That's what happens when you give the crossover a whole season instead of a few episodes.
Since Daredevil Season 1 premiered on Netflix in 2015 the possibilities of what the Marvel Netflix Universe could hold were nothing short of exciting to say the least. In the next two years we got a Jessica Jones show, a Luke Cage show, another season of Daredevil and an Iron Fist show, all with the prospect of a grand and glorious crossover between the four of their "worlds" to come to life.
That crossover is The Defenders and it most certainly delivers on every aspect of that.
Crossovers are nothing new in TV. Create a couple of shows that take place in the same universe and the possibilities run wild. Most recently NBC has done it with Law and Order and the Chicago shows (Fire, P.D., Med and Justice), and The CW has done it with their four current DC Comics inspired shows, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. The thing is, those are all network shows and generally speaking even if a group of shows are on network or cable, those crossovers are limited to just a handful of episodes or a mini-series. There can be multiple ones and definitely smaller crossovers between just one or two of the shows, but you are never fully rewarded for being a fan of the franchise as a whole without feeling like something is missing.
Enter Netflix, godfather of the "Binge-Watch Protocol" who has used their Video On Demand (VOD) model to deliver what network and cable shows struggle to: a crossover season, which is what The Defenders is from the first frame to the last. Like all other crossovers, the show expects that if you are watching it, you know what has happened and what everyone has been up to since the last time you saw them on screen, so when they return in the first episode or two of the crossover there isn't a ton of exposition necessary to remind you of what everyone is dealing with. You know Matt Murdock's story, you know Jessica and Luke's prior connection along with their recent issues and you know of Danny Rand's quest to hunt down and destroy The Hand. You also know about all of the secondary support characters in each of their stories that have helped them along the way, especially the ones that have found their way into multiple shows like nurse Claire Temple, lawyer Jeri Hogarth and street thug Turk.
The beauty of this concept is that it gives The Defenders the freedom to start telling their new story for this show while deftly and cleverly incorporating multiple aspects from each and every show in the Marvel Netflix world to build that story up. Sigourney Weaver is a new character Alexandra, who shows up in New York with a lot of money and connections, including Madame Gao of The Hand so clearly we are once again dealing with The Hand as our villain. The criminal organization has done a masterful job of affecting the lives of each of the four Defenders individually, but in a way that all falls under the same diabolical plan so that when each of the four starts investigating for their own reasons, they naturally and organically run into each other.
That might be the greatest strength of The Defenders in how organic the assembly of the team and their supporting characters occur. Make no mistake, this is a HUGE juggling act. Not only are you balancing screen time and development for Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter and Finn Jones, you're also doing it for Elden Henson's Foggy Nelson, Deborah Ann Woll's Karen Page and Scott Glenn's character Stick all from Daredevil, Rachael Taylor's Trish Walker and Eka Darville's Malcolm both from Jessica Jones, Simone Missick's Misty Knight from Luke Cage and Jessica Henwick's Colleen Wing from Iron Fist. Not to mention Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple, Carrie Anne-Moss' Jeri Hogarth, Wai Ching Ho's Madame Gao and a few other characters that appear in spoilery fashion so they won't be mentioned here. To balance ALL of these characters and give them each the necessary screen time and involvement so that no one feels any less a part of The Defenders than they do of their own shows is a phenomenal accomplishment and could be the major reason why an eight episode season was needed to get it all done.
First things first, you've got to nail down the chemistry between your heroes and our four "super friends" do just that. Cox, Ritter, Colter and Jones all play their characters no different than they have established in their own shows and use their personal dynamics well to interact with each other in a way that doesn't betray themselves whatsoever. If you are a fan of Marvel Netflix and have paid attention to these characters all the way through, at no point do you feel that they do or say anything that doesn't fit what they have done or said in their own shows. Matt Murdock is still a brawler that struggles to balance his personal life with that of Daredevil, doesn't trust anyone and unwittingly pushes away his friends. Jessica Jones is still a sharp-tongued, emotionally tortured private detective that struggles with her superhero capabilities. Luke Cage is still the "Hero of Harlem" that just wants to help people while living a normal life, and Danny Rand the Immortal Iron Fist is still hellbent on taking down the organization that killed his parents and his masters at K'un-Lun. The fact that they have come together changes none of that and now they have to accept that the others exist in their world, which leads to some great character dynamics including the development of a friendship between Cage and Rand and the standoffish temperament of Murdock and Jones together. The core idea is that these people are all superheroes, even if they are so for very different reasons. Their ultimate goal is the same and while they struggle to realize it, they do get to a place of mutual respect in time.
So how about their opposition, the villainous Hand that has already made a mark on New York and is looking to bring it all down? Well to be honest, that could have been done better. Much better. As far as bad guys go in Marvel Netflix, this isn't their finest hour like it was with Kingpin, Kilgrave, Cottonmouth and even Black Mariah. As much as I thoroughly enjoy the career of Sigourney Weaver, this isn't one of her strongest performances and it has much more to do with how her character Alexandra is written than it does with Weaver's performance herself. There is this feeling throughout the show that you are just waiting for her to show a true level of evil and gravitas that all strong villains exemplify and that moment really never happens in my opinion. So much time is spent on the slow reveal of what The Hand's plan is and the how its members deliberate on carrying it out that we don't get a full sense of just how deadly to the entire city their actions are. A lot of that threat and menace that we are supposed to feel seems to be expected as carryover from what The Hand has done in the other shows and it doesn't work that way. They are a formidable opponent with a lot of power, but there's just a bit more bark than there is bite with it here.
That's not to say that the story itself doesn't work because it does and again it's that organic nature of the crossover between the heroes and all of their supporting characters that sells it well. We really do feel like The Defenders has taken the important elements of each and every Marvel Netflix show and blended them together expertly for this new story. The people and events of Hell's Kitchen and Harlem that we have watched for the past two years really feel like one massive world tucked away in a corner of one of the greatest cities in the country. Nothing feels forced or static, emotions are genuine, the character and story depth are there with regards to how everyone is affected by this, and a world that may have started out black and white with the first episode of Daredevil Season 1 is now as gray as it could possibly be by the time the last episode of The Defenders rolls credits.
A ton of credit also needs to go to the show's seven directors, S.J Clarkson, Phil Abraham, Farren Blackburn, Uta Briesewitz, Felix Enriquez Alcala, Peter Hoar and Stephen Surjik, not to mention Directors of Photography Matthew J. Lloyd and James McMillan and editors Jonathan Chibnall, Miklos Wright and Michael N. Knue. That's a lot of names, but The Defenders is one of the most well-filmed and edited TV shows I have seen and visually speaking it might be the best of the Marvel Netflix shows in terms of composition, structure and direction. Fantastic work here.
I'd love to talk about the easter eggs and comic references in this one, but more than a few of them are extremely spoilery, especially one BIG one that many fans have been waiting some time for, and since I personally have never read any Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage or Iron Fist comics I don't really know all of them. The bottom line is that if Iron Fist represented a step back for Marvel Netflix in terms of quality then The Defenders is without question a strong bounce back to greatness. It's only 8 episodes instead of the normal 13 that we get with a Marvel Netflix show but The Defenders benefits from that with a tighter, more nuanced story that doesn't waste any time and when it's over, you'll definitely have some questions and be ready for the next seasons of Marvel Netflix shows to be released for binge-watching.
MARVEL'S THE DEFENDERS - 5 out 5 - Available to watch on Netflix streaming as of August 18, 2017