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Can The Defenders Make Us Forget Iron Fist?

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Can The Defenders Make Us Forget Iron Fist?

SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel’s The Defenders, debuting on Netflix August 18.

The Defenders faces some tall tasks, from juggling its four central heroes to sticking the landing on a story Marvel’s Netflix dramas have been building toward for two years. However, none seems quite so insurmountable as the redemption of Danny Rand.

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While Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were overwhelmingly well-received, Iron Fist was weighed down by controversy before production even began, drawing criticism for its “white savior” premise — Danny is a Caucasian orphan who becomes the greatest martial artist of a mystical city in China — with producers pressured to cast an Asian actor in the title role. When the series arrived in March, with Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones as its kung-fu hero, it did little to prove detractors wrong.

But the problem with Iron Fist wasn’t merely that its lead character is a billionaire white guy with a super-punch, although those traits surely did little to endear him to a portion of the audience. What earned the first season a dismal 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes was a meandering story, disappointing fight sequences and, perhaps most damning, an unlikable protagonist.

It’s perhaps too much to expect that The Defenders can make up for all of the shortcomings of Iron Fist and somehow “reboot” Danny Rand. However, the miniseries does have an opportunity to reintroduce the character in a different setting, and perhaps to help course-correct ahead of the recently announced second season. But what was wrong with the first season of Iron Fist?

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Page 2:

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.

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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.

Page 3:

Poorly Executed Flashbacks

The show’s prodigious flashbacks should’ve opened a window into who Danny Rand is by contrasting his contemporary actions and behavior with those of his past. Instead, they mostly subjected viewers to scenes of the plane crash that killed Danny’s parents, played on a loop. Presumably, those were intended to drive home the childhood trauma that helped to shape who he is today. However, we can only watch Danny’s mother sucked out of the plane’s cabin so many times before the event reaches a comical pitch.

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Rather than scenes of the crash, followed by repeated flashes of the discovery of 10-year-old Danny by monks from K’un-Lun and his strict training, both the viewers and the character would’ve been far better served by more fully realized, and better-positioned, scenes of an unhappy orphan seeking to leave the mystical city at every opportunity, only to find the gate closed. Maybe then we could understand why, as an adult, he chose to abandon the position he risked so much to attain.

iron fist

Similarly, viewers might’ve been provided with a clearer picture of K’un-Lun, better establishing it as the multicultural society Marvel Television so obviously intended, while dropping hints to the ancient city’s nature and purpose, as well as its war with the Hand. So, too, would such flashbacks illuminate the obviously complicated relationship between Danny and Davos, the former best friend turned rival who wasn’t introduced until the ninth episode, leaving the audience to flesh out much of the backstory themselves. (Their dynamic becomes far more nuanced if you imagine that Davos isn’t merely resentful of Danny’s position as the Iron Fist, and angry about his decision to turn his back on K’un-Lun, but also in love with him.)

Does The Defenders change any of that? Not really. Although Danny experiences a nightmare vision in the first episode, which is either fueled by guilt from abandoning K’un-Lun or a glimpse of what’s to come, the first half of The Defenders devotes its sole flashback to Alexandra, the leader of the Hand portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, and Elektra. Thankfully, we’re not forced to watch poor Rands die again.

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Poorly Defined Antagonists

Madame Gao in Iron Fist

It’s difficult to say who the main obstacle is to Danny Rand achieving his goals. Is it Ward and Joy Meachum, his childhood friends turned chief executives of Rand Enterprises, who are determined to protect their empire from this barefoot pretender? Is it Harold Meachum, the wicked business partner of his late father who, following his death and resurrection, is controlled by the Hand even as he secretly pulls the strings of Rand Enterprises? Is it Madame Gao, the Hand leader introduced in Daredevil who orchestrated the death of Danny’s parents and keeps Howard Meachum under her thumb? Is it Bakuto, Colleen Wing’s mentor and leader of a Hand faction who’s building his own army in a “secret” college campus-size compound in the middle of New York City? Or maybe it’s the DEA, which is sent after Danny in the penultimate episode, for no other apparent reason than to delay the inevitable showdown(s) of the finale.

Marvel’s Netflix dramas tend to be a bit too long, requiring the introduction of a new threat in what should be the third act (for instance, Diamondback on Luke Cage). However, Iron Fist never settles on a primary antagonist, which not only muddles the overall story but also Danny’s arc. Despite their early actions, Ward and Joy are little more than pawns of their father, with the former developing into the first season’s most complicated character, and the latter teased in the last moments of the finale as a potential primary antagonist.

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That should leave the enigmatic Gao and the cartoonish Harold as Rand’s main foes. After all, they have deep, dark connections to his past, and have the most to gain by his defeat. However, once Bakuto steps fully out of the shadows as the leader of a faction of the Hand, Gao is effectively moved off the board (and into a cell), and Harold is demoted to a secondary player. That poses multiple problems for Iron Fist‘s story, not the least of which is that Bakuto becomes Colleen’s antagonist, not Danny’s, but it’s Davos who ultimately kills — make that “kills” — the Hand leader, robbing the others of closure.

Likewise, the final showdown with Harold Meachum doesn’t complete an arc for Danny; it’s Ward, long manipulated by his father, who ultimately ends the threat. The Immortal Iron Fist is left with little to do but try to return to K’un-Lun, his parents unavenged.

Does The Defenders change any of that? The antagonists of the miniseries are clear, although (as you might expect) their goal is not. The Hand, the ancient criminal organization that menaced both Daredevil and Iron Fist, poses such a threat to New York that it unites four disparate heroes for a single purpose: to save the city they love.

Page 5:

Disappointing Fight Scenes

If any of the Marvel dramas demanded dazzling fight choreography, it’s Iron Fist, whose star is a kung-fu superhero. Unfortunately, however, it features the most mundane action scenes to date, left in the dust by Daredevil. Even when his chi malfunctions, and he’s unable to summon the power of the Iron Fist, Danny Rand should be the most skilled combatant in any showdown; he’s a living weapon, after all.

By far the most entertaining fight of the season doesn’t arrive until the eighth episode, injecting some purpose into Danny, Colleen and Claire Temple’s otherwise-baffling trip to Anzhou, China (they were supposedly pursuing Gao, who hadn’t really been hiding). Between numerous shots of their Hyundai rental car, Danny confronts the guard Zhou Chen (played by Lewis Tan, who reportedly auditioned for the role of Iron Fist), whose charisma and drunken fist fighting style combine to make an otherwise-pointless sequence worthwhile. The other noteworthy fight doesn’t involve Danny at all: It’s the emotionally charged sword fight between Colleen Wing and her mentor Bakuto. Unfolding at night in the pouring rain, the sequence isn’t particularly original in its setting or choreography, but the shared history of the two characters, and the stakes involved, more than make up for any shortcomings — that is, until Davos intervenes, ruining Colleen’s moment.

Does The Defenders change any of that? In a word, yes. The free-for-all in the third episode that pits Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand against Alexandra’s soldiers and Elektra takes the signature hallway fight of Marvel’s Netflix dramas to another level. It’s perhaps not the technical achievement of its single-shot predecessors, but it showcases the differences in fighting styles of the four heroes and, better still for those so disappointed by Iron Fist‘s action scenes, it makes you suspect Danny Rand actually may be a martial-arts master. The initial meeting between Danny and Luke is enjoyable, too, as each of them swiftly discovers the limits of his own power.

Arriving Aug. 18 on Netflix, the eight-episode Defenders stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage, Finn Jones as Danny Rand, Elodie Yung as Elektra Natchios, Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra, Eka Darville as Malcolm Ducasse, Simone Missick as Misty Knight, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth, Scott Glenn as Stick, Rachael Taylor as Trish Walker, Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing.

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