You can always tell when a show has undergone significant changes in leadership and artistic direction between fight choreographer Clayton Barber are immediately evident.
The difficulties with adapting a character like Iron Fist in Netflix’s MCU—a purposefully more grounded place than Marvel’s films—have always been manifold even if you don’t factor in the fact that Danny Rand is a living, breathing white saviour trope. Between the magic, and the dragons, and the ridiculous (but still cool) costume, the Danny Rand of Marvel Comics has just simply never been a great fit for the MCU. And yet, Iron Fist has been doing its damnedest to make the source material work.
Iron Fist’s second season is infinitely more aware of the property’s inherent narrative snagging points than the first, but rather than avoid them altogether, it makes a valiant effort of actually trying to mould them into something that feels a part of Netflix’s MCU.
When we catch up with Danny (Finn Jones), he’s become something more of a proper New Yorker like his fellow Defenders. Even though at first he says he’s filling the void Daredevil left after “dying” during The Defenders, he conveniently sets up shop in the show’s idea of Manhattan’s Chinatown which, in reality, is a little over four miles away from Hells Kitchen. Danny’s reason for claiming Chinatown as his stomping grounds to protect are two-fold. With the Hand now squarely out of the NYC crime scene, other criminal organisations now vie to exist in that space and murder anyone willing to challenge them. At the same time, though, Iron Fist grounding Danny in Chinatown feels like a weaselly way of giving Danny a reason to fight hordes of nameless, and occasionally faceless, Asian people—something that happens throughout the season more times than it really needs to.
While Danny’s narrative isn’t initially the most competitive, the thing that really does make it pop is just how legitimately enthralling the fight sequences are. Under almost any other circumstances, the arrival of a new fight choreographer wouldn’t necessarily be all that much to opine about, but Barber’s keen sense of how battling bodies move through space and connect with one another is both gorgeous to watch and obviously something the actors took to heart. This time around Danny, the supposed Chosen One™ selected to defend the world with his fists actually gives off the impression that he knows a number of kung-fu variants which, shallow though it may sound, immediately elevates the show.
Iron Fist’s biggest issue this time around is the fact that it continuously returns its focus to Danny even in those moments where the show’s other lead actors have just started to shine on camera. The series sets up its central antagonists—Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), Davos (Sacha Dhawan), and newcomer Mary (Alice Eve)—early on and the motives behind their actions are established in ways that make you want to follow their plot lines. Still fresh from their perceived betrayals by Danny in the first season, Joy and Davos find allies in one another and set out on a mission of vengeance that culminates in robbing Danny of his legendary Iron Fist abilities.
Danny losing his powers relatively early on in the season puts him on a redemptive path that feels both like a trial the mythical dragon Shou-Lao would choose for its latest champion and a kind of penance the show wants its hero to pay for being the weakest link in its narrative fabric. Once again, Jones’ performance stands in large part because of the actor’s stiff and disconnected nature from the scenes he’s in—a sharp contrast to much of the rest of the show’s cast doing their best to elevate the material as high they can. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) return as Danny’s support system and, as has been the case with every other instance of the would-be Daughters of the Dragon, the time they spend together is absolutely electric on screen.
As Davos begins working his way through the NYC Chinatown underground in an effort to cleanse and purify the city of evil through draconian means, it’s Misty and Colleen who put in the work, both mental and physical, to dig into and expose the villain’s scheme. In addition to ridding the neighbourhood of factional crime syndicates, Davos is on a mission to take the Iron Fist, which he believes to rightfully be his, from Danny by any means necessary. Even though it’s clear early on that Davos is a deranged lunatic who was never worthy to inherit the power, the show casts him in a somewhat sympathetic light that makes you understand why he would harbour resentment for the outsider who stumbled into K’un L’un only to become its supposed greatest warrior.
Before Danny and Davos have their inevitable showdown, Mary, a curious puzzle of a character, steps onto the scene to insinuate herself into the lives of Iron Fist’s heroes at first as a helpless bystander and later as a lethal assassin. Like her comics counterpart Typhoid Mary, Iron Fist’s Mary is a woman living with dissociative identity disorder whose different personalities are brought to the surface by external stimuli. Refreshingly, Iron Fist doesn’t treat Mary’s condition as a curious oddity or something that can be twisted into a semblance of a superpower and at no point is she ever truly made out to be a victim because of it. She’s lethal, complicated, and at literal at odds with herself in ways that make it difficult to pin down just where she stands in relation to everyone else.
Family and community are themes recurring throughout the show that develop into some of the season’s strongest and weakest character arcs. Danny and Davos’ longstanding brotherly rivalry has the makings of being something impactful but ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers story about familial resentment and revenge. Colleen, on the other hand, is given a meaningful arc as she tries to unpack the mystery of her biological family and build relationships with her chosen family. That includes Danny and Misty, yes, but also the people relying on the local community center for support and protection.
Iron Fist’s pacing is something of a glass half full/glass half empty situation. On the one hand, the season is blessedly short—10 episodes—compared to Netflix’s other solo her shows, but as tends to be the case, much of the first half of the season drags in a number of spots. That being said, however, the last two episodes of the season take stunning dramatic turns that introduce new ideas and set up a third season in a way that will legitimately surprise and delight the hell out of you and makes the season worth watching.
Real talk—Iron Fist’s second season is kind of a mixed bag. There’s plenty to slog through but if you’re willing to make your way to the finale, it’s something you won’t regret.