From Day One, when Netflix and Marvel first heralded a set of series based on some of the comic-book company’s fringe superheroes, we knew this was coming. And just as the early MCU movies teased the Avengers over four years, so its smaller-scale small-screen cousin has been gradually, inexorably building up to a crossover that sees Daredevil (Cox), Jessica Jones (Ritter), Luke Cage (Colter) and Iron Fist (Jones) sharing the frame as the Avengers’ scrappier, grittier, street-level equivalent.
There is enough joy in watching the sparks fly to make you feel it might just have been worth the wait.
But while Daredevil first streamed only two years ago, it feels like it’s been a much longer journey than the Avengers’. It’s taken 65 episodes to get here via four shows, whose moments of genius (those long-take Daredevil fight scenes; Luke Cage’s musical numbers and slap-fu; all of Jessica Jones) have been tempered by chunks of frustration (the irritatingly perky Foggy & Karen show; the non-event that was Diamondback; much of Iron Fist). We could but hope that The Defenders would put right all the solo-shows’ wrongs — not least the stretching of thin plots over 13-episode structures — while playing to each hero’s super-strengths.
The good news is The Defenders comes in at a punchier eight episodes. And showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez (fresh from Daredevil Season Two) do have some crowd-pleasing fun with the lead characters’ interactions. When Luke and Iron Fist (who in the comics are partners and best buds) first meet, they have a full-on fistfight — and we get to see what happens when chi-infused knuckles hit a bulletproof jaw.
There’s a savvy sense of self-awareness, too — borderline meta, arguably. At one point Iron Fist admits, “I tried being a one-man army and I failed”; many critics of his solo show would agree. Meanwhile, the team’s somewhat uneven skill balance is swiftly skewered by Jessica: “Am I the only person around here who doesn’t know karate?” she snarks.
However, even with the five fewer episodes, you still get that Marvel/Netflix narrative drag. Just as the other shows felt like eight-episode stories puffed up to 13, this feels like a six-episode story bulked out to eight. It’s not until the end of episode three that the crime-fighting quartet is finally formed (with predictable reluctance) and the show finds its own style and identity, rather than being a bunch of intercut clips from the solo outings. But then they're divided again for much of the remainder, one of the gang becoming yawnsomely relegated to the role of abductee in need of rescuing.
The big, city-endangering threat that unites the group proves a disappointment, too. Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra is just another businessperson baddie whose dirty deeds are hidden by sharp outfits, while the ongoing, vague chicanery of The Hand (like HYDRA, but ninjas) fails to ignite much excitement. The peerless Weaver herself seems desperately bored by it all. This may partly be the character — there’s an acute world-weariness to Alexandra — but it doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping when she seems as concerned about opposing this ad-hoc super-gang as someone finding ants in their picnic hamper.
Meanwhile, having Matt, Luke and Danny constantly, earnestly bang on about how much they love "this city" really starts to grate by the final few instalments. It only makes you even more thankful that Ms. Jones is in the mix here, with all her eye rolls and lip curls. Not only is she Marvel/Netflix's strongest character, she's The Defenders' MVP. With her considerable help, there is just enough joy in watching the sparks fly as these four alpha characters finally collide to make it feel worth the wait.