TV Review: ‘The Defenders’ Season 1

At long last, Netflix assembles Marvel’s street-level heroes…

 A note on spoilers : whilst this review doesn’t delve into major plot points there may be some light spoilers.

Starring:  Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Elodie Yung, Jessica Henwick, Rosario Dawson, Scott Glenn, Simone Missick, Sigourney Weaver

Series created by:  Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez

What’s it about?

Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist unite to protect New York from the threat of the ancient order of The Hand…

Season review

Having established their core street-level heroes in their own individual series, Marvel and Netflix reach the culmination of their plans with the much anticipated team-up of Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand/Iron Fist in The Defenders, a highly enjoyable – albeit not completely flawless – eight episode arc.

Like some of the other Marvel/Netflix shows, The Defenders gets off to a relatively slow start that’s somewhat burdened by its reintroduction of the principal characters in a manner that serves to both reacquaint established viewers with our heroes whilst striving to be accessible to those coming in fresh.  In terms of the latter it’s not entirely successful given that so much has happened to the individual characters in their respective series (particularly in the case of Daredevil who has two whole seasons worth of story) which supplies The Defenders with a pretty solid foundation for viewers who have already followed Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  It also presents a few initial narrative problems, the most cumbersome and disappointing being Luke Cage’s all-too quick and all-too convenient release from prison, which on the plus side does facilitate the introduction of Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson into the story.

The series opener does most of the work of re-establishing the main players and their current status quo – Matt has locked away his billy club in favour of carrying out pro-bono legal work, Jessica is still hitting the bottle but has a weakness for those in need of help, Luke is dead-set on protecting the innocent and Danny, together with Colleen, continue to track and fight The Hand, the central threat of the Marvel/Netflix universe as seen in Daredevil and Iron Fist.  We’re also introduced to the current leader of that organisation – the mysterious ‘Alexandra’, played by screen icon (and Academy Award Nominee) Sigourney Weaver.  The artificially produced earthquake at the climax of “The H Word” provides suitably high stakes and a cause for our heroes to eventually unite against and Weaver is excellent in a role that’s atypical for an actor largely known for her more heroic turn as Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien films.  The writers provide Alexandra with a good measure of complexity yet there are moments when the character feels a little weak and never seems to fully develop into as powerful and formidable a foe as initially promised.

Where The Defenders doesn’t disappoint is when it comes to gathering the team itself, which happens organically without being forced or rushed and the dynamics of the group are explored wonderfully in the confines of a Chinese restaurant in “Royal Dragon”.  By having the main protagonists simply sit down at a table together we get to see some great chemistry on display, they’re a dysfunctional group for sure and there’s plenty of conflict in viewpoints but it all feels natural and there’s a sense that they all want to get on the same page and put aside any differences in order to battle against The Hand for the greater good.  “Royal Dragon” really sets things in motion, with the team galvanising as the series progresses and there’s a good dose of wry humour (Krysten Ritter on top form as she delivers Jessica’s sarcastic jibes) and plenty of light hearted put-downs, affording Mike Colter and Finn Jones the opportunity to build the budding friendship between Luke and Danny.

Overall, the focus on each of the principal cast is well-balanced (although Charlie Cox is arguably the standout) and Finn Jones certainly gets a chance to expand his character and placate those critical of Danny Rand’s characterisation in his own series with a definite sense of growth and a stronger positioning of him as the ‘Immortal Iron Fist’ as he finds himself being targeted as part of the enemy’s unfolding plans.

Supporting characters are served fittingly in accordance with the story.  Rosario Dawson’s role as Claire Temple is generally more prominent, which is understandable given here connective appearances in the other shows but there’s still a welcome presence (among some other familiar faces) from Simone Missick as Misty Knight and the superb Scott Glenn as Stick.  Of course, with The Hand presenting the threat in The Defenders and given the events of Daredevil season two we get to see Elektra’s rebirth as ultimate ‘weapon’ the Black Sky and Elodie Yung tackles this rather well, offsetting the brutality of a lethal assassin with emotional nuance as she grapples with her true identity.

The series features, like previous efforts, some slick and decently choreographed martial arts action (including another corridor fight sequence that can’t match those seen in Daredevil but is still a highlight non-the-less).  It does become a bit overly frantic at times and even difficult to follow in some of the darker scenes but for the most part, it delivers.

Structurally, there was always the fear that eight episodes would end up being too short a run.  Despite some occasional pacing issues, it actually works out just about right – in fact it’s also evidence that Marvel’s other Netflix series could benefit from slightly shorter episode counts, which really would have benefitted Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  Things slow down a little in the penultimate episode but The Defenders reaches an increasingly tense and satisfying climax in its finale (aptly titled “The Defenders”), with an epilogue that helps tie up loose ends whilst setting up the future course of Marvel’s Netflix universe.

The bottom line:  The Defenders is a reasonably enjoyable team-up event that successfully unites the street-level heroes of Marvel’s Netflix shows.

All 8 episodes of The Defenders season 1 are available to stream now via Netflix.

Defenders S1

Taking it to The Hand: Marvel’s street-level heroes assemble to save New York in ‘The Defenders’.


Film Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

An empty shell or a captivating experience? 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusa Samal

Directed by: Rupert Sanders / Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger / 107 minutes

What’s it about?

In a future where technology has advanced to incredible heights, a cyber security operative known as ‘Major’ – a cyborg marrying a human brain with an artificial body – investigates a wave of hackings by a mysterious terrorist named Kuze…

In review

Based on Shirow Masamune’s iconic manga “The Ghost in the Shell” and owing far more to director Mamoru Oshii’s classic 1995 anime, the live action version of Ghost in the Shell received a lukewarm reception, amidst controversies of ‘whitewashing’, upon its theatrical release earlier this year.  Now that the dust has settled, is Ghost in the Shell a worthy adaptation of the popular Japanese property?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning, the vast, futuristic cityscapes juxtaposed against the grimy, seedy backstreets creating an immersive ‘cyberpunk’ Blade Runner-esque environment, complemented by the film’s deftly executed action sequences and production design that are extremely faithful to the original source material and the subsequent anime.  Therein lies part of the problem though, Ghost in the Shell is constructed with so much reverence to, most specifically Oshii’s anime (through which most will no doubt be familiar with the franchise) that it fails to emerge from the shadows and form an identity of its own.  It certainly doesn’t help that the script is a little drab and predictable with long stretches of almost purposeless ponderousness that at points can make you feel every minute of the – compared to most modern blockbusters – relatively slight running time.  It tries hard to evoke the mesmerising qualities, mystery and atmospherics of the beloved anime but just doesn’t have the same effect and the recreation of several iconic scenes, whilst laudable (and the opening birthing or ‘shelling’ sequence is certainly beautifully realised) are too numerous and will likely leave fans wanting to turn to the anime instead.

It’s well known that Ghost in the Shell’s reception was blighted by criticisms of whitewashing in its casting, which is a little unfair as a more multicultural troupe of actors is evident.  As ‘Major’ (fans will note the lack of ‘the’), Scarlett Johansson is a reasonably effective, if uninspired choice for the lead role, her slightly robotic movements and mechanical delivery injected with just the right amount of subtle humanity to carry it all off.  She’s mostly supported by Pilou Asbaek’s Batou but also shares a decent amount of screen time with ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as the cantankerous chief, Aramaki and gets to flesh out some character in her exchanges with Dr. Ouelet, played by Juliette Binoche.  To be perfectly honest, partly due to the lightweight script, the cast as a whole rarely rise above being functional and subservient to the striking visuals, sure the character of ‘Major’ (that lack of ‘the’ sounding clumsy and awkward) is intentionally detached and cipher-like but those familiar with Oshii’s adaptation (and indeed the amazing Stand Alone Complex series) will be disappointed at how small an impact Asbaek’s Batou makes and that the rest of the characters are so unmemorable in comparison to their animated versions – whether that be voiced by their original Japanese cast or the English dub performers.

When it comes down to it, Ghost in the Shell does have its moments – mainly during its action sequences, but even then it still comes off as being a little too generic and maybe even a little pretentious and far too derivative and reverential for its own good.

The bottom line:  A disappointing adaptation of the much loved manga, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell fails to match the brilliance of the 1995 anime and to become a compelling endeavour of its own, it may be worth a look if only out of curiosity and for an appreciation of some commendable visuals.

Ghost in the Shell is available to own and to rent via home video and on demand formats now.

GitS 2017

Scarlett Johansson bursts into action in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.