In the battle for New York, Danny Rand, a.k.a Iron Fist (Finn Jones), emerged as the most improved of Marvel’s The Defenders (which, given where the curly-haired warrior started, is saying both a little and a lot). The barefoot billionaire and living weapon—and all the other sobriquets that make up his Daenerys-like introduction—was considerably more tolerable when working in tandem with his fellow street-level heroes, especially Luke Cage (Mike Colter). But while Defenders showed Danny (and Jones) making some strides when serving as part of a team, it also proved that the Iron Fist works better in small doses. That’s a big problem for a character who’s the lead of his own show, which happens to be premiering its second season in two short days.
The most important lesson learned in that small-screen showdown carries over into Iron Fist season two, which is more competent in its storytelling but still struggles to be consistently compelling. Overall, it offers more of what does work, but the lead still suffers in comparison. Luke Cage is often the least interesting part of his own show, but on Iron Fist, the title character is always dead last. Mike Colter and Finn Jones remain the weakest performers among the Defenders, though at least Colter’s impassiveness lends itself well to Luke’s position as immovable (or impenetrable) object. Jones’ limited range—in expressions and choreography—means Danny always looks like he’s flailing, even though he can channel his qi better than ever before.
But under new showrunner M. Raven Metzner (Falling Skies, Heroes Reborn), the series frequently centers on an ensemble that includes Colleen Wing and Misty Knight (Jessica Henwick and Simone Missick, respectively, both making a great case for a Daughters Of The Dragon spin-off). There are no cameos from other Marvel heavy-hitters in the six episodes watched for this review, but the chemistry between Henwick and Missick, which we got a taste of in Luke Cage season two, makes for another fun crossover. The return of Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) and her brother, Ward (Tom Pelphrey), is a less successful reprisal. As teased in the season-one finale, Joy is now one of Danny’s many antagonists, but spends most of her time working through family drama with her brother. Yet despite Stroup’s and Pelphrey’s efforts, that conflict feels inessential in this leaner season, which still boasts roughly the same number of villains as the bloated, 13-episode outings.
That Iron Fist’s rogue’s gallery includes people he was once friends with isn’t unusual in the world of comics—and it just makes sense in this context and with Danny’s characterization. The prodigal rich kid won the highest honor in his adopted land, then promptly left his post as the protector of K’un-Lun to give high-rise living and running an international corporation a shot. He tried throwing his weight around in Colleen’s dojo, among the Meachums, in the boardroom, really, anywhere he was allowed (which, as a rich white man, means basically everywhere). He was even fighting with Luke within minutes of meeting him in Defenders. There are few people Danny/Iron Fist hasn’t pissed off, but as season one gradually explored his arrested development, it mitigated some of his actions and dickishness. Still, it’s hard not to look at the preceding 22 episodes—including Iron Fist season one, Defenders season one, and an appearance in Luke Cage season two—as a zero sum. All that work amounts to is a clean slate for Danny and Iron Fist.
The new season kicks off with considerably fewer advantages than Danny, but at least his origin story’s already been covered. The Hand has been vanquished (for now), his relationship with Colleen seems to be going great, and he’s trying to learn the value of money by working as a mover. But the Triad gangs have already filled the power vacuum created by Madame Gao’s (Wai Ching Ho) defeat, which means Danny’s glowing fist comes out swinging in the opening scene of the premiere. Then there’s the small matter of the alliance between Davos (Sacha Dhawan)—Danny’s “brother” and fellow member of the Order Of The Crane Mother—and Joy, who’s decided her childhood friend “deserves to know what that feels like, to have it all ripped apart.”
Danny is spared the “I just want to live a normal, non-super life!” storyline that pops up in every other Marvel show, though there are traces of it in Colleen’s arc this time around. Her crisis of faith, which began last season and tripped her up in Defenders, is still going and increasingly boring. Jones remains stiflingly bland, but he’s at least more present when he’s opposite Henwick. It’s unfortunate then that Missick is invariably a better partner for Henwick; their interplay translates readily from cracking jokes and sharing dreams to fighting side by side. Their dynamic is the main draw of the show as it moves into the second half—even their fights are more kinetic and visually interesting than anything Danny gets pulled into. Again, this is great for the viewer, not so much for the title character.
The choreography is markedly better across the board, thanks to Black Panther fight coordinator Clayton Barber, who’s helped perk up even Iron Fist’s throw-downs. A big fight between Danny and Davos, shown in a flashback and teased by Netflix in a promotional clip earlier this summer, is both thrilling and well executed. But it’s all in service of a warmed-over premise: that of the antagonist as an inversion of our ostensible hero. We’ve seen it on Daredevil, Luke Cage—even Jessica Jones’ second season veered off into “path not taken” territory. But Metzner’s interpretation is the least inspiring and subtle of them all. Like season-one Danny, Davos is an ascetic warrior who blathers before every fight: “You feel you can walk through the world like you own it. You’ve never had a heritage to call your own.” The future Steel Serpent feels Danny is a usurper, a pale imitation of the Iron Fists that came before him. So he goes about breaking his opponent down emotionally then physically, using a playbook that’s been mined by DC and Marvel Comics projects alike. But this villain is only as interesting as his opponent, which is to say not very. Dhawan glowers where Jones just stared in confusion, but otherwise we’ve (recently) seen this all before. There’s also something vaguely spiteful about Davos’ portrayal: It’s as if the creative team heard the whitewashing criticism and decided to give viewers an Asian Iron Fist after all, but the only thing they changed about him was his race. He’s otherwise a mirror of the MCU’s Danny, right down to flat characterization and proximity to the Meachums—and what’s that they say about quality loss in copies?
Thanks to reinvigorated fighting and spotlights yielded to the real stars, Iron Fist improves on its first season. But just as new threats reveal themselves in the story—Alice Eve plays the classic villain Typhoid Mary, who’s now a veteran with dissociative identity disorder—the show also uncovers a bigger problem. Its lead character doesn’t deserve top billing, and maybe never will. So until Daughters Of The Dragon becomes a reality, we’ll keep checking out Iron Fist for the rest of the fight card.