New York City is in peril, again.
Good thing the city’s local superheroes practically outnumber the Starbucks, each with a film franchise and/or TV series devoted to their crusades against evil forces.
This week it’s “The Defenders’” turn to clean up the already clean streets of Manhattan. The Marvel superheroes, each equipped with disparate powers and their own Netflix series, are thrown together for an eight-episode limited series that debuts Friday on the streaming service.
In it, Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) reluctantly join forces after they each encounter a nefarious network of ninja masters known as the Hand.
This dangerous cult will do anything to achieve immortality, a mission that includes, of course, wiping out considerable swaths of humanity. Members of the Hand hide in plain sight among the moneyed jerks of the New York 1%, sipping fine wine and listening to classical music while their minions exploit the other 99% to get what they want.
Imagine if such evil was real!
Leading the charge is the ancient being Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) and her sidekick, the recently resurrected Elektra (Elodie Yung). Alexandra has been around for centuries, but for some reason she’s now taken ill and isn’t expected to live much longer. So much destruction to wreak, so little time.
She needs to move fast, but there’s a formidable opponent in her way: The series’ pacing.
The first three episodes eat up precious time with superhero exposition: Here’s what they’ve been doing since the last season of their series, their ongoing internal battles and how their paths cross, etc.
The bullet-proof Cage, for instance, has been released from prison; back in Harlem, he continues to fight crime while accompanied by a soundtrack of hip-hop, soul or funk (no other character gets such treatment).
After being assumed dead for 15 years, trust-funder Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, returns to civilization where he is still as annoyingly wussy as he was during his much-maligned series.
Meanwhile, Daredevil’s move away from crime fighting didn’t last long. The attorney who’s offered to represent Jones after one of her many run-ins with the law, Daredevil still can’t resist jumping in when needed — be it a mugging in progress or full-tilt battle with the ninja crime syndicate.
The cynical Jones is the only one in this gifted crew who remains stubbornly the same. The private detective would rather drink, curse and forgo showering than help anyone in need — unless she absolutely has to, and of course, she does.
And that window on the front door of her apartment? It’s still busted and covered with plywood and screaming out to be fixed.
Exploring the origins of the Hand also takes up extensive amounts of time. Something about bad chi, the Himalayas and defecting from an ancient order of monks? Regardless, most viewers will still need a flow chart to figure out where and how the group came to be, and why they’re in New York (other than its obvious status as a mecca for evildoers with expensive taste).
Or just watch with this series with a Marvel aficionado — they can explain in laborious detail while you admire Weaver’s transformation from top-tier Hollywood film star into elegant, well-heeled TV super villain.
The show really begins after “The Defenders” decide to work as a team, which essentially comes in Episode 4.
Until that point the superhero’s story lines are stylistically in the same vein as their individual series — Jones is shot through a gritty, punk rock lens; Iron Fist’s scenes are gauzy and emo. Cage’s world is bathed in a cool, ’70s vibe. Once they join forces, however, the tone becomes crisp, modern and fast moving — a colorful yet neutral backdrop for all the butt-kicking to come. And there’s a lot of action here; wall-smashing, bullet deflecting, car-throwing fight scenes that make up for the slow start.
Humor and insider jokes, such as the crew’s immediate exasperation with Iron Fist, also help move things along. When the team members first introduce themselves, and the hippy-like Rand says, “I am the immortal Iron Fist,” Cage rolls his eyes while Jones snarks “Are you on lithium?”
Jones’ one-liners are the high point of dialogue that often gets bogged down under the weight of explaining just one more thing. “Why don’t any of these superheroes have normal names,” she says when she meets Daredevil and Iron Fist. And after a fight with one of the Hand’s agents, she quips: “Am I the only one left who doesn’t know karate?”
“The Defenders” isn’t as sharp and powerful as “Jessica Jones,” as deep as Season 1 of “Daredevil” or as stylized as “Luke Cage,” but it does the job as a holdover until these flawed heroes return with follow-up seasons.
Until then, allow Cage to take a bullet for the Netflix franchise, or Jones to lift a car or even the underwhelming Iron Fist to shatter a ninja blade with his fist. They’re keeping NYC safe. At least until the next superhero-supervillain show rolls into town five minutes from now.
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)