Retrospective

5 years ago, Netflix made the most disappointing superhero crossover of all time

“You four... The Devil of Hell's Kitchen. The smart-ass detective. The righteous ex-con. And the kid with a glowing fist.”

In 2017, Netflix seemed unstoppable. Not only was the streamer pumping out original hits like Stranger Things, but it had seemingly cracked the superhero code after teaming up with Marvel for a series of interconnected street-level heroes. Beginning with Daredevil and loosely based in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the Defenders were a rough-and-tumble response to the MCU’s shiny Avengers.

So when The Defenders finally arrived after a string of (mostly) successful solo shows, expectations were sky high. Unfortunately, the crossover series fails to deliver on almost every level. Five years after its debut on August 18, 2017, here’s why The Defenders is still a painful reminder of how the Netflix/Marvel universe went wrong.

The Defenders is a frustrating addition to Marvel/Netflix canon because it doesn't use what it has. After the success of the solo shows, bringing Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist together was the next logical step. The groundwork is there and it's damn good (mostly). The first seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage made strong cases for their respective heroes. The fact that its lead-ins are so great is part of why The Defenders proves so underwhelming. It takes the hard work and heavy lifting of its predecessors for granted. The result is a street-level superhero ensemble plagued by messy plotting, poor writing, and underwritten villains, not to mention a confounding reliance on its least interesting character (Iron Fist).

The energy is there. It just isn't focused in the right places. The writers spread themselves thin attempting to thread together every character, concept, and loose end from the solo shows. They reduce compelling characters to dull, forgettable fixtures in a universe that doesn't work without them. Even a strong supporting cast — namely Simone Missick’s Misty Knight and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing — can’t save The Defenders from itself.

Three-quarters of the Defenders.Netflix

Consider this in-universe comparison: 2012’s The Avengers deepened its characters by isolating important dynamics. The movie knows which buttons it needs to push to help its heroes grow. It's this sort of alchemical character work that can pump life into an otherwise insipid story.

The Defenders doesn't lean hard enough into this approach to benefit from it. That's not to say the central players don't have chemistry. It's obvious from the get-go that they do. But the same sense of fun that characterized Marvel's best team-ups just isn't present here.

One of the series' greatest failings is how badly it bungles the Luke Cage/Iron Fist friendship. This is especially disappointing given their comic book origins. In the late '70s, low readership encouraged Marvel to cancel its Iron Fist book. Unwilling to let the character fade into obscurity, the editors included him in a three-issue Luke Cage, Power Man arc. The story did well enough to earn Danny Rand tacked-on recognition in the book's amended title: Power Man and Iron Fist. The series ran with this name from #50 onward.

Subsequent revivals expanded the team's roster. Heroes for Hire, Inc. eventually became a larger enterprise, with C-listers such as Black Knight, She-Hulk, and Ant-Man (Scott Lang) offering their services under its alliterative banner.

To be clear: I’m not asking for gratuitous Easter Eggs or Heroes for Hire teases. In fact, either of those things would've come with their own issues. But bringing these two characters together and not engaging with their dynamic feels like a missed opportunity. They clash several times but their relationship never stands out. Though it wasn't intentional, the showrunners deny these characters more interesting interactions by ignoring their intertwined comic book histories.

Daredevil has rejoined the MCU, will the rest of the team follow suit?Netflix

Spinning out of this point is a bigger conversation about Iron Fist's place in the Marvel/Netflix miniverse. As much as some fans wanted it to be, Finn Jones' portrayal was never the problem. There's only so much he could do with what he was given. That's the thing, though: On paper, he's pivotal to the story. He's the last part of The Hand's master plan, the piece of the puzzle that will turn the tide in its favor. In practice, he is the last character around whom you want to center a plot. Scott Buck's ill-fated Iron Fist series, released five months before The Defenders, set an unfortunate precedent for its eponymous hero. Danny Rand has neither the charm nor the charisma to carry his own show, much less an event series. But because he can harness and weaponize mystical power, he meshes well with The Hand's nebulous nonsense.

The Hand’s inclusion, in general, is a problem for The Defenders. The thinking behind this choice is clear: “To go bigger, we need ninjas. Lots of ninjas. And Elektra. Oh, and Madame Gao. We haven't seen her in a bit.” Instead of doing literally anything else, The Defenders brings in the same underwritten criminal organization that bogged down Daredevil's second season and weakened a solid narrative through-line.

The crux of the problem is that The Hand never amounts to much more than a cluster of nondescript criminals united under a nonsensical ideology. They don't have personalities or distinguishing qualities. They are merely obstacles. The only exception is Sigourney Weaver's Alexandra, one of the organization's enigmatic higher-ups. But before we can get to know her too well, Elektra murders her. The character's potential was huge. Now she's just a reminder of what could have been.

Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders.Netfix

The Defenders wants us to get behind a war that’s never interesting or consequential enough to warrant emotional investment. Positioning The Hand as the big bad of this corner of the Marvel Universe sucks the story dry of purpose and potential. It feels like a cop-out even though the build-up is technically there. What we get is little more than a perfunctory showcase for heroes who are more fun on their own than they are together. In other words, it’s the opposite of The Avengers.

It didn't have to be this way. The Defenders had so much going for it. The show's path to success seems even more unobstructed now than it did before its release. With better villains, more fleshed-out dynamics, and a greater emphasis on fun, this cross-over series might have been something special. Instead, it's largely a misfire, a series made with the best of intentions that can't quite clear the absurdly high bar its predecessors set.

The Defenders is streaming now on Disney+.