I’ll admit it right out of the gate: I’m a big fan of Iron Fist. I love the comic character, I love the outfit, and I truly love the whole mythology. A warrior from a hidden mystical city, a protector chosen every generation, it’s equal parts Mortal Kombat and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was always going to be my jam. Because of that love of the material, I had a bit of Stockholm Syndrome when it came to the first season of the Netflix series. I do think it had its moments, to be sure, but there is absolutely no question that it was not what it could have been, to say the least. I was jut ecstatic to see this character in live action because I truly never thought I would see the day. But there were fair questions about the show before it even began. It is, for example, hard to ignore the white savior trope inherent in the concept.
As mystical a city as K’un-Lun might be, it’s still very obviously Asian. All of its practices, traditions and of course fighting and disciplinary styles are prototypically East Asian. Danny Rand, the character who takes the mantle of Iron Fist after defeating the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying, is a white man. The white savior trope denotes a white person who comes into another culture, masters the thing they are great at and does it even better than they do, often becoming the chosen savior of those people or being called the best to ever wield that power or skill. Iron Fist, as much as I love it, is at its core almost a textbook example of that. Because of this, many people wisely wanted an Asian actor to be cast instead of someone who looked closer to the comic book Danny. That did not happen.
But even with a white actor in the role, there are things that certainly could have been done to acknowledge that origin. After all, Danny Rand being a rich white person is an even worse look when stacked against the other interconnected Marvel Netflix shows. Luke Cage is a very timely story of a bulletproof black man in New York City, Jessica Jones is about post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault, experiences that needed to be explored, where the narrative of the rich white man certainly didn’t. Iron Fist could easily have leaned into that, with Danny realizing the power of his money and how it could genuinely be applied to help these neighborhoods and these struggles that the other heroes of New York were fighting a losing battle against.
It didn’t really do that. That’s not to say that it didn’t totally try, either. To be fair, there’s a good chunk of the first season of Iron Fist devoted to constantly reminding Danny that he is undeserving of his power, that he shouldn’t be the Iron Fist at all. It’s a good way to at least attempt to battle the white savior trope by noting that it shouldn’t have been him and that just about everyone who is in a position to tell him that does, and often.
More than any of this, though, that first season had major structural problems. Even worse, for a comic book show, it had a huge villain problem. In some ways it was similar to one of the major issues of Green Lantern, in that there was a great villain waiting in the wings while the plot actually centered on a completely uninteresting one. That movie put all its stock in the wholly uninteresting entity Parallax, a yellow space cloud, while Mark Strong was perfectly cast as Sinestro and barely given any screen time in attempt to save him for a sequel that never came.
The first season of Iron Fist had the same problem, with the plot revolving around the resurrected Harold Meachum, long-thought dead by his children Ward and Joy, as well as Danny, operating behind-the-scenes as yet another tie to the mystical ninja organization The Hand—which for all intents and purposes became the HYDRA of the Marvel Netflix shows. Like Green Lantern’s combination of Parallax and Hector Hammond, who were—as depicted at least—never deep-set major antagonists, Harold Meachum was not an interesting villain for either viewers or comic book fans. A few episodes into the season, though, Iron Fist introduced the character of Davos, an old friend and rival of Danny’s from his time in K’un-Lun, who both constantly reminds Danny that he’s undeserving of this power while also constantly reminding him that it is his duty to go back.
He sticks around for a couple episodes, but that’s it, it builds to one fight and he’s gone. Bringing him back as a major antagonist for the second season was a great decision, because he’s an interesting character with a clear motivation—one that even hinges on the way viewers interpreted the first season. This is a character who knows that Danny does not deserve that power and is determined to prove it to him. For comic book fans, making Davos the primary antagonist of the second season was a huge step in the right direction because he’s as big an antagonist as there is in the comics. On the page, Davos is the Steel Serpent and his motivations are largely the same. He blames Danny’s father rather than Danny himself, but he still believes that the mantle of the Iron Fist belongs to him and not some billionaire American.
But that is, thankfully, only the first of many, many changes for the better in the show’s second season. This is the reason why you don’t cancel a show after it got the backlash that the first season received. Because there’s a wealth of potential in the concept and not getting it right the first time doesn’t necessarily mean you have to squash all that potential right out of the gate. A backlash like that is an opportunity to learn and grow. And it truly feels like the folks behind Iron Fist looked at everything that was said about season one, truly listened and applied everything they learned to season two on genuinely every level.
Characters who had nothing to do the first time around have clear, self-sabotaging and often fucked up arcs in the second season, Ward and Joy in particular. With Ward, he becomes a much more interesting person to watch as he single handedly turns his life to crap. With Joy, who viewers kind of unanimously decided was just the worst, she has herself become dead set on embracing being the worst and is somehow all the better for it.
Whereas the first season was structurally messy and spent the first half mostly just meandering and centering on Danny’s constant inability to convince Ward and/or Joy that he was who he said he was, the second season sets up clear arcs with a clear direction and is far more action packed. Which, if we’re being honest, was maybe the major disappointment of season one. For a martial arts show, it contained very little martial arts.
Davos returning in a central role also sets up a major arc for Danny. Now, having lived as the Iron Fist for a little bit, he actually starts to hear Davos, he starts to get the complaints and starts to understand what Davos is really angry about. Because when Davos questioned him in the past, Danny would always bring up that he won the title of the Iron Fist by defeating a colleague to earn the right to face the dragon Shou-Lou and defeating the dragon as well. The second season digs into this rivalry much deeper, by centering on the fact that Davos’ main point of resentment is not that Danny won the title of Iron Fist but why he fought for it in the first place. And the fact that Danny doesn’t actually have an answer for that naturally only pisses Davos off that much more. What it does for Danny, though, is equally interesting. Because it’s one of the only pieces of media I’ve ever seen where the hero not only listens to the villain, but realizes they’re right and upon realizing that, seeks to fundamentally better themselves.
That’s what season two of Iron Fist is actually about and it’s honestly a stunning revision of everything that went wrong with the first season, to the point that my jaw was practically on the floor when I realized they were actually going to go through with it. The second season turns this into a show about a man realizing his position of power and privilege, that he has obtained a power that he does not understand and does not belong to him, that he is genuinely unworthy of it and so he actually seeks to hand that power over to someone who does deserve it.
It’s so smart, because the two things that people genuinely loved about the first season of Iron Fist were the brief appearances of Davos and, to a huge extent, Colleen Wing. Colleen as played by Jessica Henwick was easily the standout of that first season, she was tough and determined and incredibly endearing to watch. People were immediately taking to social media to ask why the show wasn’t about her in the first place. (And, side note, if the Marvel Netflix shows were to ever continue, I would absolutely take that Colleen/Misty Knight Daughters of the Dragon show they clearly teased so heavily) So by the end of the second season, that’s what it actually becomes.
Danny realizes that if anyone were meant to have the power of the Iron Fist, it’s Colleen and so the power is passed over to her, with a pretty clear message across the board that this is where it rightfully belongs. Danny even becomes a better character for wanting to earn power on his own and to see if he’s even meant to have it in the first place. It sets up what could only have been an even more dynamic and status quo changing third season that, unsurprisingly, never came.
Iron Fist season two adds another villain to the mix in addition to all of this by pulling a terrific villain from the comics page, one fans had been waiting years to see: Typhoid Mary. The approach to Typhoid is a little different as is expected, especially in a world where we’re much more openly questioning the idea of Dissociative Identity Disorder in general. While typically a Daredevil villain, it makes sense for her to appear on Iron Fist given the closeness of all the street level Marvel heroes, not to mention the fact that most of the Netflix shows go one villain at a time and really draw a single story line out over the course of a season, so if some villains were ever going to make an appearance, the shows would have to start mixing and matching sometime.
Typhoid Mary seems like an out-of-left-field choice for what is otherwise a singular season about Danny’s questioning of his own power and Davos’ eagerness to take it from him, but that’s also kind of what makes her work. She’s an unpredictable and unexpected element and that’s truly what the comic book character is when she’s at her best. Even though she’s a wildcard, she does represent the duality inherent in the season as everyone hides something from those closest to them and ultimately seeks to find out who they are. Every character, save for the immovable Davos, is questioning themselves on a deep level and that’s truly what Typhoid represents.
None of this is to say that the second season of Iron Fist is perfect, because it obviously isn’t. For as much as it embraces the mythology and leans into it in ways the first season did not, there’s still an utterly bizarre refusal to translate the beloved comic book costume to the screen for anything more than a flashback or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. At the same time, the fact that the mask is canonized within the show as something traditionally worn by the Iron Fist makes Danny’s refusal to wear it that much more illuminating.
The second season of Iron Fist took what was a sloppy, meandering and unsure of itself series and redefined it as a show that isn’t so much about the cost of power as it is about the hierarchy of power, how those in a certain position can find themselves with a great deal of it when taking is second nature, and about having the strength to pass that power onto someone more deserving when they realize that it might not be theirs to have. Only semi-ironically—as it stands in the great Marvel comics tradition—Danny’s willingness to turn the Iron Fist over to someone else, particularly someone as deserving as Colleen, is kind of the moment when he actually becomes a hero for the first time.
It’s a shame that the show didn’t get a chance to survive into its promising third season, but the blow is lessened by the death of the Marvel Netflix line as a whole. Even still, it’s only the final scene that really makes it feel unresolved—a mouth watering cliffhanger that suggests Danny has embarked on a mission to come face-to-face with previous Iron Fist Orson Randall—as the final shot of Colleen finally lighting up the fist (and channeling her chi through her katana, no less) would have in many ways been a perfect conclusion to the series as a whole. At the same time, the fact that a show so derided when it premiered could even be suggested to stick its landing is no small victory.