In preparation for the release of Netflix’s The Defenders, which has Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist join up to fight for the fate of New York City, I decided to take a look back at each of the individual shows and rank which of the Defenders really kicked ass from Daredevil’s start in 2015 through this year’s Iron Fist series.
[title type=”h2″]4. Luke Cage[/title]
OK, I know this is going to be controversial, especially after the hatestorm that developed around the premiere of Iron Fist. If I’m being honest, I think Luke Cage and Iron Fist are fairly well-matched in their problems, but when it comes down to which show you consider the worst of the group, it’s going to be which missteps you personally find more egregious.
[quote_right]believe me when I say that this ranking does not mean I think Iron Fist is a good show. In fact, it’s a really bad show.[/quote_right]Luke Cage was a hard sell on me from the beginning, because while I liked the character as he appeared in Jessica Jones, the reason he worked so well in that show was because he worked as Jessica’s foil. The calmer, more responsible and reasonable Luke Cage balanced out Jessica, our lovable hot mess of a protagonist. He was interesting in as much as he acted as Jessica’s counterpoint, but could he carry his own show? For me, ultimately, the answer was no. Luke Cage, I’ll agree, is an infinitely more likeable character than Danny Rand, but his actions don’t always match up to his characterization. Danny Rand, in his ever-frustrating white-boy naivete, acts in stupid, ill-advised ways, but at least it’s in line with what we expect from him as a character. When Luke Cage finally gets into the action, his motives aren’t always clear, which is problematic because we’re meant to understand the internal moral conflict he faces every time he does act.
But when Luke Cage finally does resolve himself to get into the action (he’s a passive, unwilling hero at first, which makes the story slow going in the first few episodes), the conflicts in which he’s engaged are usually manufactured. How is Cottonmouth a real threat to a man who’s damn near invincible? If it’s a question of Luke Cage not wanting to get involved, that point’s invalidated once he breaks into the Cottonmouth’s base of operations. If it’s a question of Luke Cage not wanting to kill anyone, that point’s also invalidated; he could easily incapacitate anyone in his way without actually killing them—in fact, that’s something he does throughout the entirety of the show. So the main conflict is avoidable, and the show spends so many episodes spinning its wheels that when we get to the point of real conflict—Luke Cage getting shot by the Judas bullets—that too could have been avoided. And speaking of spinning its wheels, the series does much of that, milling around so its pacing suffers much like Iron Fist‘s does.
One great thing about Luke Cage is how its cast is so diverse and talented overall (Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali being obvious favorites)—it’s rare to see so many people of color in a superhero show. The show really commits itself to representing black New York and a racial context relevant to what’s happening in the world today. But what it also does is create Luke Cage as the savior of black history and black Harlem; Luke Cage becomes black Jesus and takes a seat on the moral high ground, going so far as to preach to criminals about black history in the middle of fights. How reductive is it to have the black hero of the Marvel Netflix franchise represent the whole breadth of black history? And how pedantic is it for a show to openly preach at its audience about that history? Some subtlety and nuance, please.
As for our leading man, Mike Colter, I don’t have much to say about his acting. His character is generally very one-note, but the few moments when Luke Cage gets emotional feel pretty transparent—though that’s also the fault of the dialogue, which so frequently falls into painful cliches (can I point out how skeevy Luke’s “coffee” pickup lines are?).
In the end, for me, it was all about the plot, and if we’re not going to get real conflicts and writing that does more than create false drama around a character who has no reason or motivation to drive the story forward himself, then I’d rather watch something else.
[title type=”h2″]3. Iron Fist[/title]
As I said, Iron Fist and Luke Cage are on an equal playing field in my mind, so believe me when I say that this ranking does not mean I think Iron Fist is a good show. In fact, it’s a really bad show. In the first few episodes, we’re stalled by a wall of dramatic irony involving Danny Rand’s identity (“Is he Danny Rand? He really seems to be Danny,” Joy and Ward Meacham wonder, before rejecting the notion each time and continuing the cycle anew).
Danny Rand is also completely incompetent. His ignorance and temper exacerbate every situation and his utter inability to get out from under his shelter of white-boy privilege makes him unbearably annoying. All that said, I still found the story in Iron Fist more engaging than that in Luke Cage—and for me, story is key. Harold Meacham’s crazy Lazarus trick, Madame Gao’s connection to K’un-Lun, Colleen’s secret connection to the Hand—all of these elements provide the mystery and tension that made me want to get through Iron Fist despite its problems—and all these elements also create real conflict in the series. Yes, the show, which spends much of its time twiddling its thumbs in the same way Luke Cage does, could have been condensed, but at least when we finally arrive at an obstacle Danny Rand has to face, we know it’s a real challenge for the character.
The acting’s about on par with that in Luke Cage in so far that the leading man is far less impressive than those around him, and for a guy supposed to be the chosen one, Danny Rand isn’t as great a martial artist as he should be, but the action scenes are nevertheless more entertaining than those in Luke Cage, which mostly involve guys fruitlessly shooting at our protagonist, doing no more than tearing up his seemingly endless supply of hoodies (seriously, bro, how many do you have?).
For me, the characterization of Danny Rand (though annoying, still loyal to who the writers created him to be) and the development of the drama and conflicts throughout the show made Iron Fist edge Luke Cage out by the tiniest hair.
[title type=”h2″]2. Daredevil[/title]
(To be fair to the other shows on this list, which only have one season each, I’m just taking the first season of Daredevil into account in this ranking. Daredevil would still likely take the no. 2 spot in this ranking, even if I took into consideration its less impressive second season.)
There’s such a large gap in the quality of this show in comparison to the previous two on this list that it’s hard to imagine that they all exist within the same universe. Right off the bat, there’s a huge difference in how Daredevil is paced in comparison to Iron Fist and Luke Cage—the players are already in place from the beginning, and we get into the conflict, the action and a taste of the main character’s backstory immediately.
And if we’re talking about action, Daredevil steals the win for its fight scenes, which showcase a technical ability unmatched in Iron Fist and an athleticism and artfulness that we don’t see in Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
If we consider the blandness of Luke Cage and the grating naivete of Danny Rand—both of whom can be reduced to their respective modifiers and not much more—Matt Murdock looks even more appealing, as he’s a character with personality, even charm (read: game), though the show’s fixation on his Catholic guilt and his identification as “the devil of Hell’s Kitchen” can be as overemphasized almost as much as Luke Cage‘s Jesus metaphor.
Daredevil also gets points for the atmosphere the show fosters; yes, Jessica Jones nods toward noir and Luke Cage finds its heart in black culture, but the way with which Daredevil invites its audience into its darkness is pervasive and yet subtly done—through the dark lighting used in much of the scenes and the show’s fixation on the colors black and red.
Ultimately, the only reason this show didn’t achieve the top spot for me was Wilson Fisk and how his arc was concluded. It’s difficult not to overdo such a comically exaggerated gangster like Fisk, who is little more than an archetype. Vincent D’Onofrio tries to introduce a bit more vulnerability and nuance to the character in his portrayal, but his halting, awkward delivery (occasionally broken by unhinged outbreaks of violence) just felt weird and uncomfortable. The show’s ending, too, wasn’t as cathartic as one would’ve hoped, after we’ve spent a whole season tracking down Fisk and rooting for his downfall; you’d think Fisk would get a more dramatic send-off to jail, or at least one not as rushed, but Fisk is down and out before you can say the word “Kingpin.”
[title type=”h2″]1. Jessica Jones[/title]
This was a close race. While Daredevil certainly takes the win on action, Jessica Jones beat the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen with its wild protagonist and despicable villain.
Unlike Luke Cage and Daredevil, Jessica Jones isn’t some symbol or explicitly explained analog of religious context, and unlike Danny Rand, she isn’t some special, mystical figure driven by fate. Jessica Jones is human—vulnerable and messy and flawed and a realistic depiction of a person recovering from trauma and abuse. Basically, she’s doing the best she can, and we like her more for it. Plus, Jessica easily has the most personality of our protagonists, with a wry sense of humor that Krysten Ritter delivers with style.
While Danny Rand and Luke Cage had multiple antagonists to fight against in their first seasons, Jessica Jones only has one, though he appears in multiple guises—in the form of the people he controls. Kilgrave (perfectly portrayed by David Tennant, who will always have my heart for his portrayal of the Tenth Doctor) also lacks the over-the-top villainy of Wilson Fisk but is all the more frightening for what he actually is: selfish, controlling, and abusive. Despite his superhuman ability to control people, Kilgrave is nevertheless still believable because he’s a representation of the emotional, physical and sexual abusers we regularly see in a society that disregards women’s bodies and fosters rape culture. None of this is overdone though—Jessica Jones has no desire to preach to its audience in the same way some of the other shows do. There’s no moral argument here either; Jessica Jones does what needs to be done and faces the consequences later, so we don’t get stuck in a purgatory of internal conflict with five episodes of an “Am I good or bad” debate.
Jessica Jones moves quickly and is engaging all the way through, because as much as this is a superhero show, it’s also a detective show, with Jessica trying to figure out where Kilgrave is, what his endgame is and how to stop him.
The show does briefly throw in some unnecessary drama in the form of Will Simpson (a loose end who seems to be introduced just so he can shake things up in the midst of the main conflict) but otherwise doesn’t make any superfluous gestures.
Agree? Disagree? Share your own ranking in the comments and check out Marvel’s The Defenders, premiering tomorrow, Friday, August 18, on Netflix. Watch our live-tweet of the season premiere.