Defender vs Stranger Things 2 Part 3: Parsing Plots

If you think filler in your lunch meat is bad, wait until you see it in your story!

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.

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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.

 

The Defenders vs Stranger Things Part 2: Characterizing Characters

Both shows have actors, that’s for sure.

Last week I introduced you to the idea that movies and television shows have three primary aspects with which to tell their stories. I broke those down a bit and then gave you some examples of successes and failures in one of those realms, the visuals, based on two recent Netflix shows, The Defenders and Stranger Things 2. This week I wanted to get into the different ways the two shows handle characters.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Stranger Things through season 2, The Defenders through season 1, and The Avengers.

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The most important thing for a character is that they should have some sort of arc. That arc can be the traditional “zero to hero” arc, it can be “hero to villain”, it can be almost anything in between. One of the easiest ways to define a character arc is that they start the story in one state and through the progress of the story end in another. Sometimes it can be even more complex than that, though. You will see episodes in many sitcoms where a character’s arc actually has them starting and ending in the same place but they changed in the middle and then for some reason – usually a realization that they were fine the way they were or unwilling to put in the sustained effort to keep the change – they revert, usually for comedic effect or a moral.

A character without an arc is a plot device. This is why you’ll see feminists rail against the damsel in distress trope. She sits in her tower unable and unwilling to do anything other than wait for her hero to arrive. Her physical state changes – imprisoned and then free – but her character state remains static. From a storytelling standpoint she could as easily have been a bag of treasure. Likewise a character who is mind-controlled the entire time is actually a plot device. Hawkeye in The Avengers is not a character because for the majority of the movie he is functionally an automaton that does not think or act for himself and operates only as a tool of the villain – he doesn’t even get to consciously decide how to enact the orders he receives. Finally there are characters who start in one state and end in another but without any intervening decision making, actions, or process to get from point A to point B. These characters aren’t plot devices but they don’t have an arc, either, so they’re not much better off.

If you go back to the bullet points I had under Character in last week’s article those are actually a breakdown of things you usually need for a character arc. If you do those things you probably have some solid character arcs. If you don’t do those things you’re far less likely to have good or meaningful character arcs. With all that in mind I’d like to present you with a pair of bulleted lists describing the character arcs in The Defenders and Stranger Things 2. Then we can break down a little bit what it all means.

The Defenders

  • Matt Murdock
    • Starts out refusing to be Daredevil, ends up embracing his role as Daredevil. This is actually one the stronger arcs in the show – everything about why he didn’t want to keep donning the suit and why he eventually discovered he had to makes sense.
    • The problem is that it’s unclear what exactly prompted him to decide that this was not going to be a one-time event and what embracing the suit means for him going forward – will he only fight super enemies like The Hand or will he go back to beating up standard muggers, too? He also fake dies at the end so we won’t know how much of this sticks with him until we see how much he remembers next season of Daredevil or Defenders, whichever comes first.
  • Luke Cage
    • Wants to help Harlem at the start, wants to help Harlem at the end. Luke Cage is identical in temperament and intent without change from beginning to end. That’s a character point, not an arc.
  • Jessica Jones
    • Similar to Daredevil she starts off not wanting to do her job and ends up wanting to do it.
    • The biggest problem with her arc is it actually takes place primarily over the first two episodes. After the angry teen and modulated voice combine to convince her to take on the architect’s case she pretty much was back into the job. This leaves her with nowhere to go for the rest of the season.
  • Danny Rand
    • Starts the show wanting to avenge his family and monastery’s deaths at the hands of…The Hand. Ends it with his goal accomplished?
    • So his plot moves, but his character doesn’t change in any definable way. Unless you count his argument with Luke which seems to have at least made him aware that he has privilege that he could be better using for the benefit of others. But since the Hand stuff forces him to basically fight for his life the rest of the season we don’t see enough of that in action to know. None of the finishing stuff even shows us what his next plan is to help us understand where his state of mind is, now.
  • Colleen Wing
    • Feels weak and unable to truly help Danny at the beginning. Decides to just do her best in the end.
    • She’s not on screen enough for this arc to have much of an impact, but this might actually be the strongest arc as all the dots connect from beginning to end.
  • Other various and sundry sidekicks
    • None of them are on screen long enough to develop a character arc. They’re obviously just there for the “shared universe” factor, but even trapped in a police station break room together they still only interact within their show cliques. This was an exceptionally wasted opportunity both in terms of character development and story development.
  • Alexandra
    • Starts the show as the leader of The Hand and is shown as a strong leader who is dying and needs to make a last ditch gamble to save her life. Ends the show dead at the hands of her gamble.
    • It’s incredibly difficult to have a character arc for a character who dies part way through. There is still room for one if there could have been a moment of realization about how her choices led her to this position but she dies not for anything she did or didn’t do but just to give the plot a twist and allow Elektra to take over. This is a prime example of the plot driving the characters instead of the other way around.
  • The Other Fingers
    • They all share a tendency to argue incessantly with Alexandra while never actually doing anything to oppose her, to show the audience what their agendas might be, or to advance any of their own personal agendas. The closest we get to this is Murakame threatening to take her on but it’s short-circuited by Elektra’s return.
    • They all die by the end without ever accomplishing anything, without trying to accomplish anything, and without being interesting in any way.
  • Elektra Natchios
    • This is an example of that dreaded mind-control plot device. She spends the majority of the season being a tool instead of a person.
    • Heck, no one ever explains what The Black Sky is or why she’s the one to be it or anything else about the whole deal. It literally played the exact same as if they resurrected her for her fighting prowess – something she had as Elektra – and lied to her about her history until her memories returned.
    • Since this is a series instead of a movie awakening in the back half does allow her to change from a device into a character for a brief bit. There’s a bit of change from how we last saw her into a creature that wants only to live or to die killing. Arguably the strongest of the villain arcs. Arguably the only villain arc.

Stranger Things 2

  • Mike Wheeler
    • Starts the show moping about for Eleven. In the middle he puts that aside to help his friend. By the end he’s resumed his place as leader of the party. Finds Eleven and becomes less of a jerk to Max, as well.
  • Dustin Henderson
    • Starts the season willing to break any rules to get his own way. Remembers that being part of a party means working together and apologizes to the friends he betrayed.
  • Lucas Sinclair
    • He doesn’t seem to change much or learn anything particularly as a character. Even so he doesn’t remain static. He continually fights for and reaffirms what he believes in. It’s not an arc but it’s not a point, either.
  • Will Byers
    • Mind controlled plot device strikes again after spending the entire first season as a damsel in distress plot device. Maybe season 3 will allow Will to actually be a part of things for once.
  • Eleven/El/Jane
    • Starts out the series being frustrated and feeling out of place. Goes on a journey to discover herself, realizes that she actually belongs in Hawkins, Indiana with her “family” and friends there, after all.
  • Steve Harrington
    • Starts off cowering in the face of authority and clinging to Nancy. Learns to be on his own and to stand up for himself.
  • Bob Newby
    • Like Alexandra he dies mostly for the shock value of it. But he wasn’t static before then. He started out in love with Joyce and progressively worked harder and harder to get closer to and protect her boys until he finally died having saved them.
  • Sam Owens
    • Starts as a character who is focused primarily on keeping the Upside Down under control and hiding and dismissing anything about it. Grows into a man who is willing to work with everyone and sacrifice himself to see that they escape. Since he doesn’t actually die he ends up working in secret against the government he’s been protecting to give Eleven a chance to live a semi-normal life.
  • The Shadow Monster
    • This serves primarily as a plot device; it acts through its intermediaries and may be more of a character, later. Since there were so many other characters alternately working together and conflicting it is reasonable to excuse the plot device, here.
  • D’artagnan
    • Grows from a monster who indiscriminately eats pet cats to an animal who allows Dustin and his friends to escape for the price of a couple candy bars – I’m not kidding, that was a conscious decision on the part of an animal-thing that is receiving telepathic orders from a shadowy monster to do other than what it ends up doing.
  • I could go on

Do you see what I am getting at, yet? Even the dog-equivalent science fiction animal had a character arc in Stranger Things that was equal to or better than anything we saw in The Defenders. The Marvel heroes exist as a bunch of people who have things happen to them and react like crime-fighting machines. They don’t really make any decisions for themselves, they certainly don’t appear to struggle with their choices in any meaningful way, and they don’t really conclude any character arcs in anything resembling a satisfactory. They just mindlessly plow forward along with the plot.

Without satisfying character arcs it’s hard to have interesting characters, though not, admittedly, impossible – more on that in a moment. If you’re not going to have interesting character arcs for your star or main ensemble then you probably need to really hit on the other two tines of the Television Trident. But we’ve already established that The Defenders failed at its attempt to be interesting visually. I also have stated that without interesting characters it’s much more difficult to make an interesting story. Interesting characters drive the stakes of a show.

Speaking of interesting characters, with some smaller or less important characters you can give them tiny arcs or no arcs at all as long as you give them believable, grounded motivations. Remember when Sowande died? Or how about Stick? How much emotion did either of those deaths provide for you? Now how about when Barb died in season 1 of Stranger Things? People wrote pages and pages about it. Others made music videos lamenting her death. There was a trending hashtag demanding justice for her that literally caused the writers to include/strengthen plot points about her in the second season. She is a far less important character than the two Defenders character I mentioned, but she’s given motivations and actions so she is interesting to the audience. The same thing is true of Bob Newby and the results are similar as well.

Barb isn’t just a cardboard cutout to be propped up near Nancy for Nancy to talk at. She is written and acted in such a way as to experience and show feelings and desires – she wants to protect Nancy; she wants to follow the rules but not in a stereotypical way; when alone, injured and confused she still tries to explore, to find help, and to flee. Ditto Bob. What is it that Sowande wants? What will he do to accomplish that? He’s a generic villain without enough personality or screen time to bring about any kind of relationship with the audience. Nothing makes him unique, interesting, or even note-worthy. That ends up being a problem that plagues all of The Defenders.

After all, not only do none of the titular heroes have arcs, but they don’t even seem to have any kind of personal motivations or stakes. They all just want to save the world. That’s too generic and murky a desire to define a character; there has to be more if you want that character to be interesting. Quality characters maybe even want bad things; in Stranger Things 2 Mike resists allowing Max into their party for the majority of the season because he wants to maintain the status quo and/or not replace Eleven. Kali wants merciless revenge against each and every person who ever harmed her. Sheriff Hopper wants to keep Eleven locked away for her own good. Dustin lies to his friends in order to preserve his pet. These desires make these character relatable to people because they’re very human. They also create interesting, reasonable, relatable conflicts which help the characters achieve their arcs and drive the plot forward. Without them you have generic “I want to rule the world” versus generic, “I want to save the world” which cannot carry a story.

The biggest mistake that Marvel seems to be making lately, and they’re making a few, is forgetting that villains are characters, too. One of the best parts of the first season of Daredevil was Vincent D’onofrio’s Kingpin. Likewise the conflict between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave, a character instead of a force, drove the tension in that show and made it more interesting. By the time we finished Luke Cage the villains have gotten less and less comprehensible. They don’t even appear to be trying to give the actors who play villains anything to work with, right now. They are caricatures of people or mysterious forces with mysterious motives. It’s as hard to care about defeating a force as it is to try and act as one.

The Defenders absolutely falls into the trap of removing the humanity from its villains and has now failed in two of of the criteria laid out last week, including the one that they most banked on for success. Can it rebound at all, next week?

The Defenders: Final 2 Episodes and Wrap-up

You can do better than this, Marvel and Netflix.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for the entirety of the Netflix Marvel shows through The Defenders season 1.

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Sorry about missing last week but there were a few problems that precluded my ability to write on schedule. Beyond that the penultimate episode of this season was…dull. It culminated in what should have been the coolest, most fun battle we’ve yet seen: Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones versus Madame Gao, Bakuto, and Murakami. Unfortunately it was so dark and it was so chopped up to show the fight between Iron Fist and Elektra simultaneously that it was indecipherable and boring.

The final episode wasn’t significantly better. It leaned heavily on some comic/TV tropes in a way that was not enjoyable at all. Tropes are not automatically bad. There is power in using something familiar to help guide the audience through a complicated story or to a powerful catharsis. Unfortunately the tropes they chose to share with us in this episode of television didn’t try to accomplish either of those things and were some of the worst tropes in existence to begin with.

The episode starts with Luke Cage arguing with everyone else about how he won’t blow up the building because that’s just not how he does things. He doesn’t ever give a real solid explanation for why he doesn’t want to do it; he just doesn’t want to. The error in writing is compounded when he finally begins to capitulate – as we all knew he must even 5 minutes prior when he first started arguing – and he insists that if they’re going to do it they have to make sure no innocents gets hurt. They established at the end of the last episode, using Matt’s murky powers of blindness (which probably deserves its own post), that the building was already empty of all but Hand agents. So when Luke gives in it’s with a caveat that they’ve already established. Beyond that one has to wonder what the alternative was, for Luke. Did he intend them to all comb through the building – while the police were tracking them – to find every single Hand agent and ensure they were arrested, tried, and convicted so that they could never come back and complete their dastardly plan? He wasn’t thinking it through and that was pretty par for the course of the entire episode.

Misty Knight finds her way into the building using her amazing ability of…shooting a lock off of a door. So how come the rest of the cops aren’t all over the place early on? The cops also decide they need to evacuate a two-block radius to protect the civilians from the destruction of the tower. But the cops are all still sitting around their cars outside the building when it goes up. And of course it collapses straight down, neatly plugging the hole without damaging any of the nearby buildings.

Only a day or two ago Colleen suffered a nasty gut wound and didn’t even have it treated at a hospital but merely a little police department first aid. When she first suffered the injury she was pale and barely able to walk. But how does Misty find her? Fighting as if absolutely nothing were wrong. She even takes another nasty slash across her back but keeps on fighting. Daredevil does something similar as he fights Elektra, later. Watching heroes completely shrug off mortal or disabling wounds is tiresome and eliminates any stakes to the conflict which eliminates any audience participation, emotionally or intellectually.

Another thing that removes stakes from your story? Characters returning from the dead before the audience can even fully process that death. Especially when the character death was neither plausible nor suited to the story being told in the first place. When Daredevil “died” underneath the Midland Circle Tower I would be very surprised to discover that even 1% of audience members thought he was actually dead. Neither the story nor his personality really seemed to points toward his “sacrifice” being a necessity, either. It more or less happened to check off a box the writers apparently felt needed checking. I wish they would have asked themselves, “How awkward and annoying will it be for our audience to watch Karen and Nelson cry when they realize that Matt isn’t coming back while the audience is 100% sure that he is?”

I could go on about the various tropes and inconsistencies of the final episode – you know how bad I can get if you read my article about the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones season seven, Beyond the Wall,  – but I think we’ve probably covered enough ground. Unlike Game of Thrones, The Defenders has not yet earned enough good will from me to cause me to really dig in to all of the flaws.

The show started with a good deal of promise and an excellent cast but by the end it was another formulaic mess with poorly-lit, chopped up fight  scenes and a bland story that didn’t even give its characters a chance to grow. Much like season seven of Game of Thrones it suffered both from being too long and too short. Had the season been longer they might have been able to spend more time developing the villains and making them as interesting as their varied backgrounds promised they would be at the start. There might have been time to grow some of the heroes other than Matt Murdock, too. Maybe even tell a slightly more complex story. Had the season been shorter – perhaps 2-3 hours – we could have worried less about character growth and stretching things out; the simplified plot would have been perfectly serviceable in such a dumb action flick. Less screen time in that scenario would also have meant far fewer fight scenes which would have allowed the choreographers and actors to work harder on making the scenes that remained far better. We might also have avoided the heroes standing arguing for minutes at a time about things we all knew they were going to do, anyway. It doesn’t have to end this way, though. Marvel shows automatically bring in a certain number of audience members so there will inevitably be a sequel season. Hopefully the writers, producers, and directors can learn from the mistakes they’ve made and deliver a much improved season 2.

The Defenders: Ashes, Ashes

Marvel and Netflix need to solve their villain problem.

SPOILERS for all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations up to The Defenders season 1 episode 6.

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Each Marvel show has featured a different group of writers and directors, to this point. Even so they seem to have an over-arching plan in place that let them all come together in this season. The other thing that over-arching plan seems to have done is guided the shows into gradually making worse and worse villains. They started off strong with Daredevil season 1 Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk and Killgrave, aka “The Man in Purple” in season 1 of Jessica Jones. After that Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Mariah Dillard made for interesting villains before Cornell was killed off and Mariah was shuffled into the background.

That’s when things really started to spiral out of control. Diamondback was a dull, prototypical crazy man out for revenge against the hero for something the hero neither remembered nor ever had any control over. Don’t forget that technically before Luke Cage we actually had Nobu pull off your bog standard comic book resurrections of a minor villain into a more powerful form. Finally Iron Fist went completely off the rails by not having a clear villain with a distinct plan for the first half of the show followed by two different villains, one with more unclear goals and the other insane.

If you go back and examine all of these villains a pattern begins to emerge of what kinds of characteristics resulted in interesting villains versus boring ones that kill the momentum of their show:

  1. The villain should have a clear goal and the smaller the scope, the better. Good examples: Fisk wants to have complete control of Hell’s Kitchen so he can make it “better”. Killgrave wants to control the only person who has ever escaped his control. Cottonmouth wants to make money and improve his status.  Bad examples: Diamondback’s desire to kill Luke is both specific and small in scope, but the aims of the methods he used were frequently so obscure that it ballooned on itself – he also swapped plans and desires frequently based on the needs of the show rather than because it made sense for the character. The Iron Fist villains never had a clear plan other than to prevent Danny from becoming involved in whatever it was they were doing. Nobu wants Elektra in Daredevil season 2 so he can turn her into The Black Sky, but never tells us what that means or why he would want it. This plot twist also comes halfway into a season that had been about Daredevil vs The Punisher.
  2. The villain should always be working to further their plan. Good examples: Fisk never stops planning and plotting his domination of Hell’s Kitchen. Killgrave works everything around toward figuring out how to control Jessica. Cottonmouth is always manipulating, dealing, and working toward his goal of dominating Harlem and making himself untouchable. Bad examples: Daredevil season 2 flips between plot threads too often to further any plan very well for long. Iron Fist doesn’t have a villain for too long and it’s unclear what Bakuto actually wants to accomplish when he’s finally introduced. Diamondback takes frequent breaks to do things that make no sense with no explanation.
  3. The villain is better if they have a personal connection to the hero. Good examples: Fisk and Matt battle because they both deeply care about Hell’s Kitchen. Killgrave has known Jessica and wants to personally control her, again. Bad examples: Danny barely knows the villains from his show, Matt barely takes the time to get to know Frank Castle, does not know or understand Nobu.
  4. Based on Daredevil S2, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage we can see that a plan to change the villain partway through always results in a muddied and uninteresting story as well. It should be avoided.

That brings us all the way up to The Defenders. The advertised big villain for this show was Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra. Fairly early in the process we discovered that she was one of five fingers of The Hand along with previously introduced villains Madame Gao and a resurrected Bakuto. We are also shortly introduced to African Warlord Sowande and a Japanese hunter named Murakami – both of whom honestly seem far more interesting and dangerous than the first three but which are given very little backstory. Still, there was some interesting potential here, that’s a very diverse group of people. Let’s plug them into our formula and see how it works out:

  1. At first blush their goal appears clear, they want to go back to K’un-Lun in order to get more substance so they can prolong their lives. Upon further review it’s a bit more obscure than that. If they can’t get to K’un-Lun then who destroyed the city so that Danny could find it that way at the end of Iron Fist? If they can get back to the city but they need Danny’s fist to unlock some secret room or treasure trove or whatever then why don’t they say that instead of “get back to the city”? Also it’s unclear what this magical substance is, how it works, and why they haven’t made any attempt to return to retrieve it until now when they are completely out. If they’ve been so close to running out for a while now why have they been sharing it with people like Nobu and Harold Meachum?
    The real problem, however, is the lack of clarity in their planned methodology. Alexandra is convinced that having five immortal, deadly martial artists each of whom lead massive armies, corporations, and perhaps whole countries is not enough to capture Danny Rand. They need The Black Sky to handle it. Everyone else disagrees with her, but they still allow her to use the last of “the substance” the resurrect Elektra into this form and then Elektra just runs around attacking things. Why is this the best method? Why was this ever an option at all?
    Also, remember the earthquake from the end of episode one? That was the entire motivating force for our heroes to believe that all of New York was in danger and absolutely nothing has come of that for more than half the season as the heroes and villains have bickered mostly among themselves.
  2. If none of them think they should/need to use The Black Sky there is absolutely nothing stopping them from just collecting their armies and attacking our heroes on their own. Even one of those armies should be enough to defeat 5 people. Eventually they’ll get tired and members of The Hand have never shown any hesitance in sending others to die. Instead they all stand around and insist that Alexandra is wrong and that she shouldn’t be their leader anymore. But then, despite all being in agreement and ostensibly individually equal in power to her, they do absolutely nothing. Inevitably the next time we see them is when they go to argue that she shouldn’t be leading them again.
  3. The only one of the villains with anything resembling a true personal connection to any of the heroes is Bakuto but that’s much more true with Colleen, currently sitting on the sidelines. Madame Gao has always been a background piece and the other three are all new to this series. None of them do anything to particularly make the conflict personal with our heroes or humanize themselves. Even Elektra as a bad guy doesn’t work because she’s actually The Black Sky, an entirely new being.
  4. They immediately started out with five villains, which muddies the waters even if they don’t switch things. Then Sowande was killed off unceremoniously without ever having a clear purpose or character. And finally, at the end of this episode, Elektra goes crazy – crazy villains are also boring unless they’re in strict control of themselves like Wilson Fisk – and kills Alexandra. At this point we realize that we never really understood much about her or her motivations, either. So now we are left with three backup villains and a new crazy lady.

This move might have been aimed at making the conflict more personal between Elektra and Daredevil, but even if that works – and I am guessing it won’t – it is a bad choice. For starters it leaves out our other three heroes. The other problem is that for as dull as Alexandra has been as the villain she was working on a secret plan this entire season. Killing her means that all the anticipation viewers have had as they awaited her denouement goes to waste. In fact, it signals to the viewers that they never should have bothered being worried about that at all. Foreshadowing is a terrific literary device used to set up a plot point and knock it down later in a way that satisfies reader interest and pays them off for reading or watching your story. They spent an awful lot of time doing little things with Alexandra that everyone hoped were foreshadowing something interesting. It wasn’t. So why should we care about anything that comes next?

They may have thought that they were doing something really interesting with a group of immortal villains who hate each other almost as much the heroes but mostly what it has led to is, as previously noted, a lot of internal bickering among the two teams which is honestly just not very interesting. It’s all well and good to watch Iron Fist and Luke Cage duke it out, but after a certain amount of time they need to put that aside so they can deal with the real threat. It still hasn’t happened three-quarters of the way through the series. There are two episodes remaining for the villains to give us a reason to actually fear or loathe them. Two more episodes for the heroes to give us a reason to cheer for them. Two more episodes for New York to actually be in danger. Here’s hoping those last two episodes are much more interesting than the first six.

The Defenders: Take Shelter

A comics-to-video trope rears its ugly head.

SPOILER WARNING through episode 5 of The Defenders, minor spoilers for DC shows on The CW.

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We could talk about how the fights weren’t nearly as interesting from a character perspective, to say nothing of the technical perspective, in this episode as most of them have been. We could talk about how Bakuto is still alive after all – shocking, I know. We could even talk about the scene where all of the sidekicks, friends, and love interests from our shows were all gathered together in one place – a missed opportunity for more crossover hijinks as well as problematic, logically.

Instead we are going to talk about the terrible, terrible comic trope that has appeared in very nearly every Marvel and DC movie and TV show: characters withholding vital information from other characters in the name of keeping them safe. In fairness to these intellectual properties, not revealing your status as a vigilante is safer for your friends and family. They’re far less likely to be prosecuted as an accessory if they have no idea what it is you are up to. However, most of the time, this isn’t the kind of ‘safe’ the heroes or other characters are referring to.

The most common form this takes is the super hero/vigilante/whomever refusing to tell a loved one about their secret identity  because they want to protect them from possible reprisal by the villains they battle. You see Barry “The Flash” Allen and Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen use this excuse on almost every single recurring non-villain – along with even the occasional villain still in waiting – in their respective shows. This is just flat out wrong. They are only in danger from the villains if those villains already know the hero’s true identity or if they have tied your secret identity and true identity together in a way that makes them think you can lead them to yourself – a common danger for Peter Parker. In either of those cases they might kidnap one of your friends to threaten you with; your friend not having a clue what’s going on does not protect them. In fact it does the opposite of protect them because it leaves them oblivious to the possible actual danger they are in because of your choices.

The absolute worst part about this trope is that the vast majority of the time it’s implemented the people being lied to find out anyway. Either the villain kidnaps them based on the criteria I laid about above or their natural curiosity combined with their closeness to the hero allows them to make some deductions. Frequently they could have taken steps to protect themselves – by distancing themselves from the hero, at the very least – or even sometimes offer valuable help. This trope is nearly always simply used as a delaying tactic to prevent the problem from being solved more quickly. It is lazy, sloppy writing and it is incredibly frustrating to viewers.

It shows up in an even worse form in this episode. When Colleen and Luke refuse to give details to actual law enforcement officer Misty Knight and Matt refuses to give details to actual investigative reporter Karen Page they use this idiotic excuse. The problem is that Misty and Karen have chosen professions where they do battle with evil, in their own ways, every day. They aren’t here to be safe. It isn’t the place of our “heroes” to protect them in this way. The ladies are here to do the same thing you guys are trying to do. At least in the case of Oliver not wanting to tell his mother or Barry not wanting to tell Iris it’s a case of protecting a loved one who has taken no interest, training, or resources with which to join the fight. Misty and Karen have those things and it does a disservice to them to refuse to allow them to do their part.

The other vital consideration is that The Hand already wants to kill them. That’s why you’ve sent them to relative safety in the police station break room. Telling them who The Hand is or what they are up to cannot put them in any more danger because they are literally already in as much danger as is possible for them to be in. Knowing the kind of enemy that wants them dead could only help them prepare to face that enemy if The Defenders fail to derail their plans in time. And you just know that they will. The Hand is absolutely going to storm that police station and dozens of people are going to die because none of them have a clue what’s coming because none of you are willing to try to explain it. And that is going to be on the heads of our four heroes plus Colleen. If Luke had said, “I do not have time to try to explain this right now. I have to hurry if I’m going to stop them.” That would have made some sense and been a much better excuse. Colleen could then have done the honors as they all sat around waiting to be attacked. What else does she have to do, right now?

This was a very disappointing turn for the show which should be better than this nonsense. For an eight-hour mini-series event it continues to pad it’s run-time with nonsensical filler in a way that simply should not have been necessary or allowed.

The show does deserve a bit of praise, however, for at least some aspects of the handling of Sowande’s death. First of all, the scene where the other four fingers bicker back and forth was a terrific scene, managing to accomplish multiple goals at the same time. When a show can fill in back-story without direct exposition like reading or narration it’s always a plus. Not only do we learn something of how the Fingers have been living their eternal lives but we also set up some conflict between these powerful warlords and establish that Sowande actually is in danger through the lens of people who have spent centuries being functionally unkillable suddenly feeling fear instead of a blatant single line of dialog untied to character motivations like you’d see in another show. When he dies in the next scene you can be safe in the knowledge that, unlike Bakuto, he won’t be coming back.

They also did a very credible job establishing how Sowande could escape without any of our heroes noticing. Their conflict is fairly realistic – I take issue with everyone complaining at Matt for not ‘laying everything out on the table’ when he didn’t keep it to himself for all that long, but it still makes more sense than many TV conflicts I’ve seen lately. The result of the escape attempt is also interesting in multiple ways. The visual of a beheaded Sowande is pretty powerful, it’s a eye-grabbber and an additional way of proving that he is really, really dead for sure. We see the intelligence, arrogance, ruthlessness and quick-thinking of Sowande followed immediately by Stick showing all of the same characteristics – just as we should expect from both of them, by now. Character driven events and explanations are always the way to go and Netflix followed through in those two scenes.

Get ready for next week when our heroes will inevitably suffer a setback and their friends will probably come under attack. It will be interesting to see if The Defenders is willing to let any of the named characters die.

 

The Defenders: Royal Dragon

A Marvel team that makes sense

Spoilers follow for The Avengers and The Defenders through episode 4.

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Remember watching The Avengers? That was a pretty good movie, at least the first time through as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. But the coolest thing about that movie was how it teamed up every Marvel superhero that Marvel had produced a movie for, to that point, plus a couple others. It had Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow. It was really fun to see all those people on screen together.

The thing is, if you step back for a minute, that team composition didn’t make a whole lot of sense outside ‘listen these are all the superpowered beings we could both find and convince to work with the US Government’. It was a team that included the very talented but not super powered archer Hawkeye, the dangerous but also not super powered spy Black Widow, the brilliant scientist with a special armored suit Iron Man, the other brilliant scientist with a super powered but allegedly uncontrollable alter ego, a super soldier, and a super powered humanoid being from another planet if not another dimension.

Beyond the fact that only one of those people doesn’t have a crippling flaw that should prevent them from being on a government sponsored super hero team there is a lot of overlap, there. They have two super-smart scientists which is probably one more than they need on a single team. They have one being that the US has no right to deal with on their own. Two people can fly, three have super strength, two-three have projectile weapons. Unlike say, The X-Men or even the Super Friends this team is basically just a weapon.

They also don’t really have a variety of temperaments, either. They have a pair of guys who are used to leading their own teams, three who have only ever worked alone, and one guy who can lead or follow as the needs of the situation dictate but also generally prefers to work alone. All of them are used to identifying targets and taking them out. It’s no wonder that they all ended up butting heads and getting in each others way while they waited for somebody to gather some intelligence for them.

The point is that in The Defenders we are treated to a team that makes a lot more sense.

Jessica Jones is a private eye with a terrific ability for deduction. Sometimes that takes the form of tracking down missing husbands who were kidnapped by shadow organizations, sometimes it means identifying the best way to deal with an imminent threat to someone she wants to protect, and other times it means being able to immediately deduce the secret identity of a superhero shortly after meeting him. She is the brains, the intelligence (in every sense of the word), and the tactician of this outfit. Danny and Luke’s plans up to this point have largely been, “Show up, see if anything needs punching, punch it, hope it drops information as loot.” A team needs those kinds of people but it also needs the people who can figure out what the enemy is up to and direct the punchers to where they can do the most good. While Daredevil has a bit more investigative talent than those two he just isn’t as good at it as Jessica is. He also can’t come up with effective plans like she does; once he identifies a threat he generally becomes as straight-forward as the other team members.

Luke Cage is the shield of the unit. In gaming terms he is the “Tank.” He exists to soak up attacks and damage so that others will be safe. This is true both in terms of abilities, given his impervious skin, as well as his temperament. The man lives to protect others. It’s been true of him even in his flashbacks and is generally the cause of all of his difficulties. His life would probably have been significantly easier if he could walk away and leave others to their fate. He barely knows Danny Rand/Iron Fist but the first time anyone levels a gun Luke doesn’t hesitate to step between them. Luke is also the first one other than Danny to insist that even though The Hand is clearly dangerous he wants to step up and try to protect people.

Daredevil is the team scout. His nimbleness which allows him to go where others cannot and to arrive there undetected when others would surely be seen allows him to gather intelligence that might not be able to otherwise be gained. Let’s not forget those super senses which allow him to know when enemies may be nearby that everyone else is clueless to. He also seems primed to act as the team’s conscience. Ready and able to ask if they should do a thing just because they can. Something Danny and Jessica could probably use, at the very least.

The Immortal Iron Fist is the team weapon and heart. I was a bit surprised to discover that Danny was actually likable for the first time ever, so far as I can recall, in this episode. He was charming when he announced to the others that he had used his wealth – his greatest or second-greatest asset, depending on your perspective – to pay several months rent to the owner of the Chinese restaurant they take refuge in as well as four of every item on the menu in order to secure its use as a temporary base. When he pled with them to join his cause in order to protect the world from whatever the nefarious plot of The Hand is he seemed genuine and earnest. If this team is to work, now, it will require him to act as the glue. And of course, much like Luke’s temperament predisposes him to protect others Danny’s predisposes him to dish out the punishment. He grew up viewing The Hand as an ancient sworn enemy and he will not rest until they have been defeated. His powered-up chi punch attack is also the team’s greatest and strongest offensive weapon.

Despite the fact that not much happened this episode – the actions of the episode can be summed up in two-three sentences if you break it down to its base elements – it really did a lot to flesh out why we should believe all of these loners would, could, and should work together. The decision to allow Jessica to leave and to come back was perfect both in terms of believability for her character and for what the team needed to give it a sense of reality. The only really disappointing part of this episode was that I had hoped they would flesh out the elevator scene from the original teaser trailer a bit more. Unfortunately that scene didn’t appear at all in this episode.

We are now halfway through the season, the team has been brought together, the enemies have been made clear, and another epic fight is brewing. Hopefully it will be as high quality as the last one in terms of cinematography, choreography, and character detail. We still don’t know what The Hand is actually trying to accomplish, right now, but hopefully as the season starts the downward slope the rest of the pieces will fall into place soon and give us a legendary finish.

The Defenders: Worst Behavior

Together at last!

SPOILERS follow for all Marvel/Netflix collaboration shows through The Defenders episode 3.

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So now we are three episodes into this mini-series/epic movie adventure and the heroes finally – finally – all meet up. The majority of this episode is filler. Most Netflix seasons are thirteen episodes long, this one is only eight, and it still has an entire episode that consists of people simply refusing to communicate long enough for them all to individually discover the same information so that they can all meet up together, but not until the very end of the episode. You would think that an organization that has spent so long in the shadows would maybe not leave three avenues of discovery so readily available, but here we are.

Those methods of discovery, by the way, are due to some sloppy, sloppy work by The Hand. Danny figures them out because they shut down three of their shell corporations on the same day and sent all the money directly to their home base. If you shut them down on different days or use a some intermediaries before combining the funds then that avenue would likely have been closed or taken months and months to follow instead of five minutes. Luke finds them because one of their cleaners, so unimportant as to be entirely unaware of what was happening, visited their home base and had to get a parking pass. There is no reason to ever bring your clueless-by-design cleaning crew to your home base. Recruit and pay them in neutral territory or at least somewhere less obviously tied to you. Jessica is the only one who had to do any real digging – which makes sense since she is the only practiced investigator in the crew – but was only able to do so because they lost track of the architect who got her involved in the first place. There is no reason for an organization as powerful and successful as The Hand to leave any of those threads dangling, much less all three of them. And of course our heroes discover them in such a way that leads all of them to just coincidentally show up at the base at the same time.

The show does make up for some of this narrative silliness by paying things off with the meet up. But it also has some pretty good fight scenes going for it even before that. The cold open lasts fifteen minutes until the opening credits, during this time we see Elektra revived as the Black Sky. It’s still not entirely clear what the purpose of the Black Sky is but apparently it keeps all of Elektra’s instincts – including the ability to speak and to fight – but loses her memory. She practices her fighting abilities against increasing numbers of enemies using blunt weapons under the eye of Sigourney Weaver. The director used some wide shots to show some good angles of the fighting without always flashing around in cuts. The writing choices allow all of Elektra’s opponents to be strictly stunt workers which precludes the need for a lot of the cuts; the use of all the black in costumes and weapons as well as the darkness allows for a lot to be hidden as well without cutting away. It’s a much more interesting fight scene than we saw before.

The ultimate culmination of this gauntlet is that immediately after defeating a largish group of enemies single handed without taking a single blow she is swarmed by even more ninjas with naked blades and the lights go out. When the lights come back on she stands alone in the middle of a bunch of corpses, blood everywhere. On the one hand it was apparently an impressive fight that we weren’t allowed to see; on the other hand it probably wouldn’t have been much different than what we’d already seen. Not showing the fight may actually have been the better choice in much the same way that Jaws is scarier for only rarely showing the monster shark.

Later on Sigourney Weaver uses Black Sky/Elektra to try to taunt Stick, Daredevil’s old mentor, into giving away the location of Iron Fist. He won’t do it and has apparently only been awaiting an opportunity for someone to bring a weapon near enough to him to allow him to escape. My favorite fight scenes in cinema have always been the ones with Jackie Chan. I love how he uses his environment and restrictions to do interesting things. There’s certainly something to be said for technique, speed, power, and all of that jazz. But the improvisational nature of his fights combined with his comedic timing have always made even his worst films very enjoyable for me. This fight is over with quickly but we do see a few moments of Stick using the fact that he is handcuffed to a pole to his advantage somehow as he continually crashes his enemies into it and uses it for leverage to deal with others. Eventually he takes one of Elektra’s swords and cuts his own hand off to escape. But not before, in a moment of sheer badassery, he punches Sigourney Weaver in the face with the stump where his left hand used to be. This fight scene isn’t funny or charming like a Jackie Chan scene, but Stick definitely gets across the message that he is so good he can use his restraints against you and so badass that he will literally punch you in the face with the bloody stump of his hand that he cut off himself without even flinching if that is what it takes to win.

The music and direction do a great job of building tension toward the end of the episode. Credit the writing staff and the director for not cutting the episode before the gang gets back together. This is one place being a Netflix show built for bingeing really works in the favor of even someone like me who is only watching one episode a week. Were this a show made for a regular television network everyone might have bumped into each other but the actual working together bit probably wouldn’t have shown up until the next episode.

Danny attempts to confront the executives of The Hand’s primary shell company with the information that he knows and can prove they are up to criminal activity. They are entirely unimpressed with this knowledge and the pretty lady who smiled and led Danny to the conference room pulls a pistol out of her skirt and levels it at the back of his head. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how much you like Danny Rand – she doesn’t immediately pull the trigger and allows Danny to fight long enough for Luke, Jessica, and Matt to all show up and help him out. This is when we get another terrific fight scene which is as impressive for how it depicts each of our heroes fighting as for the actual fight itself.

Luke busts through a wall first to help Danny and one of his first acts is to stand between Danny and two sub-machine gun wielding bad guys. Danny’s fighting style is just as we should expect given his training and temperament. He is fast, stylish, and aggressive. Luke’s style is very mountain like. He doesn’t move with speed or grace – remember, for all the fighting he has done he isn’t really trained at all – but he happily punches and throws people directly into walls as the opportunities arise to use his brute strength without leaving himself or Danny open. Jessica fights similarly to Luke, they share that lack of training and the super strength that allows them to overcome it, but she isn’t impervious like he is so she’s forced to hang back and let the tougher and more agile allies do most of the fighting as she cleans up whatever they miss. Matt fights a rearguard action and while he has flashy moves the same as Danny they don’t come with as much power or nearly as much aggression – remember that Matt has been fighting an internal battle with himself over the violence he has perpetrated and his ever-increasing desire to perpetrate more ever since he took up the mantle of Daredevil.

The camera follows the action well, using cuts mostly to accentuate the insanity of the melee rather than to disguise the blows being dealt out. It makes sure to highlight each of our heroes at least a couple of times including a very Jessica moment where she knocks out one guy cold with a punch and then gives him an annoyed look as she hammers the elevator down button to prepare their escape. Danny also gets what might be my favorite Chi Punch, yet. He punches Elektra’s sword as she attempts to cut Matt in half and shatters it as well as knocking her back through a wall to give them the time they need to make their escape.

This episode exists solely for the purpose of reaching this final battle, and it shows. It makes a play at some interpersonal issues, some sociopolitical issues, and some investigative work but it all falls flat. The investigative stuff is especially boring after the first time someone figures out where it is they need to be, but the other issues just kind of get dropped so the episode can keep moving which saps them of any narrative power. The final battle is fun and interesting, though, and it’s exciting to finally see all of these heroes together at last. It also contrasts with the “fun and exciting” battle at the end of Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode in  season 7 in that everything that leads up to it at least makes sense even if it’s a bit uninspired. This allows people with a critical eye to enjoy the Defenders scene quite a bit more.

At last they are in the elevator from the teaser trailer and the excitement has begun. Now that The Hand has revealed themselves and our heroes have finally all gathered together the story should finally be able to build up some momentum and we should begin to see some of those awesome comic book hero team up moments we’ve been dying to see. If we’re lucky, we’ll even get to see Jessica knock some sense into Danny.

The Defenders: Mean Right Hook

The promise of the show begins to bear fruit

One-quarter of the way through the first season and the promise of the series – that all four New York mini-heroes would meet up – still hasn’t quite been met. Still progress is being made and the meetups are not half bad. SPOILERS FOLLOW for The Defenders season 1.

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Toward the end of the episode Danny and Luke were both investigating different angles of the same event: apparently The Hand has killed a whole bunch of people and hired a bunch of random guys out of Harlem to come clean up the mess by spraying some sort of acid on the bodies. Side note: the acid only seems to disfigure the bodies to make identifying them more difficult or impossible which is a nice, understated decision; since this is a comic book adaptation they could easily have gotten away with acid that completely dissolved the bodies but it is nice to see them avoid going full ham every once in awhile.

Danny tracked The Hand, Luke tracked the Harlem kids and when Danny went to question one of those kids Luke stepped in to protect him. Super hero team-up stories seem to always require the heroes fight each other but this is a conflict that makes perfect sense, for once. Both of our heroes are amped up on fear and confusion. They’re frustrated because they already feel like they’ve failed to protect someone. They’ve both shown extreme arrogant streaks in their history and have reason to feel that they are more or less invulnerable. Danny doesn’t know the kid’s history; he just knows he seems to be doing the bidding of The Hand. Luke doesn’t know that Danny wants to protect people – or that Danny isn’t a loose cannon who might hurt an innocent in his quest (after further consideration, Danny actually might be a loose cannon, right now) so Luke steps in to deal with Danny. Danny, for his part, doesn’t know that Luke isn’t working for the bad guys either. So they fight.

The fight itself is also well choreographed and while it suffers from the rapid cuts of most American fight scenes it also lingers on some of the shots and shows some blows connecting. The reason for this is two-fold. In order to show Luke’s ability to unflinchingly take a punch they can’t be flashing back and forth between the beginning of an attack and the end because it just won’t make any sense. In order to show off Danny’s ability to punch really fast due to his training and skill in martial arts they actually did some slow motion fighting. Since the speed distortion is there anyway this actually allows them to shoot the fight at a slower speed and then speed it up in post-production rather than the other way around. Fighting more slowly means more precise and less harmful blows, which means they can be shown connecting. Add in some sound effects to give the impression of powerful blows and no one who isn’t analyzing the scene with an eye to figuring out how it was done will know the difference.

So this fight was more enjoyable to watch because it was filmed better but it is also more enjoyable because it teaches us about the characters participating. The opening fight of the series was two unknown people fighting with swords in a sewer. There was nothing in their technique or manner than could be seen in the darkness to help us distinguish between them or understand anything about their goals or desires other than that they both wanted to win the fight. In this fight Luke mostly takes blows, only occasionally bothering to fight back. He’s a protector, not an attacker. He throws Danny rather than punch him because he wants Danny to go away more than he wants to hurt him. Danny neither hesitates nor slows when his enemy reveals himself to be impervious, he just keeps stubbornly trying new attacks as quickly as he can in the hope he can get through. He will not give up no matter how impossible his task may seem.

In another part of town the other two h-words meet up but they don’t fight. This might be the first time since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I’ve seen two Marvel heroes meet and not immediately contrive a reason to get into a fight. Jessica Jones is in trouble for tampering with evidence as she pursues her day job as a private investigator, as well as because a man shot himself in her apartment/office. Matt shows up to act as her attorney. It might seem like a huge coincidence that he would somehow pick that case but the episode spends time earlier on a pair of scenes that make this entirely feasible. Foggy is trying to help Matt avoid being Daredevil by overloading him with casework for his day job. Later on Foggy is given a command by his new boss, Jeri Hogarth, to keep an eye on Jessica Jones and make sure any trouble she gets into doesn’t fall back on their office since Jones used to work for them. Foggy almost certainly decided to kill two birds with one stone when he heard Jessica had been picked up by the police and asked Matt to intercede on her behalf. Little does Foggy know that this is very likely to completely undermine the first goal and may not improve their odds of achieving the second very much, but it’s the thought that counts. Murdock and Jessica don’t get to do much together, but the promise is definitely there for some interesting interactions next episode.

I know this week’s post is a bit shorter than normal but that’s probably a blessing considering how long-winded I can be. There’s just not as much to say about an episode of The Defenders as there is something like Game of Thrones. When I finish the series I may try to go back and do some big picture thinking about the series because at this point it is definitely becoming obvious that this was written more as an 8-hour movie than an 8-episode television season. Still, there’s a lot of show left and hopefully we’ll get into some meatier material, soon.

The Defenders: The H Word

The series premiere is mostly a tease.

Now that the cultural phenomenon known as Game of Thrones has ended for at least another year, it’s time to turn my attention to a series that I fully expected to be a cultural phenomenon in its own right but haven’t heard much about: The Defenders.

This is the Netflix version of The Avengers, teaming up all of the Marvel super heroes to have appeared on the streaming platform so far. I know people have watched it, I’ve talked to several of them. But there don’t appear to be strong enough opinions either way to cause the internet to buzz about it in a way that reaches my ear.

When Daredevil first released the internet went bonkers, it was a much better adaptation of the comics than the poorly received Ben Affleck vehicle – though I enjoyed the film when I saw it the year it released, I’m a bit leery of watching it again for fear that it won’t hold up to my matured sensibilities.

When Jessica Jones came out people just about lost their minds. Critics adored Krysten Ritter and David Tennant and they praised the strong story, as well. It was pretty well-received by non-critics as well and I’m not afraid to admit that it is easily my favorite of the Netflix/Marvel collaborations so far.

Luke Cage came and didn’t get quite the praise. It suffered for having a second act and villain which were far less interesting than the ones it started with. Iron Fist suffered from poor writing, some potentially poor acting choices by Finn Jones, and the decision to cast Jones in the first place for a variety of reasons we’re not going to go into here, today. Daredevil season 2 amped up everything, the bad and the good, in a way that left viewers torn. Many people said that the parts featuring Jon Bernthal’s anti-hero The Punisher were the best parts but disliked everything that happened around those bits.

So, yes, the Marvel/Netflix collaborations seem to have been trending down a bit, but they were still doing solid work and drawing plenty of fans, attention, and writing – everyone may have been talking about how bad Iron Fist was, but they were talking about it. Perhaps in watching this we’ll discover why this is. Spoilers follow for any and all Netflix/Marvel shows, including the first episode of The Defenders.

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The H Word drops us straight into an action sequence in a large sewer where a man new to even old Netflix-Marvel fans sword fights with a woman who has her face cinematically obscured throughout the engagement. The camera angles and choreography are fun and interesting in how they obscure the woman’s identity but terrible in how they portray the fight scene. It ends up being an example of the worst things American cinema does to fight scenes, especially TV fight scenes. There are lots of cuts just as blows are about to land, and later when punches begin being thrown, obvious misses by the actors/stunt doubles – this was a common complaint about the fighting in Iron Fist so it isn’t particularly surprising to see the same problem crop up again. You would think they might have spent a bit more time polishing this scene, at least, as these are the first few minutes of the introduction to a highly-anticipated series but they chose not to.

As the fight progresses it is clear that the man is losing the battle, even as it remains unclear which if either of these people is a hero, villain, or well-trained innocent bystander. The man is disarmed, the woman is about to execute him, and then Danny shows up to save him at the last second. Danny quickly begins punching at the woman – this is where the aforementioned fight issues become even worse – and eventually chases her off, but not without first failing his mission to protect the man.

So begins an introduction to the series and it’s characters written in much the same manner as I might have chosen to had I been put in charge. That isn’t a compliment. Each character, their powers, their weaknesses and flaws, and their sidekicks are all introduced methodically throughout the episode. Anyone who has seen all of the previous series is left wondering what the point of all of this is. Anyone who hasn’t gets a rough idea about the basic characteristics of each character but without the backstories contained in their individual seasons that give you reasons to care.

There’s even a cringe-worthy line delivered by Jessica’s friend Malcolm as he tries to help her investigate a case. He boldly declares, “I used to do heroin!” This is something both characters – and even viewers who bothered to watch Jessica Jones are well aware of. The frustrating thing is that if it had been phrased a different way (i.e. “Back when I used to do heroin…”) it probably would have been just fine. The episode also belts viewers over the head with the meaning of the title as Jessica’s friend Trish Walker tries to convince her to go out and save people by calling her a ‘hero’. Jessica immediately reminds her, “You know how I feel about the H word!”

One of the few bits of the show that actually adds new information is the introduction of Sigourney Weaver – her character is unnamed for now and is apparently suffering from a terminal illness but in one of the better moments of the episode she interacts with former Daredevil and Iron Fist villain Madame Gao. Gao is the only villain to survive either of those shows so long time viewers will know her and be impressed by Weaver’s character’s ability to cow her quickly and easily with only a few words and not even a hint of a threat. New viewers, of course, will be left far less impacted by the importance of this scene.

Beyond that we see a moment where Jessica Jones is approached by someone begging her to continue her private investigator work but Jessica is convinced that the woman’s husband is merely cheating on her and doesn’t want to take the job. Fortunately for the woman – and likely the plot of the show – someone calls Jessica and leaves a voicemail while using a voice modulator insisting that she not investigate the case. Anyone who knows Jones at all knows that this was the only way to get her to investigate. It makes me wonder if perhaps this mysterious caller is actually on the side of the Defenders and only did things that way because he or she knows Jessica as well as the audience does.

The episode ends with a massive earthquake shattering buildings and streets throughout New York, affecting all of our characters. Sigourney Weaver delivers a suitably threatening line to a random innocent bystander and the credits roll.

All in all, this isn’t a terrific or particularly memorable episode of television. That’s not a huge slight against it because television pilots rarely are. There are so many introductions and so much plot setup to do that there’s rarely time to be particularly interesting. The primary goal is to simply be not boring. It’s also probably worth noting that as a Netflix series this show has been designed specifically with a Netflix audience in mind; which is to say that it is meant to be binged, not picked apart an episode at a time as I plan to do. A show can be good at both, Jessica Jones I think, is a good example of this, but it is very difficult.

The episode is interesting enough to make at least casual Marvel fans want to keep watching so it probably does it’s job just fine and there is still plenty of time for the show to improve both within the framework of this season and in the future seasons it will inevitably get because even mediocre Marvel properties draw enough interest to be worth keeping around, these days.

It is frustrating to see the show jump back and forth between things the audience should be aware of from previous series and trying to make sure people who haven’t seen them won’t be lost. In trying to do both it largely bores the old hands and leaves the newcomers with plenty of questions. The show would have likely been better served to pick one avenue and stick with it; considering Netflix spent all that money on those other shows I probably would have leaned toward excluding new people to convince them to watch those other series.