Joking aside, the fact is, I think Iron Fist Season 2 deserves some consideration as an object lesson for writers. It’s a series that has a structural problem – something is wrong in the way that the series is made, there’s a brokenness in it, and that break means that everything that connects to it is itself, in some way, sharing in that brokenness.
Spoilers, in a broad sense. I’ll tell you some of the plot points, but not in any kind of specific way.
The problem with Iron Fist, Season 2, is that Danny sucks.
I assume the people who made Iron Fist, Season 2 couldn’t change what they were handed. There are problems with this Danny Rand that reach back to Season 1, and it’s a bit unfair to hold Season 2 to account for that. The story of Iron Fist was, for example, always going to have to continue involving Ward and Joy Meachum, even if they were absolutely not ready for prime time.
There was no option for them to reapproach the very fundamental ideas of how Danny worked. They couldn’t couldn’t just write out the dangling plot threads from the first series. These people had to do a good job with the characters they had. This is not about the thing they started with but the choices they made with that.
They chose poorly.
The choice was made to try and strip away flaws of the first series, legitimate flaws. This doesn’t have boardroom scenes or intense legal shareholder conversations or stories about being entrapped into being associated with the greatest medical breakthrough of the 21st century, or tournaments with no purpose. It’s better structured, built around a core idea, and there isn’t the same problem the first season had with introducing and dropping ideas.
Season 2 is kind of an attempt to mulligan on Danny. Not to change what was there of course. It didn’t want to take advantage of the intervening time, or the way Danny had to take over from Matt Murdock in Hell’s Kitchen after the events of The Defenders. The Danny we see is Danny at default, a Danny who is the same person as in Season 1, but being run through a different sequence of events. It’s like they think the problem is that we didn’t like Season 1 just because we didn’t get enough time to really get to know Danny.
And Danny sucks.
There’s a lot of writing I think of as ends-driven. It’s something I need terms for, these days. I used to call it ‘adolescent’ writing but that’s kind of mean, especially since plenty of adults do it. It’s when you have a vision in mind for where a scene ends and build backwards. This may sound like a great technique, but it leads to scenes where things are done because of how they seem, rather than what they actually are, in-universe.
Danny’s trying to Do Good and be a Good Person. He’s a billionaire who inherited all his money, which even the most starry-eyed capitalist tends to see as something you should be using to do some good. Realistically speaking, it’s very hard to be a billionaire and a good person – you could even argue that billionaires are inherently immoral. How do we make a billionaire look like a good person, when wealth is inextricably associated with power and evil these days?
The solution they hit on here was showing Danny not up in his office tower, but instead down on the ground, doing working-class grunt work, moving boxes for a friend’s business. That is, the billionaire who doesn’t need it, is working a job that someone on the ground actually needs, and he’s doing it for free, which means the business he’s helping is getting free stuff from a billionaire because that billionaire feels guilty.
Now that’s a pretty simple little moral loop to run. He’s doing the job so he can feel like he’s not a billionaire, but he doesn’t have to do it, and he is a billionaire, so he’s basically trying to buy working class bonafides, as if the guy who lived in a magic monastery city for a decade really needs to connect to the true working class. It’s like Paul Ryan claiming his favourite band was Rage Against the Machine, showing that for all he recognises the values he’s reaching out for, he doesn’t actually hold them.
There’s also the mask issue, which I know I will drag heroes about a lot. The series even shows us the mask, but only in a flashback, making the iconic symbol of the Iron Fist something from Danny’s past that he has moved beyond. It’s also something that Davos wore as well. They want to show us that they know about the mask, that they did include it in the series, but putting it on Danny now wouldn’t work. Danny doesn’t wear that mask, because they don’t want him to.
The character wants to be seen as good, and cool, but but can’t actually be good, or cool. The work to the contrary proves it, and tells us, the audience who are paying attention that Danny sucks.
This outcome-driven writing means the story exists in service of Danny, which means every character who might have provided contrast only amplify the problem. They don’t have lives outside of association with Danny. Davos must mirror Danny, so he has most of the same story failings. Mary has to be a threat worthy of opposing him without a reason to keep opposing him. Joy has to work on a level Danny has difficulty dealing with. Coleen is there to reflect Danny, rather than build on her own story and her own past. And the Iron Fist, the power, exists to serve Danny the character, rather than the world and story in a way Danny has to understand.
Ward’s one of my favourite examples of a bad idea, by the way. Ward has his own story which is both extremely boring and extremely awful. You see Ward being a terrible person whose story fixates on his lack of respect for others and his drug addiction. This seems to serve no purpose in the story – there’s nothing Ward brings to his story arc that couldn’t be achieved instead by a secretary or a phone app. Hell, we’re given a scene of Ward with his own secretary who could also be ditched from the story entirely.
What’s he here for? Well, best I can tell, he fills time decently in very low-cost scenes. When Danny is struggling with losing the Iron Fist – I told you there’d be spoilers -Ward comes to him, and they have a talk, a meaningful conversation about how Danny’s superpowers are like heroin addiction. Which means this series has this whole character whose purpose is show that being a supernaturally talented martial artist who got their powers by facing down a dragon is like drug addiction, a medical condition that people fall into often because of feelings of powerlessness.
Danny considers this thoughtful, because Danny sucks.
The Iron Fist – the special ability – is back as ‘generic power.’ Danny used the Iron Fist in the first series to punch his way through a shipping container, but this time he uses it while training on a practice dummy, things that a real person can break with their real hands. We get to ‘see’ the Iron Fist more, but never see more of it. It is always used as a simple metaphor for its user being angry. Danny taps the Iron Fist when he isn’t winning, and it makes him win. The enemy who gets an Iron Fist in this series can just do it – he’s never shown as having any challenges with connecting to the Fist.
God, sorry, I looked at that picture again, of the guns and it’s the stupidest thing.
This conception of power is at the root of many Superhero stories. If your hero can do something, you want to know what that something means in the story. Superman’s invulnerability means Superman stories need to be about what kind of person he’d be if he wasn’t threatened by normal, mortal problems. Similarly, Batman having money and disliking guns usually means he has to approach problems in terms of making gadgets, even sometimes if they’ll only be used once. Powers inform personality and shape the narrative.
In Iron Fist the Iron Fist as used by The Immortal Iron Fist is anger. It isn’t anger at something specific, or anger through clarity, or solving a puzzle, or anger that can run out or any such thing. The power of the defender of K’un-Lun is just generic, unambiguous rage. Danny will lose a fight until he is mad at losing it, then he will Iron Fist things. Without the Iron Fist, he loses the ability to express anger, even!
Once more, though, this is used to set up an outcome. Danny decides, when he doesn’t have the Iron Fist, that he isn’t worthy of it, because he uses the Iron Fist. This continues our drug metaphor, by the way, in the confused way of it. That leads us to our finale, where Danny decides to not reclaim the Iron Fist, and pass it on to someone else (isn’t it like drug addiction?). It’s framed as a noble sacrifice.
Then we’re shown how he still has it and his sacrifice was literally of nothing. Another performative expression of depth by the boy who has everything. God, Danny sucks.
Let’s take a breather. Something about someone else in this series, who does a good job, someone who isn’t quite at the level of being a full character who merits their own piece. I want to talk about someone who barely constitutes being a character as much as being a prop in multiple scenes, but there’s this guy called Liu. He’s played by an actor called Andrew Cao. I had to look these things up by searching wikis – this information isn’t very prominent in the series, and the character’s name isn’t used very clearly or often.
Andrew Cao however, did not get the memo that he’s a footnote in a bad tv show, so he is doing his best to act the hell out of everything he does. Liu is the security chief for the Yangshi Gonshi faction, a criminal gang that wield axes and control sections of the docks. Interestingly, some elements of gang life are treated well in this stupid, stupid series, where they’re seen as something of a surrogate government and business enterprise in the area. Not bad work on that front. They’re still represented as reprehensible criminals, and there’s really not a lot of sympathy shown to all the gang members being murdered, which is kind of weird when you also consider the leader of a gang’s death is treated as a terrible murder.
Point is, Liu has an important role in the story and he’s supposed to be a badass. Which is why it’s so infuriating that we see him fight once, it’s short, and he loses and is killed almost instantly, to no effect, because the story wants to show off how cool and good Danny is, by showing this enemy who can endanger him. Since we don’t see Liu fight, even though he has an amazing scene preparing for the fight, we can only assume he’s actually meant to be a badass.
It’s so sad, and such a waste of an actor going hard.
Liu opposes Danny multiple times, but Danny’s always right, and Liu’s impulse to fight is always wrong. Bear in mind that in this universe, Walker (whose only combat training comes from the military) can wreck Danny’s shit pretty consistantly. I guess Liu committed the great folly of not being an extension of the US Military, something the MCEU really, really likes.
Danny, meanwhile, gets to stand his lack of personality alongside Liu’s bristling charisma, and it reminds you that somehow a character who gets maybe five minutes of screen time played by an Asian-American sells more kung fu badassery than Danny can in hours of series time, because Danny sucks.
Alright, now, as we round this out, let me complain about fight choreography real quick.
A really weird thing about Iron Fist viewed as a story is that it represents one particular type of martial arts as ‘right.’ It doesn’t say this with speeches or an actual plot point of contest, but instead look to the way this kung-fu tv series stages its kung fu and how it treats different practitioners of martial arts. Danny plays a fairly simple style of martial arts that boils down to punching with one or two occasional kicks. This would make sense since he has a supernaturally powerful punch. What’s weird is everyone else trying anything else is wrong.
Characters that use a different martial arts style in this series are here to lose and often in multiples. The Yangshi Gonshi are all equipped with axes, and get mowed down; Davos’ students wielding weapons are all completely wrecked; characters who pick up improvised weaponry are dispatched; Misty Knight, however, sticks to the upper body punchalot grapple style Danny uses and hey, she’s alright. Enemies who fight like Danny are legitimate, enemies who don’t are fodder.
Fights in stories are sequences of actions, and they want to look exciting and interesting. The more fights you do, the more you have to do to keep them interesting. The fights in Iron Fist Season 2 are coincidentally, often shot in kitchens or in large, open areas with extremely consistant light sources. Now, in these situations, clothing and combat style are the main ways you can make it clear who’s doing what, and why it’s different.
In Iron Fist Season 2, Coleen Wing stops using her sword, because she doesn’t want to hurt anyone (?), and instead, fights like Danny. This is incredibly annoying, because it reduces the variety of fights that include her, and mean that our lineup of fighters becomes more similar. Fights get less interesting, because everyone gets to be a little bit more like Danny.
And, well, being like Danny sucks.
This is two thousand and more words, so far, on a tv series that I don’t think is very good. I haven’t, I think, done a comprehensive guide to what makes this series bad, even. There’s even more confused ethics and signalling and there’s value, I think in seeing it and looking for your own examples of what makes it unsatisfying.
I want to share my opinions on this series, though, in no small part because I think it’s important to consider what the errors were. There’s a lot of stuff in this story that’s honestly pretty well handled structurally – Davos and Danny as very basic mirrors of one another is something you should consider when making your villains.
It’ll all be for naught, though, if the thing you’re building around is bad.
And Danny sucks.