For all its significance both to superhero obsessives and streaming junkies, to call Marvel’s “The Defenders” hotly anticipated would feel a little disingenuous.
Yes, the superhero team up miniseries marks the culmination of a three-year partnership with Netflix. And yes, it promises to cross over the four preexisting fruits of the studios’ shared labor with the ambitions of a small-screen, street-level “Avengers.”
But the truth is — with the glaring exception of “Jessica Jones,” a bona fide psychological noir that doubled as a superhero saga — Marvel and Netflix’s standalones have progressively leaned more marvel-less than marvelous. Audience interest has dwindled accordingly.
After a promising freshman run, “Daredevil” completely lost its footing amid a dreary second season. “Luke Cage” packed in philosophy and feeling but squandered its charismatic lead and rich sense of place on a story line that went in circles without going anywhere at all. And “Iron Fist,” dogged ahead of release by accusations of cultural appropriation, proved even worse than early detractors had anticipated, saddling its hero (a privileged white guy who takes it upon himself to mansplain kung fu to a half-Chinese, half-Japanese martial-arts expert, for reference) with a punishingly dull arc.
In the wake of those series — which, differing quality aside, possess deeply dissimilar narrative voices and visual stylings — it’s only reasonable to greet “The Defenders” with more cautious curiosity than feverish excitement. And, judging from the first four episodes (out of a planned eight), that would be the right reaction.
Not a tone-deaf disaster on the scale of “Iron Fist,” nor a triumph of complex characterization and cultural commentary like “Jessica Jones,” “The Defenders” is ultimately adequate, treating each of the shows that preceded it like squeezed-out dollops on a painter’s palette to be applied selectively to an otherwise blank canvas.
That strategy — which also applies visually, with lighting, camerawork, and musical cues changing in accordance with which character is driving a particular scene — requires setup, meaning that the first episode keeps Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) separate, rejoining each in their respective corners of New York before nudging them none-too-subtly toward a rendezvous point.
As in “The Avengers,” it takes a shared threat to unite the heroes: Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver, excellent), an enigmatic businesswoman with vaguely apocalyptic designs on New York. At her side is Daredevil’s resurrected ex-flame, as well as the ninja clan he battled throughout the second season of his own show. Iron Fist, coincidentally, has been entrusted with the age-old duty of destroying said ninja clan. Jessica Jones, still working as a private eye, ends up looking for a missing person with a connection to the baddies. And Luke Cage, newly freed from prison, is just trying to help a kid in his neighborhood who’s fallen in with them.
Some of the heroes’ paths to Alexandra are more believable than others, and the maneuvering necessary to set them up strands “The Defenders” with the same turgid pacing that afflicted previous Marvel/Netflix offerings. But the show improves as it goes along, and it soars in the action scenes, particularly — in what’s become a running joke for these series — during an impressively choreographed hallway fight, where Luke shields Iron Fist from bullets and Matt repurposes Jessica’s scarf as a makeshift mask.
In those moments, “The Defenders” works, relishing its everyday-Avengers aesthetic by infusing the superhero spectacle with touches of grungy realism (to wit, their Stark Tower is a Chinese restaurant they muscle into after closing time). Weaver helps, even if her quietly menacing turn can’t hold a candle to such past adversaries as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin or David Tennant’s Kilgrave. What’s really missing from this team-up, though, is the kind of personality that so elevated “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage.”
In tackling, respectively, the emotional trauma of sexual assault and the escape velocity needed to break free of multifaceted oppression, those series made Marvel mature. “The Defenders,” on the other hand, has no voice to speak of; even the plot feels beside the point. While it’s a kick to watch these heroes trade barbs and sometimes blows, the miniseries leaves you itching for them, especially Jessica and Luke, to return to their own, somehow more expansive sandboxes.
Starring: Finn Jones, Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Sigourney Weaver
On Netflix, streams Friday