— By Carly Twehous —
When Iron Man premiered in 2008, it blew everyone out of the water. At the time, no one thought superhero movies could actually, well, be good. No one anticipated that Robert Downey Jr., Hollywood’s favorite tabloid drug addict, was due for his own redemption arc.
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe was announced—along with the master-plan of individual movies leading up to an unprecedented box-office-shattering team-up—jaws dropped. The Avengers did more than destroy box office records. It all but eradicated social barriers separating the nerd from the quarterback by popularizing the superhero genre. Suddenly, masked vigilantes in spangled tights were cool again.
Five years after the premiere of that particular cinematic milestone, Marvel has its audience whipped. We line up outside of theaters like clockwork, twice a year for each new movie, in full or partial costume despite weather and any illusions we have in regards to a pre-existing social life. We’ll gladly pay upwards of $22 for a single ticket, just to see Captain America flex in all the glory of high-definition IMAX. (And, let me tell you, it’s totally worth it.) Then, we’ll stay in those mildly uncomfortable theater seats for the ten-to-fifteen-minute slow crawl of credits, just for another twenty-second teaser of the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It was no surprise, when the small-screen expansion of the MCU was announced on Netflix, audiences prepared for all-night binge-watching parties of each show leading up to The Defenders. Expectations were astronomically high and, despite the obvious differences in scale, tone, and budget, eventual comparison to The Avengers and the MCU was inevitable.
The Defenders—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the Immortal Iron Fist—are a team of heroes, operating predominantly in Hell’s Kitchen. They’re a different breed of superhero than the Avengers, leaning heavily towards the dictionary definition of unsanctioned, masked vigilante. They don’t have the means or the capacity to destroy a small, fictional Eastern European city in order to stop a greater evil. These guys police a tiny slice of New York City. They get their hands in the dirt every day and, to an extent, are faced with much greater threats as consequence.
This isn’t the sparkly blockbuster variety of superhero. The Defenders face the hard stuff: drug cartels, shady businesses with hired thugs, prostitution rings, kidnappings, and brutal murders.
Each Netflix series—starting with brazing success and brilliance of Daredevil, through the disturbing, yet fun portrayal of Jessica Jones, the bumps and bruises of Luke Cage, and ending, most recently, with the epic disaster that was Iron Fist—was meant to rally audiences for the eventual team-up and final show-down, much like each of the individual movies in the MCU.
Except, The Defenders, despite the hype and hope audiences had, is not even worthy of standing on the same pedestal as The Avengers.
The Defenders was off to a rather slow start. In a series that has a total of eight fifty-minute episodes, the writers felt it necessary to have a three-and-a-half-episode recap of all that’s happened since we left each of our respective vigilantes. The Defenders kept to their own little circles for the better part of the series, even though, logically, team-up should have been set up to be inevitable and immediate.
Just like anything on the big screen, the superheroes on the small screen are only awesome when played opposite of truly horrific and well-written villains. Superhero-style villains, much like Loki did in The Avengers, should make our illustrious heroes question their motivations, shatter their individual morale, and drive moral stakes between the fragile ethical alliance upon which the team is founded.
The immense talent of Sigourney Weaver was completely wasted on what was probably supposed to be a Kilgrave or a Wilson Fisk-level of a brilliant villain. Instead, I got the distinct impression that she obsessively cleans under her fingernails, every night, and probably owns a small rat dog that she thinks is a person. She was so flat and unintimidating that she was eventually ousted as series villain in favor of Elektra: Matt Murdock’s ninja ex-girlfriend, who pretty much ruined the pacing, tone, and overall likeability of Daredevil Season Two.
As far as Hell’s Kitchen’s favorite super-humans, well, I’m not entirely sure this amounted to anything. In The Avengers, we saw the rocky and sometimes unstable formation of the team, with the different personalities, different moralities, and different backgrounds, until Iron Man and Captain America both swallowed their pride in order to defeat a greater evil. Such a team up, especially for the melodramatic heroes that insist they only work alone, should demand significant character development.
Except Matt Murdock stayed glued to the secrecy and deception that are necessary for a lawyer-turned-vigilante, pretty much until the end. Jessica Jones was there for sarcastic comments and to characteristically down whiskey shots whenever someone annoyed her, but not for much else. Luke Cage perpetually insisted he didn’t want to be be involved and only wanted to help the little guy. If Danny Rand had any development or solid characterization in his own series, it certainly didn’t continue or follow through in The Defenders. Iron Fist was, if anything, a broken record, a grave injustice to his character in the comics, and, frankly, a waste of screen-time.
The Defenders, at its very best, was heartbreaking, and not in the sense any television show should be. It fell flat of whatever expectations both fans and serial binge-watchers had. Marvel fans, both those familiar with the brilliant source material and those indoctrinated into the genre by the success of the MCU, were left screaming in fury and frustration at their respective screens, especially after that ending.
Over the past decade, Marvel has beaten audiences into shape, but audiences have come to expect a level of quality and awesomeness in return. Pretty much everything we’ve seen so far has delivered on fans’ expectations and maybe that’s why this show is so devastating.
The most exciting part of this show should not have been that thirty-second, post credit teaser of The Punisher.
The Defenders are not supposed to be the B-Team. These characters deserved so much better.