Spotlight: The Defenders

Warning: spoilers for “The Defenders” and some of the other Netflix shows will follow.  Read at your own risk.

So it’s finally here…the event we’ve been waiting for.  “The Defenders” brings all four of the Netflix superheroes together so they can kick some butt.  And maybe throw bad guys through a building or two (I really gotta stop making that joke).  But the real question is, was it worth it?  Is “The Defenders” everything we hoped for?  Is it everything we wanted…nay…deserved?!

Well…yes and no.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the show, I wanted to point out a couple small details I appreciated.  After “Iron Fist” and its bland title sequence, I was glad to see they brought back the nuance for “The Defenders”.  During the title sequence, we see each of the four characters forms overlaid over aerial maps of New York.  Now, I can’t be certain considering I know basically nothing about New York, but I believe that each character is overlaid over the particular part of the city where they live and operate.

 

 

So Daredevil would have a part of Hell’s Kitchen while Luke Cage would be laid over Harlem.  But the detail in the title sequence goes beyond that even.  I didn’t really pick up on this until near the end of the first episode, but each character has a particular color associated with them, a color that you can see during the title sequence itself.  During the show, scenes that particular character dominates are color corrected to have an abundance of that character’s color.

 

So Luke Cage’s scenes have a yellow glow to them…

 

…while Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s scenes are full of vibrant red.

 

Jessica Jones has a deep blue, while Danny Rand is green.  This little detail takes to the sidelines once the characters finally start to meet up with each other, but it’s still a cool aspect of the show.  It’s not essential, but it’s these little things that fans love.

But anyway, on to the main event.  Like I said before, the answer to the question “was it worth the wait” is a little bit of a mixed bag.  The breakdown (at least for me) seemed to go like this: the first half of “The Defenders” is great while the second half gets a little sloppy.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first four episodes, watching as each of the heroes runs into their own problem to solve.  It was nice checking back in with these characters and seeing what they had been up to, although the first episode does spend more time on Luke Cage than anyone else.  Which makes sense, considering he was being carted off to jail at the end of the first season of his show, so they have to deal with that to get him back into place.

It was fun watching each of these characters do the thing they do best, with a slow buildup towards the inevitable meeting of the heroes.  The problem is that after these four characters meet and begrudgingly agree to work together, the show seems to lose a bit of momentum, as the next few episodes mostly feature the characters sitting around and debating their next move before the final showdown begins.

And it’s at this point that you realize just how weak Danny Rand is as a character when compared to the other three.

 

 

 

Now, to give some credit to the writers, they at least tried to give Danny a more interesting arc than just “I’m the Iron Fist…it is my destiny to destroy The Hand…blah blah blah”.  In the first episode, Danny has a nightmare about the apparent massacre of the people of K’un-Lun, showing that he feels guilty over leaving them.  The problem is that, after the first episode, this is never mentioned or referenced again.  In fact, Danny is played as more of a laughingstock than anything else, especially in the second half of the season.  Any time someone mentions that he’s the Iron Fist, everyone else in the room seems to have the same reaction of “the hell are you talking about?”  A good example of this would be when Murdock tells his friend Foggy that Danny’s the Iron Fist and Foggy remarks “I’m not even going to pretend I know what that means.”

I didn’t mind this approach at first, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me.  You see, instead of trying to fix the flaws in Danny’s character they turned him into a literal joke.  The other characters pretty much just make fun of everything he says.  They took the lazy route and played Danny up for laughs instead of trying to make him feel deserving of a place on the team.  This is made all the more insulting once you realize that Danny is integral to the entire plot of the show.  The Hand needs him to complete their master plan.  Without him, their whole scheme falls apart.  In this sense, Danny feels less like a character and more like a maguffin, existing only to move the plot forward toward the inevitable battle against The Hand.

And speaking of The Hand, their big leader in this show is revealed to be a woman named Alexandra, played by none other than Sigourney Weaver.  Initially, I was excited to see her in this show, because Sigourney Weaver is a total badass.  Remember “Alien”?  Remember “Aliens”?  Yeah…total badass right?  But here she’s given very little to do aside from look imposing and make not so subtle references to the fact that she’s older than she appears, like when she calls Istanbul Constantinople.  She also has some very cringe worthy dialogue later on, even breaking out the “we’re the same, you and I” speech at one point.

 

Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver)

 

 

She is given a motivation though.  At the beginning of the show we are shown that she’s dying…all of her organs are systematically shutting down one by one.  This encourages her to push The Hand’s plan into fast-forward mode, despite the objections.  Because as it turns out, The Hand’s immortality revolves around a mysterious substance that they have run out of.  This bit didn’t make much sense to me, considering that we’ve seen people resurrect in the other shows without the help of this substance.  So why now do they suddenly need more of it?  Seems to me like another maguffin to get the plot where it needs to go.  Because, as it turns out, they used the last of this substance on Elektra.

Speaking of Elektra, what the hell is her motivation here anyways?  After her death at the end of the second season of “Daredevil”, Elektra is brought back to life by The Hand.  But her memory is erased so she can be turned into The Hand’s ultimate weapon.  Through some more not so subtle moments, we realize that this conditioning isn’t going to last forever, and that Elektra is starting to remember who she was.  But the thing is, once she remembers who she is, she still serves as an antagonist for no apparent reason.  If she remembers who she is, then why the hell would she be fighting against the man she supposedly loves?  It makes no sense.

And what’s so important about her being the “Black Sky” anyways?  Everyone goes on and on about it, but it’s never clearly explained what it actually means.

However, despite the flaws, “The Defenders” is a fun time.  The best scene is definitely the fight at the end of the third episode, where all four of the heroes come together for the first time and battle a bunch of The Hand’s henchmen.  But after that, the show starts going downhill.  It never gets to the point of being unwatchable, but through some strange plot choices and sloppy pacing, the second half definitely isn’t as strong.  I especially didn’t like the shenanigans they tried to pull in the last episode.  I won’t say much out of fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t watched it, but I will say this: they try to make you think that one thing happened, only to turn it around in the last thirty seconds of the show and be all like “ha we tricked you” even though most people will probably see it coming from a mile away.

At the very least, there isn’t any pointless filler.  Each episode moves things along the main plot.  So while it might not be everything we hoped for, it’s still well worth a watch, especially if you’ve gotten invested in the characters.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to go on a more personal rant…

I really wish The Hand hadn’t been the villains for “The Defenders”.  It takes things to such a cheesy, comic book level that it’s hard to take seriously sometimes.  It’s a group of frickin’ immortal ninjas for crying out loud!  Part of the reason I really enjoyed these Netflix shows at first was because of how different they felt from the standard superhero fare.  The first season of “Daredevil” hardly feels like a superhero show at all.  It plays like a gritty crime drama but with a superhero twist.  But as time went on The Hand became more and more apparent as Marvel rushed things out the door in order to get them into place for “The Defenders”.

I would have liked to see the four heroes fight against a crime syndicate for their first outing together.  Now I know someone is going to say it…”but…The Hand is a crime syndicate”.  It is, but it’s still a crime syndicate of immortal ninjas.  I would have wanted to see them face off against regular criminals, not a bunch of silly mystical types who, despite all the hype over being super secretive, take some really obvious actions.

A whole army of ninjas clad in black rappelling up the side of a hospital?  Sure seems stealthy to me!

I think it would have been more interesting if, for example, Wilson Fisk had been exposed but not captured at the end of “Daredevil” season one.  He could then escape to run things from the shadows and give the heroes a threat to deal with when they finally came together.  And with the addition of Danny Rand, they could have started teasing the existence of a mysterious organization known as The Hand.  Then, after the four heroes came together and defeated Fisk once and for all, The Hand could step out of the shadows and reveal that they were manipulating Fisk the entire time.  That would then give The Defenders another threat looming over them as they go about their own business.  Because, with The Hand gone, there’s no bigger threat anymore, not to mention that Danny Rand’s character has no purpose anymore, since his whole thing revolved around The Hand’s defeat.  I can’t really see their next big villains standing up to a bunch of supernatural martial artists.

And with that, I’m off.  Blog writer AWAAAAAY!

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Spotlight: “Luke Cage” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Luke Cage” follow.

I’ve been a big fan of how the Marvel Netflix shows each have distinct feels so far.  Far too often superhero stories fall into the same basic storyline: hero starts as not hero, confronts flaws in character, becomes hero, throws bad guy through a building or two (wait I think I made that joke already).  The Netflix shows may not stray too far from that formula, but they manage to explore their characters in ways that are far more intriguing than any we’ve seen on the movie screen thus far.

And going into “Luke Cage”, I was fascinated to see a modern superhero story actually deal with the character’s race.

“Luke Cage” is set within the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, which is well-known for its largely African-American population.  It is considered a huge center for black culture within the city as well, and that is displayed prominently in the first season of “Luke Cage”.  Famous musicians from R&B, rap, and other genres even show up on the show as themselves and play their songs.  Their music is often used to underscore a montage of action within the show as well.

 

 

It’s an impressive display of culture from a genre that typically doesn’t get much deeper than “good guy fight bad guy…overcome shortcomings”.

The first half of the season is great.  It centers around Luke Cage and a club owner known only by the name Cottonmouth.  Cottonmouth is a lot like Wilson Fisk from “Daredevil”, in that he is a complex character who isn’t totally evil.  Early on in the show a respected member of the Harlem community is killed and Cottonmouth is visibly shaken by it, due to the fact that it happened as an indirect result of his actions.  He didn’t want it to happen, but it did.  And that’s what makes him a great character.  He’s not outright malevolent.  He’s obsessed with his reputation sure, but he’s not at all someone who just wants to destroy things or kill the hero.  In fact, when the season begins, Luke Cage actually works for Cottonmouth as a dishwasher before things hit the fan.

 

Cottonmouth

 

And speaking of the Harlem community, that’s another aspect of the show I liked.  Compared to the other shows, “Luke Cage” has a very good sense of place.  It attempts to capture the look and feel of Harlem and make that an integral part of the show’s plot.  In the end, the battle between Luke and Cottonmouth is essentially a battle for the future of Harlem.  This is reflected in the title sequence as well, with various icons of Harlem being overlaid over Luke’s body.

 

The title sequence also hints at the show’s connection with African-American culture and history.

 

Luke himself is a very quiet character.  He doesn’t say much, and when he does, it’s short and to the point.  He’s stoic, but intimidating.  His abilities are two-fold: superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, which leads to an impressive sequence early on where he storms a criminal headquarters and strolls through a hail of gunfire like it’s nothing.

 

Luke Cage doing his Terminator impression.

 

The first half of the season does a great job balancing action with character drama that feels nuanced and believable.  Unfortunately, “Luke Cage” starts to fall apart during the second half.

At around the halfway point in the season, Cottonmouth is removed from the picture and we are introduced to a new villain.  With no foreshadowing, we are suddenly cued in to the fact that Luke somehow knows him.  And, in a move similar to Blofeld in the James Bond movie “Spectre”, he proclaims that he is the mastermind behind the bad times in Luke’s life.  Luke going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit?  All him.  Cottonmouth?  Also all him.  If there was a bit more setup to the character and his introduction, I might be more willing to buy into the whole business.  But as it stands, you can’t just shove a new character into my face and pretend he’s some kind of mad genius.

More to the point, he’s a boring villain and a terrible replacement for Cottonmouth.  All he wants is revenge on Luke for some vague, past transgression that we don’t get much information on until near the end of the season.  And even then, all it really amounts to is “daddy issues” (which brings “Spectre” to mind all over again).  Instead of actual character depth, he just walks around spouting Bible quotes to give the illusion of depth.

A villain who feels vindicated in his actions by religious belief?  Gee…how original.

The show starts to suffer from some pacing issues as well later on.  Right before Cottonmouth leaves the scene, we have an episode that ends in what would appear to be a major triumph for our heroes.  But then it’s all undone within the first ten minutes of the next episode, which makes it pointless and a waste of the viewer’s time.

And then there’s the climax, which commits one of the worst sins a superhero story can commit.  Out of nowhere, the villain dons a suit that gives him the exact same powers of Luke Cage.  There’s no lead up to this.  There’s no hint at it ever happening.  It just…happens.  He just opens a crate, mutters a Bible verse, and then later on he confronts Luke with his goofy new attire.  Instead of actually having a tense standoff between the two characters, the show cheats and gives us a bog standard fist fight.

Speaking of the ending, I enjoyed that “Luke Cage” tried to go with a not-so-happy, unresolved ending that showcased a more grim attitude towards things.  But at the same time, with “The Defenders” releasing in just a couple of months, it makes me wonder how this is going to stand the test of time.  It’s obvious that they’ll have to resolve the cliffhanger-ish ending of the season in “The Defenders”.  What’s going to happen if someone five years from now sits down and watches the first season of “Luke Cage” and thinks “man…I want to know how what happens next”.  Are they going to start up season two and be utterly confused as to why everything already seems to be resolved?  That’s the problem with these massively interconnected universes…unless you research the chronology you’re likely to get confused.  Because the shows don’t really offer much of a hint as to which one takes place.  Even looking at the year on Netflix isn’t really going to help because of how much content Marvel generates.

But that’s a topic for another time.  Overall, I would say “Luke Cage” was solid to good.  The supporting characters were all well done, and I liked the inclusion of Claire, the nurse (you’ll remember her from “Daredevil” seasons one and two as well as her brief appearance in the first season of “Jessica Jones”).  The culture and the setting were all interwoven with the plot and the character to create a unique show that, despite being a superhero tale, also manages to deal with topical issues relating to race.  Even though the season falls apart in the second half, I never felt like I wanted to shut it off entirely.  There were still parts of the show that were interesting to watch.

All in all, still worth a watch in spite of the problems.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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