No matter how many times I rank and re-rank my list of Marvel seasons, Iron Fist‘s initial outing always ends up at the bottom. Not just at the bottom of the ladder, but the bottom of the pit.
Iron Fist is so much worse than anything else the Marvel Netflix collaboration has put out that it’s hard to believe it’s from the same team as the other shows. You can understand, then, that I went into the show’s second season with some trepidation.
As I started the first episode, I had to ask myself: is this going to be yet another gaggle of grey boardrooms, punctuated with the show’s protagonist telling everyone who wouldn’t listen (and many didn’t) that he was Danny Rand, The Immortal Iron First, Protector of K’un-L’un, Sworn Enemy Of The Hand, in the hopes that maybe he could bore his enemies to death before beating them up?
Well, here’s some good news. The second outing is far from perfect, but it’s a big leap forward for what started out as a genuinely bad show.
I’m Walkin’ Here!
The second season doesn’t start strong. I’m not going to lie. In an effort to distance himself from the Rand name, from the fortune, from the Meachums, Danny has taken up a position with a moving company. By day he drags around furniture, while he goes out at night to try to protect his neighborhood from crime, specifically from the Chinese Triads.
While the writing does get better later on in the show, the opening moments feature some pretty bad writing that seems to stem from someone trying to establish setting and tone with stereotypical shorthand. People with New York accents stop just short of saying “I’m walkin’ here!” or “Fugetaboutit!”
I thought that might be what’s happening with a new character, played by Alice Eve, who turns out to be one of the most interesting characters from the second season. But more on that later.
The Immortal Iron Fist, the Protector of K’un-L’un, Sword Enemy of the Hand
We find out very early that Danny is struggling with his role as the Iron Fist. The ending of the first season of Iron Fist and of the Defenders took away two-thirds of his title – arguably the most important two-thirds. Danny can’t call himself the Protector of K’un-L’un anymore – he failed to protect the secret land and found it destroyed, and then with the help of a few friends, he put an effective end to the Hand. He’s just the Immortal Iron Fist now, but he’s one without purpose. We see pretty quickly that the lack of direction and focus wears on him.
This becomes a theme for the show. Over and over, we see Danny acting impulsively, jumping into the fray and putting his fist before his brain and making at least as much trouble as he solves.
Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to make Danny interesting. Once again, Danny Rand is Iron Fist‘s weakest link. I’m not sure if it’s because Finn Jones isn’t great casting to play the character, if Finn Jones isn’t a great actor, or if the writing is to blame for the character’s shortcomings. The end result, though, is the same – the guy the show is named after just isn’t that fun to watch.
Dumb Dudes Making Bad Decisions
Even worse, the season’s major antagonist isn’t particularly interesting either. Davos’ transition from old friend to bitter enemy last season left me somewhat hopeful that their faceoff would be an interesting part of this season, but I wound up pretty disappointed by the way this season developed Davos and his relationship to Danny.
The bond powering the bitterness of their struggle is supposed to be that of brothers; two men who grew up together in the extreme conditions of a mythical martial arts commune. Something like that should generate an intense bond that twists and bends when manipulated by negative emotions, but never breaks.
But I never felt like we were shown that bond – just told it existed. Instead of feeling like Davos and Danny have a bond between them, it felt like they were roommates competing for a prize. When the prize went to Danny, Davos’ perception of brotherhood dissipated completely. I never got the sense that Davos felt much of anything for Danny – more just that Danny had stolen his prize and was using it wrong.
I was hopeful, too, because the scenes that attempt to show us this background are set in K’un-L’un. As a setting it’s a much more interesting idea than, say, a New York boardroom. I had hoped and hoped we’d get to see it in the first season, but instead all we got was a busted door that Danny couldn’t open. It reminded me of those doors game designers would put in to make a building feel full but never had any intention of making it possible to open – it was just filler.
This season, we got there, but we see so little of K’un-L’un that it hardly counts. It’s immediately apparent in the sets how the show strains against its budget. We spend most of the show in a few different settings – the former-dojo-now-apartment inhabited by Danny and Colleen, Joy Meachum’s swank condo, and an empty warehouse that Davos uses as his base of operations. As with the first season of Iron Fist, none of these settings tells us anything about any of these characters or the world.
A trip to K’un-L’un would’ve been huge for the show. We could have had a long and insightful look into the world that turned Danny from a petulant teenager into a slightly-less-petulant adult with a deadly weapon in his hand. Instead, we see a couple of rooms.
Ward Meachum might be the most interesting of the three main men of Iron Fist, but he’s also the least crucial. His addiction-redemption arc feels the most realistic. Ward’s slow trudge through the 12 steps is difficult and none of it is given up easily. But its presence feels like a vestige of how prominent he and Joy were in season 1 rather than an integral part of the show.
Women Kicking Ass
Colleen Wing is back, and once again she’s a major highlight. Jessica Henwick seems to have a blast with the character and her conflicts feel real to me. Further, she gets almost all of the best fight scenes in the show, including one with Danny and another with a trio of woman tattoo artists called the Crane Sisters.
What makes those fights so much fun is the smile on Wing’s face as she steps into her fighting stance. Despite what she went through in the previous season of Iron Fist, she doesn’t fight with a burden. She takes it seriously, but she knows she’s exceptionally good at it and enjoys excelling at it.
And then there’s Misty Knight, crossing over from Luke Cage to spend a ton of time with Wing. In the comics, the two characters go on to form a duo called the Daughters of the Dragon. Knight responds appropriately to the dumb things that so frequently pour out of Danny’s mouth, making her into a sort of audience proxy at times. More importantly, though, she has absolutely stellar chemistry with Colleen.
The two had a scene together in the second season of Luke Cage, where Colleen helped Misty get used to the idea of both wearing a prosthetic and of continuing to live a full life as someone who gets into dangerous situations like they tend to. The two play off each other in a way that feels real and believable, and that applies here, too. There’s a scene later into the season where the two are out doing legwork to try to figure out where Davos is and what he’s up to, and they’ve stopped for snacks. The back and forth over snack choice is silly, but it adds so much to both characters.
Even Joy Meachum gets a lot to do this season. She’s bitter over the years of lies from Ward and the way Danny’s reappearance threw her life out of whack and forced a total reorganization of her plans. She’s understandably angry. We see that anger play out this season, but unlike Davos it feels earned. Where Davos was angry that he didn’t get something he felt belonged to him, Joy actually had something taken from her.
But again, like Ward, her presence feels somewhat vestigial. She’s there now because she was there before – not because she’s absolutely crucial to the show.
The character I really want to talk about, though, absolutely requires spoilers for me to get into. So I’m going to put a gallery here, and you can read past it if you’re okay with that.
I’m talking, of course, about Mary Walker – Typhoid Mary in the comics. Played by Alice Eve, Mary Walker isn’t one character, but two. We learn this early on when she wipes away the fog in her bathroom mirror to reveal just half of her face.
Here’s the thing: this character is seriously problematic. She suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder – better known in popular culture as multiple personalities. Her main personalities in the show are Mary and Walker – the timid, gentle, artistic and Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl-esque Mary and the no-nonsense ex-military assassin Walker.
It seemed questionable to resurrect Iron Fist, since that was a story about a white man who comes into some mystic Asian land and does kung fu better than them. It’s no less questionable to bring back Typhoid Mary, a character who came along when our understanding of things like Dissociative Identity Disorder was limited.
Now, it’s better than it was in the comics. In the comics she’s sort of a proto-Harley Quinn, wearing half-white-half-black makeup and sporting fashion sense that hewed closer to Dr. Frank N. Furter than anything else. She has three personalities that collect together to make something like that sexy-and-crazy stereotype that comic-book writers seem to like invoking.
Here, she’s more complex, but her portrayal leaves a lot to be desired from the writing side. Her condition is explained when Joy finds a diagnosis letter lying out in Mary’s apartment, at which point Mary explains her condition to Joy. Later, she explains all of her triggers to Danny, and at that point she becomes less of a person and more of a plot device that you can turn on and off to create drama by making her unreliable and dangerous.
Even through all of this, though, Alice Eve plays the hell out of the character and turns her into one of the most fun parts of the season. Whether she’s the gentle Mary or the serious Walker, she steals every scene she’s in. Mary is so cute, sweet, and nice that it’s a little creepy, while Walker is so blasé about the violence she’s committing that I couldn’t help but find her interesting.
I’m still not sure if she was the right character for the showrunners to resurrect, but they definitely cast the right person to play her and made her a highlight.
On the fighting side of things, we see an equally mixed bag. On the one hand, we don’t get any of the ultra-cringey fights from the first season, where the Immortal Iron Fist just tangled with one martial-arts movie stereotype after another.
On the other hand, it felt like there weren’t as many fights as the first season. A huge chunk of them were between Davos and Danny, and that means that, since both characters came out a little underbaked, those fights didn’t have the feeling of high stakes they would’ve needed to be interesting. They also didn’t receive any kind of special treatment that you’d think a fight in a series about a Kung Fu character would get. There’s no style to the vast majority of the fights – with the exception of Davos and Danny’s Iron Fist battle in K’un-L’un, and that battle between Colleen and the Crane Sisters I mentioned. And I wonder again how much of this comes back to the show’s refusal to put Danny in a mask. He isn’t going around telling everyone he’s Iron Fist anymore, but he’s not exactly being subtle about it, either.
Another problem with the fighting comes from the special effects used to deliver the Iron Fist itself. Throughout the season, we see the fist appear in four different incarnations. While the glowing hand itself is done pretty well, but when it starts getting used in fights it feels weird.
The two most egregious examples of this are when Davos has stolen the Iron Fist from Danny and is using it in battle. Davos can use the fist in both hands for some reason that the show never bothers to explain or even suggest, but when he does his fists are red, because he’s evil or whatever. When he wields it, it leaves a red streak behind it that looks straight-up cheesy.
Later – and this is major, last-two-minutes spoilers here, so shut those eyes – Danny channels chi through a pair of pistols. This is a reference to a significant character named Orson Randall in the comics, but in action it looks really, really silly. The CW does effects for Flash, Supergirl, Black Lightning, Legends of Tomorrow, and even for Arrow on a distinctly TV budget and they look better than the guns that Danny sports. When Marvel is doing such great CG in its movies, it seems weird that it can’t pass muster over on Netflix.
Overall, Iron Fist season 2 really is an improvement over season 1. It’s competent. It makes sense. It has interesting characters. It ends in a way that leaves me curious for the future of the show. Those are all huge improvements!
But that doesn’t change the fact that its main character is a weak link, that its villains are still boring, or that it has meandered more than other Marvel shows. Iron Fist remains at the bottom tier of the Marvel Netflix pantheon overall. But if it improves as much for season 3 as it did for season 2, we might have an actually-good show on our hands. That’d be wild.