TV Review – Iron Fist: Season 2
When Marvel’s TV series premiered last year, March 2017, there was a huge backlash over the actor cast to play the lead role. Many people felt casting a white person would feed into the white savior narrative that many feel is racist and has been used to denigrate minorities like Asian people in the past. Even though creator and head-writer Scott Buck was being true to the source material, many critics made credible arguments as to why an Asian-American should have been cast in the titular role. As a result, Finn Jones who stars as that titular character took a beating in the online media. Many think he was the wrong choice to play the boy with the dragon tattoo.
It seemed unlikely that Marvel would fire Jones and replace him completely. However, new head-writer M. Raven Metzner did seem to have tried to do the next best thing and take the criticisms of the show and of Jones and incorporate them into the writing this go-round. That, or Metzner could just be incorporating elements of other Marvel properties, as well as other kung fu properties, when he was crafting this season. The latter is probably more likely, but it is funny that this season could be seen as a rebuke of the previous, and as if Metzner got the memo.
Jones stars as Danny Rand, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, son of a billionaire who claims to be the Iron Fist, a special warrior from a mythical place in Asia named K’un-L’un, which gave him super-powers like the ability to channel energy through his right hand. He’s also well-trained in kung fu.
Now, this archetype isn’t new. It’s actually not that far off from Batman. Batman aka Bruce Wayne is a white guy who is the son of a billionaire who went to Asia and trained in martial arts. The difference is that Danny is not as smart or as intelligent as Bruce Wayne and Bruce Wayne never took on the role of a mythical character in another country’s culture.
It’s essentially the same issue in Doctor Strange (2016), but, the backlash against that film or its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, wasn’t as strong as it was against Finn Jones. Cumberbatch is a better actor or at least a more regarded actor. Cumberbatch is arguably more charismatic than Jones, so maybe that helps him, but essentially both Jones and Cumberbatch play two white guys who find themselves in Asia and then somehow prove they’re better than all the other Asians around them at whatever Asian cultural identity that the two white men assume. It’s an extreme or worse form of cultural appropriation or as some see it as theft. So, if that’s the criticism, then this season directly addresses it, although arguably not well.
Sacha Dhawan (The History Boys and Outsourced) co-stars as Davos, a man who was born and raised in K’un-L’un. He grew up along side Danny as his adopted brother when Danny crash landed there in a plane accident. Danny’s parents were killed and Davos’ family took Danny in and raised him with Davos. Davos and Danny were so well-trained that they rose up to become the two finalists for the Iron Fist. Like in Black Panther, there is a competition, a physical fight, to determine which finalist will become Iron Fist.
However, in Black Panther, the finalists can only be people who were born in Wakanda. It’s like in the United States. Only a person born in the USA can become its president. Yet, in K’un-L’un, that rule doesn’t seem to apply and Davos doesn’t appreciate it. It’s not simply that Davos is upset that Danny bested him in a physical fight. Danny left K’un-L’un and returned to New York City, leaving K’un-L’un to be destroyed. Davos feels Danny abandoned his people and as a result, they’re now all dead, which is basically true. Therefore, Davos wants to take the power of the Iron Fist from Danny, feeling Danny isn’t worthy to have it.
In Black Panther, Kilmonger had similar feelings. Kilmonger wanted to take the power of the Black Panther from T’Challa who had inherited it fairly. Here, this show gives Davos better motivation for wanting to take the power from Danny than Kilmonger had. Yet, Black Panther was able to make us empathize with Kilmonger by implicitly drawing on colonialism and systemic racism against black people. His ultimate plan and methods made Kilmonger a villain, but only when pitted against T’Challa. Otherwise, Kilmonger’s plan might seem righteous. Here, Davos’ plans might seem righteous too.
At first, Danny is being a crime-fighting vigilante, not unlike Batman. When Davos takes the Iron Fist power from Danny, it seems as if he has the potential to be an even better vigilante or an even better crime-fighter, more dedicated and focused for example, but no. Davos simply becomes a psychopath who murders people who he thinks are bad, regardless of any consideration. He becomes like the titular, serial killer in Showtime’s Dexter but with no code or like the serial killer in David Fincher’s Seven (1995) but less sadistic and less theatrical. Sadly though, making Davos a murderer is the most boring and the easiest path Metzner and his writers could have taken. The series never tries having Davos be a better Iron Fist or a more effective Iron Fist. It’s easier to make Davos a psychopath instead of really forcing Danny to reckon with who he is and his actions and placement here. By the end, Danny can simply say he’s better than Davos because he’s not a serial killer, a very easy statement to make that overlooks all the inherent white savior issues.
Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones) also co-stars as Colleen Wing, the love interest to Danny. She’s his girlfriend, but thankfully, she’s much more than that. She’s also a highly-skilled, martial artist who used to run her own dojo. She works at the Bayard Community Center, which helps impoverished or troubled Asian people in New York. She’s trying to find a connection to her past and to her family. By all measures, she is a great character, performed fantastically by Henwick.
It’s ironic because the problem that plagued the series last year and the first, eight episodes of this season gets solved in the final, two episodes. It’s through Colleen that the white savior issue plaguing this show is rectified. It’s so simple, but the torch is passed to Colleen who is Asian-American herself and a much better character than Danny. Much in the way that the baton was handed to the female co-lead in House of Cards, Colleen takes the reins here in a way.
Not only does it solve the white savior issue, but it also addresses the whole Time’s Up issue, also at odds in Hollywood. It puts a woman in the power position or in the forefront. It’ll be interesting to see what Colleen does in that position and where the show goes in its potential, third season. As we saw in this season, Colleen worked at the community center in Chinatown, which opened this season to a wealth of Asian actors to fill this series.
The wonderful, Asian characters to be introduced into this season include James Chen (The Walking Dead and Front Cover) who plays Sam, the head of the community center where Colleen works. There’s Jason Lai and Giullian Yao Gioiello who play two of the teenage kids on the streets caught between the gang warfare. There’s Christine Toy Johnson (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The Americans) who plays Mrs. Yang, the wife of one of the old, gang leaders. Finally, Julee Cerda (Homeland) plays Mika Prada, an antiquities dealer. In the wake of Crazy Rich Asians, it’s good to see more Asian representation and this list of Asian actors is just a small example.
Yet, in terms of a series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one falters in the ways that the second seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage falter, but to a more pronounced degree. There’s an obvious question that comes up that it’s now a silly question to ask, but when Davos takes Danny’s powers and breaks his leg, why doesn’t Danny call Luke Cage or Jessica Jones for help? Danny appeared in Season 2 of Luke Cage, so I don’t get why Luke couldn’t appear here.
Of course, the events most likely occur before the events of Avengers: Infinity War, so we don’t get the perspective of how average people would be affected by those cataclysmic events. Perhaps, that’s for Season 3, but it goes to a bigger issue that these Netflix shows feel mostly divorced from the MCU, despite the opposite supposedly being true. When Danny has lost his powers and his leg broken, he asks what he should do. The fact that he doesn’t think to call Luke Cage or Jessica Jones only makes him seem stupid. This series also does what all the Netflix series does. It introduces a character from the comics and strips that character of the powers that make that character really special. Such is the case with Mary Walker aka Typhoid Mary, played by Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness and Men in Black 3). In the comics, Typhoid Mary has telekinesis and pyrokinesis, but none of that is on display in this series, so I don’t get the point of introducing her, if you’re going to neuter her.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 10 eps.
Available on Netflix.