I never thought I would find myself writing this, but here goes: This new season of Iron Fist is the best thing that Netflix and Marvel have offered to date. You want to argue with me and say that the first season of Jessica Jones holds that honor? Fine, you’ll get no disagreement from me on that, as JJs1 was a tense and thematically rich procedural about surviving and moving on after a sexual assault. But as far as surprising me, as well as telling a quickly moving story, which holds your attention from beginning to end, and in which all major characters change in sometimes shocking yet always believable ways, IFs2 is a winner, a chi-fueled knockout.
First, some context: the first season of Iron Fist is pretty much the worst of all the individual “Defenders” series. And both that, and the super-team-up series The Defenders, suffer from the same Achilles heel: Danny Rand, and Finn Jones’ portrayal of him. In the comics, martial artist Rand is the calm, mild-mannered counterpoint to his crime-fighting partner, the gruff, aggressive and bulletproof Luke Cage. On tv, however, Rand is petulant, pig-headed, myopic, self-serious and at times flat-out stupid. His personal mission was ill-defined, as he would endlessly remind people he was the Immortal Iron Fist and it was his sacred duty to defeat the Hand, and nothing would stop him in his quest and blah, blah, blah. The monumental failure of Season One was to center the story around such an unlikable person, and just his mere presence in The Defenders served as a sort of black hole, pulling the story and all the other characters into his vortex of meh. All of this also exacerbated the already uncool optics of a (profoundly dorky) white guy appropriating Asian culture. What’s more, judging from his performance, I don’t think even Jones likes Rand very much; his acting feels forced, like he is trying to channel Bruce Lee without being quite so racist about it. Lastly, for a series about martial arts, Season One boasted some of the absolute worst fight choreography ever committed to film.
Season Two corrects these deficits with gusto and a lack of subtlety. For one thing, the fight scenes in this thing are on-point, swift and utterly brutal. And hilariously enough, Rand is still the worst aspect of his own show, yet the story manages to shine nonetheless. At least once during the season, Rand’s personal deficits are literally explained to him, as though the writers are telling us, “We heard you guys, we are sorry and we are correcting this shit.” And, miracle of miracles, Danny actually listens to this criticism and, despite his pervasive idiocy, grows as a character.
Speaking of characters, the most important correction made is that the story does not revolve around Danny Rand. Sure, it starts with him, as he tries to combat and de-escalate the gang wars going on in Chinatown while also trying to reach out to his K’un L’un brother Davos (Sacha Dhawan), who has gone both rogue and mad with power. But it’s also about sarcastic-as-f*** Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphry), struggling to beat his alcoholism and also to mend fences with his estranged sister Joy (Jessica Stroup). It’s also about Danny’s girlfriend (“Wait, that jackass has a girlfriend?” Just roll with it . . .) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) trying to find her purpose in this world, after walking away from training students for the evil Hand cult, for which she still hasn’t completely forgiven herself. It’s also about Colleen’s growing and AWESOME friendship with Luke Cage’s Detective Missy Knight (Simone Missick), who now sports a slick-looking metallic arm. It’s also about how growing up in K’un L’un messed with the heads of both Danny and Davos. Lastly, it’s also about newcomer Mary Walker (Alice Eve), who’s got . . . issues (to say any more gets us into spoiler territory). Basically, where Season One had one principle protagonist with a bunch of supporting players, Season Two works as a proper, full-on ensemble piece. Do I care about Danny this time? Sure, but only because his tale is a necessary component of the overall interwoven tale. But the story excels at getting us invested in all of the characters, for different reasons, a major narrative win.
The series also makes the wise decision of taking several steps back from the stereotypical Asian mysticism that pervaded Season One (it’s still there, it’s just been de-emphasized somewhat, like Danny). The show’s largely Asian cast is mostly playing American this time, as the milieu is now the organized criminal underworld in New York’s Chinatown. And in flashbacks, the East Asian K’un L’un is portrayed as slightly more diverse than we were last led to believe, as both Davos and his mother (Gita Reddy), who play crucial roles here, are of Indian descent, which has the effect of watering down Danny’s “lone white savior” shtick just a tad.
The performances across the board (well, except for you-know-who) are exceptional, but it is worth noting that the lead women really walk away with this show. Simone Missick has always been watchable and fun as Misty, but now unfettered by Luke Cage’s tin-eared dialogue, she turns the always-brilliant gumshoe into a thrilling icon of badassery. Without getting into specifics, Alice Eve makes some fascinating choices in her approach to the troubled Mary, in terms of posture, verbal cadence, and overall body language. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Jessica Henwick is arguably the season’s MVP, as Colleen goes through a vast array of experiences; her style is pretty subtle, but her arc is extremely compelling, and we are cheering for her start to finish.
I have probably made it clear that Danny Rand is both an eyesore and nails on a chalkboard for me, and yet the team of screenwriters managed to make his deficits serve the story favorably, without mocking him. If I can get on board with Iron Fist as enthusiastically as I have, the new season may be your next binge appointment.
But don’t feel obliged to watch Season One first. That thing is misery.