Let's get this out of the way, in case you haven't watched Iron Fist yet. It was not good. Aside from the controversy over casting Finn Jones instead of reversing the racist orientalism of the original comic and casting an Asian lead, the show had the audacity to also be horribly plotted, aimless, and full of shoddy fight choreography. Most of that is fixed in The Defenders, where the character of Danny Rand is finally bearable. He benefits from not being the centerpiece of the series; this is a Marvel team-up show, and so he gets as much time as Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Daredevil. So when Danny gets extra and intones "I am the immortal Iron Fist," he gets dragged by Jessica and it's funny. Or when he tries to beat up a black teenager for being a villain's lackey, he gets read by Luke for not understanding the social power structures that led to a kid from Harlem being part of a villain's clean-up crew and how Danny contributes to it.
The Defenders succeeds (at least in the first four episodes screened for critics) at knowing what people's misgivings might be coming into the series and attempting to fix them. It's why Danny is mostly played for laughs this time. It's why when Matt Murdock gets morose about having to be Daredevil, he's told to suck it up and join the rest of the superheroes so they can take on the Big Bad. It's why Jessica gets her one moment of "I don't want to be involved in this," but it's quickly rectified. It's why Luke actually has a mission from the outset of the series instead of glumly telling Pop he doesn't want to be a superhero and also spouting off random respectability politics about how he doesn't like saying the word "nigga."
While it's not as cohesive as The Avengers — the villains here suck, we'll get to that shortly — it does what Marvel has proven it can do well when mashing up its superheroes. It's part wish fulfillment of seeing whether or not Luke's indestructible skin can withstand Iron Fist's punch, or seeing Misty Knight trade barbs with Jessica Jones like Marvel's version of Dominique Deveraux and Alexis Carrington. It also introduces some much-needed brevity into the Marvel television universe. In each heroes’ individual series we've had to endure seasons that felt like 13-hour long pilots (remember Matt not even getting in his goddamn Daredevil costume until the final fight of the season?), whereas after two episodes of everyone running around New York, by episode three all four of our heroes are in one place and ready to throw down.
If Iron Fist seemed rushed, The Defenders seems meticulous and well-crafted and Finn Jones is much better in his fight scenes. Even he knows the ones in his own series were lackluster. Speaking to IGN, Jones said: "By the time of Defenders, I had been working on the character and training for about seven months, on and off, so by Defenders I was a lot more well-trained than at the beginning of Iron Fist because I had been doing it for so long. I think the choreography is a lot slicker and I think the way it's been shot and edited is definitely a lot more cohesive. I also think, just because I went from shooting six months of Iron Fist to immediately going on to shoot Defenders, just by nature of having all of that practice leading up to Defenders, the choreography felt a lot more grounded. It was a different choreography team and the way it was shot was a little bit different as well, and I think that definitely helped sell the fight scenes a lot better. And on top of that, I was more used to picking up choreography and the fluidity of the movements."
With all of this clicking, The Defenders should be the best Marvel series Netflix has produced. Except… it isn't. Keep in mind it's very fun to watch and with a shorter episode order of eight, it won't be a slog to get through. But when it comes to the villains, the show gets bogged down in the worst aspects of the Netflix series. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were the better offerings of all the series because they provided villains that were as multi-layered as their heroes. Killgrave, Cottonmouth, Black Mariah. Hell, even Daredevil was improved by the short arc involving The Punisher, because that meant he didn't have to fight the fucking Hand.
The Hand, a syndicate of evil ninjas, has come in and out of the pages of Marvel's comics for decades and I've witnessed some truly thrilling stories involving them. But those stories tended to be doled out in between other villains who were much more interesting than a bunch of ninjas from some indeterminate place. I mean, their origin is Japanese in the comics but there's nary an actual delving into the Hand's real culture in the Netflix world. Iron Fist wasn't the Netflix series' only foray into odd, racist caricatures. It's been there since Daredevil. Granted, The Hand is ingrained in the DNA of Daredevil since they resurrect Elektra in the comic books and, from Elodie Yung's appearance in all the promos for The Defenders, you can surmise they do the same in the series. But did we really need Elektra to get resurrected so soon? Couldn't that have waited for season three of Daredevil instead of devoting yet another one of these series to a nebulous, mostly boring villain?
The Hand were at their worst in Iron Fist where they were did myriad things for no damn reason. They were mildly annoying digging a hole in the ground on Daredevil. And now they're just confounding as led by Sigourney Weaver, as she swans around Manhattan wearing flowy garments from the Bassett by Angela for Angela Bassett collection and giving everyone stern looks. There's a vast rogue’s gallery in the Marvel universe that does not involve ninjas from some secret organization who are always doing vaguely "Eastern" things and fighting with kung-fu that could've been put to use in The Defenders, but Netflix's Marvel universe still seems hung up on orientalism as a crutch and it's not doing any of its series any favors. The Defenders managed to get Weaver to sign on for a comic-book television series and this is what they do with her? She and the series' titular heroes deserve better.