Ranking The Defenders | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Ranking The Defenders

With the release date of The Defenders announced, Deputy Editor Harry Turner breaks down Marvel's big experiment, and what can be learnt moving forward

Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist. Recently announced for August 18, The Defenders is a show years in the making. Much like The Avengers that it has based itself off, the show is a culmination of a number of media endeavours; and much like the first Avengers, some have been more successful than others.

To this end, with the consummation of these years’ of work now on the horizon, there may be no better time to look back on these shows. As good (on the whole) as they have been, each have been flawed in their own, as well as some very similar, ways.

If The Defenders is to be just the start of these heroes’ screen career, as Marvel Television and Netflix no doubt hope it be, they would all do well to learn from the successes, and mistakes, of each.

Iron Fist

Panned critically, Iron Fist’s appearance at the bottom of this list is no doubt unsurprising. Featuring a deeply inconsistent narrative and characters, the show is easily the weakest of the Marvel-Netflix shows.

At the crux of it all was Iron Fist’s protagonist. The character of Danny Rand never found his feet. One moment he was supposedly a zen-like figure, the next he was lashing out like a teenager, and then the next he was grappling with his mental health problems which seemed only to arise when the plot demanded them to. With so much of the show in the end revolving around Danny Rand’s plight, its failure to create an interesting, or often even likeable character, was a crucial.

Ranking the Defenders

The character of Danny Rand never found his feet.

Just as crucial, arguably, was how lacking Iron Fist’s fight scenes were. For a show about a martial artist, its fight scenes were frequently too shaky to follow or lacking the kind of visceral punch like those found in Daredevil. The fact that the Iron Fist itself was barely used – and, baring the clash in the season finale, not used very creatively either – only made these scenes even more underwhelming.

This isn’t to say Iron Fist was utterly awful. Considering how ravaged the series has been by critics, it’s important to stress that Iron Fist is the decent show in the end – if one that suffered due to its impressive forbearers. At times, the show did manage to shine.

Ranking The Defenders

The return of Madame Gao was another highlight of Iron Fist.

The Meachums’, for example, despite a flaky introduction, proved to be quite interesting as antagonists, and the show’s exploration of the Hand’s resurrection techniques were also a neat expansion to what was established in Daredevil. Likewise, when the show focused on it, Danny Rand’s determination to fight for his own name, his own identity – and the relevance of names as a theme in general – was also interesting.

Yet altogether, when explicitly ranking these shows, Iron Fist just fails to stack up. Its characters were wildly inconsistent, its fight scenes unimpressively done, and, perhaps most of all – as the other entries here will make clear – seemingly uninspired when it came to giving something new in this very busy genre.

The fact that The Defenders, which has already wrapped filming, may have taken the most plot-points from this show is troubling, but hopefully it wasn’t too late for a course correction.

Indeed, hopefully Danny Rand can prove a more enjoyable character when the spotlight isn’t on him, or when he's in the hands of better writers.

Luke Cage

Ranking The Defenders

Harlem's bullet-proof hero.

Luke Cage’s appearance here is perhaps as unsurprising as Iron Fist’s appearance at the bottom of this list. Yet the difference in quality between the two is considerable. Iron Fist was wildly inconsistent across its season and sometimes within single episodes, whilst Luke Cage’s good and bad parts can be quite easily distinguished.

Starting with the good, Luke Cage, like all the superior Marvel-Netflix shows, thrived in showing a superhero story from a new perspective. For Luke Cage, this was a black perspective. Set in Harlem, the show explored ideas of community, whilst at the same time occasionally reflecting topical issues like Black Lives Matter.

With its eponymous black, bullet-proof protagonist, Luke Cage soared when it focused on what a man like this could be for African American communities, and indeed communities in general.

Yet Luke Cage suffered from a problem recurrent in all the Marvel-Netflix series: its 13 episode season. Midway through the show dipped considerably, swapping out its focus on community and a struggle for it, for what was ultimately just a family drama.

And drama is the right word – the antagonist of the show’s second half was so over-the-top it was hard to not find him frustrating, especially when compared against Mahershala Ali’s much more ambiguous Cottonmouth.

In the end, Luke Cage proves as inconsistent an experience as Iron Fist – save that its inconsistency can be much more easily identified and split. The season's first half was fantastic and thought-provoking, but it seems in the need to fill out thirteen hours, Luke Cage had to switch gears to a narrative far less engaging – and suffered considerably for it.

Finishing Luke Cage’s first season becomes much more of a slog than it should be, and that was its critical failing.

Daredevil – Season 1

This is perhaps where the list begins to get controversial. Unlike Iron Fist and Luke Cage, which are generally seen as being flawed, at least in some respects, by most, Daredevil Season 1 is hailed by many as being the pinnacle of the Marvel-Netflix shows.

And it is, certainly, one of the best. All of these shows could not have asked for a better kick-start than what was found in Daredevil Season 1. The show was brutal right off the bat, immediately distinguishing itself from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), whilst at the same time making it clear, for those paying attention anyway, that it does exist within this same universe.

Matt Murdock’s story is one with deeply Catholic undertones – one merged with a pulpy, modern crime drama.
Season 1 also served as a fantastic introduction to Matt Murdock, easily one of the MCU’s most interesting characters. With an unyielding sense of self-guilt and an inability to ever back down, to the point of self-destruction, Murdock’s story is one with deeply Catholic undertones – one merged with a pulpy, modern crime drama.

The season likewise did a superb job of reinventing Wilson Fisk into what was, at the time, the MCU’s best villain. Making him a clear foil for Matt Murdock but a terrifyingly volatile force in his own right, Season 1 started the reputation of great antagonists that these Marvel-Netflix shows have become known for.

With Daredevil Season 1 also featuring great, visceral fight scenes and well-developed cast all round, it’s easy to see why the season ranks the highest for many.

Ranking The Defenders

Season 1 also featured a much more grounded costume that, in light of the other Defender shows, may be more appropriate going forward.

Yet Season 1 wasn’t without critical failings. The problem of a 13 episode run-time arguably reared its head for the first time here. It may not have affected the experience quite as much as the likes of Luke Cage or Iron Fist, but Daredevil Season 1 featured its own fair share of episodes that seemed like filler. More pressingly, though, the season really wound up too quickly – almost entirely in one episode – making for an ending quite lacking in any sense of culmination.

This isn’t to say that Daredevil Season 1 was disappointing by any stretch. Unlike Iron Fist and Luke Cage the show is much easier to re-watch, and is a much more consistent experience on the whole. All the same, it wasn’t without its faults.

Daredevil – Season 2

Season 2 of Daredevil managed to utilise its 13 episodes much more successfully than its first season, and indeed any of the Marvel-Netflix shows.
The two seasons of Daredevil have been split on this list because Season 2 is quite a different beast to the season that came before it. For one thing, Season 2 embraced much more of Daredevil’s comic book material than Season 1 did. Most of all though, Season 2 of Daredevil managed to utilise its 13 episodes much more successfully than its first season, and indeed any of the Marvel-Netflix shows.

Effectively featuring two concurrent plot-lines, that only barely came together at the end, Season 2 was packed with plot that expanded on the Marvel-Netflix microcosm in the MCU whilst still continued Matt Murdock’s story. No doubt Luke Cage attempted the same dual plot-lines in its series, but Daredevil Season 2 managed to ensure a similar quality in both.

Jon Bernthal killed it (pun intended?) as the Punisher, who served as a great foil for Murdock – a dark reflection for the hero he could be – whilst Elektra offered a wider window into Matt Murdock’s past, and paved the way for the Hand – who enjoyed a much better depiction here than as the rather bland, leather-jacket clad cultists in Iron Fist.

The consistent theme throughout the second season of Daredevil was how Matt Murdock and his fight was different to those of the people around him. He was not as merciless or as cynical as Frank Castle, nor as sadistic as Elektra, and he did not care for the conflict of the Chaste and the Hand. Matt Murdock’s war is a lonely one, and Season 2 set that up brilliantly (of course, how this is remedied in The Defenders remains to be seen).

Ranking The Defenders

Daredevil Season 2 set up the lonely war of Matt Murdock, and expanded the cast of allies and adversaries around him.

Yet with so much going on, some have rightly criticised the season for lacking any strong villain like Fisk, or a central focus that he brought to the first season. Yet Fisk’s absence was somewhat allayed by his fantastic guest appearance midway through the season. This doesn’t solve the fact that the season lacked a firm, central focus, but Fisk’s appearance did prove the character to be as memorable and as terrifying even in short bursts, whilst at the same time solidifying the destructive rivalry of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk from the comics.

Ultimately, Daredevil Season 2 expertly built on the foundation of the first season whilst expanding the Marvel-Netflix world into areas that will no doubt come into play in The Defenders. More crucially though, it demonstrated that these shows can fill a 13 episode season effectively – even at the cost of a singular central focus.

This said, however, Daredevil Season 2 lacks the level of sophistication of the show which emerged between it and its previous season – a show which, of course, takes the top-spot in this list.

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones is, undoubtedly, the smartest and darkest of all the Marvel-Netflix shows – coming the closest to fulfilling the more adult-oriented take of the MCU that these shows were supposed to offer. With a noir overtone, it also had a much more unique style than its Defender siblings.

A story about abuse at its core, and fighting back against it, Jessica Jones was engaging on both an intellectual and emotional level. David Tenant was captivating and chilling as Kilgrave, in some ways subverting his Tenth Doctor charm and offering a window into the abuser and their dangerous mind-set. Jessica’s season-long struggle with him, and Krysten Ritter’s wonderfully bitter and sardonic portrayal, made for a deeply relevant story right through to its conclusion. The “smile” moment in the final episode, and all that it represents for Jessica Jones and real-life abuse stories more widely, was perfect.

Ranking The Defenders

Jessica's season-spanning struggle with Kilgrave was entertaining on both intellectual and emotional levels.

Even the likes of Will Simpson, who many have perhaps rightly called an annoying character and often just a means to pad out the plot, served to complement this theme. Simpson is the alpha-male hero gone astray, too dominating and controlling – too arrogant – for his own good. A man trying to be male hero that dominates media, only to become something far uglier in the process.

Jessica Jones was a feminist superhero story, and it thrived in being this. Daredevil Season 2 may have filled its 13 episodes better – Jessica Jones often had a tendency to give far too much attention to side stories, and the initial episodes were slow going (though as were most of these shows’ first episodes) – but neither Daredevil Season 2, nor any of the other Marvel-Netflix shows, have been as well-crafted in the end as Jessica Jones was.

Smart, psychological, and captivating; the show is not just an inspiration for superhero shows seeking to be dark and adult-orientated, but an inspiration for shows and stories just generally.

Concluding Thoughts - The Defenders and Beyond

The Defenders

Defenders Assembled.

To wrap up, the road to The Defenders has been one rife with success but also a number of common failings. Where the big team-up is concerned, The Defenders seems set to counter the consistent issue of the overly-long seasons in just being a mini-series. Of course, whether with so many characters an expanded run-time may be better remains to be seen, but the show should hopefully benefit from being a more tightly-focused experience all the same.

Looking beyond The Defenders, however, there is much that Marvel and Netflix can learn from. Daredevil and Jessica Jones have both shown that they can, for the most part, fill a 13 episode season – warranting the renewed seasons that both have received.

It wouldn’t hurt for both shows to have a reduced run – perhaps to something like eight or ten episodes.
This said, a shorter season for both wouldn’t go amiss. With the likes of Stranger Things being an obvious example for why a shorter season can do wonders, it wouldn’t hurt for both shows to have a reduced run – perhaps to something like eight or ten episodes. Indeed, with no ads to run alongside these Netflix shows, it’s puzzling why the company has been so determined to stick to 13 episodes seasons in the first place.

Luke Cage and Iron Fist, on the other hand, have both shown to differing extents that they may not be able to carry a season so extended, and with this in mind, a teaming up of the two characters, as is being suggesting by many (and as occurred in the comics), could be an effective solution.

This somewhat depends on what dynamic the two have in The Defenders, but pairing the two up could serve to fill out a larger season in a way that neither could first time round, as well as balance out their characters. Certainly in Danny Rand’s case, Luke Cage could serve to temper some of his worst excesses from Iron Fist Season 1. Moreover, with the two forming the Heroes for Hire in the comics, this would be a perfect way of continuing the exploration of the community theme found in Luke Cage.

The best moments of all the Marvel-Netflix shows have been when they have subverted the superhero story in some way
More generally, however, when it comes to these Marvel-Netflix shows moving forward an emphasis on telling the superhero narrative from new perspectives, or with a certain twist, should be the focus. The best moments of all the Marvel-Netflix shows have been when they have subverted the superhero story in some way, and the best among them have been the ones to be doing this the most consistently.

The Defenders will be available to stream from Netflix August 18, whilst Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones have all been renewed for additional seasons – the latter of which has just entered production.

Feel like something's been missed, or have a different order in mind? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Deputy Editor 2016-17, TV Editor 2015-16. Lover of stories and writer of all things TV, gaming and film. (@HarryJTurner__)


8th April 2017 at 5:40 pm

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