Boxset Monday: Marvel’s Iron Fist (season two) (Netflix)

Terribly dull but almost worth it for the final five minutes

Marvel's Iron Fist

Available on Netflix

If you believe Netflix, season one of Marvel’s Iron Fist was a tremendous success. It didn’t quite beat Marvel’s Luke Cage in the ratings, but it did top the first seasons of Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Marvel’s Daredevil. By contrast, general reaction veered somewhere between lukewarm and outright hate – and that went for the critics, too. Certainly, I’ve not found anyone who actually liked it.

I, however, loved it. I’ve now seen it four times and am about a third of the way through a fifth viewing. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it’s just the general idea of a Western man going to the East and becoming a wise, superhuman, martial arts-equipped, force of good chimed with my childhood of watching Kung Fu and The Champions. Maybe it’s a fascination with Eastern cultures that led me to do jiu jitsu for 14 years and try (very unsuccessfully) to learn both Japanese and Buddhism.

Maybe it’s just because season 1 was so odd, a superhero show made by someone (Scott Buck) who’s clearly not a fan of superheroes so didn’t really follow the usual templates for stories such as these. No automatic use of a fight every five minutes to liven things up. An actual reverence and awe for its subject matter. A focus on characters and philosophy rather than fists.

Or maybe it gave me something to do while I was ironing.

Whatever it was, screw you haters, because I loved it.

The return of Iron Fist

Billionaire playboy and carrier of the ch’i of the dragon Shou Lao the Undying, Danny Rand’s appearance in Marvel’s The Defenders did him no favours in winning over the doubters, however, seeing as the show was a bit rubbish and it was clearly written by people who knew Matt Murdoch’s Daredevil quite well, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Danny not so much. It had its moments, most of them involving Danny, but its eight episodes still seemed too much and despite bringing the entire set of Netflix Marvel superheroes together in one place, it proved insipid enough that no second season is planned.

Since then, Netflix has done its best to convince the doubters to give our Danny a second chance by giving him a cameo in the second season of Luke Cage. Shoeless but rebooted, this was a different Danny, a grown-up, zen-like Danny who helps out his pals, offers them sage advice and cracks jokes.

Kung Fu had come home, it seemed.

Netflix also changed showrunner for the show’s second season. Scott Buck was out, off to try to convince me I’d been wrong about Iron Fist by making a hashing of Marvel’s Inhumans. In was Raven Metzner, writer and producer of the likes of Sleepy Hollow and Falling Skies, and self-confessed fan of the Iron Fist comics.

Also in was stunt coordinator Clayton Barber (Creed, Marvel’s Black Panther) to improve on the much criticised lacklustre fights of the first season.

Born to be dull

Early reviews of season two certainly promised ‘a much improved’ season from the first one, so I was excited going into this. Surely, this would be good. Surely I would no longer be alone and everyone would be converted to the church of Iron Fist?

Except it’s not. Oh my, it’s not. If season two of Iron Fist had a tattoo on its chest, it would be “Born to be Dull”.

Right up until the final five minutes, that is, which is just so fantastic, so steeped in the marvellous imagination of the comics, so much fun, that you’ll be begging for a third season. Just don’t bother watching anything that comes before it.

Spoilers for the entire season after the jump, so either watch before reading or assume you’re never going to watch it and read it anyway.

Sacha Dhawan and Finn Jones in Iron Fist
Sacha Dhawan and Finn Jones in Iron Fist

Seen it all before

Part of the problem with season two of Iron Fist is that not only have we seen it all before, we’ve seen it all before within the Netflix Marvel Universe. It’s certainly not a retread of the same plot as its first season, which was the big problem with season two of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. But it does basically follow in the footsteps of both The Defenders and season two of Luke Cage.

Events more or less follow on directly from the end of season one. Joy (Jessica Stroup) is still pissed off at everyone for hiding the fact that her father was still ‘alive’. Her brother Ward (Tom Pelphrey) is still a dick, but is now in rehab for his season one drug addiction – perhaps unwisely screwing his sponsor. Colleen (Jessica Henwick) has given up teaching at her dojo and she and Danny (Finn Jones) have converted it into an apartment and moved in together.

Against that backdrop we have the machinations of this season’s Big Bad – Danny’s best friend from the mythical city of K’un-Lun and his main rival for the title of Iron Fist, Davos (Sacha Dhawan). With K’un-Lun having shifted dimension again, Davos can’t get back to his home for another 15 years, so has decided to clean up New York while he’s waiting. It won’t surprise anyone who’s read the comics or watched the trailer for the season to know how he’s going to do it – he’s going to steal the power of the Iron Fist for himself, with a little bit of help from new ally Joy.

Yes, people want to kidnap Danny for his Iron Fist powers. It was a minor element of season one of Iron Fist, a major element of The Defenders and now it’s back as the backbone for the first four episodes of this season. Yawn. Plus for an Immortal Weapon, he’s very easily abducted.

Needless to say, that’s not enough to keep the episodes turning over rapidly, so there are additional plots. With everyone assuming Matt Murdoch/Daredevil is dead, Danny has taken on his mantel as protector of New York and spends a lot of time trying to broker peace between the triads.

Which is basically the plot of season two of Luke Cage.

Meanwhile, Colleen is busily trying to show some street urchins about the virtues of not breaking the law.

Which is basically the plot of season one of Luke Cage.

Then there’s Alice Eve playing Daredevil villain Typhoid Mary. She pretends (or does she?) to be a friend of Danny’s but is secretly spying on him for the bad guys.

Which is basically the plot of season one of Jessica Jones.

Alice Eve and Sacha Dhawan

Title fight

Of course, none of this can be strung out for 10 episodes, so by about episode four, ‘Steel Serpent’ has stolen the Iron Fist from Danny and the rest of the season is then about Danny trying to get it back before his former pal kills too many people and turns too many kids to the dark side. It would have been more interesting to have both of them with Iron Fists, allowing for some top class fights, but why would we need the show to be interesting, hey?

We also have a crossover from Luke Cage, with Simone Missick now seemingly taking over from Rosario Dawson as the actor who gets to be in all the Netflix Marvel shows. Equipped with her Rand-tech super-arm, she gets to kick ass with Henwick and Jones and intermittently adds a vital spark to the show – as does Eve, whose dissociate identity disorder gives her a chance to show off her acting skills with a dual role.

All of which, to be fair, is done with some solid character work and some welcome attempts to inject humour into proceedings. The focuses change a little, mind, with Henwick getting more to do, particularly thanks to a somewhat inexplicable and unrelated quest on her part to find her mother following the discovery of a jewellery box. While Joy’s behaviour is disconcertingly different from what we’ve seen before, the show works to make it plausible and redeems her by the end. Ward is similarly out of the action for the most part on a learning curve, but he gets to help out a crack the occasional joke, too.

And Davos’s motivations are quite interesting and authentic to the comics – he’s lived in Heaven all his life and now he has to dwell amongst meat-eating, drug users. He just wants to protect the good from the evil by killing off the evil using the power that he might actually have been cheated out of and he was destined to hold until his best friend stole it from him.

Danny, however, gets the short end of the stick. All that zen placidity and wisdom goes out the window in about episode two and while he’s far less of a dick than he was in the first season, it’s still far too hard to like him for most of the season. It gets even harder when he starts to have doubts about his purpose in life. Again.

Iron Fist
Simone Missick, Jessica Henwick and Tom Pelphrey in Marvel’s Iron Fist

Waiting for it to get good

After a wobbly first episode, I kept waiting for the show to get better. Sure, the fight scenes were leagues better than those of the first season, with proper kung fu, real speed of execution and some real bloodiness. Some of the camerawork was a bit off, though, and there was never any of Daredevil or even The Defenders‘ ambition when it came to showcase pieces, such as the famous hallway fights.

Good fights, some really good, but nothing truly ever thrilling or innovative. That changes slightly once Davos gets the Iron Fist and really puts it to work, but not substantially. Plus there are only so many times that people can face off against an unstoppable martial arts champion before you scream at the TV, “For God’s sake, use your gun, not that hatchet! You’ve got one in your holster! I can see it! It’s right there!” It’s episode 10 before anyone even gets out a sniper rifle.

It doesn’t help that the DJ ‘Baauer’ replaces Trevor Morris as composer, whose marvellous electronic score made the first season such an audio delight. Baauer does wake up in the final three episodes, but the massive discrepancy in quality between the incidental music and the theme at the start of every episode does the show no favours.

And the CGI? Oh dear. I really liked the look of Danny’s iron fist in season one, as well as the reverential music that got played every time it was deployed. It looked solid and powerful. Here it looks like someone’s hired a Disney artist from the 50s to do some cel animation.

So for about seven episodes, I endured rather than really enjoyed season two of Iron Fist. Then the show does something from really out of left field that’s a real game-changer. It contemplates Danny Rand not being the Iron Fist any more.

It decides to make Henwick the new Iron Fist.

Iron Fist

Answering critics

At first this seems like a bluff, one intended to provide a sop to critics and fans, particularly those who from the first instance accused the show of whitewashing. Indeed, some who managed to watch the first season found themselves saying they’d hated Danny but would have been far happier watching a show in which Henwick had been the Iron Fist, as they much preferred her character.

Right up until the end, I assumed it was a bluff. But no, they actually go and do it. They make Henwick the new Iron Fist, making her the descendant of the first female Iron Fist from the comics, Wu Ao-Shi.

Impressive, no?

But despite all of that, it’s still really dull. Those final episodes, even with the thrill of Danny deciding that actually maybe Henwick would make a better Iron Fist, still plod on with a turgidity that’s almost impressive.

I longed for the season to end.

Danny with guns

The Immortal Iron Fists

But if you thought the only thing the show was drawing from the comics was Wu Ao-Shi, its episode titles and an old storyline about Davos stealing the Iron Fist, you’d be wrong, because the final five minutes finally ditches all the trappings of the first season that might have held it back and gives us a comic book-inspired piece of madness that will hopefully make for a brilliant third season.

While Henwick is off defending New York as the new Iron Fist with a chi-empowered sword, it sends Ward and Danny off to the Far East in a hunt for clues as to Danny’s destiny and where Davos obtained the body of a dead Iron Fist. It then name-drops a well known character from the comics, previous Iron Fist Orson Randall, and then not only restores Danny’s abilities as Iron Fist, it gives him Randall’s ability to channel chi into his guns:

Orson Randall

Yep, we’re in Immortal Iron Fists territory, with a potential legion of Iron Fists around. Can the ‘Book of the Iron Fist‘ and maybe even the other six cities of Heaven be far behind? Perhaps even with some gun kata?

Woo hoo!

At the very least, it finally makes Danny interesting, happy, different and with a real edge at last, while giving us the marvellous odd couple pairing of Ward and Danny, as well as turning Henwick into a proper superhero.

Now that’s a show I’d like to watch. Third time’s the charm everyone?