defenders with stick

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. Obviously no more dangerous than a well-facilitated antagonist whose limitations number fewer than the fingers on one's hand, but still a force to consider. With The Defenders, Marvel and Netflix ran the risk of imploding beneath the hopeful anticipation of fans who fell in love with the dark sagas of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and the miniseries does suffer its growing pains early on. But once this magnetic super-group finally does fuse together, The Defenders becomes everything we wanted it to be.

Because The Defenders is pulling liberally and loosely from these characters' decades-strong comic book source material, and then combining it with the already-tangential New York City-verse established by the foursome's respective solo series, an abundance of moving parts is present when the season opens up and introduces mysterious events threatening the safety of the city's large population. It's not a simple task to take audiences into the present-day lives of this mega-ensemble without a slog of exposition and rapid-fire appearances, which will potentially exhaust some viewers, but hardcore fans will appreciate watching these relatively disparate worlds and ideologies coming together.

The Defenders opens up on Danny Rand being the most comfortable of the four with embracing his skull-busting mission, and it's admittedly amusing to hear him grow confident with his "Immortal Iron Fist" self-identification. Luke Cage is just getting out of prison -- using a Mos Def track to immediately remind everyone which of these series has the best soundtrack -- while Jessica Jones is keeping up her liquor-induced haze while still coming to grips with using her strength and other powers to help those beyond herself. And then there's Matt Murdock, who attempts to overwhelm himself with pro bono court cases to keep his Daredevil persona locked away.

elektra and alexandra the defenders

So what is it that brings the group together? It's more of a "who," really, and it's not just a single entity. Making her highly anticipated debut in Netflix's Marvel Universe is Sigourney Weaver, who delivers a commanding gravitas in every scene she's in as the mysterious Alexandra, whose attachment to her city is every bit as strong (and potentially destructive) as Luke's right hook. Her conspiratorial connections to that most malicious organization The Hand lead her to becoming a quasi-mentor for Elodie Yung's Elektra, who returns to live-action as a much different warrior than the one we last saw. And nothing about Alexandra, Elektra or The Hand bodes well for the good guys here.

Speaking of all involved, The Defenders is certainly a buffet of both leading and supporting characters from all across Netflix's boroughs of the MCU, and you know Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple is caught up in the mix. From Daredevil, we catch up with Elden Henson's Foggy, Deborah Ann Woll's Karen, Scott Glenn's Stick and Wai Ching Ho's Madame Gao. (As well as Peter McRobbie's Father Lantorn.) From Jessica Jones, we see Carrie-Anne Moss' Jeri Hogarth, Rachael Taylor's Trish and Eda Darville's currently clear-headed Malcolm. We also get to enjoy more time with the standout co-stars from Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Simone Missick's Missy Knight and Jessica Henwick's Colleen Wing. Seemingly every scene early on is a reconnection, and there are certainly more to come. (Like one involving Frank Castle, for instance.)

jessica and claire the defenders

Unlike its approach with most of its original series, Netflix only offers half-seasons of its Marvel hero shows for critics to review, and Luke Cage's big villain switcheroo proved that these shows can change dramatically after the midway point, for better or worse. With The Defenders, though, it's the fourth episode that changes the game, as this is where the four vigilantes at last come together as a fully-formed (if initially dubious) team of badasses. Obviously, fight sequences are sprinkled early on, but that big office building battle that's been teased in the trailers is the first big brawl that shoots for the technical savagery of Daredevil's now-iconic hallway fights.

But if I'm going to knock the series for one element harder than any other one, it's that fans have waiting for over two years (and five different TV seasons) knowing that The Defenders was on the way, so it's almost unforgivably aggravating that all the necessary seeds for eventual togetherness weren't already planted in each solo show's respective finale. It's still fun to watch everything come together, mind you, and they payoff indeed feels worthy. I just wish we'd done all the meet-cute stuff already. Or is it meet-brute?

Character connections are made before then, to be sure, and while I thought it might be most enjoyable seeing the clash of Matt's buttoned-up personality and Jessica's affrontive snark, there's no denying the magic of Mike Colter and Finn Jones' energetic charisma together as Luke Cage and Iron Fist coming to terms with one another. If they don't get their comic book team-up as a standalone Netflix show before this is all over with, there will be riots from Harlem to K'un L'un. Thankfully, even when it's not the central four characters interacting with each other, it's still fun to watch the ensemble mix and match from one scene to the next.

While Avengers comparisons are impossible to avoid with The Defenders, that's almost like putting ridiculously expensive CGI apples up against hand-crafted, street-level oranges. But like Marvel's blockbuster squad on the big screen, Netflix's The Defenders works best when its central characters are bouncing dialogue off one another as everything is getting more and more hectic around them. And I can only hope and expect that the drama's kinetic drive and winking humor will get more and more palpable and ridiculous as the second half wraps things up. In The Defenders, we trust.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating

The Defenders is so close to coming out, you can almost taste it, even without Matt Murdock's enhanced senses. Find all eight episodes hitting Netflix in full on Friday, August 18, at 12:01 a.m. PT. And when you're waiting, check out everything else hitting the small screen for the rest of the year with not only our 2017 Netflix schedule, but also our summer TV guide and our fall premiere rundown.

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