Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)

The unwritten rule of live-action superhero properties is that the hero must battle a villain who’s on their level in some way. Iron Man would be an awfully boring franchise if Tony Stark were just using his superpowered suit to easily round up petty thugs. So his movies have him face off with mechanically powered supervillains like Iron Monger, Whiplash, and Ultron. Captain America takes on The Winter Soldier, The Hulk battles Abomination, and Batman faces off against other people who like to invent gadgets and dress up in themed costumes. You’ve got to give your hero an enemy who is either equal to or stronger than they are (at least mentally, if not physically) so that it’s all the more impressive when they defeat them anyway and save the day. So far, however, Iron Fist is ignoring that crucial superhero rule. While I’m sure Danny Rand will eventually get a superpowered foe, right now his low-level opponents are struggling to sell the fact that he’s the fearsome mystical warrior he keeps claiming to be.

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In fact, far from a mystical superpowered hero, Danny just seems like a guy who’s vaguely good at kung fu. And I don’t mean that as a knock against Finn Jones’ action skills, though those aren’t the best either. But the bigger problem is that we’re six episodes into a 13-episode series, and I can’t really tell you anything about our central hero’s powers. Almost everything we see Danny do in this episode seems like the kind of stuff non-powered Daredevil is regularly pulling off on his own series. Indeed, we already saw Colleen emerge victorious in a two-on-one cage match earlier this season, so it’s strange that it takes Danny “Iron Fist” Rand almost the same amount of effort to do so here. If he has to work as hard as a normal human like Colleen to win a fight, what makes him such a one-of-a-kind warrior? Why doesn’t he immediately end every battle with his glowing punch? What are the limitations on his abilities?

I don’t know what Iron Fist thinks it’s gaining by keeping details about Danny’s time in K’un Lun so vague for so long. Despite the fact that Danny begins seeing (and speaking to) visions of his former mentor Lei Kung (Hoon Lee), we’re still left with far more questions than answers about his abilities. If the show was successfully teasing out the mystery of Danny’s backstory, it would be one thing. But far from feeling enticing, the ongoing opaqueness is confusing at best and boring at worst. (Daredevil’s second season had a very similar problem when it came to teasing out its mystical elements, so maybe these Defenders shows just don’t handle magic well.)

But, hey, the ’90s are back, and they brought all of their favorite final bosses with them! “Immortal Emerges From Cave” offers a cheesy take on Mortal Kombat (is there any other kind?) as Danny fights his way through three Hand baddies to rescue Sabina (the Russian chemist’s daughter) all while Madame Gao watches from a distance. Yet rather than carry over the fun, self-aware lightheartedness of the previous episode, “Immortal Emerges From Cave” goes for stone-faced seriousness instead. And that only makes the episode’s climactic showdown feel even cheesier.

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Like so much of this season, you can find some interesting core ideas here if you really search for them. Danny’s journey through the three Hand battles doubles as a metaphorical journey through his psyche. First he has to prove his strength and strategic skills as he figures out how to take down the double act of Russian brothers Andrei and Grigori Veznikov. Then he has the emotional challenge of battling the Bride Of Nine Spiders, a sexy sexpot with the power of sultriness. And finally Danny has to truly embrace his role as the Iron Fist in order to take down weapons master Scythe. But, unfortunately, sloppy execution and ham-fisted writing water down whatever resonance those ideas might’ve had in a better version of this show.

On a technical level, this is the best and most sustained action we’ve seen so far on this series. But given that the story around that action is so vague, it doesn’t resonant beyond the purely visceral pleasures of watching one dude punch another dude (or roundhouse kick a sexy spider lady in the face, as the case may be). After winning me over last episode, Finn Jones once again struggles as the show returns to Danny’s more serious side. And the cheesy villains are entirely at odds with the dramatic character story Iron Fist seems to want to tell here.

The Bride Of Nine Spiders in particular feels like a throwback to the schlockiest ’90s version of weaponized sexuality and/or an extra from Wild Wild West, which I guess is basically the same thing. If you want to play this kind of thing straight (and not in a campier way like they do on The Flash and Supergirl), you need the right sense of conviction to make the over-the-top superhero theatrics work. And in this case, the whole thing winds up feeling silly, not thrilling.

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“Let’s wrap this, I’ve got a matinee of Kiss Of The Spider-Woman to get to after we’re done.”

After all of the illegal stuff they’ve gotten up to, it strained credibility that The Hand would put so much stock in a ceremonial fight, so I was glad to see Madame Gao admit she didn’t really give a shit about rules and honor. Just moments before he wins his final battle, Gao changes the rules of the game and offers Danny a different option: either kill his final opponent and start a war with The Hand (a.k.a. the Iron Fist way) or forfeit the match and save Sabina’s life (a.k.a. the Danny Rand way). But Danny’s final choice (Sabina’s life over his sworn duty) lacks weight because, as I mentioned before, we still don’t fully know what it means for him to be the Iron Fist, let alone for him to give it up.

The most interesting idea raised in “Immortal Emerges From Cave” is just how unsure Danny is in his sense of self. He no longer fits into the cutthroat corporate world he was born into; he’s never going to be one who prioritizes brand strategy meetings over concrete human lives. But nor does he fully fit into the narrow parameters of being the Iron Fist either; he can’t solely focus on fighting The Hand when there are other factors at play. In both cases, Danny is too much of an individualist to be used as a cog in a larger machine. It’s a fine, if familiar, idea around which to frame a superhero series, but Iron Fist actually has to do something with that idea, not just dance around it in a sexy leather bustier.

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Stray observations

  • This episode was directed by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who made his directorial debut with the 2012 film The Man With The Iron Fists, which also centers on a man who’s turned into a living weapon.
  • I saw Hoon Lee (the guy who plays Danny’s mentor Lei Kung) on Broadway as The King in The King And I, and he was absolutely amazing. I was very excited to see him pop up here.
  • So Joy can illegally redirect a kidney to one of her clients, but Ward can’t get some codeine without a prescription? Yeah, I’m definitely calling shenanigans on that one.
  • The best moments in this episode belong to Claire and Colleen. The latter shows off her fighting skills in a no-nonsense hospital showdown. Meanwhile Claire gives Luke Cage a shout-out (“Sweet Christmas!”) before knocking someone out with a fire extinguisher, which I think might be a signature move for her. Too bad they wound up losing the Russian chemist though.
  • In the premiere, Danny made a reference to not really knowing how to drive, but now he’s just casually zipping around New York in his new Aston Martin.
  • Madame Gao reveals that she’s spent time in K’un-Lun and she knew Danny’s father. Plus she apparently has some sort of powerful abilities of her own. Like Rosario Dawson, Wai Ching Ho is another consistently great thing about the Defenders universe.
  • I really struggled to take the final showdown seriously once I pictured members of The Hand showing up at the warehouse earlier in the day to artfully hang strips of white cloth, set up smoke machines, and light candles. Or do you think the Bride Of Nine Spiders is an independent contractor who handles her own setup?

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