Immortal Emerges From Cave might just be the best episode of the first season of Iron Fist.
Of course, Immortal Emerges From Cave is not a good episode of television. It is bedevilled by all the other issues with Iron Fist, from inconsistent characterisation to dead-end subplots to pacing issues. It even adds a few new problems of its own, especially with a ham-fisted and ill-judged attempt to bring the character of Bride of Nine Spiders into live action. Immortal Emerges From Cave is unlikely to make much of an impression, and it certainly doesn’t rank with the other best episodes of the Marvel Netflix series.
At the same time, Immortal Emerges From Cave is the episode of Iron Fist that perhaps comes closest to fulfilling its own ambition. Immortal Emerges From Cave is a relatively self-contained narrative in the middle of the season, in which Danny finds himself forced to compete in a tournament against the Hand in order to save an innocent life. It is a hokey premise, but one that leads to a series of fairly middling set pieces in which Danny Rand works his way through various “levels” in pursuit of his goal.
Immortal Emerges From Cave feels very much like some forgotten z-list direct-to-video martial arts film from the nineties, a pulpy and absurd excuse to string together a collection of fight scenes. The result is not spectacular by any measure, but it is far more entertaining than the meandering story being told around it. Immortal Emerges From Cave might not succeed on general terms, or even on its own terms, but it at least has a strong sense of its own identity. That is enough to put it ahead of the rest of the season.
There is room for a truly great Iron Fist story. After all, the character of Danny Rand hits upon all sorts of interesting concepts and ideas. As “the Immortal Iron Fist” or “the Living Weapon”, Danny Rand could easily provide an insight to issues of assimilation or integration. Danny could easily serve as a vehicle to comment upon all manner of intriguing topics, whether through his status as a billionaire industrialist adopting Eastern philosophy or as the heir to a wealthy American corporation who found himself in a mystical city populated by kung fu monks.
Of course, Iron Fist has made it perfectly clear that the show has no intention of telling a particularly profound or insightful story using the character of Danny Rand. Given that concession, the best hope is that Iron Fist might at least be entertaining or enjoyable on a pulpy level. After all, the very premise of Iron Fist teases epic kung fu battles and martial arts showdowns. Given the care and craft that went into the stunt work on Daredevil, the first season of Iron Fist should be able to deliver pulpy thrills with some consistency.
Unfortunately, Iron Fist has failed that particular test. The show wastes far too much time in board rooms and offices, following characters scheming about corporate shenanigans or involved in hostile takeovers. Danny got locked in a psychiatric institution in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight before punching his way out. Danny spent a full three episodes trying to prove that he was Danny Rand before Harold Meachum resolved the issue with a throwaway line of dialogue in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. None of this is compelling viewing.
By and large, the action scenes in Iron Fist have been sporadic and underwhelming. Snow Gives Way featured a very clumsy ambush in Chinatown, in which Danny used the eponymous superpower to break a crook’s knuckleduster without breaking his knuckles. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight featuring a beating with three mooks helpfully singled out by exposition earlier in the episode. Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm improved slightly by putting Colleen Wing in cage matches.
However, none of these sequences have felt as fun as they really should. They have often felt perfunctory and obligatory, the show never relishing the opportunity to showcase impressive stuntwork or setpieces. The hallway fight in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm is a great example of the show going through the motions. Hallway fight sequences are a staple of the Marvel Netflix shows, as seen in Cut Man, New York’s Finest, Seven Minutes in Heaven and Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? Given that Iron Fist is a show about fighting, a hallway fight was a given.
The hallway fight in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm feels very straightforward, to the point that Danny opens the door to the hall outside his penthouse and finds that the bad guys are already lined up and ready to fight. There are certainly innovative elements to the fight. Trevor Morris’ score very consciously channels eighties exploitation films, and the brawl takes a twist when Danny pushes his way into an elevator and the fight continues via split screen. However, the fight is never visceral and never tangible. It feels perfunctory rather than revelatory.
This explains the appeal of Immortal Emerges From Cave, which embraces the goofy and silly aspects of the genre while playing out some of the most familiar tropes. Immortal Emerges From Cave is notable for being directed by noted martial arts film enthusiast RZA. According to Finn Jones, it was a good fit with the production:
It’s a lot of kind of ’90s hip-hop like De La Soul, Jurassic 5, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, that kind of music is really what Danny’s jamming to. And we featured that in the series. And actually one of our episodes was directed by the RZA himself, episode 6. So yeah, there’s very close ties to hip-hop music and the Iron Fist series.
In fact, this sense of overlap is reinforced by the fact that RZA directed the hokey martial arts tribute film The Man With the Iron Fists. Although RZA is a director and an enthusiast, even drafting him in to direct the episode suggests a coy sense of self-awareness that is sorely lacking from the rest of the season.
Immortal Emerges From Cave has a plot that is as straightforward as it is ridiculous. The Hand have abducted the daughter of “the chemist.” In order to secure her return, Danny must take part in a brutal no-holds-barred martial arts tournament against three (or four) champions of the Hand. Naturally, this tournament throws Danny into to conflict with a set of eccentric assassin types; two knife-wield chef-twins, a vampy poison lady, and a karaoke assassin. On top of this, Danny finds himself visited by a projection of his mentor, Lei Kung the Thunderer.
It is all ridiculous, but it is ridiculous in a way that is (largely) fun and exciting. The old “tournament narrative” is a staple of the martial arts genre, a reliable framework upon which a competent stunt team can layer any number of impressive sequences. There are any number of classic stories build from that framework, most notably films like Enter the Dragon or Bloodsport. Even the comic book character Danny Rand has built arcs around the premise, most notably Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.
So there is a certain thrill to seeing Iron Fist actually embrace its kung fu elements instead of treating them as just a different style of fight choreography layered over an existing storytelling and thematic framework. After all, the Marvel Studios projects work best when they embrace their unique attributes instead of shying away from them. Iron Man III is a Shane Black film. Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera. Ant Man works best when it is a heist movie. Luke Cage embraces the conventions and themes of classic blaxploitation.
These kung fu roots are what distinguish Iron Fist from every other Marvel property, so it is thrilling to see the show play into those aspects of itself. Of course, the kung fu elements are also the most difficult aspects of Iron Fist, from both a practical special effects standpoint and from a cultural appropriation standpoint. However, the decision to structure Immortal Emerges From Cave around a tried-and-tested kung fu plot device feels like the sort of genre specificity that is sorely lacking from the rest of the season.
Of course, it would be even more fun if Iron Fist played with and reclaimed some of the more problematic aspects of these stock kung fu plots, but that seems unlikely to happen given the tone deaf writing of the current creative team. Playing into the tropes would be enough at this point, allowing Iron Fist to distinguish itself from Daredevil. Whatever problems might exist with the episode, Immortal Emerges From Cave is the episode of Iron Fist with the strongest and most distinctive voice.
Given the parallels that exist between the first season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist, the episode represents a very interesting inversion. The first season of Daredevil was largely preoccupied with its own stories and characters, telling an extended arc that served the series itself. In the middle of all that, Stick stood out as an extended episode-long tease for The Defenders, dropping in hints of the Hand and a large mythos that would obviously pay off down the line. Iron Fist plays almost as the opposite to that.
While the first season of Daredevil told its own story, the first season of Iron Fist is primarily concerned with setting up The Defenders. After all, the closing scene of Dragon Plays With Fire is consciously designed to tease Danny Rand’s character motivation going into The Defenders. However, in the middle of that extended tie-in, Immortal Emerges from Cave stands as a relatively disconnected single-episode story that teases the possibility of Iron Fist as an exciting kung fu show in its own right. Immortal Emerges From Cave is like the opposite of Stick.
Of course, RZA is still working within the confines of Iron Fist. As fun as the premise of Immortal Emerges From Cave might be, the director still inherits a host of problems from the show around him. Even when Iron Fist tries to channel its inner kung fu vibe, it is hindered by very severe problems that are down to decisions made by the production team. This is reflected even in the structural elements of the script, with the episode spending quite a while building to the tournament and also constantly cutting back to a plot about Ward’s drug addiction.
However, the most severe handicap facing Immortal Emerges From Cave is the simple fact Finn Jones is not a trained martial artist, and has not had the opportunity to bring himself up to speed. Jones acknowledges as much:
Asked about doing martial arts training before filming, Jones extensively explained how his busy schedule “didn’t allow me to continue the training as much as I would have liked to,” adding that “being lead of the show, has a lot of demands.” To me, at least, this seemed a direct response to critics who called the show’s fight scenes lacklustre compared to the likes of Daredevil.
Jones has talked in interviews about having to learn action beats “fifteen minutes before filming them”, which is a ridiculous way to film a martial arts television show. The strain is visible on screen. One thirty-five second fight scene in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch features fifty-six cuts.
The problem is compounded by executive producer Scott Buck’s refusal to put Danny Rand in a costume or with a mask, which limits the production team’s capacity to disguise the work of Finn Jones’ stunt double. Immortal Emerges From Cave faces these problems in its own fight sequences, and there are moments when RZA can be seen to consciously edit around his lead performer. These choices can distract the viewer, and take the audience out of the moment. They have nothing to do with the quality of the episode, but more to do with the realities of the series.
Immortal Emerges From Cave also brushes up against other limitations facing the Marvel Netflix shows. Most obviously, Iron Fist looks to have been shot on a very tight budget. This tightness is on display in various facets of the production, although Immortal Emerges From Cave is the first point at which the problem becomes apparent. The awkward trip to “China” in The Blessing of Many Fractures is another prominent example, as is the cameo “appearance” from Shou-Lau in Dragon Plays With Fire.
The tournament in Immortal Emerges From Cave unfolds entirely in a warehouse, which is something of a tired locale by this point in the larger Marvel Netflix series. After all, Matt Murdock seemed to have explored similar warehouses in Speak of the Devil or The Ones We Leave Behind, while Jessica Jones and Luke Cage explored a similar set-up in AKA You’re a Winner! It is great that the Marvel Netflix shows film in New York, but it would be nice to see more varied use of locations.
To be fair to Immortal Emerges From Cave, the episode at least tries to make the surroundings look exotic and exciting. The first arena is bathed in red mood lighting and flanked by banners representing the Hand. The second arena is bathed in dry ice and draped with torn bed sheets evoking spider webs. The third arena is broken up with scaffolding in a way that encourages some stunt work and clever manoeuvring from the two fighters. These surroundings never appear particularly impressive or convincing, but there is something endearing about all this.
After all, the various beats feel like they were lifted from a Van Damme knock-off. The two twins mark the border of their arena in blood, dictating that if their opponent steps outside of it that he will forfeit. Liquid nitrogen cannisters lurk in the background of the second arena, which seems like a health and safety complaint waiting to happen. The third arena comes with its own selection of weapons. The assassins themselves are hardly memorable, although Iron Fist could easily use a bit more of the weirdness embodied by the hitman introduced singing Take On Me.
Immortal Emerges From Cave does feature a guest appearance from the Bride of Nine Spiders. The character was introduced in the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven arc by writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction alongside artist David Aja. She was written as another “living weapon” representing another of the cities vying with K’un Lun for its place on the astral plane. The version of the character who appears in Immortal Emerges From Cave has been rather toned down, treated as vampy woman with a corset and choker who specialises in poison and works for the Hand.
There is something very retrograde about the portrayal of the Bride of Nine Spiders in Immortal Emerges From Cave, in a number of ways. Most obviously, the character’s costume and motif is decidedly campy once the supernatural elements are removed. The version of the character appearing in Iron Fist appears to be some sort of strange fetishist with decidedly impractical taste in combat attire. With the black fetish costume and the white sheets adorning the set, this looks like the kind of reimagining that would take place on the nineties Flash show.
However, there is also the more uncomfortable hypersexualisation of the character that treats the Asian woman as a seductive danger to the virginal white hero. Under Leaf Pluck Lotus revealed that Danny took a “vow of chastity” in K’un Lun, so Iron Fist has gone out of its way to present Danny as a “pure” and virginal character. Of course, when he actually loses his virginity to Colleen in Felling Tree with Roots, nothing is made of the event. However, the combat sequence in Immortal Emerges From Cave plays up the exotic sexual danger of the character.
For a show whose other female characters are relatively well-developed, the Bride’s role is bizarrely sexist. Unlike the “realistic” makeovers for characters like Kilgrave and Daredevil, Iron Fist decided on a direct adaptation of comic book costume: a wildly impractical corset, choker, and translucent skirt. They even dumped her supernatural powers in favor of… sexual wiles.
There’s no reason for the Bride to look or act like this, and in the end it’s detrimental to the story. The Bride of Nine Spiders as the only exception to Iron Fist‘s otherwise serious tone. And she just happens to be an evil sexy Asian lady in lingerie, defeated by the virginal and heroic Danny Rand.
It is a reasonable observation, given how the Bride is presented.
“You’re a woman?” Danny inquires when she first steps forward. “I am indeed,” she replies. “Does that make you… uneasy?” The lingering pause before “fear” is effective. When he denies it, she teases him, “Yes it does. I sense your fear.” Like a petulant ten-year-old kid still afraid of girls, Danny responds, “No you don’t.” As the scene threatens to escalate, Danny grows increasingly uncomfortable. “Are we gonna fight or not?” he asks. She replies, “We don’t have to fight. Why don’t you kiss me instead?” Naturally, he doesn’t. Girls are icky, after all.
These elements are unfortunate, because they distract from the otherwise impressive elements of the confrontation. Given Danny’s repeated insistence that he has mastered his chi, there is something quite clever in having his face an Asian opponent who seems to be using a combination of acupuncture and poison to disrupt his chi. More than that, the scene builds to an impressive climax where Danny flexes his muscles and ejects the needles from his body, shattering a light bulb and sparking off metal surfaces. It seems like Danny’s power has literally lit up the room.
It’s the kind of big and effective moment in which Iron Fist indulges far too infrequently. The way that RZA frames the shot makes it look like Danny has somehow generated enough raw energy to blow out a light bulb hovering in the background. It is an evocative expression of his power, certainly more compelling and effective than having his fist glow yellow every once in a while. It is a small moment that effectively summarises the appeal of Immortal Emerges From Cave. The series could use a lot more moments like that.
However, in the context of the larger season, Immortal Emerges From Cave feels rather muddled. It is an episode that doubles down on the idea of a dichotomy between Danny Rand and the Iron Fist, a theme seeded as early as Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. The Bride of Nine Spiders taunts Danny, “Why hide behind the mask of Danny Rand?” The Thunderer asks him, “Are you willing to kill Danny Rand so that the Iron Fist might live?” At the climax of the episode, Gao forces Danny to choose between his mission to destroy the Hand or save an innocent life.
This insistence on forcing Danny to choose between one facet of his personality or another feels just as forced here as it does in all the other episodes, a theme carried over from Batman Begins and Daredevil without any real thought about how it should apply to this character in this context. It is lazy and confused writing, something that becomes very apparent as the episode races towards a very muddled and disjointed climax that tries to put Danny on a collision course with the Iron Fist.
Holding a knife to the neck of her hostage, Madame Gao forces Danny to choose between saving the hostage’s life and honouring his duty to K’un Lun. This is a decision that should have major emotional stakes. After all, Danny has spent his life training to be the Iron Fist and to defeat the Hand. “I’m the Iron Fist,” Danny tells Claire. “And what does that mean?” she responds. “I never lose,” he assures her. Lei Kung the Thunderer recites the prophecy of a chosen one who will save K’un Lun. “That’s me?” Danny asks. The Thunderer responds, “Don’t you know?”
The only problem with this character arc is that Danny has already made a conscious decision to reject his obligation to K’un Lun. He abandoned the city to return to New York, leaving the entrance unguarded. Although this has not been explicitly confirmed to the audience yet, it has been heavily implied. “The real Iron Fist would never leave his post,” states one of the two twin characters. The other elaborates, “It would make him unworthy.” However, Danny clearly doesn’t see himself as unworthy for abandoning K’un Lun, as he can still access the eponymous superpower.
With that in mind, it’s unclear why exactly the climax of Immortal Emerges From Cave is treated as such big deal. Danny has already betrayed his oath to K’un Lun in order to go home, so why does he hesitate to betray that same oath to protect an innocent life? Perhaps Danny fears that this is committing him to that path, that he is forsaking an opportunity to redeem his decision to abandon K’un Lun. Certainly, that is suggested by the enthusiasm upon which seizes the idea of the Hand being in New York as a chance to fulfil his destiny.
The problem is that none of this has been made clear by this point in the series, with too much time spend on boardroom antics to properly explain what Danny’s relationship is to the role of Iron Fist. That relationship does not become clear until Danny reunites with Davos in Black Tiger Steals Heart, and Davos explains precisely what Danny has done and what the consequences are. As a result, the entire climax of Immortal Emerges From Cave feels muddled, hinging on a clearer understanding of Danny’s psychology than the show provides.
Indeed, over the course of the series, Iron Fist seems oddly ambivalent on Danny’s decision to abandon K’un Lun. Davos is presented as a bit of jerk for insisting that Danny should return to his post, while his decision to abandon the city is generally lauded as an expression of free will and self-determination. “Who is your master?” an assassin taunts in Immortal Emerges From Cave. Danny responds, “I am my master.” Repeatedly, Iron Fist contrasts Danny’s decision to abandon K’un Lun with the fates of those who serve their masters blindly.
While the closing scene of Dragon Plays With Fire suggests that Danny’s abandonment of K’un Lun will play into The Defenders, the entire series is structured so that the only character affected by Danny’s failure is Danny himself. There is no indication that Iron Fist is holding Danny to account for his failure to honour his commitments. With that in mind, the entire climax of Immortal Emerges From Cave seems unclear. The series has been suggesting that Danny should reject his role as a living weapon, and the climax is positioned explicitly to allow him to do that.
Immortal Emerges From Cave also sets up an interesting dynamic that tends to recur across the rest of the season. The guest stars and lower key cast members on Iron Fist are generally much more interesting than the lead characters. Immortal Emerges From Cave might botch the introduction of the Bride of Nine Spiders, but karaoke!assassin is certainly a memorable character in his own right. These episodes are peppered with minor players that seem more intriguing and engaging than many of the major players.
The karaoke!assassin is a good example. He is an assassin who likes karaoke, introduced having butchered a room full of people while singing Take Me On, strangling the last survivor with his microphone cord. That is the sum total of his character. That is all we learn about him over the course of the thirteen episode season. However, he is still a more interesting antagonist that Gao, Bakuto or Davos. It is a gimmick, undoubtedly, but it is also evocative. If karaoke!assassin is a trained assassin, is karaoke his only escape from the brutality of his work?
It is not particularly deep, but then none of Iron Fist‘s characters are especially deep. Danny flips from childish to angry on a dime, with Finn Jones struggling to play that transition. The show does very little with Joy Meachum. Ward Meachum seems trapped in a horrific game of mad-lib. The script never seems entirely sure how to pitch Harold Meachum. Colleen Wing is interesting, but somewhat undercut by the reveal that the show’s most prominent minority cast member has secretly been been working for the Hand all along.
With that in mind, karaoke!assassin is a breath of fresh air because at least he is fun and ridiculous, while playing better into the show’s themes than Danny or Ward. Like the Iron Fist, it is suggested that karaoke!assassin has been fashioned into a weapon. Like Danny, he seems to resist it. Unlike Danny, he is unable to escape it. It is a strangely evocative character arc. It is actually quite a nice touch that is karaoke go-to in Take On Me, a bubbly pop song with an iconic video that features a literal escape into cartoonishness.
There are other memorable minor characters over the course of the series. Harold Meachum’s most substantive relationship over the course of the series is arguably with his intern Kyle. Kyle appears over a number of episodes before his untimely death in The Mistress of All Agonies, but is always at the fringe. However, there is something instructive in the dynamic between the two. Harold seems to genuinely believe that he is helping Kyle, despite being incredibly creepy and threatening. Kyle is so eager to please that he’d never object to the way he’s treated.
Harold’s callousness and Kyle’s desperation provides an endearing dynamic, which leads to one of the series’ best exchanges in The Mistress of All Agonies:
What would you do if you found out you could live forever?
Oh, anything I want, I guess.
No, be specific. What would you do?
I’d eat ice cream for breakfast.
Well, and lunch. Yes, sir.
Thank you, sir.
That wasn’t a compliment.
It might be the best conversation in Iron Fist, illuminating character in a fun way. And it pays off with the revelation Kyle would love to eat vanilla ice cream.
The relationship between Harold and Kyle works for the same reason that the karaoke!assassin works. It is an obviously heightened element with a blackly comic touch that fits well within the world of a show about a kung fu expert with a glowing yellow fist, while also illuminating character and theme. How Harold treats Kyle is as instructive about his relationship to Ward and Danny as any conversation between those characters. However, it also never takes itself too seriously, which is a recurring problem with Iron Fist.
These heightened interactions fit comfortably within the structure of a show about mystical kung fu, hitting on themes about masters and servants that fit within the framework of the genre. The show’s strongest one-shot guest character might be Zhou Cheng, the “sworn defender of the Hand” who appears briefly at the climax of The Blessing of Many Fractures. It helps that Cheng is portrayed by Lewis Tan, an actor with martial arts experience and more charisma than most of the primary cast. Tan reported auditioned for the role of Danny, a massive missed opportunity.
As with Kyle and karaoke!assassin, Cheng is another martial artist set up an obvious counterpart to Danny. Much like Danny is sworn to protect K’un Lun, Cheng is sworn to protect the Hand. The two martial artists seemed destined to battle at the behest of their masters, which is a classic kung fu trope and one that feels far more suited to Iron Fist than tales of boardroom intrigue and mystery. However, while Danny betrayed his oath to K’un Lun, Cheng has remained loyal and obedient. Cheng is still a weapon employed by his masters.
However, there is a real sense that his years of service as a weapon have taken a toll on Cheng. Cheng is introduced as a drunkard sleeping in a doorway. He drinks from a flask to keep his dragon “sedated”, most likely to drown his shame and his pain. He is a broken man, a warning about the person that Danny might have been had he remained true to K’un Lun and allowed Lei Kung the Thunderer to successfully fashion him into a weapon. Cheng reaffirms the notion that Danny is a ronin, a warrior without a master. And that might not be a bad thing.
Indeed, Cheng brings the themes of the season into sharp focus as a twisted (and more fun) mirror to Danny. “We both swore and oath of loyalty and protection,” Cheng advises Danny. “Our paths diverge in a different place, but unlike you, I’ve remained true to my vow.” Cheng is fun and tragic in equal measure. In spite of all the harm that Gao has inflicted upon innocent people, there is something sympathetic in Cheng. In fact, Cheng is far more sympathetic than Danny, particularly because he actually calls Danny out on abandoning his post.
Sadly, like karaoke!assassin, Cheng winds up being a one-episode wonder. The next time that a character show up to challenge Danny on leaving K’un Lun undefended, it is Davos. Iron Fist somewhat stakes the deck against Davos in episodes like Lead Horse Back to Stable and Bar the Big Boss by making him even more joyless than Danny. It is incredibly frustrating. Iron Fist can manage flashes of interesting and compelling characters, but seems unwilling to let those beat last longer than a handful of scenes in a single episode.
In spite of some severe problems, Immortal Emerges From Cave is a fun (and ridiculous) episode of television. Iron Fist could do with a lot more fun.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Iron Fist:
- Snow Gives Way
- Shadow Hawk Takes Flight
- Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch
- Eight Diagram Dragon Palm
- Under Leaf Pluck Lotus
- Immortal Emerges From Cave
- Felling Tree With Roots
- The Blessing of Many Fractures
- The Mistress of All Agonies
- Black Tiger Steals Heart
- Lead Horse Back to Stable
- Bar the Big Boss
- Dragon Plays With Fire