Monday, August 21, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Defenders' - Matt Makes a Grand Sacrifice to Protect His City in 'The Defenders'

Netflix's The Defenders - Episode 1.08 "The Defenders"

As New York edges closer to disaster, Elektra sees what's beyond the wall, and the Defenders make a last-ditch effort to save the city.

Upon reflection after seeing all eight episodes, this season was largely Matt Murdock's story. His character arc was the one with a clear and emotional beginning, middle and end. He was the character most personally invested in the outcome of the actual plot because he had something of significance to lose. His love for Elektra forced him to act erratically and impulsively. But it's also the thing that gave him strength and conviction. His story builds to a tragic ending between the two of them. It's a bittersweet moment to end the season on. It's also so apparent that the creative team - led by Marco Ramirez and Douglas Petrie - could have things of consequence happen to Matt because they are the ones in charge of the Daredevil character at Netflix. There was a slight hesitation for them to do anything with the non-Daredevil characters because it would then be creating problems for the other showrunners to then solve. As such, The Defenders becomes essential viewing for fans of Daredevil. They'll need to know what happens here in order to appreciate and understanding what's happening in the third season. But the events of The Defenders largely seem inconsequential to Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Jessica's character arc is mostly her taking on cases again. That's not a hugely shocking plot development. Meanwhile, Luke Cage hasn't change at all. And Iron Fist was already going to go through a hard reboot in its second season. So, The Defenders largely just wrapped up his personal vendetta with The Hand. And depending on whether Daredevil or Iron Fist airs first, his status as the new protector of New York may not ultimately mean anything in giving him newfound purpose in this shared universe.

Coming to this realization is important for one's appreciation of what The Defenders ultimately was. It was Matt Murdock's story with some significant assists from some super-powered friends. It wasn't the epic team-up of four superheroes that was teased before its release. It was slow to actually bring the four of them together. And even in the early going, it felt like the creative team favored Matt over the other three. More importantly, the four of them really didn't become a team that actually liked each other and worked well together until the finale. Yes, it could have felt unearned if the season rushed to bring the four of them together and made them instantly click. But keeping that moment of uniformity and camaraderie until the finale also feels like a missed opportunity. They liked each other right before one of them tragically sacrificed himself to protect his city. And even then, only Matt, Luke and Jessica felt like a part of the team while Danny was the guy who needed rescuing after completely messing things up. Danny is still a hero in training who still has so much to learn about how the world really works and what protecting it truly means. The other three are adults who understand the consequences of their actions. They have a strong handling on their powers and are comfortable in their own moral conflicts. They are fully formed characters while Danny is still largely a work in progress best left for the new showrunner of Iron Fist to figure out.

And yet, the portion of the audience who wanted a superhero team-up where the heroes bounced off each other to great effect in battle probably felt like all of their hard work finally paid off in this finale. The defenders were fighting amongst themselves up until the penultimate episode. But now, it strangely feels earned that Matt, Luke and Jessica look down at the daunting task in front of them and appreciate the people they are about to go into battle with. While the following fight sequence suffers from being too poorly lit, it is still one of the more successful action scenes of the season. It works because there isn't a bunch of cuts bouncing back and forth between different fights. For a long period of time, the camera is fluidly moving about the scene. It's impressive to watch. Yes, Danny is still the weak link in the actually fighting. He's only really ever powerful when the Iron Fist is working for him. Even that is still erratic regarding how long it actually sustains itself. Additionally, I'm not saying that this fight was significantly better because part of it was scored to "Protect Ya Neck" by the Wu-Tang Clan. But that musical choice also just exhibited a quality of fun and delight in seeing these heroes team up that was largely missing from the season as a whole. It made it easy to get the fists pumping and the audience thrilled by what was happening - even though they were once again facing an army of faceless ninjas.

The leaders of The Hand get lost in the chaos of it all though. It's meaningful that Danny faces off with Madame Gao because she arranged his parents' murders. It's important that Colleen fights with Bakuto because he was her sensei. And it's significant that Matt battles Elektra because that sets the stage for the tragic ending. As such, this leaves Murakami with no one to really fight with because he was a unique creation of this show. He opposed Alexandra but not anyone specifically from the defenders. That means he's not even noticeable in the big fight. And then, it's just important to know that he is already dying before the building implodes on itself. That's a huge action that the defenders debate at the top of the hour. Luke is only willing to do it if no innocent lives will be lost. It's up to Colleen and Claire to set the C4. They run into problems when Bakuto arrives. They get support from Misty. And then, Misty gets her arm cut off! That's a significant action of consequence. It's one of the few instances where this creative team does something that will affect one of the shows that they don't run. It's a weird moment too that only works if you know it's the show following the comic book source material. But it all could have been prevented if the defenders actually looped Misty in on what they were doing. They really should take the blame for what happened to her because it was such a stupid decision to leave her in the dark. And yet, that stupid plot happened in order for Misty to become more like her comic book counterpart.

The building implosion also poses an important question about the finality of this story and the impact it will have on the other Marvel shows on Netflix. Is this the last of The Hand? This villainous organization has been a significant presence on multiple shows. They were the enemy for Daredevil Season 2 and Iron Fist. In The Defenders, they had significantly more prominence in the story. They also worked better as an antagonist largely because of the performances by Sigourney Weaver and Elodie Yung. But all of it still felt absolutely ridiculous and crazy. Even when the characters took note of that, the show was still asking them to be as serious as possible. But now, the five leaders of The Hand are dead. There's a brief moment where it seems like Madame Gao is slipping away from all the chaos. But then, she's right back at the elevator shaft seconds before the C4 explodes and the building comes crashing down. That would hint at her character dying. But without seeing an actual body, there's no way for the audience to know for sure. Alexandra, Sowande, Bakuto and Murakami were physically seen dying by being stabbed or beheaded. This would still seem like a fitting exit for Madame Gao. But the show is already setting up the expectation that people who were deep down in that hole excavating the dragon bones for immortality could survive the implosion and come back to life shortly.

So, Matt makes the decision to stay behind in the giant hole to fight Elektra while Luke, Jessica and Danny escape. He knows that it's a suicide mission to try and reason with Elektra. He knows that they are working against the clock. He hears the bomb ticking down to explosion. He still wants to do this. He wants to reason with Elektra like he has always tried to do. He's tried to bring out the good inside of her for a long time. He has always believed she was fundamentally good. But now, she's positioned as the villain. She's the woman who died and was brought back to life. And now, she fears death because of what she saw. She never wants to experience that again and blames Matt for allowing it to happen in the first place. That's the basic understanding of why the two of them are fighting in the end. It's not as nuanced as the show probably wants it to be. It's instead largely just a fight of big moments of destruction and passion. They love each other and hate each other. They are conflicted with their feelings and find no resolution before the building comes tumbling down. The show then spends a significant amount of time in mourning for Matt. Danny takes up the mantle as protector of the city. He's perched on top of a building ready to act just like Matt always did. Luke and Jessica understand the importance of having friends in this world who can help when the odds are stacked against them. But the loss should be the most personal for Karen and Foggy because they actually knew and loved Matt. This season has cast them to the side enormously. They became one-note characters. As such, their reactions to his apparent passing isn't as emotional as it should have been. But again, the audience has the expectation of Matt coming back to life because we are operating with the awareness that Daredevil is coming back for a third season. And fortunately, the season doesn't leave that as a big cliffhanger that will take over a year to payoff. Instead, it cuts to an unconscious and wounded Matt in an unknown convent. He's alive. And now, it will be his journey to get back to what he loves in the city. That should be entertaining. I'm just wondering how long it'll take and the impact it will have on the shared universe - since Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are already in production on new episodes.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Defenders" was written by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich & Marco Ramirez and directed by Farren Blackburn.
  • When Iron Fist was picked up for a second season, it was announced that Misty Knight would be joining the series. At the time, it seemed like Marvel taking a character who already worked on one show and dropping her into one that needed work. But now, Misty is bound to have a relationship with Colleen and Danny because she lost an arm protecting them. That's sure to complicate her life in a significant way. Though now I'm wondering if it means she'll be gone from Luke Cage?
  • Did Colleen and Claire even attempt to save Misty's arm? Claire is a nurse! She should have awareness that it is medically possible to surgically re-attach limbs for a short time after they are severed. But it doesn't even seem like Colleen and Claire brought the arm with them as they carried Misty down the building and to safety.
  • For a season that enjoyed over-explaining who knows what and when, it leaves things a little mysterious regarding just how much the supporting characters trapped at the police precinct come to know about what their friends have been up to. Do Karen and Foggy know the specific details of how and why Matt died? Or are they still completely clueless to Elektra's true nature?
  • The show also suddenly realizes that it should have the supporting characters from the various shows interact with one another since they are at the precinct together. It largely just amounts to Karen and Trish staring at an evidence board together fully knowing that they've played a role in its creation. But isn't the police being a little careless by having the two of them (given their careers) in close proximity to this major case?
  • The sexual chemistry between Luke and Jessica is still quite electric. The show never really had the time for the two of them to catch up and reflect on how they ended things. But after all the chaos, the two do share a drink. It's basically both of them saying they want each other in their lives even though it also seems clear they'll still stick to their own paths moving forward.
  • So, the dragon bones far beneath the ground are literally keeping the city above it together. That's just something rational this show throws out there that the audience needs to readily accept and move on. If it were true, it would mean that cavern is huge. And thus, it is possible that it would withstand the blast from the building implosion. That probably means Elektra is alive too.
  • It's not unreasonable to suspect that Netflix may ultimately want to do a second season of The Defenders. After the events of this one, it would seem odd if the four heroes didn't show up on each other's shows on occasion if not a full team up. But it would still probably be years before another specific season of this show would drop on the streaming service. 

As noted in previous reviews from this show, 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.