones has only done one season and that was back in November 2015. Of course, years haven't gone by in the timeline of the show. All of the main characters are still largely dealing with the various emotional states they were in at the end of their respective seasons. As such, this hour plays as the narrative simply catching up with these people. There's the promise that their individual stories will connect in some grand way soon. But right now, it's more important to be reminded of what the current state of their lives actually is.

Matt Murdoch was the first of these heroes introduced through his own standalone series. Daredevil is the only show that produced two seasons before the events of The Defenders. As such, there is a bit more added history to that corner of the world - especially since Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez served as showrunners for Season 2 of Daredevil and now The Defenders. Matt finds himself still in mourning after the death of Elektra. He has no idea that she has been revived by The Hand and being used as a weapon. He believes his greatest love has been killed. And now, he can no longer wear the mask of Daredevil without being reminded of her grand sacrifice. He lost so much under that identity and is now running away from it. His powers are still intact. He is still listening to the city. But he's also being reassured that Hell's Kitchen no longer needs Daredevil. Karen Page tells him the crime rate is down. When he listens to the city, the police are doing their job and stopping the violence. Matt is doing more good as a lawyer. He gets $11 million in a statement for a family. His advice is good for a boy who may never walk again. Things are still awkward with Karen as the two of them are figuring their lives out before any kind of romantic relationship begins. But it's still clearly heading in that direction. He's not ashamed of the man he once was. But he's glad that part is over and he can be honest with Karen. Of course, it's destined not to last which is setting up the expectation of even more personal devastation for Matt.

Jessica Jones isn't thriving as a private investigation. She's still reeling from the aftermath of what happened with Kilgrave. That was such a personal and traumatizing experience for her and the people around her. And yet, Trish and Malcolm are pushing for her to start taking cases again. They know the financial burden that is bound to come for her sooner or later. Meanwhile, Jessica is just living in the shambles of what fighting Kilgrave left behind. She hasn't fixed her apartment. There are holes in the wall. She only has a functioning door because of Malcolm. But she sees him as an annoyance instead of a true friend and partner in this endeavor. So of course, it takes something happening in order to motivate her forward. She is presented with a case that seems run of the mill but isn't at all. She is only tempted to investigate because she gets a cryptic call telling her not to. This story makes it seem like Jessica is already a part of the main story that will connect all of the protagonists. She comes to discover a bunch of dynamite in an abandoned apartment. It's a horrifying sight. It makes it clear to Jessica that this case isn't a typical story of a husband cheating on his wife. He's instead involved in something much sinister. That will pull her into this team up. But it also seems a little too obvious and forced as well.

Luke Cage has spent his time away in a prison to finally pay for his past. He didn't fight when the law finally caught up to him. He was willing to leave and reckon with these issues before moving forward. Sure, that allowed crime to fester in Harlem and forced Claire to wait for him to return. After stepping off the bus, it's delightful to see the chemistry between Luke and Claire flare up again. It's as graphic as sex can be for Marvel. But it's still very hot and sensual. It's rough as well. That just makes it more passionate. But then, Luke needs to worry about the overarching plot as well. It seems really obvious that the story Misty is telling him isn't related to Mariah or Shades at all. That's what he suspects because they were the ones manipulating Harlem to their personal advantage when he left for prison. As such, they are his number one priority. But considering this is The Defenders and not Season 2 of Luke Cage, it means this investigation into young men dying will need to tie into everything else. But with Luke, it has more of a personal twist on it. He has a connection to the family touched by this new mystery. He needs to do right by the community because he needs his people to survive and thrive in this world. He wants to help but the mystery is only just getting started. He doesn't really know what he's walking into at the moment.

And finally, Danny Rand isn't even in New York City at the start of this premiere. He and Colleen are in Cambodia trying to track down a potential ally in their fight against The Hand. The two of them seem to be more aware of this grand, mystical threat. They treat it so seriously though. With the other three protagonists, there is a visual flare or unique perspective to their stories. With Danny though, it just feels like too familiar territory being told in a conventional way. Danny being the first major character seen in this episode hints that his plot concerns will be really important moving forward. That's made even more clear as The Hand is proven to be the big enemy in this miniseries event. But the inner turmoil for Danny comes across as too painfully obvious. He's internalizing his fears that he abandoned the people who gave him his gift right when they needed his protection. He chose personal vengeance instead of his duty to a greater cause. And now, his fight against The Hand still seems like something he's doing for personal reasons. He and Colleen are fighting them because of what this secretive organization has done to them. It's significant that they arrive in New York by the end of the premiere. That will give them more importance moving forward. Perhaps spending more time with the other heroes will help make Danny a more interesting character though.

Maybe the most exciting prospect from this opening hour though is Sigourney Weaver clearly playing the antagonist of this story. She's a completely new character for this miniseries. The audience's first introduction to her is of her getting the news that she is dying. She only has a few weeks or months left to live because her body is slowly shutting down on her. There is nothing more for her to do. As such, she's moving up her plans for this city. She's trying to bring out its destruction. Her motivation for this action is still shrouded in secrecy. She's first seen associating with Madame Gao to coordinate an attack that presents itself as an earthquake - though is something more sinister because of the C4 Jessica finds. And then, she is confirmed to be a part of The Hand because she has taken on a mentorship role with the revived Elektra. She promises that New York is just a city that will fall like all of the others. That's an ominous tease. Her plans will need more clarity and purpose in the future. But right now, it's great that The Hand has a visible face behind their operation. An army of faceless ninjas was intriguing in theory but really lame in execution. Seeing a great and distinguished actor delivering a committed performance as the villain will help enhance this story.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The H Word" was written by Douglas Petrie & Marco Ramirez and directed by SJ Clarkson.
  • Claire is the clear thematic link amongst the four shows and protagonists. So, it seemed likely that she would be able to bring all of them together when the time calls for it. But here, she's just seen interacting with Luke. She has become a part of his corner of this world much more than the other three. Of course, she has meaningful relationships elsewhere that should come in handy too.
  • Misty has been promoted to a city-wide task force. That's a significant promotion because the threat this season is for the entire city and not just one portion of it. This will give Misty more importance. She has more legitimacy now than when she was simply a detective in Harlem who the precinct didn't always understand or respect. Now, she has earned that trust and can work with Luke.
  • The only reason Foggy is Luke's lawyer is so the show can fill that role with a familiar character. It's the only time Foggy shows up here. Plus, it's not all that important as a scene. It does produce a really funny moment though when Luke questions why Foggy allows people to call him Foggy.
  • Karen having lucked her way into a career in journalism is still very problematic and laughable. Now, it's being played as her finding her true calling. She's doing well in this job and breaking a number of big stories throughout the city despite no experience for how to properly cover such events. But at least, she gets a quote from Matt about his case.
  • Luke is the only character who leans into his familiarity around the community. He gets things done because people recognize him and know what he is capable of doing. Jessica is recognized as well but she doesn't want to help anyone just yet. Meanwhile, Danny is off in his own crusade refusing to let anyone in while Matt is the only one who struggles with a double life.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that released their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.