Who is Danny Rand?
It is a question that any television show should be asking of its lead. The audience will be spending an extended period of time with this character in this world, so the character needs to be interesting and compelling in their own right. The other Netflix Marvel shows made a point of answering this challenge out of the gate. Into the Ring made it clear that Matt Murdock was a ball of repressed rage buried beneath Catholic Guilt. AKA Ladies’ Night established Jessica Jones as a self-destructive super-strong survivor. Moment of Truth sets up Luke as the immovable object.
There is a recurring sense that Iron Fist understands that establishing its lead character is an important thing to do. Certainly, Snow Gives Way spends enough time on Danny Rand asserting his identity as the sole heir of the Rand Corporation. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight locks Danny in a psychiatric institution in which he is forced to prove his identity to people who believe that he has lost his mind. These are all plot points that, in theory, hinge upon Danny demonstrating who he is. They are, in theory, a solid way to introduce the character to audiences.
However, in practice, there is a recurring sense that Iron Fist simply doesn’t care about making Danny Rand interesting. Iron Fist seems to think that it is enough that the character exists and loosely resembles a superhero. Just like Iron Fist seems to think that it is enough that the show exists and loosely resembles a superhero show.
There is a pervading sense of “that’ll do” that permeates Iron Fist. There is a sense that this is a show that only needs to exist, occupying the vacant release slot between Luke Cage and The Defenders, and filling in some of the back story left dangling from the second season of Daredevil. That bar seems to have been set at “good enough”, which makes the frequent near-misses all the more frustrating. The sense of going through the motions on Iron Fist can be suffocating, leading to a show that is a strange combination of incompetent and boring.
This is true of all layers of production, but it seems most reasonable to start with the most obvious. Iron Fist represents the first catastrophic casting misfire of the Marvel Netflix shows, and perhaps the most ill-judged lead casting of any Marvel Studios project. To be fair, given the volume of film and television material that Marvel puts out, such a misfire was inevitable. The company has gotten exceptionally lucky with casting, especially on Netflix. However, Finn Jones constantly seems out of his depth and incapable of what little the show demands of him.
This is most obvious during the actual martial arts scenes. Finn Jones is not a trained martial artist. He is a British actor, who trained at The Arts Educational Schools and has come to prominence in large part due to his recurring role on Game of Thrones since 2011. To be fair to Jones, he worked out quite a bit for the role. He invested himself in the part:
Every day for the last month, I start my day with about two and a half hours of martial arts — which is kung fu and wushu mixed with a bit of tai chi, and other stuff as well. In the afternoon I’ll do weight training with a trainer to bulk me up and get my physically right for the part. And in evenings I’ve been doing meditation classes and learning buddhist philosophies.
However, there is only so much that an actor can learn in such a short amount of time. Even Jones has acknowledged that the show’s schedule “didn’t allow [him] to continue the training as much as [he] would have liked to.” Unlike performers like Keanu Reeves on John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2, Jones does not have a history of martial arts experience upon which he might draw.
Normally, this would not be a huge problem. After all, actors are generally cast for their acting ability, for their capacity to deliver lines and build character convincingly. There are very few trained martial arts experts who are also talented actors, especially in Hollywood. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal are hardly the most convincing thespians. There are reasons why most big budget productions starring actors without extensive martial arts experience tend to employ stunt doubles.
Of course, stunt doubles present their own challenges and compromises. In older film and television, it was enough to swap the actor with their stunt double, filming a few quick inserts of the actor’s face and movements as the stunt double went to work. However, advances in high definition technology have made it a lot hard to employ stunt doubles convincingly. This might be why computer-generated stunt doubles are employed with increasing frequency.
There are still ways around this problem. Daredevil did an excellent job employing a stunt double during the epic long-take hallway fight scene in Cut Man, having actor Charlie Cox quickly and cleverly swap out with Chris Brewster when entering and leaving certain rooms along the hall. Daredevil could get away with this because most of Brewster’s face was covered with a mask. If only the Immortal Iron Fist ever wore a mask resembling the one worn by Matt Murdock in Cut Man.
The point-blank refusal to put Danny Rand in anything resembling his classic costume causes untold practical problems when it comes to stunt work and action scenes. Iron Fist has to constantly cut around its lead actor. On top of that few of the directors have practical experience handling martial arts film. Even RZA struggles in slicing together the otherwise impressive sequences in Immortal Emerges from Cave, despite his work on The Man With the Iron Fists.
This is not a fatal flaw. While clearly not ideal, the show’s difficulty building convincing martial arts scenes around Finn Jones would be excusable if the performer had enough raw charisma to make up for these shortcomings. If Finn Jones were unequivocally the best person for the role, and if his Danny Rand leapt off the screen, then all would be forgiven. Unfortunately, Finn Jones does not have the necessary screen presence to headline a project like this. Jones is never convincing as Danny Rand, never providing a sense of the character or his psychology.
Over the course of Iron Fist, the writers essentially ask Jones to vacillate between two defining psychological states. The first of these states paints Danny as something of an overgrown hippie surfer love child, a man out of time who has difficulty engaging with the real world. It is an approach that at once calls to mind the disconnect of Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the uncanny seeded beneath Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne in Batman and Batman Returns.
In some ways, this aspect of the character is relatively true to his comic book roots. Danny Rand’s defining character trait has often been his privileged happy-go-lucky attitude. This was at the heart of his relationship with Luke Cage, whether in Power Man & Iron Fist or Heroes for Hire. Luke was a black man who had grown up surrounded by crime and poverty, while Danny was a white kid who had grown up as the heir to a corporate empire. It is too much to liken it to Denny O’Neil’s work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, but there are elements.
However, there are several problems with this approach to Danny within Iron Fist. The most obvious is that Finn Jones has no idea how to play a laid back surfer hippie whimsy. Jones always looks like he’s trying too hard, even when Danny seems to be taking things a little too easy. In Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Colleen and Danny come face to face with armed guards. “Those guards are carrying machine guns,” Colleen states. Danny responds, “Yeah, because they’ve no idea how to fight.” Jones plays the line as grim, when it should be playful.
In part because of the tone of the show, and in part because of Jones inability to convincingly play whimsy, these lighter moments often make it seem like Danny is suffering from a profound mental disorder. It often feels like the other characters should be asking one another about whether he has a brain condition every time he leaves the room. “I used to stick stickers under my father’s desk,” Danny boasts in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. Jeri Hogarth roles her eyes, “Of course you did.” The audience feels her exasperation.
These attempts to play Danny as a lighter character never work, in part because Iron Fist is afraid to embrace the idea that a character could have fun being a superhero. So Danny’s sillier moments and comments all exist to underscore a far more serious neurosis. When Colleen confesses her difficulty reading Danny in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, he admits to low-level social anxiety. “If it helps, I don’t know what I’m saying until it’s taken up wrong.” Of course, Shadow Hawk Takes Flight has Danny committed to a literal psychiatric institution for his whismy.
However, even beyond these shadings of Danny’s lighter beats, there is also a recurring sense that Danny’s emotional immaturity is rooted in trauma. Again, Iron Fist rejects the notion that being a superhero – even a superhero who make his fist “like unto a thing of iron!” – could possibly be fun. As such, Danny’s time in K’un Lun training to be the Immortal Iron Fist is painted as a horrific experience akin to child abuse that essentially warped and destroyed a young boy who desperately needed a father figure.
Shadow Hawk Takes Flight literally juxtaposes the beatings that Danny would receive from the monks at K’un Lun to that which he receives as a resident at a psychiatric hospital. When Danny explains how he was treated in K’un Lun to Joy in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, she is horrified. “It sounds like abuse.” When Colleen wonders if he knows what it feels like to be hit in the face with a practice sword in Snow Gives Way, Danny responds, “I already do. Ask Master Lei Kung the Thunderer.”
This sense that Danny has been the victim of sustained and system abuse becomes increasingly obvious when Lei Kung makes his appearance in Immortal Emerges from Cave. Making reference to the grief that Danny feels at the loss of his parents, Lei Kung warns, “That grief is a weakness. Banish it.” When Danny weighs the question of dishonouring himself or saving an innocent life, Lei Kung grows enraged. “You belong to me, and me alone.” This is not a healthy relationship, Iron Fist shouts at the very top of its voice, drowning out any sense of fun or whimsy.
This portrayal of Danny Rand as a broken child soldier whose dysfunctional relationship are rooted in past trauma is frustrating on a number of levels. Most obviously, Finn Jones simply lacks the ability to convincingly convey that level of emotional damage and vulnerability. Any scenes that require Danny to seem like a broken man instead play like the Iron Fist is an angsty teenager. To be entirely fair, the dialogue doesn’t help, but it is telling that stronger actors like Carrie-Anne Moss or Rosario Dawson do better with the same crummy lines.
These problems become evident quite quickly, most notably in his carpark confrontation with Ward Meachum early in Snow Gives Way. Scaring Ward with his intensity, Danny keeps pushing the car to its limits. He vows, “When you are a ten-year-old boy, and you watch your mother die and you know you and your father are next, it feels like this…” Once he realises how close he came to going over the edge, Danny is wracked with guilt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” It is a scene that requires tremendous dramatic range, range than Jones simply doesn’t have.
Whenever Iron Fist requires Danny to seem threatening, Jones makes him seem like a petulant child having a tantrum. When Danny spends time at Colleen’s dojo in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, he is offended at the way the students behave. “Enough!” he yells. “The dojo is a place of respect!” However, he seems like the substitute teacher awkwardly trying to control a rebelling classroom. “You chatter like monkeys,” he complains. “Is this a kindergarden or are you training warriors?” The scene demands a weight that Jones simply cannot deliver.
There is another problem with this approach to the character. It makes Danny Rand largely redundant. The Defenders already has one primary character who has been trained as a “living weapon” against the Hand by an abusive surrogate father figure following the death of his father. Matt Murdock has already had two whole seasons to corner the market on this brooding masculine angst, rendering Danny Rand somewhat surplus to requirements when it comes to this four-hero line-up.
The decision to turn Danny into a blonde clone of Matt Murdock is even more frustrating because this angst comes at the price of Danny’s lighter side that would otherwise distinguish him. The lead characters in The Defenders are so far defined by their seriousness. Matt Murdock acts like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Jessica Jones is a functional alcoholic who has survived horrific trauma. Luke Cage is endearingly earnest and direct. This team dynamic suggests a lighter character would fit well in the group. Iron Fist sacrifices that.
It also doesn’t help that turning Danny Rand into such a transparent clone of Matt Murdock invites direct comparisons of Finn Jones to Charlie Cox. With his self-centred and uncompromising stubbornness, along with his self-justification and toxic levels of angst, Matt Murdock should be insufferable. However, Charlie Cox taps beautifully into the character’s Irish Catholic angst, suggesting a complexity to the man that the scripts occasionally miss. However, Finn Jones simply cannot brood as well as Charlie Cox. And Iron Fist suffers.
The Marvel Netflix shows have been phenomenally lucky with regards to casting. Even when it comes to the supporting casts, Vincent D’Onofrio is a brilliant Kingpin and David Tennant is a spectacular Kilgrave. The first half-season of Luke Cage featured a tag-team villain team-up of Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard. It stands to reason that this luck would exhaust itself at some point. Iron Fist would seem to be that point. It’s also not just Finn Jones, although he is the most obvious miscast element.
Jones seems to struggle with the demands of being a leading man, both on- and off-screen. Iron Fist has been a television series marred with controversy, putting Jones in the uncomfortable position of tackling these issues head-on. At times, Jones has seemed quite prickly on the point:
I get the frustration. There is a frustration in the world right now, and I support that frustration completely. But what I don’t support is having frustration on something when you’ve not even seen the product yet. It’s blind rage. It’s really harmful. People need to chill the f$!k out before they actually — they need to think about what they’re doing. Because it can be harmful.
Sure. On a lighter note …
Also, c’mon, let’s get angry at the real f$!king injustices in the world, yeah? The real problems in the world. Not just in television. There’s some real shit happening in the world right now that people need to get angry about. Let’s get angry about that. Not just a TV show that hasn’t even aired yet. You know?
Jones’ frustration is understandable. He is effectively being made to answer for problems that are not really his fault, much like Adele seemed to be held to account for systemic issues at the Grammys that were outside her control. Scott Buck and Jeph Loeb should be answering these questions, not Finn Jones.
At the same time, Finn Jones seemed overly defensive in the press around the release of Iron Fist. He bristled at any potential criticism, rather than pivoting the conversation around the points that he wants to make. In fact, Jones seems to explicitly pivot the conversation back to arguments that he cannot win. He quit Twitter over the row. It seems churlish to criticise Jones for his performance off-screen as much as on, particularly given the unique challenges of the interview circuit in the social media age. But there is still a sense that Jones is not well-suited to this task.
There are a lot of very serious and very severe flaws with Iron Fist, but at least some of those flaws could be counterbalanced with a compelling lead character or performance. Luke Cage suffered from some very severe storytelling issues, but its cast did a lot to keep the series above water. The second season of Daredevil was a mess from a storytelling point of view, but the performers did the best that they could to keep the train on the tracks. Iron Fist lacks that key foundation, and suffers as a direct result.
To be fair, Jones does not have a lot to work with. Iron Fist has a similarly loose grasp on its lead character’s psychology and motivations. Iron Fist seems to settle for painting Danny Rand as blonde!Matt Murdock, unsure of what exactly makes the character unique. Indeed, writer and creator Scott Buck has talked repeatedly about being uncomfortable about the elements that make Danny Rand distinct from other superheroes:
“To me, when I first encountered the character, it seemed to me like these were not the greatest super powers in the world. Like, ‘all he can do is punch really hard?’,” Buck recalls. “But that’s sort of what appealed to me about it – he has this one gift, and he can use it some ways, but in the rest of [his] life, it’s just not all that significant.”
Much like Buck’s rejection of Danny Rand’s iconic green-and-yellow superhero costume, there is a sense that the production team is not particularly interested in anything that makes Iron Fist unique as a superhero. There is very little specificity to Iron Fist, none of the texture that allowed projects like Legion, Jessica Jones, Logan or Deadpool to stand out from the superhero pack.
Iron Fist consciously downplays anything that would make Danny Rand stand out from the crowd. The character’s mysticism is largely avoided, with a conscious effort to keep Danny away from K’un Lun in the first half of the season and a special effects budget that stretches as far as a questionable computer-generated glowing fist. “Iron Fist” is treated exceptionally literally, smashing knuckle dusters in Snow Gives Way and breaking axes in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. He is set against the Hand. Shou-Lao is mentioned, but never appears.
To be fair, there are recurring suggestions that the series is half-heartedly trying to suggest a mystical element without embracing it completely. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight reveals that Danny snuck into the United States using a passport with the pseudonym “John Anderson”, which feels like a nod to Neo’s birth name in The Matrix. As with Neo, Danny seems to have scratched the surface of reality and found something underneath. Of course, Iron Fist never invests enough in this heightened reality to pay any of this off.
Instead, Iron Fist positions its lead character as a generic superhero. The series owes a conscious debt to both Batman Begins and the first season of Daredevil. All the corporate scheming plays like a low-rent and poorly-cast twist on Bruce Wayne’s efforts to reclaim Wayne Enterprises. The hallway fight in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, the dockland hijinks of Under Leaf Pluck Lotus and the warehouse shenanigans of Immortal Emerges from Cave all feel like they were lifted from the Marvel Netflix playbook outlined by Daredevil.
Even the villains in Iron Fist lack any definition beyond that imported from Daredevil. Once again, they are real estate schemers tied up with a Japanese ninja death cult. “I’m gonna need your support in buying this piece of property in Brooklyn,” Ward tells Joy in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, because nothing makes villains as exciting as property swindles. Harold Meachum even gets an honest-to-goodness “Kingpin training in his gym” scene in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, a nod to Frank Miller’s characterisation of the crimelord in his Daredevil.
Most frustrating is the relish with which Iron Fist trots out the hoary old tropes of superhero narratives without any real effort to make them specific to this character or this story. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight is a great example of this. The second episode of the series, Shadow Hawk Takes Flight makes a conscious effort to get inside Danny Rand’s head by consigning him to a psychiatric institution surrounded by people who think that he is insane. Of course, virtually any superhero seems insane if their narratives are taken at face value.
Locking a superhero in a psychiatric institution is a stock comic book trope, most likely rooted in late eighties deconstructions like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. It is anchored in the idea of the superhero as a fundamentally dysfunctional character. There are any number of examples from comic books; Batman was institutionalised in The Last Arkham, Wolverine in Insane in the Brain, Moon Knight in Lunatic. The storytelling trope is not new to television, employed in both individual episodes like Dreams in Darkness and entire series like Legion.
Shadow Hawk Takes Flight dutifully hits all of the expected beats in a superhero story like this. Danny is forced to question his own sanity, whether he really is a superhero, and whether his superheroic identity exists in opposition to his civilian identity. “Are you Danny Rand, or are you the Iron Fist?” his psychiatrist asks, point blank. Danny responds, simply, “I’m both.” This sets up a recurring theme that bubbles across the series. In Immortal Emerges from Cave, Lei Kung demands, “Are you willing to kill Danny Rand so that the Iron Fist might live?”
This is superhero plotting 101, using the superhero’s dual identity to generate a compelling conflict within the character. It is a stock superhero story beat for a very good reason: it generally works very well. There is a lot of drama to be mined from juxtaposing the life that Bruce Wayne might have lived with the path that he has chosen as Batman. There is an interesting contrast between Matt Murdock’s career as a legal defender and his activities as a vigilante. Even the balance between Clark Kent and Superman can make compelling plotting.
However, this approach does not work in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. There are two reasons for this. The most obvious is that there is nothing about Danny Rand that cries out for this particular story. In fact, this sort of institutionalisation plot might work better for characters like Matt Murdock or Frank Castle. Danny Rand is never a character who seems on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and neither Snow Gives Way nor Shadow Hawk Takes Flight provide enough context about this iteration of the character to make this story seem especially worthwhile.
There is a sense that Shadow Hawk Takes Flight is trying to use Iron Fist for the express purposes of fashioning the most conventional and archetypal superhero narrative imaginable. Indeed, when Danny is interviewed by his psychiatrist, his back story is explained using pop psychology in a way that obviously evokes the escapism and fantasy associated with superhero comics. When Danny insists on being the lost heir to Rand Enterprises, the psychiatrist talks about how everybody dreams of being somebody else when things are tough.
Later, he expands the metaphor to superhero fantasies in general. “Danny, I believe you’ve been through some great trauma. Your plane crashed, you lost your parents, you barely survived yourself. And I’m guessing things didn’t get better after that. I believe all that. But the rest? Danny, sometimes when our circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with, we create a false reality. One that helps us deal with the loss and suffering. We give ourselves superpowers, secret identities, iron fists. Things that make us feel strong, special.”
This is a very heavy handed and overt discussion of the appeal of superhero fantasies, explaining that these characters are representations of very fundamental ideas that appeal to certain parts of the human psyche. Superman is the perfect man, the person who surpasses their expectations. Batman is the man who always pulls himself back up against impossible odds. Spider-Man is the wimpy kid who handles impossible moral responsibility. These archetypes resonate with people, even beyond the source comics.
The big problem with Iron Fist is that it never actually explains why the fantasy of the Iron Fist should appeal to anybody, beyond the reasons that any other superhero fantasy would appeal. The show never explains what makes Danny special, what exactly this character speaks to and what it has to say. Instead, as far as Iron Fist is concerned, Danny Rand’s defining trait is that he is a superhero and people like superheroes, so they should logically also like Danny Rand. It is not a convincing argument.
The second big problem with using this sort of plot in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight is that the audience knows that Danny Rand is not insane. At least Legion remains open to the possibility that David Haller might be both psychologically challenged and a superhero. In contrast, the framework of Iron Fist makes the psychiatric subplot in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight especially black-and-white. After all, Finn Jones has been confirmed for The Defenders. This is episode two of thirteen. Danny Rand is clearly not insane, and Iron Fist is not brave enough to suggest he is.
More than that, despite the corporate wall that separates the Netflix properties from the big screen, Danny Rand clearly exists in a world where superheroes are an accepted part of the cultural mainstream. Like all the other Netflix shows, Iron Fist makes thinly-veiled references to “the Incident” that occurred in The Avengers. The possibility of a man who comes from a mystical kingdom with dragons and who can turn his fist to iron really shouldn’t be that unbelievable in a world that has accepted the existence of Thor and Loki.
To be fair, the psychiatrist in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight acknowledges as much, conceding that there is more unexplained activity in New York “since the Incident.” He assures Danny, “I’m happy for you to convince me.” Danny hesitates, “I can’t. Not until you take me off these drugs.” Of course, in the real world, that would be a grossly unprofessional medical decision to make for a patient in a psychiatric institution. However, in the world in which Iron Fist exists, it sounds only fair.
This is the most frustrating part of Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, and of the season as a whole. Iron Fist is aware of how pointless this all is, how redundant it is, how it is effectively telling the audience stuff that they already know and marking time until The Defenders can kick off. Danny’s trip to the psychiatric institution, which ends with him punching the door out, is a waste of fifty minutes of broadcast time. Similarly, the whole “Danny takes back his company” thrad is an even bigger diversion, ending with a similarly trite resolution in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm.
This adds to the feeling of a series “going through the motions”, hitting familiar superhero story beats along the way. Iron Fist is thirteen episodes of stock superhero origin for a character that the production team seems to classified as “generic superhero.” Indeed, given how stock these origin beats are, and how little the show cares for defining Danny as a unique individual with his own characteristics, it seems fair to question whether audiences really needed another origin story. After all, Jessica Jones worked quite well while eschewing a simple origin story.
Particularly frustrating is the sense that Marvel and Netflix are really doubling down on this stock origin arc. Finn Jones has contended that Iron Fist and The Defenders effectively comprise a two-season origin story for Danny Rand:
I see it as kind of this journey where Iron Fist and The Defenders is like the complete first season of Danny’s journey. It’s really nice to play it back-to-back because Danny does go through this awesome huge arc, so the end of Iron Fist is like the halfway point… In The Defenders, he’s got a grasp of who he is and he’s trying to do something with it. It’s great to play that consistently over the year and not have that broken up.
That is twenty-one episodes (and almost twenty hours) of a stock origin story that would be grating if it were placed at the heart of a two-hour film. Danny Rand is following a well-worn path already beaten out by Bruce Wayne, Stephen Strange, Tony Stark, Oliver Queen and Matthew Murdock.
It is one thing for a television series to be bad. In many ways, the second season of Daredevil was a bad piece of television. However, it had a strong sense of its identity from moment to moment, even if that identity was frequently contradictory and even if the series never peeled back the layers to get a truly incisive perspective. The second season of Daredevil occasionally tipped over into being downright awful, but at least it always had a pulse. As terrible as Karen Page’s closing monologue was in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, at least it was memorable.
(This is just as true of the spectacular ways in which the second season of Daredevil handled its characters. Consider .380, for example. Frank Castle and Karen Page talking about love over a cup of coffee in a diner might be one of the most singularly ill-judged moments in the Punisher’s long and storied (and often ill-judged) history, but at least it was an image that stays with the viewer. Matt Murdock admitting that Frank Castle was right to kill criminals runs counter to the very core of his character and their dynamic, but at least it was bold.)
Iron Fist is not just bad television. (Although it is definitely that; Iron Fist features a terrible central performance, awful writing, terrible dialogue, cringe-inducing plotting, uninspired direction.) The worst thing about Iron Fist is that it is boring television. It is bland and generic. This thirteen-episode season is the reheated leftovers of a meal served years ago, rendered tasteless through exposure to the elements. It is forgettable. Watching Iron Fist is a numbing experience, a lifeless rendition of a familiar story that the audience knows by heart.
Iron Fist is an empty story that positions a black hole of a protagonist at its centre. No wonder the series can never take flight.