Season 1 of Iron Fist had its problems and was so riddled with controversy that it's hard to even remember how the show held up next to its elite MCU brethren on Netflix. Centering on Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a wealthy New York City kid who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Tibet and then trained by an order of monks to wield the mystical powers of the Iron Fist with which he returns to save New York, the show pulled from '70s comics canon too literally to make a big splash.
In what could be considered both a bold opening and finishing move for the Marvel property, Marvel execs and Iron Fist Season 1 showrunner Scott Buck chose to stick with the comics and keep the ethnicity of Rand — a superhero who traffics in Pan-Asian myths, legends, and spiritual powers — a white man. When pressed about the issue months before the premiere of the show, Marvel Television boss Jeph Loeb and Buck both reiterated that Danny needed to feel like an outsider in K'un-Lun (the city in which he trained) for the story to work. But that's antiquated thinking. In 2017, there was no reason for Marvel to use an appropriative and racist origin story for a beloved character. As many have pointed out before me, making Danny Rand an Asian-American or even hapa — half-Asian — character would have given this backstory already steeped in orientalism (from spiritual powers to sexless men) a fresh and relevant connection for the diversity hungry viewers of 2017.
And while Season 1 of Iron Fist would have still been a fairly mediocre entry into Marvel's Netflix universe due to the lack of compelling villains and Danny Rand's habit of perpetually repeating his mistakes, at least casting someone of a plausible Asian background would have left the door open for Season 2 to grow beyond what are normal story problems in an uneven season of TV. In the first six episodes that were screened for critics, the big stink of Season 1 lingers fully. But in an unprecedented move for Netflix's Marvel properties, the final four episodes of the season were given to critics yesterday, after the review embargo had been lifted. And it's in those final four episodes that Iron Fist finally attempts to fix its biggest problem — which I'll get to at the bottom of this review.
Danny's worst and best trait — his optimism which comes with the headstrong belief that there's little to no grey areas in life — comes through full throttle in Season 2. Picking up after the events of The Defenders, Danny spends most of Season 2 trying to figure out who he is, without the Hand to fight and K'un-lun to save and preserve. Both have been wiped off the face of the Earth, so our erstwhile Defender is spending his nights picking up where Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) left off. To complicate this simple mission, Joy Meechum (Jessica Stroup), Danny's childhood friend, as well as Davos (Sacha Dhawan), Danny's adopted brother from K'un-Lun, roll through the wreckage of Danny's life with one mission: to make him feel as much pain as he dealt them. And while Danny can handle pain, what he can't handle is stagnation. Danny is first and foremost a man of action, and with more complex family dramas stepping in as the Big Bad, the correct plan always remains just out of his grasp despite Colleen (Jessica Henwick), Ward (Tom Pelphrey), and Misty (Simone Missick) spending most of their time leading him in the right direction.
In fact, the best moments of Iron Fist Season 2 happen when Danny's not on screen at all. There are beautiful little flashes of character development for everyone around him. Misty and Colleen team up to deliver the Daughters of the Dragons spin-off we'll never get, and with it comes some of the best banter of the MCU. Ward Meechum, on a path to recovery from both alcoholism and villainy, takes on a responsibility he's ill-suited for, but it also puts him on a dogged path to reconciliation with his sister Joy. Even Davos has an amazing flashback sequence to K'un-lun in which we see his relationship with his mother spin out and the scenes edify (but not justify) his hatred towards Danny. Basically the only person left out of this forward momentum and energy the returning cast has is Danny.
Which brings us full circle to the problem: Danny Rand is just not compelling enough to carry his own show. There's not a lot I can say about how those last four episodes attempt to course correct for a boring white man as its lead without spoiling the season, but rest assured that we finally what a non-whitewashed version of the character could have looked like. It is the pure, wholesome, reclaimed version of Iron Fist fans have been clamoring for since before Season 1 and the Big Moment is truly worth a rewind or two. But be warned, there's no indication by the end of Season 2 that this is actually the new status quo. There's a very specific sequence in the finale that indicates why and how Danny Rand is still the center of the series, so it's really a waiting game 'til Season 3 to see if Marvel's big attempt to correct the whitewashing of its series will connect.
So the tl;dr is: This season of Iron Fist is really for the Marvel completionists. If you're one of those folks who needs to make sure you catch every tie-in, every easter egg, every loose plot hole that might turn into a series arc in Defenders Season 2, then I wish you luck in slogging through. However, if you just want to revel in the surprising fact that Marvel is actually thinking about the whitewashing critiques leveled at it (with a to-be-determined amount of success), skip straight to Episode 8 of Season 2 and play from there.
Season 2 of Marvel's Iron Fist premieres Friday, Sept. 7 on Netflix.