Crazy Rich Non-Asian Immortal Weapons
by Thom Yee
We’re now more than three years in to Marvel’s Netflix experiment, and in that time it’s become very clear what the Marvel Netflix shows represent, both in the broader scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and to us viewers. For Marvel Studios, these are tales of their Cinematic Universe’s street-level heroes, a part of the MCU but only peripherally so, destined to never directly meet up with or have any impact in the Universe’ big “Battles of New York” or “Sokovia Accords” (to say nothing of their “Infinity Wars”). For the rest of us, Marvel Netflix is a collection of odd little shows, generally good but rarely great, and, for the most part, not really playing in the same ballpark as any of Netflix’s actually good shows (Stranger Things, American Vandal, Orange is the New Black).
In other words, they’re usually better put together than Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (though lacking a lot of that show’s kitsch/schlock appeal), but they’re certainly not going to win any significant awards and they often border dangerously on “for fans only” territory. They’re not going to change things for you, make you think very much or rethink your stance on any particular issues, nothing of cinematically universal import is going to happen in them, and, to be honest, you’d be forgiven for skipping most if not all of them.
And as for Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist and star of the least-well received of all of the Marvel Netflix shows? When last we saw Danny in the very first season of his own series…well, basically everybody hated him. He was the worst possible mix of arrogant, entitled, and impossibly naïve, he never thought things through, and he constantly got himself into trouble and needed others to bail him out. And he was just the worst at Kung-Fu. Like, visibly, obviously bad — the kind of bad any fighter would tell you he would get his ass kicked, the kind of bad any teacher (or “sifu”) would tell him to go back and work on his elementary form. And Kung-Fu is the character’s whole bag!
So what a difference a year makes? Mmmm… maybe, maybe not… but with Daredevil season three set to debut on October 19, less than a month from now, there’s not going to be a better time to get this review out of the way.
What’s it about?
After restoring his place as majority shareholder of his family company, Rand Enterprises, meeting the sword-fighting Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) who would become his lady love, and [sort of] overcoming the threat of Bakuto, an emissary of the Hand, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) now finds himself in a better place than he’s ever been since becoming the Immortal Iron Fist. With the day-to-day affairs of his inherited company left to those better qualified, Danny, emboldened by his experiences alongside a cadre of superpowered Defenders (Oooh, he used the name of the show in a sentence!) has waged a one-man war on evil in New York’s Chinatown while building a life with young Miss Wing. But new threats loom on the horizon for the man with the still-pretty-cheap-looking glowing yellow fist effect, as forces conspire against him and his claim to the title of Iron Fist.
There have been a lot of Marvel Netflix shows lately, four in one year once Daredevil season three shows up next month, and that’s more than we’ve ever gotten before, one for each of the founding Marvel Netflix heroes, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. So far I’ve made my way through each of them at a very different pace (as chronicled here), some over the course of a few days and some with months in between episodes, but I’ll tell you that a big part of the reason Luke Cage season two didn’t take me too long to get through is because I knew that Danny Rand was going to be showing up sometime in Luke’s show. And from what I’d heard it was going to be a Danny Rand more calm, cool, and collected than we’d become used to. A Danny Rand at peace with his place in the world. A Danny Rand so good that he would redeem the character after the much-maligned Iron Fist season one. And he was all of those things. Finally, I could believe in Danny Rand.
It was the promise of this new Danny that had me actually looking forward to Iron Fist as its second second approached, and, for the record, I found myself getting through Iron Fist season two far more quickly than any previous Marvel Netflix show. True, it also helped that I was on board with the character already, white saviour and all, as the comicbook incarnation of the character is my favourite of these heroes, what with the Kung-Fu and Asian mysticism, but it was this changed Danny combined with season two’s new 10-episode length (after years of over-long 13 episode Marvel Netflix seasons that all bogged down significantly in the middle) as well as the tacit admission by this year’s showrunner that season one basically sucked, that kept my hopes high as I made my way through. So did Iron Fist season two live up to all of that promise?
Is It Any Good?
Any question about the quality of Iron Fist season two is really more of a question of how bad it is simply because season one was defined more by its numerous, overriding faults than its few, fleeting strengths. In season one of Iron Fist, the corporate and family-focused plot of Rand Enterprises and the Meachum family that built Rand in partnership with Danny’s father, Wendell, was what dominated most of the season, and that was largely terrible, made up of equal parts ridiculous stories and uninteresting storytelling. The characters in this world — Ward, Joy, and their father Harold — were almost as boring as they were off-putting. The hero of the show, Danny, was so flawed that he became unbearable and the furthest thing from reliable or heroic. And Colleen Wing’s B plot as an unwitting student of the Hand, while necessary for the overall structure of the show and its inevitable conclusion, was hard to believe. Now, with Iron Fist season two, it’s all about correction, and in that regard, the creators do a remarkably good job of salvaging the sinking ship that was Iron Fist. ‘Remarkable’ in that I’m remarking on Iron Fist season two at all. It still wasn’t a very good show. Just not so bad.
The first strong choice the creators of Iron Fist season two make to improve the show is taking Danny out of the equation in many of the season’s goings on. Danny is still the centre that all of the disparate plot satellites orbit around, but he doesn’t always have a place in every story and moment as their intricacies often call for a less blunt instrument than a hot-headed Kung-Fu man with a fist unto a thing of iron who’s too dumb most of the time to figure things out on his own.
That’s not to say Danny feels uninvolved, separated, or deprived from the overarching story of the season, nor does it mean he doesn’t get much to do. Danny still gets his usual action scenes, generally done at a level higher than in season one, though his form still lacks conviction, follow through, or any real understanding of what it takes to put a person down in a fight. More importantly (and unexpectedly), though, is that some of his strongest stuff comes in the form of character work. In particular, there are some moments between Danny and Ward that come off as genuine, like the two actually kind of like each other and view each other as brothers, and they’re the kinds of moments that go a long way in making these people seem real and this world a place we can kind of recognize.
Though Danny is sometimes cast aside in season two’s proceedings, the Iron Fist itself is still very much the cause of conflict in most of what’s going on as the backstory, theories, and legends of the Iron Fist are slowly explored and other past and present users of the Iron Fist arise. Season two focuses more on the legacies of these characters, and when it comes to the Iron Fist, it becomes clear there’s a that neither Danny nor us, know about it.
In moving Danny, whose personal story really isn’t that complex, a bit left of centre stage, not only do we find at least hints of Iron Fists past and present, we’re allowed instead to follow more closely a character who we always suspected would be a much more competent hero and lead, Colleen Wing, who acts not only as girlfriend to Danny, but confidante, mentor, and even the one who, without spoiling things, has the most significant role in turning the season’s events back in the direction of good. Not only is this a turn for the better for the show, it’s a turn that allows Colleen to flourish and gives us a lot of time to see her partnered with Misty Knight. Knight is a character who acts as a strong and striking counterpoint to much of the strangeness and dourness that this show sometimes finds itself drowning in, and in Iron Fist season two she’s given more screen time than I was expecting, so much so that she becomes more of a full-fledged cast member rather than merely making the type of brief cameo appearance these crossover characters usually get.
The de facto (though quasi) villains of season one, Ward and Joy Meachum, Danny’s childhood friends who’ve been running Rand Enterprises ever since Danny and his family disappeared, were never compelling in the show’s first season, and while they’re not likely to be anyone’s favourites here in season two, at least now they’ve started to seem like actual people. There even seems to be a point to them being around (!). Ward’s still a jackass, but now he’s got a good reason to be, he knows that he’s being a jackass and at least tries to make up for it sometimes, and the show doesn’t just give him a free pass for committing to that change. Joy, who takes a stronger turn toward villainy this year, also has a real point now as she’s become bitter over everything that’s happened recently and just wants to strike out on her own, but not before getting a taste of revenge. It’s a turn that seems rife with potential pitfalls, but they pull just far back enough on the outright villainy with her that she too seems at least a little bit real, now just exposed for having a very real meanstreak but not a total maniac. And the distance between Ward and Joy in season two is something that affected me more than I thought it would as I often felt myself really wanting to see the two make amends.
It’s still a lot of pretty hacky stuff though, and the furthest thing from breaking new dramatic ground, and nowhere is that hackiness more evident than with Davos, clearly still very bitter that Danny, an outsider to K’un-Lun, became the Iron Fist. Davos eventually gets a chance to see what it would be like to be the Iron Fist, but his murderous ways make it clear that he’s not exactly the Zen master that such a title would seem to demand. The writers of the show try to make his megalomaniacal leanings something we can empathize with, and while they’re technically successful in that we literally get to see why Davos would be the way he is, the actual tragedy of Davos’ backstory, a boy raised and expected to become the champion of K’un-Lun though the elders never had much real faith in him, at least for me, pointed more towards how much K’un-Lun was just the worst. It’s the same old story, the same tired idea of an ancient society with unfair expectations, an aversion to having any real honour, wisdom, or deeper understandings of the universe, and to top it off, it’s a really boring-looking place, made up of plain, empty rooms rather than… y’know, crazy mystic, Asian architecture or even a hint of what it might look like outside rather than just indoors. I know that’s mostly a budget limitation, but if we’re going to see more of K’un-Lun in the future, I hope it at least occasionally looks like the kind of exotic place and people that would come up with traditions like raising a champion fighter who then goes off and faces a dragon to get superpowers. That kind of place shouldn’t look boring.
And speaking of hacky, I won’t say that Alice Eve, as a character who at different times suffers and benefits from the Dissociative Identity Disorder that causes her sweet, dizzy Mary and dangerous, mercenary-for-hire Walker personalities is bad, she’s actually very well done, at different times a credible and disorienting threat for our heroes and a source of relief who helps them out, but I will say that the way we find out the nature of her disorder is just the worst, hackiest kind of writing I’ve seen on one of these shows so far. Basically, she leaves some letters around her apartment stating she has D.I.D. lying out in the open in her apartment and someone finds them. That’s so lazy and uninspired.
And finally, the action in Iron Fist season two, something that’s far more important with a martial-arts-oriented character, is quite a bit better this year. It’s still not great though, but it’s least never gratingly bad or something that stands out as a clear flaw. Colleen looks pretty good overall, Misty is a credible Harlem-raised street fighter (with a robot arm), Davos and Mary/Walker both seem genuinely dangerous, and Danny… they do a better job of shooting around actor Finn Jones’ greater failings as a martial artist this year. It’s too bad that Danny, as the lead of the show, is still visibly the worst fighter of the group as portrayed by Finn Jones, but it is what it is. I just don’t get why the camera/stunt crews on Defenders and Luke Cage were able to make Finn Jones look so much better at Kung-Fu than he does on his own show.
So Should I See It?
More than any of the other Marvel Netflix shows, Iron Fist was the one that needed to take a significant step to stay viable, and they definitely stepped up in Iron Fist season two. There’s a sense that the creators of this second season were genuinely sorry about what happened in season one, took the time to figure out why things didn’t work and committed to the proper solutions and structural changes needed to make up for last season’s failings.
Like Luke Cage’s ‘70s-inspired Harlem, the world that Iron Fist inhabits needs to be similarly inspired. It needs a style of its own, and while they don’t get those elements down as well as Luke Cage has, Iron Fist seems at least headed in the right direction. For instance, one of the gangs of villains this year is known for carrying axes, and it’s done very well, with some characters getting axes right in the guts! That’s style, that’s specificity, that’s the kind of thing you have to earn for it not to feel out of place, and they do this stuff right in season two. There’s one scene with Danny and Colleen acting as bodyguards to Mrs. Yang, an important figure in the Chinatown triads, that sees the three walking into a triad meeting, and it’s done with a certain undeniable swagger that I couldn’t help but notice, and it’s the kind of small thing that makes continue to be hopeful for the future of this show.
The deeper themes of the show are better established here in season two as well as characters will acknowledge when they’re off their centre, that they need to be better, to improve, and to think and choose rather than just feel and react. Particularly with Danny, who remains headstrong, it’s good to see the character acknowledge his failings. In many ways this show is about family—good intentions going awry, and the regrets that result from those past mistakes, and there’s a commitment to change that’s more heartfelt than I would have expected that’s literally evident and something acting at a meta level for everything that this show has been and hopes to be.
I still don’t think Iron Fist season two is very good, but it’s notably improved, with moments and intentions strong enough that I think it just reaches the level of being something you might want to return to. So, a solid improvement, but still needs work.
Thom’s Iron Fist season 2 final score
On the Edge
- Ward got some!
- Davos got some!
- Joy: “Dinner’s never just dinner.” That’s why they don’t call it supper.
- Danny and Colleen need a TV on or something when they’re hosting. But I bet these pricks don’t even own a TV.
- And they collect vinyl? C’mon!
- I know Mary’s crazy, but she really sits in her apartment with the door open, her back to it, listening to white noise so she can’t hear anyone come in? Really?
- Seeing Danny in the hospital makes me miss Claire.
- Careful with that iPhone, Walker, Apple charges $279 for out-of-warranty screen repairs. And I just know you didn’t buy AppleCare.
- Nice! White Iron Fist! You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
- Knight… Wing?
- I like where this series seems to be headed, but that was just some terrible effects with the guns at the end.