Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Despite a few missteps (here’s looking at you, Iron Fist), the Netflix era of street-level Marvel shows remains one of the best runs of superhero material in modern history. Series like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Punisher, and Luke Cage did an amazing job of carving out their own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to focus in on the parts of New York City where the Avengers were a bit too busy to clean things up.
Like pretty much everything else in the MCU, Netflix’s Defenders shows were mapped out from the jump with a grand plan to seed solo seasons that all led to an epic team-up miniseries. It’s essentially the same formula they used on the big screen, establishing solo heroes and eventually weaving it all together for a larger threat. Put simply, it had Avengers-level potential from the jump. At least, on paper.
Even with its missteps and short runs, the Defenders-verse was wildly successful with fans, to the point that Marvel has since opted to bring back several key pieces and introduce them to the MCU proper. We’ve already seen the return of Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock/Daredevil and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk/Kingpin, and rumors persist that Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones and Jon Bernthal’s Punisher might also show up down the line, but that’s still conjecture at this point.
So how did the Defenders miniseries go wrong? How did the team-up that should have been the coolest thing turn into effectively the lamest? (Well almost; Iron Fist Season 1 exists). In a lot of ways, The Defenders was a victim of its own success, trying to serve everything fans loved while still leaving the door open for more solo stories and spinoffs to come.
If you need a refresher on the timeline, Netflix and Marvel announced the whole suite of programming in a massive 2013 deal for four shows and a Defenders miniseries. At the time, the plan was for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist to receive solo seasons, with the entire slate crescendoing with the Defenders. It was probably a loose framework at the time, but it made sense for a roadmap.
But the timelines got a bit more complicated once the shows actually started rolling out. Daredevil, the first show out of the gate, proved such a massive hit the streamer pulled the trigger on a second season that dropped even before Luke Cage or Iron Fist had a chance to debut. Then plans started coming together for a Punisher spinoff, and the studio was keen to bring back every character for a second (and for a few of them, third) season that would file in after the events of Defenders.
What all that meant for Defenders is that it needed to somehow thread the needle of paying off the years-long promise of teaming all these heroes up, but not do too much to change this world in a way that would alter the continued solo seasons that would now be following it. It also now had to reckon with the shadow of Daredevil’s success and world-building, which had established two seasons of canon at this point and had proven to be the most popular show of the bunch.
The result made for an event series that felt more like Daredevil Season 2.5 than something truly groundbreaking, recycling several enemy elements introduced in Matt Murdock’s world, with the Hand and Elektra playing key roles in a convoluted plot that positively wasted A-lister Sigourney Weaver as one of the five “fingers” of the Hand, pulling the strings behind a confusing plot aimed at harnessing a power hidden deep below the streets of New York City.
The most frustrating part of it all is that The Defenders didn’t really seem to know what to do with these great characters now that they were all on-screen together, aside from (pardon the term) simply assembling them. Most everyone’s story seemed under-serviced, as the eight-episode event tried almost too hard to weave these stories together in a way that felt natural, feeling more cutesy and teasing than Avengers-level team-building—the big screen event Defenders was framed to mirror.
The solo series in the Netflix run of Marvel shows worked so well because they took these characters seriously, built out their worlds. and gave us street-level stakes that mattered. Defenders had trouble keeping that tone while upping the threat, rolling out a mostly street-level story while constantly telling us that no, in fact, it really is something bigger, we promise. The Avengers got to stop an alien invasion, while all The Defenders could muster was a recycled Daredevil plot and a somewhat confusing evil plan that would have been right at home in one of the lesser seasons of The CW’s Arrow.
What should have been one of the biggest moment in Marvel’s TV world became simply another chapter in these (mostly better) solo journeys, largely brushed off or used as quick setup for the following seasons of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil. Perhaps the problem is they waited so long to bring them all together in the first place, setting them all within the same few blocks of New York City as they interact with plenty of the same people along the way—just never each other, for whatever reason.
It’s an interesting counterpoint to the shared universe concept itself that Marvel has pioneered so well on the big screen: A saga that turned out to work best in its own separate chapters, and somehow became something less when the whole was actually assembled.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.