At last, the final Defender steps into the lineup. We pass from noir and pulp into a more Wu-Xia film style, the student’s voyage of discovery, facing his enemies without and within, trust is gained and lost, demons are mastered, and the day is… well. Iron Fist drew a lot of hatred before release on two grounds, the first was cultural, the second was quality. Let me start by addressing the cultural matter as briefly and succinctly as I can. We try and avoid getting into controversial matters where we can but this needs to be said:
A: If we make a martial arts series starring an asian guy it’s a racial stereotype.
B: If we make a martial arts series starring anyone else it’s cultural appropriation.
C: This is called a no-win scenario.
D: Danny Rand was always a white guy! It’s kind of the point, child of rich industrialists plunged into a culture where he is out of place, his competitive nature drives him to obtain the highest honour in K’un-Lun… but that’s backstory, I’ll get back to that.
I’m not trying to offend anyone here, this is a cold statement of fact. Can we please judge Iron Fist on it’s quality? It won’t end any better.
In The Green Corner – Danny Rand
My name is Danny Rand. After fifteen years in a pocket dimension I have returned home to save my city, but in order to do that I need to become something else… a ten year old having a tantrum.
Ok, that may not be an entirely fair comparison, but it’s an easy one to make. Both return home from a long period of intense and at times mystical training with a mission in mind concerning the company that their parents own, and have to struggle to reclaim their company from the hands of those who are responsible for some serious criminal activity in the area. Oliver Queen has learned a great sense of personal responsibility over the course of several seasons, but by this point he’s already overcome his juvenile habits over the course of five years of torturous “education”.
So why am I still getting “brat” from Danny Rand after fifteen years of discipline, martial arts training, and spiritual guidance?
The duty of the Iron Fist is to guard the gates of K’un Lun, a pocket dimension, a slice of heaven, one that’s sought by many but who is only accessible every fifteen years. Danny wants, and obtains the role because of his natural competitive nature, but for reasons listed in the spoiler below he returns to New York. He is the sworn enemy of the Hand, the drug-dealing ninjas we’ve come to know and love, so when he discovers they’re heavily active in New York he sets about efforts to root them out.
Minor spoilers, When he has begun his duty he realises how tedious the life of an Iron Fist will be, Danny ups and leaves. This has a rather predictable outcome, which becomes more predictable when he’s reminded constantly about the duty he has shirked, nut not only is this a wholly predictable ending but the “grand reveal” is badly composed and blandly delivered. End Spoilers.
Finn Jones – who you might recognise as Loras Tyrell – does his best, he manages quite a bit with the material like Rand’s struggle to overrule his emotions in order to harness his powers, the realisations that he hasn’t even begun to discover his powers and purpose, how his trusting nature finally collapses under betrayal after betrayal and the need to embrace his enemy to destroy someone he thought was a friend. Let’s not blame Finn Jones here, it’s not his fault that the Fist’s powers just manifest whenever most convenient and vanish whenever most dramatic, or that Rand can’t spot the bad guy staring him in the face, or just accept his damn responsibilities! He’s got a hard task to win us back for the dramatic finale…
In Every Other Corner – The Hand
It’s not entirely fair to lay the blame for the boring story at the feet of the protagonist, bringing the heroes down to street level has brought a new level of threat to the previously indomitable “super-hero”. Daredevil faces down a ferocious beast of a man presiding over a kingdom of fear, Jessica Jones is pursued by a man who can control anyone with a voice and wants her absolutely, Luke Cage‘s most terrifying enemy is his own skin when he needs medical attention.
Where was the terrifying power of the Hand we have come to fear throughout the Defenders series so far. Daredevil series 2 showed us how terrifying ninjas can be! Oh sure we can laugh off Naruto and guys in pyjamas right up until we watch the hospital siege, or the raw power of Madame Gao, the one person in the world who earned the fear and respect of Fisk. We know that the Hand can raise the dead, but the methods by which they do this are horrifying beyond description, certainly far beyond your Saturday morning Spider-Man.*
So where were the Hand in Iron Fist? Manipulating Rand Enterprises, selling heroine to keep the “ghetto” down, and helping kids get out of that ghetto so that they show absolute gratitude to the Hand for giving them a purpose. Cunning, terrible, not scary! And Madame Gao – who should have been a centre piece for the series and the kind of silent dread the Hand could bring – started Iron Fist looking like a real master, a floor to herself right under Danny’s nose to run her criminal enterprises, an undead corporate tool under her heel, and a legion of killers at her disposal, none of which she needs as she floors the greatest heroes in the world with a touch and hobbles away. That lasts for a few episodes towards the beginning and then… nothing.
That leaves Danny to face off against a bunch of kids while he deals with his angst.
Fortunately they’re not the only threat to the Iron Fist’s fragile ego.
Meachums, Meet the Meachums
A highlight! And a big one. Former childhood friends of Danny and the children of co-founder of Rand, Ward and Joy Meachum have been running Rand Enterprises for quite some time following the death of father Harold. Tom Pelphrey plays Ward as the rage-filled, pill-popping, and tortured pawn of several higher powers. He goes off the hinges and spirals out of control only to be pulled back from the brink shortly after falling into it. Jessica Stroup is the kindly but business savvy sister Joy trying to understand how an old friend could suddenly return from the dead, deal with her brother’s lies and drug addiction, and slowly breaking under the strain.
And finally Harold, not dead, in hiding in a luxurious penthouse from which he controls the actions in Rand Enterprises via a network of puppets including his beaten and belittled son. David Wenham plays the abusive father excellently, he keeps telling his son that everything he’s doing is for him, so Ward should do everything he’s told because he’s an idiot and owes his father everything. This has been made worse by the fact that he was resurrected by the Hand to do their bidding; not only does he channel his frustration at being out of control of his life into his son, the process makes the recipient more and more likely to lash out at those you love.
By gods, I love Harold Meachum! A couple of spoilers in this paragraph but it’s worth it. The scene where he rises out of the swamp like some morbid Solomon Grundy and stumbles around recovering from death is darkly comical in a way that unnerves you just enough to brace for every terrible thing he does from that point onwards. You feel the tension whenever he and Joy are in the same room, “Dear god Joy, get away from him!” and the escalation of his hatred towards his son is stunning. I’ve seen Wenham in a variety of very different roles but I’ve never seen him as terrifying before.
The entire Meachum family makes Iron Fist worth watching, and elevates it to merely second worst in the Defenders series so far.
All Together Now
Between Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and a season of Daredevil that didn’t quite meet standards, I feel like we’ve had a rough ride to get to the Defenders. It was an amazing start, Daredevil set one hell of a tone for Jessica Jones to build onto. We’ve gone through the best of noir, shot for pulp and made a half-hearted attempt at Wu-Xia, so if we can pull it out of the bag for our ensemble piece I’ll be happy enough.
There’s every chance that the Defenders may very well cast Iron Fist in a light that makes this series more enjoyable. Truth be told there’s a lot went by that was too unremarkable, and so I haven’t remarked on it. Colleen Wing, Davos, a few moments where I feel like the narrative was trying and failing to make us wonder what the truth was. Actually I can sum all three up in one go, we made to wonder if the Hand really are the bad guys (yes, yes they are) because of Davos’ affirming of Danny’s constant repeating that the Hand are evil and must be stopped, Colleen makes a fair point about how they blindly accept what they’ve been told and how the Hand have done great things for these kids but – oh no wait I guess actually they are bad, moving on.
The presence of Davos and the symbol of the Steel Serpent all but confirms Gao as Crane Mother at this point, along with a casual remark concerning The Order of the Crane Mother. If that’s the case a short delve into storylines involving them both point to a narrative in which Jeryn Hogarth (Jeri to us watching along at home) is likely to get kidnapped and saved by Colleen Wing and Misty Knight. It would also make Gao something far more terrifying than we have even glimpsed so far.
Do I need to mention Claire Temple at this point?
Yes, I do. Because dammit she’s the only one who demonstrates that the Hand are a terrifying force to be reckoned with, and gives us a horrifying account of the hospital siege and the events that led her to wander New York trying to make herself better and stronger. But to be honest, her vehemence only serves to highlight how ineffective the Hand are this time around, and I was more terrified of the hospital administration than the ninjas. Plus now Claire has sweet claws!
There’s more I could easily cover, but Iron Fist simply doesn’t grab you as thoroughly as it should. I’m suddenly a little concerned for the future of the series. At least I was until Netflix showed us this:
*I’ve been reading a lot of Carnage comics of late, and I’d actually like to see Spidey get the R-rated treatment just to see the horror that the more interesting Marvel villains can wreak.