The product of meticulous planning, “Marvel’s The Defenders” starts slowly but rewards patience, gradually uniting its “street level” heroes against a somewhat amorphous but bigger-than-any-one-can-handle threat. Cast as the anti-Avengers, this latest Netflix show underscores Marvel’s ambitions and ability to wring value out of characters that aren’t exactly household names.
Perhaps inevitably, “Defenders” limps along a bit in the early going (four episodes were previewed), juggling not only its four superheroes – Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica Jones (Kristen Ritter), Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones), and Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) – but their assorted sidekicks from previous stand-alone adventures. Even for Marvel aficionados, that’s a lot to process.
Hang in there, though, and the lines begin to intersect, as the heroes square off individually and eventually together against forces of the shadowy cabal known as the Hand, led here by the mysterious Alexandra, lustily played by Sigourney Weaver as if she’s realizing a long-deferred dream to become a Bond villain.
Notably, Daredevil is the only one who wears a costume in this bunch, and at least initially even he gets by simply strapping a scarf over his face. In classic Marvel fashion, there’s also plenty of bickering among the heroes, with Cage at one point growling that he’s “not looking for super-friends,” at not-so-veiled shot at Marvel rival DC.
Frankly, given their serialized nature all the Marvel shows would benefit from slightly shorter orders than 13-episode seasons, and based on the leisurely pace at the outset that’s probably the case here as well.
Yet with so many personalities, it’s kind of fun watching them learn about each other’s powers, somewhat lightening the brooding tone that has characterized the Marvel-Netflix collaboration. Even Iron Fist – the one genuine dud among the previous shows – benefits from his interplay with the others, particularly the hard-as-rock Cage, who discovers what happens (in slow motion, naturally) when Iron Fist meets immovable object.
The producers have also done a good job casting around the leads, and it’s welcome to see Scott Glenn back as Daredevil’s crusty mentor, Stick; and Rosario Dawson as Claire, who has crossed paths with both Luke Cage and Daredevil.
For all its gaudy theatrical success, Marvel’s TV track record has been more uneven, and the Netflix shows – dark, gritty, really more detective dramas than traditional superhero fare – have represented a bright spot. “Defenders” has also audaciously mirrored the company’s original feature strategy, introducing a number of characters (beginning with “Iron Man”) that were designed to build toward – and heighten anticipation for – a promised team-up.
Nobody will confuse the martial-arts-tinged action in “Defenders” with the pyrotechnics in Marvel’s upcoming Avengers sequel “Infinity War.” But in its own way the series proves there’s something to be said for waging smaller-scale battles. By shrewdly using Netflix to showcase and cash in on these lesser-known properties, Marvel once again appears to be winning the war.
“Marvel’s The Defenders” premieres Aug. 18 on Netflix.