The last two weeks we’ve covered here how The Defenders failed as a television series in visuals and in developing interesting characters or doing anything with those characters – even though it had a head start in using some characters who had already been interesting in other series. We also covered how Stranger Things 2 did both things much better. There were three things in that list, though, and The Defenders has one more way to be a complete disappointment.
SPOILERS follow for The Defenders through its first season and Stranger Things through it’s second.
If you’ll recall, the first priority of story telling is that the story must make sense. The thing about that statement is it is far more complicated than that single, simple sentence. Different stories have different rules for what makes sense. Nowhere is this more true than in fantasy and science fiction settings. Some people have argued that because those settings make allowances for things that don’t exist in the real world that anything could happen, but it’s actually even more important for those settings to establish and follow rules for their plots to make sense. For example, in a Star Trek story it makes complete sense for characters to teleport from a spaceship to another planet in the blink of an eye. That sort of thing would make far less sense in Lord of the Rings for obvious reasons.
The reason it’s important to follow these rules goes back to the stakes of the story, a.k.a. the reason anyone cares about it; no stakes means no audience interest means no money for the creators. If anything can happen at any time then there can be no stakes. This is why I railed so hard against the penultimate episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Their refusal to obey the rules of the universe as they had been established removed all stakes from what should have been incredibly tense final moments in that episode.
This is actually even more complicated for a comic book story. Comic book stories exist in a universe that includes both fantasy and science fiction where Thor is an example of fantasy – he has magic powers because he’s magic – and Spiderman is an example of science fiction – he has powers given to him by advanced scientific studies which theoretically have some basis in science. Fortunately The Defenders manages to avoid the level of disaster that was that GoT episode. It does have an example of a similar issue on a much lower level in the inexplicable moment in the middle of the final episode of the season where the good guys surprise attack the bad guys in the mine. They use a previously unseen power of Iron Fist’s to knock down everyone but the worst part is that they stand around posing until the bad guys can stand up and charge them again. The only thing worse than introducing a new, inexplicable power at the end of a story is then rendering the entire thing completely pointless. The reason this faux pas is less egregious than the ones we discussed in Game of Thrones is because it has a much smaller impact on the story. If you remove that moment from the story very, very little changes about what happens next whereas everything that happens in the GoT episode relies on breaking the rules it does.
The real problem with The Defenders is – believe it or not – how generic the story is. Shocking after the revelation that the characters were generic and uninspired, right? The first chapter starts out well enough – each of the characters is living their lives when something weird happens and draws them to start investigating. But uh…the earthquake is never explained for the rest of the season. Alexandra acts as if this was the first step in some dastardly plan but it’s never made clear why that earthquake even happened. I’ve tried applying it to anything that happens to the rest of the series and while it might apply to any of them (does it have to do with reviving Elektra, with breaking through the final layer to the entrance of the area that contains the Substance?) it’s actually just a secondary effect from whatever they’re trying to cause. What I mean is that they didn’t cause an earthquake to strike fear into people, it just resulted from some other plan. There was no real reason for Alexandra to strut around acting like she wanted to terrorize New York because everything that happens later dictates that they really didn’t care if New York even noticed, but less if the people were terrorized. Then, of course, from that point on it is a very straight forward story of villains who want to capture someone but spend very, very little time actively working toward their goal – remember the description of the Fingers from last week? For that matter the heroes actually spend the majority of the season arguing with each other over various and sundry issues instead of pursuing the villains, as well. Including several repeated arguments just to buy time until the next fight sequence.
If you think I take issue with characters having arguments in general, you’d be wrong. There are plenty of arguments to be had in Stranger Things season 2 as well. The difference is that the arguments come from characters and they lead somewhere. The arguments in Defenders don’t really seem to belong to the characters that have them and they certainly don’t lead anywhere.
The most egregious example of pointless bickering in The Defenders is probably the one the villains have shortly after Sowande is captured. All of the remaining Fingers agree that Alexandra has failed as their leader and decide to depose her but then…everything continues exactly as it had, before. None of them put any new plans into action, no one attempts to imprison or kill Alexandra, and she simply continues her plan. On the other hand, in Stranger Things 2, the four boys plus Max have an argument after Dustin introduces them all to D’artagnan. Dustin wants to keep the pet and accuses the other boys of just being jealous – something it makes sense for a kid his age to want and feel. The other three boys worry that this creature is actually an enemy – something that fits the information they have. The argument leads to division within the party and the boys all start making separate plans based on the information and feelings revealed during the course of it. Dustin plots to start hiding the existence of his pet, the divide appears to give Lucas more impetus to break party rules and ignore Dustin’s feelings for Max. It causes Mike to be even more sure that Max is ruining things which makes him lash out at Max even more than he had before. The plot branches from here with each of these characters following new threads based on this interaction. The argument drives the plot, increasing the stakes, and giving the audience a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment when those threads reach conclusions – especially including the later resolution of the tensions between party members so that they can once again join forces against The Upside Down.
The conflicts between The Fingers does make sense – of course all of them are self centered enough to believe that they have the best plan. But the conflict isn’t allowed to drive the plot; the plot completely ignores the conflict. The conflict loses any purpose for existing and the plot, without anything to drive it, loses any sense of direction or stakes it might have gained from the conflict. It all just ends up being filler and a waste. One of the worst things for any story is pointless filler. Every moment in a story should be doing something even if it isn’t advancing the plot. Flesh out the characters, the environment, or the rules of the universe. The argument between the Fingers does none of these things while the one between the boys fleshes out their characters, advances the plot, and gives us the information that Will has a special skill to identify the interdimensional monsters by the sounds they make.
So hopefully after you’ve read these three pieces you’ve got a better idea what kinds of things make for good story telling and what makes for bad. This isn’t, by the way, an attempt to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy The Defenders. I personally enjoy plenty of bad stories. I watch Once Upon a Time and Ghosted. Heck, I even enjoyed Suicide Squad a little bit. A show doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyed and just because a show is well written, acted, directed, and everything else doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. It’s just kind of nice to know the difference, sometimes.