Iron Fist is the weakest hero of Marvel’s Netflix run. He’s a cartoonish character with no real depth, one who wields power through nonsensical actions. But though the Iron Fist viewers met in the eponymous show was a failure of imagination, The Defenders series itself improves upon Danny Rand in a real way. Or at the very least, depicts him as somewhat less of a train wreck.
As a serious superhero venture, Iron Fist was destined to walk a rockier path than its sister shows. Jessica Jones focuses on sexual assault, abuse, and overcoming the trauma associated with those experiences. Luke Cage elevates a bulletproof black superhero, fighting for justice and the common man in Harlem. Even Daredevil, despite essentially starring a blind ninja, is grounded by the ordinary elements of Matt Murdock’s lawyer life. Iron Fist has neither the thematic nor character foundations to justify the same kind of ultra-serious take. Instead, it leans into its ridiculous premise — and its idiot of a hero.
Even ignoring the casting controversy leading up to the show’s first season, critics have trashed the show for bad acting, ludicrous plots, and lukewarm fight scenes. On his own, Iron Fist felt like a caricature, rather than a character. Danny Rand is the long-lost heir to a profitable empire, a man who was lost as a boy and raised by Monks in a mythical land, a guy that fought a dragon, and someone who became a living weapon specifically to fight the mysterious, ninja-filled organization that calls itself the Hand. Finn Jones plays Rand with a sort of bland idiocy that tries to pass itself off as naiveté. Instead, it comes across as absurd — possibly because every other character in the series acts equally as stupid.
Take Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), the frenemy from Danny’s childhood, who verifies his identity through a plot point involving M&Ms. Or an awkward sequence in which a key character, dazed, wanders through the city making idle chitchat and barfing. These moments are played as painfully earnest, when it would have served Iron Fist better to lean into the absurdity of the scenarios with a humorous edge. (Notably, original series showrunner Scott Buck is being replaced by Sleepy Hollow producer Raven Metzner for season 2.)
That’s not to say Danny can’t be utilized as part of serious narrative arcs. But his character is best served when he is checked by, like, a real adult. The Defenders nails this. In one brief scene, Luke scolds Danny for beating up a kid. Danny is indignant, countering with a the weak excuse that he wouldn’t have actually killed him. And, after all, Luke is a vigilante, too. “The difference is I’m not some billionaire white boy who takes justice into his own hands and slams a black kid against the wall because of his personal vendetta,” Luke shoots back.
Danny can deny that his wealth doesn’t define him, but as Luke points out, he’s been lucky enough to dodge a jail cell. “I’ve seen my share of injustice... I know privilege when I see it,” Luke says. “You may think you’ve earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born.” Luke’s words put Danny’s action into context. They offer the kind of weight that Iron Fist so desperately wanted to achieve in its first season, but never could.
Furthermore, The Defenders is self-aware of what a “thundering dumbass” Danny Rand is, as one character aptly puts it. Being stupid with your immense power can be a compelling story, if handled properly. Look no further than Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tom Holland’s version of the character is young and foolish, a hero in training who doesn’t fully comprehend the weight or capabilities of his talents yet. It very nearly gets him, and others, killed. Iron Fist’s first season is not that different, but it failed because it was unable to communicate that same thought in a coherent, engaging way.
If Iron Fist made you root for Danny Rand to get clocked in the face, The Defenders is motivation to offer him an icepack afterward. With the second season coming, hopefully he’ll learn how to improve.