Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)

It turns out the biggest problem with Iron Fist wasn’t its so-so action, its lack of a central villain, or even its weak leading performance; it’s the order in which it chose to tell its story. We’re just now, 10 episodes into the series, starting to understand Danny’s relationship to his Iron Fist powers. And while those reveals make Danny a more interesting character in retrospect, they don’t make up for the hours we spent sitting through his nonsensical behavior at the beginning of the series. This season is bit like if the first Captain America followed a buff Steve Rogers through all of his World War II exploits, only to reveal two-thirds of the way into the movie that he used to be a scrawny guy. It might make for a shocking twist, but it would lose the heart of the film: Captain America acts the way he does because inside he still has the heart of an underdog. And it turns out that understanding Danny’s backstory finally allows us to understand him as a character too.

Danny is a really, really shitty Iron Fist. And while for the longest time that seemed like a flaw of the show, it turns out it’s actually just a flaw of his character. However he may have finagled his way into the role, it’s not a position Danny particularly understands nor knows how to use. And because in his heart he’s just a scared teenager, he overcompensates for his performance anxiety with bluster and force. Does it make sense that Danny is so juvenile? Your mileage may vary (sometimes it feels like the show is depicting him as a teen who woke up in a grown man’s body, not someone who grew up in a harsh environment), but at least it’s finally clear what story this show is trying to tell.

“Black Tiger Steals Heart” is actually an episode I really enjoyed. And had this been the third or fourth episode of the season, it would’ve gone a long way to making Iron Fist a much more entertaining series. There are still fundamental issues with Danny as a character and Finn Jones as an actor, but at least he’s not the complete enigma he used to be. If Iron Fist didn’t want to depict Danny’s origin story, it at least needed to offer more self-awareness about his limitations and a better sense of where he’s at on his superhero journey. And ideally, it needed to offer those things before its final few episodes.

The person most responsible for clarifying Danny’s arc is Bakuto—yet another element it would’ve been helpful to introduce much, much earlier in the series. He casually and not impolitely drives home just how much Danny still has to learn about his Iron Fist powers. Whatever the training program is like in K’un-Lun (again, it would be nice to have a sense of that by now), it clearly failed at properly preparing its latest Iron Fist for his job. And now Bakuto wants to help Danny unlock his full potential—the potential captured in some cool looking footage from 1948 that shows a full-fledged Iron Fist going to town on a group of Chinese soldiers.

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Bakuto shows Danny around his picturesque campus/training facility for gifted youngsters, which is where Colleen found her feet after leaving her grandfather in Japan. And he offers Danny the chance to join his political revolution, a movement that will take down the one percent (the Gaos of the world) and champion the underdogs like Colleen and Danny. Danny is quick to point out that he himself is part of the one percent, but Bakuto brushes away that concern during his fairly aggressive sales pitch, which is our first sign that he’s not quite what he seems. Instead Bakuto offers Danny the chance to be part of something bigger than himself and bigger than his role as K’un-Lun’s protector. The only problem is, that “something bigger” just happens to be Danny’s sworn enemy, The Hand.

I noted in one of my earlier reviews that Iron Fist is a show about family, but that’s not quite right. “Black Tiger Steals Heart” helped me realize that Iron Fist is actually a show about cults. Or, more generously, it’s a show about organizations and how they can limit their members into only seeing the world through one lens. Ward and Joy aren’t sniveling supervillains but their commitment to earning profit for Rand Enterprises allowed them to justify less-than-ethical business decisions so long as they stayed within the letter of the law. From the moment Harold irrationally smashes a bottle of Scotch, Joy knows something is off with him. Yet she lets her commitment to her family and her company blind her to that reality. She suspects her FrankenDad is willing to kill to get what he wants, but she chooses to believe him when he says he didn’t murder Lawrence Wilkins.

“Well that escalated quickly.”

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But the thing is, the difference between a “cult” and a “family” can be hard to tell when you’re inside of one. Both Danny and Colleen see the groups in which they were raised as their pseudo families and they’re reflexively defensive of them. Danny can’t imagine a world in which any group connected to The Hand is good, and Colleen can’t imagine that her beloved safe haven would ever use corrupt methods to achieve its ends. What I like about Danny and Colleen’s big fight—which Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick perform like a solid first pass at scene work in a college acting class—is that they’re both kind of right.

Danny is definitely too quick to jump to conclusions about The Hand and Colleen is right when she calls him out for rushing into battle without a plan whenever he hears the organization is involved. But Colleen is also far too trusting of Bakuto and his less-than-honest methods of recruiting Danny, which should’ve raised some red flags for her way earlier. Though I fear Iron Fist will fall back into a simplistic good vs. evil dynamic, I enjoy the shades of grey in this episode. Bakuto’s campus does seem like a pretty idyllic place to hang out, even if his all-seeing surveillance room and willingness to work with Harold is disconcerting. And it’s true that there’s definitely something cult-like in the way Danny’s K’un-Lun mentors taught him to punch first, ask questions never. I’m hoping the show maintains some of that ambiguity moving forward, rather than just casting Bakuto as its big bad.

But by far the best thing about “Black Tiger Steals Heart” is that it openly acknowledges how deeply flawed and unprepared Danny is. And a lot of that comes from Danny’s childhood friend Davos (Sacha Dhawan), the mysterious aluminum foil craftsman from the previous episode. I actually had to pause this episode because I was laughing so hard at his perfectly delivered intro line, “Wow, you are the worst Iron Fist ever.” And best of all, I was finally laughing with the show, not at it. Though Iron Fist still kind of wants to have it both ways in terms of Danny’s effectiveness in combat (I don’t for a second believe he could actually beat Bakuto in a fight), Davos is a much-needed foil for Danny’s self-righteousness.

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“Come with me if you want to live.”

Davos and Danny’s escape from Bakuto’s complex is of the more engaging action sequences of the season, not least of all because Sacha Dhawan is a really great screen presence. And having him around to call Danny on his bullshit instantly makes both Danny and the show more likable. Though Davos is fulfilling an official mission to bring Danny back, it’s clearly a personal one as well: His friend abandoned him without a word and he doesn’t understand why. It’s another moment that raises questions about whether K’un-Lun is a cult, a family, or something in the middle.

“Black Tiger Steals Heart” ends with Danny at his lowest point. But it turns out that knocking its hero down is just what Iron Fist needed to elevate itself. Hopefully in finally (finally!) filling in the blanks on just how Danny came to be the Iron Fist, Iron Fist can actually bring something original to the crowded superhero table.

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Stray observations

  • I always love seeing the cast of The History Boys succeed, so it was extra fun to have Sacha Dhawan onscreen for that reason. Also I kind of wish this show was centered on Davos instead of Danny.
  • Seriously though, what the hell is wrong with me that I’m really charmed by Danny and Colleen together?
  • Finn Jones can’t even do tai chi with conviction.
  • “You’re still a child.” “At least I’m not in prison!” Great comeback, Danny.
  • I don’t know a lot about forensics, but I feel like it would be pretty obvious that Lawrence’s death wasn’t a suicide based on the angle of that gunshot.

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