With Iron Fist’s release last week, we’ve now seen all four of Marvel’s The Defenders in action. In anticipation of the crossover coming mid-2017, it’s time to rank these four heroes and their series.
Unfortunately, this list is a ranking of the four series and not their characters, which means I have to leave out Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Because, let’s be honest, she should be number one here.
1. Jessica Jones
I watched Jessica Jones before any of the other Defenders series, and none of them have managed to be as compelling or intriguing. Jessica Jones is a dark, brooding, and emotional series that dives headfirst into trauma and pain. It has powerful character arcs, fantastic writing, consistent tone, and a well-paced story. Krysten Ritter is excellent as Jessica Jones, and luckily the rest of the cast manages to keep up. The series takes on serious topics such as PTSD, rape, and assault, and it does so with a steady hand.
There’s also David Tennant, who is terrifying and captivating in his role as Kilgrave. He packs a huge punch as a villain, easily the most intimidating in any of these series so far. Compared to the series, Jessica’s fight against him feels so incredibly personal. The stakes feel higher here because the stakes are so high for her. It’s a conflict that is so integral to Jessica’s character, and that builds up the emotional impact and the character arcs to a powerful high.
Beyond all that, the series also introduces us to Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and it does so deftly, managing to flesh him out as a character without diminishing the focus on Jessica. He is brought to life in a more subtle way, and that does wonders for him as a character. There is also the romance between him and Jessica, which felt more natural than any of the other romances in the Defenders series (except maybe Luke and Claire). The romance doesn’t feel shoehorned. It doesn’t feel like it is there just so a romance aspect exists. It is a piece of Jessica’s character, and it is something that is essential for her character to experience.
And then there’s also the rest of the show’s well-developed characters, many of whom are badass women in their own right, just like Jessica. Between the characters, the plot, the exploration of marginalization and challenging topics, this show is a full-fledged success.
2. Luke Cage
Make a show about a bulletproof black man, and I’m already 100 percent in. Do it as well as Luke Cage did, and I couldn’t be more sold. This show is political in a powerful way. It doesn’t overdo it, it doesn’t come across as a public service announcement. Instead, it delves into a diverse community and seamlessly brings characters and their issues to life. In a time when #BlackLivesMatter is such a prominent issue, Luke Cage is an important series.
For me, Luke Cage is the most genuine and real character in The Defenders universe. He leaps off the screen with charisma and heart. And Colter portrays the character unbelievably well. The show also manages to bring its other characters to life very well and very quickly. It’s hard not to care about characters like Pop (Frankie Faison), and it’s hard not to be intrigued by the villains Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Claire and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) add to a wonderful supporting cast.
These characters and their stories are compelling, but it’s the way the series personifies Harlem that makes it stand out. The cultural exploration of Harlem is incredibly relevant, and the show’s cinematic and musical elements add to the dynamic portrayal. A show that manages to make its setting as intriguing of a character as its main cast is a show to be reckoned with.
What makes the show hit number two on the list instead of one is the fragmenting of the plot toward the end of the show. The antagonists fell flat later on in the series, which prevented the climax from being as explosive as it could’ve been. It’s a fantastic show, but it isn’t quite consistent enough to take the top spot.
If there had only been one season of Daredevil, it might not be number three on the list. But looking at the series as a whole, it isn’t quite riveting enough to best Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. As the first Defenders series, the show did a phenomenal job in bringing the Marvel Netflix entity to life. The first season is gritty and excellent, providing the multifaceted origin story that Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) deserved. The conflict between Murdock and Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is top notch, with high stakes, an interesting dynamic between the two, and well-paced drama. Along with that, the series introduces us to a well-balanced supporting cast. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) are never left in the dust; they feel just as integral to the series as Murdock. The trio’s relationship brings loads of heart and drama to the series.
And these characters continue to be captivating in the second season, with terrific additions like Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), who is so richly conceived that he has an upcoming spin-off. Elektra Natchios (Élodie Yung) is compelling on her own, but she also adds a lot of complexity Murdock’s character just as Castle adds complexity to Page’s character. The additions to the cast are meaningful, and that adds a lot to the show. However, the plot suffered, especially when it gets to the last few episodes. The seamless storytelling starts to fall apart, it gets tired, and it takes a lot away from the show as a whole. The story goes down a strange path that sometimes left me bewildered. I can’t help but feel that the weak second-half of the season comes from having a less formidable and consistent antagonist.
But despite a weaker second season, Daredevil is still an impressive show with exhilarating and well-choreographed fight scenes, compelling characters, and a mostly well-written storyline.
4. Iron Fist
Iron Fist has always been surrounded with a bit of controversy. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is just one of many in a line of Iron Fists, the majority of whom are of Asian descent. There’s been a fair amount of discussion over the race of the main character — should they have cast an Asian actor instead, or should they have based the show off a different Iron Fist altogether? A lot of critics mentioned this in their reviews of the series. These reviews weren’t too kind: The series has a 16 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now (though the audience rating is 87 percent). Now, while Iron Fist is last on the list, I certainly don’t think it was as bad as the critics made it out to be. I also don’t think casting Jones as Rand is problematic (though Rand’s origins as a character are certainly at issue, especially considering the white savior trope). However, I do think the show would have been much better off with an Asian lead.
With Iron Fist how it is now, our lead is a privileged, white male billionaire. He isn’t marginalized like the rest of the Defenders, and he’s difficult to empathize with. He’s also incredibly unoriginal, as he is more or less Marvel’s Oliver Queen (Arrow): Privileged, rich white boy is presumed dead after an accident, trains in combat for many years, then returns home as a vigilante hero of sorts that struggles with his identity and whether or not he should kill those he is trying to stop. We’ve watched this show already.
This isn’t to say Iron Fist is a bad show. I enjoyed it enough to watch all the way through in one weekend, and some of the secondary characters are absolutely fascinating. Claire returns, adding a little bit of depth to her character and giving plenty of Easter egg references to other Defenders. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) also shows up, and she, like Claire, is always fun to watch. And then there’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), the one who steals the show from Danny Rand. Though to be honest, it isn’t very hard to steal the show with Danny as the lead. Colleen is a complex, strong female character with loads of potential (I’m in agreement with those saying she deserves a spin-off). The only gripe I have with her character comes from her unnecessary romance with Danny. The romance doesn’t add anything to the series; it simply steals time that could’ve been used to make Colleen even more three-dimensional.
As far as the storyline, it’s decent. There’s enough tension to retain interest, and there are a few twists I enjoyed, but the plot overall isn’t nearly as seamless as it should be. The portion of the plot that revolves around the Meachums and Rand Enterprises drags the series down. It’s simply boring and unoriginal. The Hand remains a formidable enemy, but they are less intimidating than in Daredevil. Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), however, is compelling as always. The series would’ve been better if it focused more on her and the rest of the Hand as villains and less on Harold (David Wenham).
The bottom line: if you’ve already seen Arrow (or any Batman film/show), you won’t see much of anything new here. If you’re looking for a martial arts show with strong characters, you’re better off watching Into the Badlands. And if you’re hoping Iron Fist will be as great as the rest of The Defender series, you’ll be disappointed.