“Marvel’s The Defenders” is significantly better than the last offering from the comic-book factory’s ongoing collaboration with Netflix, “Iron Fist.” That was one of the most notable misfires ever in the realm of superhero TV, but “The Defenders” is a workmanlike series that gets the job done with a reasonable amount of energy and a few bursts of flair.
It may not offer the highest highs of “Jessica Jones,” which proved itself the star performer of the Marvel-Netflix universe during its debut season. And while “The Defenders” is occasionally a bit blander than an endeavor featuring deadly ninjas and elaborate costumes should be, the eight-part drama has notable selling points, chief among them an elegant and fierce performance from Sigourney Weaver.
Weaver plays a criminal mastermind, and she sinks her teeth into the role with glee, but throughout the first four installments of “The Defenders,” her work remains measured and her wily charm carefully deployed. The drama’s blocky dialogue is often unexceptional and sometimes borders on the unfortunate (“It’s too late for heroes!”). But Weaver has an almost supernatural ability to make her scenes crackle with electricity, no matter how predictable her character’s dastardly schemes.
Getting a genuine movie star to make a TV series was a coup for Marvel, and “The Defenders” is generally smart about how it uses Weaver’s ability to combine silky, intelligent charisma with intense tenacity. Her character, Alexandra, is believable as an accomplished New York City power player and also as someone much more malevolent than she first appears.
Even if viewers haven’t seen any of the other Marvel-Netflix shows, “The Defenders” will bring them up to speed, an exposition-heavy process that can sometimes give the proceedings a rote feel. Each superhero’s core traits are reinforced in separate storylines in the first few episodes, and many characters from each show’s supporting cast also put in appearances, which packs the drama with a crowded array of faces. But the fact that “The Defenders,” at least in the early going, switches frequently among its lead characters gives it a pleasing sense of momentum, a quality that can be difficult to find in the opening hours of other Marvel (or Netflix) drama series. There are also exciting fight scenes, and the return of Elodie Yung to the Marvel TV universe is welcome indeed; her mystery character in “The Defenders” has a desperate, melancholy persona and, of course, a lethal edge.
Finn Jones, who plays rich guy Danny Rand, aka the Iron Fist, remains the Achilles’ heel of the Marvel-Netflix empire. Not only does Jones lack the presence or skill to create interest in Rand’s dilemmas, but the character’s dumb choices make it even more difficult to care about anything he attempts. Given Rand’s superficial, trust-fund kid vibe, it’s tedious to hear him talking about his chi, and it’s semi-comical when he intones the phrase “I am the Immortal Iron Fist.” “The Defenders,” however, has some awareness of how annoying Danny can be, and a portion of the comedy involving the character is intentional. Most other characters don’t take him seriously, and more than once, the intensely pragmatic Luke Cage (Mike Colter) looks like he wants to put Rand through a wall. Still, even if Danny is exasperating, at least his naive, one-dimensional character does not unduly dominate the proceedings.
The other members of the core cast — Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as tough private detective Jessica Jones and Colter as the bulletproof Cage — are quite capable, and Scott Glenn, Jessica Henwick and Simone Missick are notably engaging in their supporting roles. As the Defenders alliance comes together, the superheroes exhibit a sense of self-awareness about their plans and their powerful enemies, and now and then they toss out a sarcastic remark or a well-timed bon mot. Colter, Weaver, Glenn and Ritter are particularly gifted with one-liners and perfectly calibrated glares, and Cox makes Murdock’s pent-up Catholic guilt highly watchable.
One could wish for a little more diverting lightness. But now and then there’s a sense that “The Defenders” is dutifully checking boxes rather than having a blast running around with men and women who enjoy donning form-fitting leather and slicing up their enemies. “The Defenders” is recognizably a superhero team-up, but like some tentpole films, it’s also a careful piece of IP synergy. Still, if it lacks a bit of magic, at least, at least it’s not a heavy summer commitment. Our heroes have only eight episodes to save the Big Apple, after which they’ll return to their respective places on the Marvel release schedule. New York never sleeps, nor do valuable corporate assets.