Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’ review

The Defenders are all together on Netflix now, and they're better for it

The heroes of the first four Netflix series set in Marvel’s cinematic universe come together this month in an eight-episode crossover miniseries. We got an early look at the first half of the series, so read on for The Defenders review you’ve been waiting for.

A decade ago, the notion of Marvel’s cinematic universe unfolding across interconnected movies, comic books, and television series on various broadcast and streaming networks would have seemed impossible, but we’ve reached the point now when such things are not only possible, but the new normal for superhero franchises.

With The Defenders miniseries, Marvel continues to expand its shared universe by bringing the cast of characters from its four Netflix series together in an Avengers-style crossover that pits them against a threat greater than anything they’ve faced alone. Featuring the return of vigilante heroes Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Danny Rand (Finn Jones), as well as many of the supporting cast members from their respective solo series, The Defenders introduces a new villain played by Sigourney Weaver and a new danger to the city they collectively call home.

Here’s our spoiler-free appraisal of the first half of The Defenders’ debut in Marvel’s cinematic universe, ahead of its August 18 premiere on Netflix.

Four become one

Although many of the title characters from each of the four solo series — DaredevilJessica JonesLuke Cage, and Iron Fist — occasionally mingled in their respective series (particularly Jessica Jones and Luke Cage), The Defenders had its work cut out for it in creating a unified, cohesive narrative. While the characters’ independent adventures left them isolated when last we saw them, some geographically and some emotionally, the miniseries does an impressive job of gradually bringing them together for the greater good.

The mysteries surrounding Weaver’s character make her a fascinating, compelling antagonist

Director S.J. Clarkson, who helmed the first two episodes of Jessica Jones, cycles through each character’s respective story arc while managing to avoid the sort of jarring transitions that could have easily derailed the process of weaving four distinctly different threads into a single story. The Defenders is a slow burn, and Clarkson maintains a deliberate pace with the crossover story, mingling the series’ supporting cast well before any of the major players share a scene.

This sort of patient approach worked well with each of the Netflix series that preceded The Defenders, allowing them to grow into their respective corners of Marvel’s cinematic universe, and its successful here, too — even with the abbreviated eight-episode season. (Each solo series had 13 episodes.)

“A” for action

After Iron Fist was widely criticized for its lackluster action sequences, fans of Marvel’s Netflix series feared that some of those issues might bleed into The Defenders — after all, Finn Jones’ kung-fu character was long expected to play a key role in the miniseries’ overarching narrative.

While The Defenders doesn’t go all-in on the gritty, street-fight tone of Daredevil or Luke Cage, it does find the happy medium between the kind of martial-arts choreography that was clearly intended (if not actually displayed) in Iron Fist and the more visceral brawls of those two aforementioned series. Finn Jones still doesn’t appear entirely comfortable with the show’s action scenes, but the choreography of his fight scenes in particular has improved since Iron Fist landed.

As for Iron Fist’s teammates, the trio of characters don’t show any signs of rust when they jump back into action in The Defenders. They’re each given some signature solo moments in the first few episodes that serve as great reminders of what worked well in each of their respective series, and when they’re finally brought together, the show blends the elements each character brings to Marvel’s live-action universe with panache.

Good stuff from the bad guy (girl?)

Back when Sigourney Weaver was announced as the miniseries’ mysterious villain, Alexandra, fans rejoiced at the decision to cast the three-time Academy Award nominee and veteran sci-fi actress in the show.

The chemistry between Colter’s Luke Cage and Jones’ Danny Rand just isn’t where the series clearly wants it to be.

Weaver lives up to the hype in The Defenders’ first half, with a performance that makes her one of the most subtly chilling villains in any of the series so far. Although the first four episodes don’t give Alexandra the sort of character-defining moments that made Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) or Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave (David Tennant) so memorable, there’s the suggestion that bigger things are brewing in the series’ second half — and the mysteries surrounding Alexandra make her a fascinating and compelling antagonist.

Without revealing any spoilers, it’s worth noting that Weaver is joined by another character in The Defenders who’s set against the team, and although that character isn’t given too much screen time in the first four episodes, what we do see includes excellent fight choreography that suggests the show is saving its best brawls for last.

Good chemistry, bad chemistry

The biggest question on many fans’ minds going into The Defenders is how the four primary characters would fare when forced to interact and bounce their respective super powers off each other. In some ways, the grand experiment is a success, but in others, it highlights some of the weak spots in Marvel’s Netflix-verse so far.

On the positive side, the interaction between Jessica Jones and all three of the other Defenders is endlessly entertaining, a testament to both how well the character is written and how comfortable Ritter is in the role. She’s a talented actress and her sense of timing takes her dialogue to the next level, turning casual banter into some of the series’ most memorable verbal exchanges. Jessica Jones’ banter with Matt Murdock is particularly notable, providing some welcome comic relief.

Marvel's The Defenders Review

On the flip side, however, the chemistry between Colter’s Luke Cage and Jones’ Danny Rand just isn’t where the series clearly wants it to be, and the relationship the show is trying to develop between them — in the first four episodes, at least — never quite manifests in the scenes they share. Of the four series leads, Colter and Jones are by far the least experienced of the bunch, so it will be interesting to see if they can improve their chemistry enough in the final four episodes to believably become the loyal friends their characters are in Marvel’s comics.

Second-half questions

With four episodes to go, it will be interesting to see whether Weaver’s Alexandra will be given that defining moment that puts her on the same level as the aforementioned villains from Marvel’s Netflix series — after all, superhero franchises live and die by their villains. It will also be worth keeping an eye on how the series develops the relationship between Colter and Jones, who are expected to play big parts in each other’s stories down the road, but didn’t quite click in the first half of The Defenders. Jones in particular still feels like the show’s weakest link, both in character and performance, but he’s grown a lot since Iron Fist, and could have some major character moments in store for the second act.

So far, The Defenders doesn’t quite measure up to the first seasons of Daredevil or Jessica Jones (or the second season of Daredevil, for that matter), but it feels like a step up from the first season of Luke Cage (soundtrack aside) and a significantly more entertaining series than Iron Fist.  There’s a lot of story left to go, though, and a lot can change in four episodes.

Already a very impressive series, The Defenders has the potential to get even better in the final stretch.

Marvel’s The Defenders premieres August 18 on Netflix.

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