James and Andrew agree that Marvel’s latest show, Iron Fist, is undoubtedly Marvel’s first strike one. Rather than the usual review however, the duo have decided to band together and discuss the show’s weaknesses one step at a time in a round robin format.
Let’s start with the first three episodes, which we’ll label the Identity arc. During this time, Danny Rand returned to New York and spent all his energy trying to prove that he was, legally, who he claimed to be. What do you think were some of the faults here? What were some of the best parts?
James: I’ll begin optimistically. I think the challenges of proving a person isn’t dead were a great premise to start the series with. It’s really not something we normally see on the screen, and identity theft/declaration are an intriguing uphill battle, legally speaking. Likewise, I think Harold Meachum “faking” his death and the reasons for it were a nice hook. And Jeri Hogarth was an excellent addition to help solve the problem.
Things go downhill after that. Joy and Ward Meachum somehow weren’t particularly convincing as officers of Rand Enterprises. I think that Harold Meachum’s survival could have been hidden until after Danny follows Ward from the hearing. Too much feels given away, and some of what we see is hard to swallow emotionally. I was also incredibly frustrated with how often we saw the same flashbacks again and again, such as losing his parents and the meditation in the snow. It became filler.
Andrew: The flashbacks were an issue for me. Too fleeting and, as James says, repetitive. I think the series would have been served a lot better in general if the K’unlun sequences were longer, and actually formed a secondary narrative to the NYC portions, in a similar way to Arrow. This would also help bring in Davos sooner without feeling like a late stage addition thrown into the narrative.
The portions with Danny just getting his bearings, and demonstrating wisdom and humility were some of my favourite scenes, as were the “gentle” martial arts he demonstrates when trying to take down opponents with minimal damage. He seeks to avoid conflict where possible and runs away a lot, which weirdly made him feel the most like a real martial artist to me in those scenes.
The portion with the murderous mental patient disguised as a doctor felt like a pointless scene. The portions with the actual doctor were more interesting, and it was good to see a psychiatric doctor actually portrayed positively was nice.
What do you think of the characterization of Danny Rand?
Andrew: Not as strong as the other Defenders. This is not helped by quite clunky dialogue which always feels belaboured, as if the writer didn’t have faith in the audience to get the plot. It makes Danny seem a little clueless and frankly, stupid. A lot of repetition of “I am the enemy of the Hand!” and other memes. On a binge watch, this feels egregious.
His power fluctuates a lot in the series, which gets irritating as it makes most of his fights feel contrived. I’d rather he have to face other magical villains, rather than constantly getting de-powered to justify random hired goons being an issue for him.
I loved him being nice to the employees, and how his benevolence within Rand causes the corporation issues. That was a great way of letting Danny be a boy scout, but in a way which is actually narratively interesting. When they try to make Danny “dark” in later episodes, it just isn’t convincing.
James: I struggled with our protagonist. A lot. Particularly with how crazily naive he was. For example Danny describes Ward, his childhood “friend,” as having kicked him in the groin at every chance as they grew up. Why he was so desperate to return to this creep is beyond me. Especially after Ward later tried to have him killed?
However, I did find myself fascinated by the sixth episode, “Immortal Emerges From Cave,” when Danny argues with his master Lei Kung either telepathically or just in his head. Without necessarily voicing it, Kung seems to buy into the “We’re at war!” mentality that Stick from Daredevil does, and expresses disappointment with Danny’s personal conflict.
What about Colleen Wing?
Andrew: She was great until the Hand reveal. I liked her as this grungy dirty fighting samurai girl with an interesting backstory with her grandfather. The reveal of her fighting name as Daughter of the Dragon intrigued me, and made me hope she would develop her own mystical powers as in the comics, and form the titular comics team Daughters of the Dragon with Misty Knight (who is notable by her absence in this series).
Bakuto being Hand was a terrible plot reveal in my view, which shrank the scope of the series, and felt tacked on. She loses a lot of agency after the reveal, becoming more of a sidekick to Danny than a character in her own right. Also, it was a little like a rehash of the Elektra plot.
James: I was quite skeptical when she first appeared. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out her deal. In time, I began to really like her character. Her stubbornness against being involved in Danny and Ward’s business felt incredibly natural, and I couldn’t help but sympathize. Her need to balance honor with pay-the-rent pragmatism was a good subplot.
Moreover, she started to become the true reluctant hero I’ve been waiting to see in the Marvel universe. All too often I see heroes who dive a little too hard into tasks any sane person would avoid. Danny himself was an even weirder incarnation of this; rather than his own personal wish, he’s blindly following the orders of his master to destroy the Hand. But Colleen has to be dragged to do the right deeds. She’s the one good thing to come from Danny’s karma-focused attitude. I’ll talk about the Hand reveal later.
I have to agree with Andrew. I’d rather see Misty Knight and Colleen Wing form the Daughters of the Dragon, more so than a second season of Iron Fist.
Episodes 4 through 7 we’ll call the Purpose arc. Danny’s name is restored and he learns that the Hand are operating in the city. What were the best and worst parts of this arc?
James: I noticed a significant uptick in the quality of the fight scenes. My guess is that Finn Jones started feeling more comfortable with it.
I also liked Harold’s conniving quite a bit. The whole “family friends stick together” schtick reminds me of Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges in the first Iron Man. I feel like if they could have hid him being alive and convinced us all that he was a good guy, just a victim… you could have had a fantastic twist. They just give away too much and it’s a real missed opportunity.
I also felt a stirring of intrigue when Danny had the brilliant idea of talking Han Qing and the Triads into fighting the Hand alongside him. For a hot second, I said, “Alright, it’s starting to get good!” Striking deals with gangsters is not something the other Defenders would typically do (well, maybe Jessica Jones). But it illustrated that Danny’s here for the Hand and not necessarily to clean up New York. That’s a very important difference.
Andrew: The best part is, we get more Madame Gao. Alongside Purple Man and Kingpin, she is one of the best Netflix MCU villains of all; effortlessly menacing and controlling, with a hidden power and an actually intriguing backstory. Her scenes and her exotic clan of weird and wacky goons, is precisely what I wanted from an Iron Fist series. Each of the other series had their own flavour, and I wanted this flavour to be crazy cool wuxia fantasy martial arts with magical chi-battles.
Alas, we get all too little of her brand of villainy, which is soon overtaken by Bakuto’s much inferior presentation of the Hand. Netflix has a tendency I find for replacing their best villains in a series halfway through with an inferior one. Cottonmouth for Diamondback, Punisher falls way to Nobu the boring, an Madame Gao is taken away so we get Bakuto, who is somehow the most bland supervillain I have ever seen.
I really disliked Madame Gao being the Hand though. She seemed like a separate faction in Daredevil. At this point, it seems every villain is the Hand. In general, the purpose arc feels like an awkward rehash of Daredevil season 2’s reveal of the Hand, except with less ninjas somehow. The Hand have become a nebulous organisation which lacks a certain character.
Episodes 8 through 10 we’ll call Truth. What stood out?
James: Davos was good. The funny thing is that Sacha Dhawan’s acting actually seemed to help Finn improve his own some. I have to agree with Andrew that the flashbacks would have improved if they showed Davos earlier, adding some context to their relationship. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing this personal foe in the future.
Claire Temple was, unfortunately, weaker this time around. I think it was a feedback effect where if one actor was not strongly delivering lines, others suffer too because they can’t take the scene seriously. It could also have been fatigue. Rosario Dawson has been in every Netflix/Marvel TV show, and this time she truly felt like a tag-along: I just wasn’t convinced by her sudden need to go to China with Danny and Colleen. Heck, going to China seemed unbelievable too.
While we enjoy the connections, Claire may have been one relationship too many. And begs a good question: Why didn’t she ask Daredevil for help? Instead Jeri Hogarth, who connects to Jessica Jones and Foggy Nelson (Daredevil season 2 had him applying for a job at Hogarth’s firm), could have been a more realistic degree-of-separation for The Defenders.
Finally, Bakuto. Unlike Andrew, I actually thought the Hand reveal wasn’t half bad. I like that the Hand has multiple factions, which makes sense once an organization gets too large. Capturing Gao was a good cover for this fact. But, I’m not wowed by Danny’s “You lied to me! You’re the Hand! RAWR!” attitude. I feel like he needed more reason to hate the Bakuto’s organization first.
Andrew: I want to reiterate, I liked Bakuto, I thought he was intriguing, until the reveal that he was Hand. I suppose my disappointment at this lacklustre revelation coloured my view of his organisation afterwards. Initially, I was intrigued by this third faction, and that they might reveal more about the mythology of the series, and have more info about the other Iron Fists. But we get nothing new on the Hand or the Iron Fist.
Now if Bakuto’s Hand had remained nebulously good, that would have been intriguing to me. However, they are just doing the same thing as Nobu. Trying to kill Colleen was too easy a plot device to quickly erase Colleen’s divided loyalty character arc, keeping her on team Danny ready for the finale episodes.
This series feels like a prologue to The Defenders, without a clear voice of its own.
Danny’s arbitrary Hand hatred did get quite tiresome by this stage of the series, especially after its constant repetition, as if we as an audience wouldn’t remember his motivation, so he had to keep enunciating it.
That’s an issue I have with most of the main characters though. Constantly having to repeat their core themes all the time. Davos always reiterating that he should be Iron Fist, and Danny doesn’t belong, Danny’s constant “I am the enemy of the Hand! I FEEL ANGRY!” and Claire’s “Killing is bad. I know some people. I have friends which could help this situation. Just letting you know I know super powered folks…”
Davos I enjoyed, especially his brief fish out of water moments with the pizza, and his sense of duty to his homeland (which makes Danny’s nonchalance about abandoning the place all the more egregious).
But as I said before, he should have been introduced in flashbacks early in the season, not thrown in at the last moment. The sudden return of the hero’s “brother” near the end of the series was rehashing beats from Luke Cage.
Episodes 11 through 13, the final arc. Thoughts?
James: I got to tell you. Even when handed an unimpressive script, Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao delivers. She doesn’t flinch as she serves truthful agonies instead of simmering lies. She’s not Wilson Fisk amazing, but she’s up there. However, like Andrew said, Marvel keeps swapping its villains. At least they’re saving Gao for later, unlike Cottonmouth.
Still, the truth that Harold wanted to kill the Rands was incredibly weak. It just felt telegraphed from episode one, and after seeing Harold’s treatment of Ward, it came as no surprise in the least.
Joy and Ward Meachum became more interesting as the season went on. Ward’s drug problems could have been better handled, though his PTSD was mildly interesting. A better use would have been to give him flashbacks where he took abuse from his father, which in turn trickled down to Danny.
For the most part though, Harold Meachum would have been a great second season villain. I thought his weakened reverence for death was an interesting and under developed idea. The framing of Danny could have made way more sense though. And it might have been more interesting if he was arrested and sent to holding, thus coming in contact with Luke Cage.
The most valuable thing to come of the final episodes has to be the revelation of how to kill one of the Hand’s immortal pets. At least we now know that Nobu is permanently dead after Daredevil’s second season.
Andrew: Ward Meachum is the best Meachum of course. He is the one who actually goes on a journey of character growth and development in this series. Danny travels the world, only to end up where he was before.
Joy Meachum seemed to fill the stock role of “one clueless character arbitrarily kept out of the loop until the last moment.” She always seemed to be relegated to B-plots. She felt like an subject for the other characters to revolve their motivations around, someone to be fought over. Turning on Danny at the end came out of nowhere, and the moment didn’t feel earned.
Harold should have been kept to the shadows to make the reveal of his survival and his murder of the Rands feel more impactful. That said, his performance was brilliant, an excellent manipulative sociopathic character. However, the last minute decision to try and make him a physical villain for Danny to fight in the last episode was just bone-headed. We’ve seen this guy get beaten up and brutalised by the Hand all season; we established the Hand were the bigger physical threat.
I wish they’d kept the glorious Madame Gao as the primary villain throughout, as Kingpin was in Daredevil season 1. Give us a chance to learn more about her. We get vague hints about her being some sort of K’unlun exile, but only hints. I wanted more. I concur with James, save Harold as a second season villain. Have him be defeated through the law, not an awkward junkyard brawl on the roof of Rand tower.
From a storytelling point of view, what were the strongest and weakest aspects of the show?
Andrew: Weakest element for me was narrative direction. The story doesn’t know where it wants to go, aside from with the Harold Meachum villain arc. It brings up Hand mysteries already explored in prior series, and then fails to advance any of them.
Claire, for the first time in The Defenders series’ run, actually feels like a weakness. Her constantly drawing attention to the other shows, whilst remaining so vague, it actually becomes a plot hole.
The threat of the Hand is not eliminated, or even stalled. Danny just stops hunting them, and the Hand by the series finale have just stopped going after him. The plot just stops, there doesn’t feel like any sort of closure is found in the Hand segment.
The strongest parts are when Danny is allowed to just be in a wacky martial arts fantasy, facing off against weird henchmen.
Harold’s arc is too obvious and without nuance. The show thinks Harold being revealed as the murderer of Danny’s parents is a big reveal, when I assumed he was from the moment he’s revealed as alive.
James: It’s strength? I suppose it had plenty of material to fill out 13 episodes. While Daredevil never seems to have enough time to manage its content, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage always seemed to go one episode longer than needed. And the pacing didn’t seem terrible.
However, that just makes it a fast moving train wreck. In every other way, the show needed more work. Many characters required better development. The script was often shoddy and clearly needed a few rounds of heavy editing. The story could have used some finesse and a more coherent direction. Marvel should have pumped the breaks, but the mistake has been made.
Aside from what you already mentioned, how else would you have improved it?
James: The show could have benefited from more cultural examination than it received. A lot of Danny’s statements about these things did very little to explain the theory of qi or the Eastern philosophies behind it. Bakuto was little help either, despite possessing more knowledge than Danny somehow.
The game, Shadowrun: Hong Kong did an exceptional job of really visiting some of these cultural ideas. And if Doctor Strange could fit an great explanation of meta-verse theory inside two hours, why could this? Iron Fist didn’t bother, and this was a bad call. This stuff isn’t really well known, and showcasing understanding of it would have gone far to impress viewers.
And, despite what people say, I think not showing K’unlun was a good call. I think it should have been something left to our imaginations. But that leaves us with one large plot hole… If the entrance to K’unlun is open but every fifteen years, then what is the Iron Fist defending them from the rest of the time? Or isn’t he?
Andrew: Give more time to K’unlun flashbacks and scenes, to balance out the NYC scenes. Have the climax of the flashbacks be the fight with the motherfucking Dragon.
Reveal Harold Meachum is alive A LOT later on. Have him in the shadows as Ward’s puppet master for a while. Imply initially Ward is being controlled by the Hand, until we reveal Harold still lives. It makes the revelation he killed Danny’s parents have more impact too.
This might sound like an out there suggestion, but I would have also made Bakuto into the (real) Mandarin, and reveal only to the audience. Keep Gao as the primary antagonist with Harold. And give Madame Gao a bloody fight scene!
Parting thoughts? Where should the series go from here?
Andrew: I want to say Heroes for Hire, but I want to see Luke and Danny’s chemistry in The Defenders first. Daughters of the Dragon would be preferable if not, as another female superhero led series is always a good thing.
James: Ultimately, Iron Fist felt rushed and under developed. A slapped together idea to satisfy the needs of the Netflix contract for The Defenders rather than anything that should stand on its own. The narrative is ruined and the TV-MCU suffers for it.
I’m not certain a second season is a good idea. At least not without almost rebooting it. One possibility if they don’t want to deal with it is just to have Danny Rand die in The Defenders. This would disappoint many people, but not as badly as a grind of unwatchable TV.
Likewise, if Marvel tries to start Heroes for Hire as soon as possible, it may not go well either. Luke Cage was a success of his own, and the move seems desperate and cramping of the bulletproof man’s style. Combining a great show and a bad show will probably yield a mediocre show… at best. Even if the production team for Iron Fist is let go and they rely on Luke Cage’s showrunning talent, the former still brings a great deal of baggage to write through.
A last idea is to make him a secondary or tertiary character of Daughters of the Dragon, if Marvel decides to produce said show. Subplots there could give him a chance to mature and ultimately become a better developed character on the screen. At least until he can stand on his own again.