THE DE­FEND­ERS

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN -

FROM DAY ONE, when Net­flix and Marvel first her­alded a set of se­ries based on some of the comic-book com­pany’s fringe su­per­heroes, we knew this was com­ing. And just as the early MCU movies teased the Avengers over four years, so its smaller-scale small-screen cousin has been grad­u­ally, in­ex­orably build­ing up to a cross­over that sees Dare­devil (Cox), Jessica Jones (Rit­ter), Luke Cage (Colter) and Iron Fist (Jones) shar­ing the frame as the Avengers’ scrap­pier, grit­tier, street-level equiv­a­lent.

But while Dare­devil first streamed only two years ago, it feels as if it’s been a much longer jour­ney to get here than it was for the Avengers. Much of that is down to the for­mat —it’s taken 65 episodes, via four shows and five sea­sons, whose mo­ments of ge­nius (those long-take

Dare­devil fight scenes; Luke Cage’s mu­si­cal num­bers and slap-fu; all of Jessica Jones) have been tem­pered by chunks of frus­tra­tion (Dare­devil’s ir­ri­tat­ingly perky side­kicks Foggy & Karen; the non-event that was the ap­per­ance of Luke Cage’s neme­sis Di­a­mond­back; much of Iron Fist). We could but hope that, lessons learned, The De­fend­ers would put right all the solo-shows did wrong — not least the stretch­ing of thin plots over 13-episode struc­tures — while play­ing to each hero’s su­per-strengths.

The good news is The De­fend­ers comes in at a leaner, punchier eight episodes. And showrun­ners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez (fresh from Dare­devil’s sec­ond sea­son) do have some crowd-pleas­ing fun with the lead char­ac­ters’ in­ter­ac­tions. When Luke and Iron Fist (who are ac­tu­ally part­ners and best buds in the comics) first meet, they have a full-on punch-up — and we get to see ex­actly what hap­pens when chi-in­fused knuck­les hit a bul­let­proof jaw. There’s a savvy sense of self-aware­ness, too — bor­der­line meta, ar­guably. At one point Iron Fist ad­mits, “I tried be­ing a one-man army and I failed”; many crit­ics of his solo show would read­ily agree with him. Mean­while, the team’s some­what un­even skill bal­ance is swiftly skew­ered by Jessica: “Am I the only per­son around here who doesn’t know karate?” she snarks.

How­ever, even with fewer episodes, you can still feel that Marvel/net­flix nar­ra­tive drag. It’s not un­til the end of episode three that the crime-fight­ing quar­tet is fi­nally formed (with pre­dictable re­luc­tance) and we start to feel we’re fi­nally watch­ing a show with its own style and iden­tity rather than in­ter­cut clips from their solo out­ings.

And, we’re sorry to re­port, the big threat that unites the group proves a mild dis­ap­point­ment, even if she is played by Sigour­ney Weaver. Alexan­dra feels like yet an­other busi­nessper­son bad­die whose dirty deeds are hid­den by sharp suits, while the on­go­ing, vague chi­canery of The Hand (like HYDRA, but nin­jas) fails to ig­nite much ex­cite­ment. In­deed, the peer­less Weaver her­self seems des­per­ately bored by it all.

Even so, there is enough joy to be found, es­pe­cially in watch­ing the sparks fly as th­ese four al­pha char­ac­ters fi­nally col­lide. It may have been a long time com­ing, but as the sea­son fi­nally kicks in, it feels as though

The De­fend­ers might just have been worth the wait. DAN JOLIN

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