The final Defender in Marvel’s Netflix series, Danny Rand, premiered in his own series, Iron Fist, in March of this year. Danny is a martial artist who has the Iron Fist, or the ability to turn his fist glowy yellow and use it to punch through walls. Together with his new friend/love interest Colleen Wing and series fan favorites like Claire Temple, he takes on Madame Gao and the Hand. The Hand were the villains of Daredevil, the sole Marvel Netflix property that I did not finish because the grimdark racism of it was not my cup of tea. But Iron Fist promised to be at least tangentially about Asian culture and was sure to feature at least one Asian character in Colleen, so I decided to watch it anyway.
That was a mistake.
Iron Fist was an incredibly slow slog in which I wasted thirteen hours of my life on cultural appropriation, Asian erasure, manpain, and drugs, and I would not recommend it. But if you want a longer opinion, below are the five main reasons Iron Fist was not great. Spoilers for the entire series follow.
1. The actual plot
As I’m sure you all know by now, Iron Fist is about Danny Rand, the white American heir to the multi-billion dollar Rand Corporation who, along with his parents, crash-landed in the Himalayas when Danny was ten. Danny was the only survivor; he was taken in by the monks of a mysterious land called K’un Lun, and fifteen years on, he returns to America under the mantle of the Iron Fist to figure out who he is as a person.
This is the most readily apparent reason why this is a bad show (aside from the blatant Orientalism, and there’s plenty of time for that later). Danny is constantly asked if he’s Danny Rand or if he’s the Iron Fist, and fittingly enough, these two identities come with different plots. Danny Rand is trying to return to his father’s company and lead it in the way that he imagined his father would, and to get there, he has to convince Joy and Ward Meachum, the children of his father’s deceased business partner Harold Meachum, that he is who he says he is. Unfortunately, it takes many episodes to convince them, the Rand board doesn’t like him, and all this means that Danny is caught up in a pretty bland drama about office politics. Iron Fist, on the other hand, is the sworn enemy of the Hand, the organization run by Madame Gao, which you might’ve seen in Daredevil if you didn’t give up on it like I did. So throughout the show, the part of Danny who’s Danny Rand is trying to sit in on board meetings he doesn’t understand, while the part of him who’s the Iron Fist is constantly telling Ward and Joy about how the office is unimportant and he has better things to do, like punching some heroin-dealing ninjas. These two plots never mesh, not even when Danny finds out that Gao has her hooks in Rand and is using Rand to deal her heroin.
So instead of having one plot that really focuses on the idea of the corporation as oligarchy, or one plot that focuses on the Hand, we have one muddled plot that manages to say nothing about either issue. Danny’s actor, Finn Jones, has said that he believes Iron Fist failed because people don’t want to root for a rich white billionaire in the age of Drumpf, but had the show actually critiqued its idea of the corrupt one percent, I think people could have rooted for this white billionaire well enough. Danny doesn’t wear a disguise as the Iron Fist, so the story could arguably be about a hero taking on corrupt companies, but Danny isn’t attacking the Rand board members, he’s attacking the Hand. The rich people of the show, aside from Harold, are all shown to be “corrupt” solely because they’re being blackmailed by the Hand, thus neatly removing them from the realm of culpability. Not a good look for Netflix, particularly when their other Marvel series delivered great, thought-provoking treatises on rape culture, police brutality, and the conception of whiteness and gangs.
2. Danny’s characterization
I can’t believe I have to devote a whole point to this, but it was actually this bad. Danny Rand returns from K’un Lun as a pretty happy homeless guy—that is, until he suddenly has moments of intense rage and inevitably pounds his fists on a table or throws something across a room. Even though he’s spent fifteen years supposedly learning Buddhism and how to center himself and control his emotions, New York turns Danny into a guy with road rage 24/7, regardless of whether or not he’s actually behind the wheel.
In all seriousness, Danny’s return to New York, confronting his deceased parents’ house and company, and dealing with the remaining PTSD from the plane crash are all things that could cause intense emotional conflicts, no matter how “centered” one is, but the narrative absolutely never phrases it this way. Danny is continuously the capslock Harry Potter of Order of the Phoenix, and everyone else has to be the reasonable Hermione to whom he never listens. Netflix clearly didn’t want to make him an angsty Bruce Wayne type, because Danny’s already a rich orphan, but Danny’s characterization, which flips randomly between happy-go-lucky and rage monster, makes no emotional sense and more importantly, makes him a protagonist who’s incredibly difficult to sympathize with.
3. Joy, the Greater Meachum, and Ward, the Lesser Meachum
As long as we’re talking about the corporation part of the story, let’s talk about Joy Meachum, who was undoubtedly the most competent character on this side of things. Joy is consistently the only one who is trying to hold Rand together, through the reappearance of Danny, Ward’s drug addiction, and various other business problems. Yet Joy is ultimately sidelined for reasons that don’t make sense. From the start, she’s left out of the major plot thread—her father Harold is actually alive. He was dying of cancer, but willingly agreed to be resurrected by the Hand after his death, and in return, he’s now sworn to do their bidding. He hides away in an opulent penthouse, but for some reason, he only talks to Ward, who knows that he’s alive. Despite how much Ward hates his father, he still dutifully carries out all the orders Harold sends him by text. Joy can’t know that Harold is alive, because if she knows, the Hand said they’ll kill her.
Throughout the series, Joy solves several problems on her own. She proves that Danny is who he said he is, first through her own knowledge of him and then more forensically; she’s shown to have keen business and people sense, and when the board temporarily wrests control of Rand from the Meachums and Danny, she’s the one who comes up with a plan to take it back. But Joy’s downfall is that she really respects and admires her brother Ward. Ward is shown to have very little business sense of his own and is in fact not interested in remaining at Rand. But because he does what his father tells him to do, Joy thinks that Ward is just as talented as Harold and convinces the board to follow his lead even when Ward makes plainly bad leadership decisions. Joy could have had a great character struggle, torn between her belief in Danny’s idealism and her own ruthless business pragmatism, but as the corporation as oligarchy plot fizzled out, so did Joy’s participation in the story. In the end, when Joy is finally let in on the whole Harold business, she’s shot by the Hand, quickly loses faith in Danny, Ward, and her father, and the series finale even implies that she may be a future villain.
Ward, on the other hand, gets the huge redeeming arc that white male characters are wont to receive. He hates Rand Enterprises and has been abused by his father his whole life, and as a coping mechanism develops an addiction to prescription painkillers. Joy emotes over him and tells him she cares about him a lot, but Ward just can’t tell her what’s really bothering him because if he tells her about Harold she’ll be killed! So Ward carries around his immense manpain until he can’t any more and he kills Harold in a fit of rage. Lo and behold, thanks to the Hand’s procedure, Harold can only be killed in a certain way, and Harold comes back to life for the second time more immoral than ever. It takes the entire series for Ward and Danny to kill Harold together, and then Ward is apparently so pleased by this that he recommits himself to Rand, pledging to lead it properly even though he has no talent and has never cared about it before.
4. Asian erasure
Long before Iron Fist ever aired, it was receiving complaints of whitewashing. Danny Rand was going to be a white American who learns “mystic Asian martial arts” and then returns to New York to kick the ass of a bunch of presumably Asian ninjas, thus proving his mastery of martial arts was more complete than theirs. Regardless of the original ethnicity of the comic book character, it’s clear that an Asian Danny Rand might have been able to sell this plotline more effectively. While they didn’t choose to go with an Asian-American Danny, the creative team still had many opportunities to talk about Asia because Danny’s plane went down in China and he was raised in an Asian-influenced place. However, rather than this, Iron Fist seemed to want to erase all opportunities for actual Asian representation. Strangely enough, we don’t even get to see the actual monastery in K’un Lun where Danny grew up. The most we see of it is some faceless, nameless monks beating child Danny for infractions unknown, and regardless of how discipline is actually carried out in Buddhist monasteries, this means that the only time we see the monks is when they’re engaging in child abuse. Danny brings it up several times; he talks about his martial arts training, but mentions very little about how he learned meditation or if he ever studied the many Buddhist texts. We have to assume he did, because Danny is constantly quoting Buddhist scholars, but for growing up in a monastery, he certainly doesn’t seem to ever have gotten any religious lessons.
Every opportunity the series has to show actual Chinese culture is squandered. Danny is supposed to be fluent in Mandarin, but Jones can’t seem to get his tongue around it, and when the gang goes to China for an episode in pursuit of Gao, they even meet a Chinese beggar who—get this—speaks perfect English. Colleen, who teaches martial arts, talks about the bushido code without ever explaining it, and Danny talks a good game about respecting the sanctity of the dojo before literally walking on Colleen’s mats with his shoes on and beating up one of her students.
Beyond this, the Hand itself loses its identity as an Asian organization when we’re introduced to the two factions of the Hand. One is led by Madame Gao, of course, and the other one is led by a Puerto Rican guy called Bakuto, who is clearly not Asian and also wasn’t Asian in the original comics. Bakuto’s faction is supposedly better than Gao’s—for one, it’s not in the drug business—but we don’t learn anything else about this faction of the Hand, Danny is just told that it’s “different” and “better”. Then, when Bakuto tries to kill Colleen, it’s suddenly “not better”. There’s no more development given to Bakuto and no further explanation of what the mission of this Hand faction is. Yet Bakuto is, at least for a couple episodes, a martial arts master who actually teaches Danny something and helps him. He would have been a great opportunity to have an Asian character actually visible on the screen acting as Danny’s superior.
5. Asian stereotypes
Even the actual Asian characters we did have seemed stereotyped and underdeveloped. Early in the series, Danny fights off the Hatchet Men, a gang opposed to the Hand who, of course, operate out of a Chinese restaurant. Though he later allies with them and asks them to help him attack an operation of Madame Gao’s, the Hatchet Men are never developed and all but one of them remained nameless throughout. Danny’s teacher, Lei Kung the Thunderer, appeared in a couple visions of Danny’s to shout orders at him, but was otherwise a nonentity. Lewis Tan, who notably auditioned for the role of Danny Rand, stole Episode 8 as a wonderfully sarcastic bodyguard for Gao, but is quickly defeated by Danny and never appears again. Madame Gao herself only seemed to be in the plot to dispense cryptic plot points about Danny’s parents, leaving the true mantle of villain to Harold and Bakuto. Even Danny’s best friend from K’un Lun, Davos, doesn’t get the depth he deserves—he appears out of nowhere to drag Danny back to K’un Lun, insists in a one-note fashion that they are tools who shouldn’t have emotions, and is incensed enough to leave Danny when Danny chooses Colleen over him. In the series epilogue, he, like Joy Meachum, is implied to be a future villain.
Then, of course, there’s Colleen Wing. Colleen, a martial arts master and Danny’s Asian love interest, only gets more stereotyped as Danny teaches her martial arts in the first episode and later on has to save her life when she’s poisoned. Though Colleen starts off demonstrably not a fan of Danny (and why would she be, when he, a complete stranger, came up to her in a park, started talking to her in Mandarin, and told her he was great at martial arts), by Episode 7 she’s into him enough to have sex with him and she promises to help him in whatever he needs to do. Like Joy, Colleen could have had a great character arc, particularly when it’s revealed that she’s Bakuto’s student. But, also like Joy, this is swept under the rug when Bakuto tries to kill her and Colleen quickly rethinks her entire life and agrees with Danny that Bakuto is Bad News.
Clearly, there’s a lot of stuff in this series that couldn’t be fixed by simply racebending Danny Rand and making him Asian-American. Yet I still think it would have been better had Danny been Asian, if only to give one Asian character an actual character arc. Danny’s storyline is seemingly perfectly set up for an Asian-American narrative. Perhaps Danny was born in the U.S. to East Asian immigrant parents, and the plane ride to China was to visit family rather than for business purposes. Growing up in China after the death of his parents, an Asian-American Danny would nonetheless have been relentlessly teased or bullied for being too “Americanized” in his behavior and his language abilities. And going back to the U.S. after fifteen years in China, this Danny would have been buffeted on all sides by Americans who didn’t consider him truly American and Asians who didn’t consider him truly Asian. His desire to rejoin his father’s company could have gotten into filial piety; his desire to take down the Hand could have tied into ideas of ethnicity and affinity fraud. This kind of identity narrative would have made much more sense for Danny’s primary conflict of whether he’s the American Danny Rand or the Asian Iron Fist, and would have been the first Asian-American narrative in a superhero story that I can remember seeing.
As I said at the start, I wouldn’t recommend Iron Fist, even to Marvel fans who want to be kept in the loop for the upcoming The Defenders. Beyond being extraordinarily tone-deaf in the racial department, it’s just poorly written and poorly executed on both a character and a narrative level. Furthermore, all it really does continuity-wise is introduce Danny and Colleen, while setting up the Hand for future battles. You wouldn’t be missing out on anything if you skipped it.