Punching Upward — First Impressions of Marvel’s Iron Fist Season Two

Wow, this is so much better.

I was not kind to Iron Fist season one when it aired, nor did it deserve it. Show-runner Scott Buck evinced no understanding of kung fu or martial arts in general, nor of the character that Marvel has been producing comics with since 1973, and then he doubled down by casting an actor with no martial arts experience whatsoever to play one of the greatest martial artists in the Marvel canon.

After that, the character appeared in The Defenders—where they leaned into his being a twerp—and an episode of Luke Cage season two—in which Finn Jones acted and sounded more like the Danny Rand I’ve been reading since I was a kid than he had anywhere else.

M. Raven Metzner took over the show-running duties with IF season two, and while I was a bit nervous that they were giving the show to the person who co-wrote the script for the Jennifer Garner Elektra movie, based on the first three episodes, things are looking considerably up.

SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST THREE EPISODES OF IRON FIST SEASON TWO, AS WELL AS THE OTHER MCU NETFLIX SHOWS.

Like the second season of Luke Cage, the sophomore season of IF not only picks up from its first season, but also The Defenders, particularly Rand’s promise to Matt Murdock to keep protecting the city, not to mention that series’ destruction of the Hand and not only Rand’s role in it, but also Colleen Wing’s.

Indeed, one of the main reasons why these first three episodes work so much better than, well, the entirety of season one is that they’re limiting Finn Jones’s exposure. He’s still the central character, but he’s part of an ensemble, and the rest of the ensemble is showcasing their strengths.

Metzner sensibly isn’t pretending the first season didn’t happen—that’s hard to do in as continuity-heavy a setting as the Netflix series, though not impossible, as Jessica Jones season two and The Punisher season one proved—but rather taking it and figuring out what the best next step is.

Wing is obviously traumatized by her experiences with the Hand. After going through the cathartic trauma of beheading her mentor in The Defenders, she has given up the Chikara dojo (which was a Hand front), having converted it to a very nice apartment for her and Rand. She’s volunteering at a Chinatown charity center, helping people with immigration paperwork and generally supporting the poorer members of the community.

Both Ward and Joy Meachum are recovering from the trauma of what their father Harold did to them. In Ward’s case, he’s in Narcotics Anonymous and trying to run Rand Enterprises by himself, since Joy disappeared after season one and Rand himself isn’t interested in being an active CEO. Ward’s not doing very well at it, because he’s still a self-centered asshole who was psychologically abused by his father, but he’s trying at least.

Joy wishes to divest herself of Rand Enterprises, as she’s livid at Rand and Ward for not telling her that Harold was alive. Her anger, while completely understandable, is misplaced, as Harold didn’t give either of them a choice; Ward had been his whipping boy for years, and Harold expertly manipulated Rand. Nonetheless, one cannot blame her for not wanting to be involved with either of the two men who kept the fact that her father was alive from her, never mind that the father—who’s now dead—forced them to.

And as we saw at the end of last season, Joy has teamed up with Davos, Rand’s former best friend, and the only other K’un L’un native still walking around, as the city has disappeared. Davos wants the iron fist for himself, and he’s working with Joy to accomplish that. For Joy’s part, her interest is in seeing Rand go through what she did. Her life was simple and orderly and understandable until Rand walked back into her life with his bare feet and twerpy attitude, and she lost everything.

Rand himself is finally acting the way he should’ve been acting all along: trying to assimilate into life in New York and trying to figure out who he is and what he is now. The purpose of the Immortal Iron Fist is to protect K’un L’un from the Hand, but now K’un L’un and the Hand are both gone. So he’s trying to protect the city, as Murdock charged him.

He’s also trying to find himself. Throughout all of his prior appearances, he’s been accused of not understanding things because he’s rich and never had to work for his money. To that end, he takes a job with a moving company (working for Albert, played by James Hiroyuki Liao, whom I am disappointed to see is only in the first episode, grumble, as he’s one of my favorite Noo Yawk actors) so he can appreciate the value of working for a living.

The biggest improvement from season one so far is that the plotting is intricate and all coming together nicely, at least so far. There are seven more episodes for it to go to hell, of course, but for the moment the different threads are weaving together nicely. (And yes, only seven more episodes. This season is only ten episodes, which can only be a good thing, as too many of the MCU Netflix shows have been painfully padded.)

There’s the unintended consequences of the Hand’s destruction, which is that the gangs of Chinatown are starting to go to war again, without the Hand keeping them in check. Rand is trying to get the two sides to talk to each other, but he’s stymied by a number of outside factors, including Davos, who is doing a deal with the head of one side, a deal that is scotched by the attempt at a truce.

And then there’s Wing’s discovery of a box left at the community center that has the same family crest as her sword. She’s only just started her family quest as of the third episode, but it’ll be interesting to see where it leads.

We also finally get something we should have seen in season one, which is flashbacks to K’un L’un. In particular, we get a magnificently choreographed display as Rand and Davos fight for the right to confront Shao Lao the Undying to claim the power of the iron fist.

That sequence is one of the best, partly because they went and hired a better fight choreographer for season two (Clayton Barber, who also did the fight choreography for Black Panther), but mainly because it reveals Davos’s tragic flaw. The battle is observed by Yu-Ti, the August Personage in Jade, and Lei Kung the Thunderer. Established back in Iron Fist’s debut in Marvel Premiere 45 years ago as, respectively, the head of K’un L’un and the person who trained Rand, they are joined by a character I’m fairly certain we never saw in the comics, Lei Kung’s wife Priya, who is also Davos’s mother.

When Davos almost kills Rand, and begs him to yield, Lei Kung says nothing. But when Rand recovers and almost kills Davos, who also refuses to yield, Lei Kung calls off the fight and declares Rand the victor preemptively. It is obvious from the expressions on the faces of Hoon Lee and Gita Reddy that Lei Kung does not wish to see his son die in front of his mother, so he calls it. But Davos very obviously doesn’t see that. He feels that Rand stole the iron fist from him, that Lei Kung gave it to him because he favored Rand over his own son, and it’s in fact the opposite.

There are also some new characters, most notably Alice Eve as Mary Walker, the MCU version of Typhoid Mary, a character with dissociative identity disorder. We first meet her as a recent arrival to New York City who meets Rand and Albert on the job, asking for directions, and who is eventually revealed to be someone hired by Joy and Davos to surveil Rand. Walker is a wild card in this season, and I’m tentatively curious as to what they do with her. (Metzner was partly responsible for the last live-action attempt to do Typhoid in Elektra, and it could charitably be called a disaster.) And then we have Chinese gangster BB, who had better become interesting soon, because right now, he’s a walking talking cliché who gives Wing someone to talk to, but isn’t worth it for that.

This is still the least of Marvel’s Netflix offerings. Jones doesn’t have anywhere near the chops or charisma of Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, or Jon Bernthal, and this season seems to have the too-many-villains problem of the first, as we’ve got Davos and Joy and Walker and the Chinatown gangs. It’s a bit too much, and none of them are as compelling as the Kingpin, Kilgrave, Elektra, Cottonmouth, Bushmaster, Mariah Dillard, Alexandra, or Madame Gao.

But so far at least, it feels like Iron Fist for the first time. In addition, the rest of the cast makes up for Jones’s slack. Jessica Henwick remains superb as Wing—her calling everyone on their bullshit during the awkward dinner party in episode three is magnificent. Sacha Dhawan still feels like he should’ve been cast in the title role, and generally does excellent with Davos’s reserved intensity. Jessica Stroup, freed from the inconsistent characterization of season one, is far more compelling as the much more focused and angry version of Joy. Tom Pelphrey remains excellent as a Ward who really is trying to get better, but has to get through an entire lifetime of being a schmuck in order to manage that. And while I’m iffy about the character, Alice Eve is doing a fine job portraying Mary Walker thus far.

Later this week, I’ll have a more detailed review of the entire season—which will include, among other things, the arrival of Simone Missick as Misty Knight, which means more Daughters of the Dragon-y goodness!

Keith R.A. DeCandido has previously reviewed Iron Fist season one, The Defenders season one, The Punisher season one, and Luke Cage season two for this site. His regular feature, “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” appears on this site every Friday at noon, and he’s also written about Star Trek, Doctor Who, Wonder Woman, Batman, Stargate, and more. When he’s not dropping pixels here on Tor.com, he’s the author of novels, short fiction, and comics, both in a variety of licensed universes from Alien to Zorro and in worlds of his own creation. His full bibliography can be found here.

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