A review of “The Defenders” (2017)

I hate to say this, guys — I really do.  But aside from some admittedly standout action sequences, Netflix’ “The Defenders” (2017) was generally mediocre stuff.  I’d rate it a 5 out of 10 for mostly being a clunky, messily written, rare misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What we’ve got here is an eight-episode story arc depicting nothing less than a cabal of mystical ninjas endeavoring to destroy New York City — and four superheros racing to stop them.  And yet it still manages to feel slow.  I’m surprised at how plodding so brief and urgent a story concept like that could be executed.

It’s confusing too.  The cabal in question here is The Hand, and their nature, origins, history and modus operandi are all too muddled to follow — the result of sloppy screenwriting.  Their goal within “The Defenders'” storyline is actually pretty narrow and specific by comic book standards — I’m not sure how razing New York is necessary at all.  (Their actions cause … an earthquake?  How, exactly?  And wouldn’t that jeopardize their process if an earthquake occurs earlier than they expected?  Do these mystical ninjas employ seismologists to forewarn them of that?)

Other questions abound as well.  What is “Black Sky,” exactly?  Does it matter much, considering it’s a story element that doesn’t much change things?  Is the resurrected uber-Elektra really that much different from the regular, mortal Elektra we saw in “Daredevil” (2015)?

To make matters worse, the character elements here are frequently off key.  Elektra herself feels like a mostly flat protagonist, the leads sometimes lack chemistry with one another, and the script pay far too much attention to supporting characters that viewers did not tune in to watch.  (If I hear one more saccharine pep talk between Claire Temple and Colleen Wing, I’m going to scream.)

Look, I’m not saying the show was all bad.  Like “Iron Fist” (2017) before it, “The Defenders” partially redeems a bad script with absolutely excellent fight choreography; Hell’s Kitchen is the corner of the MCU with the best martial arts action.  I cheered a couple of times.

I also think that the cast is roundly excellent.  I’ll always love Charlie Cox in the role of Daredevil and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.  Mike Colter is perfectly cast as Luke Cage, and we even have none other than Sigourney Weaver classing up the MCU (even if she occasionally seemed to phone it in a little).

And I’m including Finn Jones as Iron Fist here — I don’t think he’s the show’s “weak link,” as other viewers do.  The actor is actually quite good; it isn’t his fault that his titular series and this follow-up were poorly written.  In fact, I really like the character concept of Iron Fist as it’s presented here.  It’s mired in a lot of weird and dated kung-fu-type cliches, but this is a comic book property, after all.  The character’s shtick might be the closest the MCU comes to having a “Jedi”-type figure, and that’s fun.  (A good friend of mine who is a lifelong Star Wars fanatic really loves “The Defenders,” as well as Iron Fist’s solo show — I don’t think that’s an accident.)  Plus, Iron Fist is a great foil for the other characters on The Defenders team, who are each cynical and traumatized to some extent– he appears young and idealistic and with a sheltered upbringing, like a recent college graduate with superpowers.

I don’t know that I can actually recommend this, as you can tell from the above.  But I will say that nearly everyone I’ve heard from about this show enjoyed it more than I did.  Your mileage may vary.

 

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A very short review of the pilot for “Iron Fist” (2017)

They said that Netflix’ “Iron Fist” (2017) was bad.  They were … mostly right, at least as far as I can tell from the pilot.  I’d rate the first episode a 4 out of 10.

This episode was a thinly scripted collection of common tropes, cluttered with clunky exposition and weird, improbable plot points.  (A friendly homeless man helps the hero by googling key information for him on a stolen iPhone?)  The show even managed to be briefly boring in parts.

“Iron Fist” has the depth and hastily concocted story of an 80’s primetime action show.  But I don’t mean that in a fun, nostalgic way, I mean it in a bizarre, awkward way.  I was actually reminded of Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooning 1984’s ninja groaner, “The Master.”  In fact … don’t “Iron Fist” and “The Master” have a similar story setup?  There are some weird parallels, if you think about it.

Look … it wasn’t all bad.  The fight choreography was actually damned good.  I don’t know if that was actor Finn Jones performing the Kung-Fu, or a stunt double.  But it was believable and a lot of fun to watch.  It was nicely shot, too — the vibrant visuals had an appropriate comic-book feel, and were better than those that I would expect from this show’s companion series, “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” (2015).

I also submit that Jones is great in the role of the titular hero.  He’s a decent actor, he’s well cast in the part, and I find Danny Rand to be a surprisingly likable protagonist.  I just hope that “The Defenders'” new team-up places him in the hands of a better set of writers.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “Jessica Jones” (2015)

Netflix’ “Jessica Jones” (2015) is easily one of the best things in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.  It’s smart, it’s funny and it’s extremely dark — I don’t want to spoil too much by revealing the modus operandi of Season 1’s villain, but his manner of destroying his victims is utterly disturbing.  (I’ve mentioned before how his powers seem like a plot device from a Stephen King novel.)  Although this series excellently retains a “comic book” feel (due in part to its episodic format), its story elements frequently feel like something out of a John Carpenter film.  And, although I know I’m repeating myself yet again, this Hell’s Kitchen niche of the MCU feels like its chosen stage for horror-thrillers.

The cast is excellent.  Krysten Ritter is perfect as the titular, hard-drinking, antihero private detective.  Mike Colter is nearly as good in the role of Luke Cage, another low-level hero in the Marvel universe.  Colter’s talent is evident by the fact that Cage could so easily come across as a one-dimensional character.  (And, Jesus, doesn’t the guy look the part?)

The story’s villain, Kilgrave, is played by fan-favorite David Tennant.  (Yes, the name “Kilgrave” is stupid and is lifted from the comic book source material.  Its silliness is lampshaded in the series several times by other characters making fun of it.)  Tennant is an actor I’ve abhorred in the past.  There was no logical reason for it — there used to be just something about his voice and his face that made me cringe.  It was a running joke for a while among me and my female sci-fi friends.  (Good Lord, how the ladies adore that man.)  My admittedly irrational dislike of the man even detracted from my enjoyment of the otherwise quite enjoyable 2011 “Fright Night” remake.

He’s phenomenal here.  He’s perfect for the part, as Ritter and Colter are for theirs, and he was alternately menacing and quite funny.  (He has perfect timing and line delivery, as Ritter often does.)  I really liked watching him.

“Jessica Jones” might succeed more than any other MCU property in terms of dialogue and character development — although the “Iron Man” and “Daredevil” series also do great work there.  (It’s a tough call.)  The show also seems to flesh out the MCU into a kind of “lived in” universe in a way that other Marvel properties usually haven’t — by creating detailed, three-dimensional protagonists out of characters that have no superpowers whatsoever.  They’re not “sidekicks” (a trope that the script that slyly winks at); they’re realistic characters that affect the plot.  When one or two actually appear to develop superpowers toward the end of the season, the consequences are unexpected and dire.  (There is a truly kickass Easter egg here that will please longtime readers of Marvel Comics.)  Furthermore, Jones, Cage and most of the other characters have power sets that pale in comparison to M.C.U. heavy hitters like Thor, the Hulk or the Vision. The result is that the MCU feels more … integrated and nuanced, with a blurrier line between superheroes and everyday people.  I liked that a hell of a lot.

The show is not entirely without its failings.  Despite what I said above about the show’s attention to ordinary characters, I still think it went a bit overboard here.  The character of Malcom (nicely portrayed by Eka Darville) began as a hugely interesting supporting character.  So, too, did other residents of the heroine’s apartment building.  It was a nice touch that expanded the show’s scope and depth … until the law of diminishing returns kicked in.  By the end of Season 1’s 13-episode arc, I felt that they’d received far too much screen time.  The support group that one character attends started out as an intelligent subplot, but then eventually grew tiresome.  (Again, I’m being necessarily vague here to avoid spoilers.)  Towards the finale, I actually felt that these minor characters were padding the plot and dragging down the narrative.

Which brings me to another criticism — the narrative’s length.  This is yet another show that I felt could be edited down a bit.  As much as I loved Tennant here and found Kilgrave to be an interesting villain, I’m not sure that Jones’s conflict with him warranted 12 52-minute episodes.  This could have been abridged to eight or ten, I think.

Another criticism I had of “Jessica Jones” was its fight choreography.  For a show that succeeds on so many levels, the action sequences were sometimes surprisingly poor.  Why do brawls between superpowered individuals include so much polite (and bloodless) grabbing and throwing?  Especially when a single punch or kick could easily kill or incapacitate an opponent?  The answer, of course, is that those kinds of melees are easy to film, with minimal training for the actors.  It’s especially noticeable here because this show’s sibling, “Daredevil,” has fight choreography that is some of the best I’ve ever seen.  (If you’re curious, then search for “Daredevil stairwell fight” on Youtube sometime.)

The rudimentary effects were usually even poor when depicting the title character’s “jumping” scenes.  (She has super strength, so she can virtually “fly” short distances by literally jumping.)  These shots looked like something out of a primetime 80’s action show.

All in all, though, this was indeed a great show.  Don’t shy away from it, as I initially did, because you’re unfamiliar with the title character.  It’s among the best that Marvel has to offer.

 

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