Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In the climatic final battle of a superhero story, a vigilante with parent issues has to decide whether or not to kill his nemesis. I’m going to venture most people reading this have seen a superhero story like that before because I could spend this whole review listing the many, many live action comic book adaptations that all end in precisely that way (not least of all Netflix’s Daredevil). After finding a more original story for its penultimate episode, Iron Fist’s finale falls back on the most overused of superhero tropes. And that makes for a disappointing conclusion to a disappointing season of TV.
“Dragon Plays With Fire” is one of the worst written episodes since the start of the season (and perhaps not coincidentally the first creator Scott Buck has been credited with co-writing since then). There’s not a single piece of subtext the episode doesn’t turn into text, the nadir of which is this monologue from Claire:
Danny you’re not the first friend of mine with special powers. They’re all dark, haunted people. You know when I first met you in Colleen’s dojo I couldn’t help but notice that you had this sweet innocence. But the more you continue to fight against something that happened 15 years ago—a fight you can’t possibly win—the darker you become.
The on-the-nose monologue at least clarifies what story this show is trying to tell with Danny. I would argue “sweet innocence” hasn’t been a particularly defining trait for him outside of the episode where he first met Claire (“Under Leaf Pluck Lotus,” probably still my favorite of the season). But I can see how the writers were trying to put the idea of duality at the center of his story, even if they haven’t always executed it perfectly. Danny was trained to be a powerful weapon yet inside he’s just a scared little boy. But why does it all have to come back to his parents?
Outside of the oft-repeated plane crash scene and the weird board game flashback, we don’t really know much about Danny’s parents or his relationship with them. So while it’s of course sad in a general sense that they were killed, there’s nothing more specific to allow us to relate to Danny’s feelings of loss and anger. In fact, from our point of view, Harold causing a plane to crash 15 years ago is about the 10th most villainous thing we’ve seen him do. While Danny was busy finding himself, we watched Harold kill Hand soldiers, chop up dead bodies, lock his son in a psych ward, and brutally murder sweet, sweet Kyle. So although Harold’s involvement in the plane crash is a huge shock for Danny, it’s just business as usual for viewers. We’re not put into Danny’s mindset so much as annoyed by how long it takes him to catch up to ours.
Given that this season ultimately comes down to a confrontation between Danny and Harold, it’s also strange how much the show kept them apart from one another. Actually developing Harold as a true father figure for Danny would make the betrayal so much more powerful. Instead their final rooftop showdown just feels rote. And none of the action in this episode is anywhere near as compelling as the stuff in the previous episode, apart from Danny Hulk-smashing the floor, which at least gets point for originality (swinging through the window Tarzan-style just looked silly though).
“Dragon Plays With Fire” returns to the angry, unstable Danny we haven’t really seen since the first few episodes, which, unfortunately is the iteration Finn Jones is worst at playing. Before the fight, Danny must grapple with the question of whether the best way to harness his Iron Fist powers is to kill Harold (as Gao suggests) or to avoid giving into his murderous instincts (as Colleen suggests). After initially going for blood, Danny eventually decides to let Harold live only for Ward to kill his father instead, in yet another superhero cliché. But the bigger problem is that I’m not actually sure why Danny decides to spare Harold’s life. A pair of red lights remind him of Shou-Lao, the dragon who chose him to be the Iron Fist, which perhaps inspires Danny to fall back on his more restrained Iron Fist philosophy. But on the other hand, since Davos seemed eager to kill anyone even vaguely connected to The Hand, I’m not sure K’un-Lun/the Iron Fist actually have any kind of anti-murder stance. Danny sparing Harold is yet another thing that feels like it happens because it’s the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen in a superhero climax.
To its credit, the episode uses both Hogarth and Claire to call out the many, many ridiculous choices the show’s protagonists make, including Colleen’s immediate willingness to kill on Danny’s behalf. And Claire’s departing monologue about the fact that Danny and Colleen both desperately need therapy perfectly straddles the line between funny and sincere, which Rosario Dawson always walks so well on these shows. But, unfortunately, those little bits of self-awareness don’t make up for the episode’s logical flaws, inconsistent characterizations, and strange obsession with tablets.
The one, and potentially only, genuinely interesting character to emerge from both this episode and this season is Ward, who has transformed from a one-note corporate villain to a sympathetic hero in an arc that has been consistently compelling. Tom Pelphrey’s ability to create a nuanced, relatable character despite a so-so script is proof that the problems with Danny Rand aren’t just down to the writing. Finn Jones has taken a poorly written character and made him more incomprehensible at every turn. That may not entirely be his fault, but there’s no denying that the Danny we get onscreen is a mess of a character compared to the far more compelling Ward.
Speaking of messes, never in a million years would I have guessed that this season would end with Danny and Colleen casually mountain climbing up to K’un-Lun in hipster snow gear. Despite just one episode ago telling Davos that New York City is his home, Danny promptly declares he’s going to return to K’un-Lun to finish his Iron Fist training. (The idea that Danny had ducked out of his training early was never completely clear to me until the end of this episode; I thought maybe K’un-Lun just had shitty teachers.) Unfortunately, instead of arriving in time for “afternoon kung-fu practice” Danny and Colleen discover some dead Hand soldiers and a missing city. Given that the one thing we know about K’un-Lun is that it’s only briefly visible once every 15 years, that doesn’t seem like it should be the biggest shock in the world. But the episode treats it as a major cliffhanger, potentially one to be dealt with in The Defenders.
All of these Defenders series have had their missteps, some of them pretty glaring. But there has always been something to recommend in them as well—the action of Daredevil, the central metaphor of Jessica Jones, the world building of Luke Cage. While Iron Fist may not have surpassed the lows of its sister series, it never even came close to matching their highs. There are small pleasures to be had here for Marvel completists, particularly in Ward, Colleen, Claire, Madame Gao, and Davos. But much like its hero, this season of Iron Fist can only be described as directionless, inconsistent, and kind of boring.
- The previous episode, “Bar the Big Boss,” was far better and definitely should’ve been the finale.
- The best Finn Jones has been all season is the monologue about hoping his mother had somehow survived the plane crash. Despite how much I’ve criticized him in these reviews, I’m hopeful that perhaps The Defenders will be able to rehabilitate his character the way Avengers did with Black Widow after Iron Man 2.
- Despite being on Danny’s side for basically the entire season, Joy for some reason decides to team up with Davos to take him down. Also Madame Gao becomes a living version of the Kermit Drinking Tea meme.
- I enjoyed Colleen seeing armed guards, saying “Guns, shit,” and running away to find another entrance. It’s a nice way to lampshade the fact that she’s literally bringing a sword to a gun fight.
- “I really didn’t realize there was going to be so much emotional honesty.” Never change Jeri Hogarth.
- If someone were to make a supercut of all the times Colleen has desperately yelled “Danny!” I’d wager it would be at least five minutes long.
- I finally realized Jessica Stroup sounds exactly like Chloe Bennet on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. I guess all Marvel women who interact with characters named Ward have to sound the same.
- Danny basically just bribes the DEA (well, makes a “generous contribution” to their Widows’ & Children’s Fund) to get out of his assault charges. Must be nice to be a billionaire.
- Does anyone ever learn that Ward killed Harold? I kept waiting for that to become a major plot point but it never did.
- That’s it for Iron Fist’s first season! I certainly won’t miss having to go into a windowless room and turn off all the lights in order to watch this series during the daytime. Thanks for following along with these reviews. If you want to chat more about Danny or the rest of the Defenders universe, you can find me on Twitter.