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Can The Defenders Make Us Forget Iron Fist?

A Poorly Defined Protagonist

We can't properly assess the trouble with Danny Rand without recognizing the (white) elephant in the room: Marvel Comics' Iron Fist character is a product of America's 1970s martial-arts obsession, combined with its 1960s fascination with Eastern mysticism. Danny Rand is essentially Doctor Strange with a kung-fu grip, a white American of privilege who, following tragedy, finds enlightenment in a mythical Asian locale, where he proves himself the most skilled practitioner of an ancient art, and is bestowed with a sacred mantle and a solemn duty.

RELATED: Why Marvel's Iron Fist Changed Showrunners For Season 2

Although reimagining Danny as Asian-American undoubtedly would've exposed fascinating new facets for exploration, avoided the minefield of cultural appropriation and spared us scenes of the title character mansplaining kung fu to Colleen Wing, Marvel Television was likely never going to make that decision. Instead, Iron Fist again followed in the footsteps of Doctor Strange (this time the film), and re-cast the mystical city of K'un-Lun as a multicultural society that just happens to materialize in China every 15 years. But much like 2016's Doctor Strange, the series wasn't entirely successful on that count.

iron fist

However, the failings of Iron Fist don't necessarily begin with the culture or nationality of its protagonist, but rather with his lack of definition. Danny Rand is a pawn throughout much of the 13-episode season, manipulated at different times by his late father's business partner Harold Meachum, by Harold's children Ward and Joy, by the Hand leaders Madame Gao and Bakuto, and even by Colleen. He's a passive protagonist who doesn't react until forced to by circumstance or by the actions of his (many) antagonists. It's a wonder he actually made the decision to abandon his duty as protector of K'un-Lun to return to New York; frankly, it's out of character.

Yet, he does leave his post, and travels halfway around the globe to a city that's believed him dead for 15 years. But while Danny is clearly savvy and resourceful enough to make his way, barefoot and penniless, across some 7,500 miles, he arrives ill-equipped to interact in modern society. He's not merely naive, he's emotionally stunted, and prone to outbursts of anger that apparently not even the masters of K'un-Lun could tame. Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, is driven not by his sense of duty, or by a determination to help people, but rather by a desire to punish those responsible for the deaths of his parents, and to reclaim his family name. It just so happens duty and desire meet in his war against the Hand, the ancient enemy of K'un-Lun. Danny is a 25-year-old man, played by a 29-year-old actor, who behaves like a 13-year-old boy.

Perhaps if the character had been cast as an insolent teen who doesn't yet possess the emotional tools to cope with the murder of his parents, the betrayal by those he loved as a child, and the awesome responsibility of his position as protector of K'un-Lun, Iron Fist might've been an engaging coming-of-age story. As it stands, though, Danny Rand doesn't have an easily discerned character arc in the first season. Sure, he gains billions of dollars and an ally/love interest, but he's otherwise unchanged by the season finale.

Does The Defenders change any of that? The miniseries picks up months after Iron Fist's cliffhanger, in which Danny and Colleen arrive at the gate of K'un-Lun, only to find it closed and surrounded by the bodies of Hand assassins. That ignites a globe-trotting hunt for the Hand that continues into the opening moments of The Defenders. Those scenes are very much in keeping with Iron Fist's own series, both in content and in tone, with Danny angry and frustrated, and Colleen exclaiming "Danny!," a lot.

However, as Danny meets first Luke Cage, whose bullet-proof body is nearly a match for his glowing fist, and then Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones, he begins to exhibit a personality that extends beyond anger and naivete. These are no-nonsense people who don't buy into his stories about a mystical city and an immortal dragon: Luke schools him about his privilege; Matt treats him like a kid; Jessica is ... well, Jessica. Even Daredevil's mentor Stick, who reveals his order the Chaste was intended to serve the Iron Fist, refers to Danny as a "thundering dumbass." While some of that may be fan service, it also serves to humanize Danny, who tries to charm Luke, acknowledges the masters of K'un-Lun didn't tell him everything, and attempts to use his newly realized privilege to surprise the Hand. While it's not a complete turnaround, the first four episodes of The Defenders provided to journalists offer a glimmer of an Iron Fist that viewers can actually, eventually, like.

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