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Iron Fist – The Mistress of All Agonies (Review)

Inevitably, being a street-level superhero show that owes a huge stylistic debt to Daredevil, Iron Fist inevitably wades into the whole “thou shalt not kill” side of superheroics.

Matt Murdock has spent the better part of two seasons wrestling with that same question. In the first season, he agonised over the question of whether he should kill Wilson Fisk, a criminal who was otherwise above the law. This angst informed episodes like Nelson v. Murdock and The Path of the Righteous. It was a reasonably solid plot line that worked as well as could be expected because it was rooted as much in Charlie Cox’s performance and Matt Murdock’s Catholicism as in any large moral or legal framework.

Knife to see you…

However, Matt Murdock revisited the question with less success during the second season. Confronted with Frank Castle’s lethal methods of crime fighting and an undead ninja cult, Matt found everything was up for debate. The series did not handle the dilemma with any real sense of grace. Frank Castle constructed a ridiculously elaborate moral dilemma in New York’s Finest, while Matt Murdock seemed to confess that the Punisher’s methods worked in .380. One of the most tone deaf sequences in the series had Frank Castle kill a bad guy so Matt would be spared.

Iron Fist puts it own spin on the age-old debate of vigilante morality. In keeping with the general tone of the series, the debate is lazy and clumsy, ultimately resolved through the same sort of tidy deus ex machina that got Danny proof of identity in Rolling Cannon Thunder Punch and control of his company in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. It is not satisfying storytelling.

Supervillains understandably have fewer moral qualms about killing.

To be fair, most superhero stories are able to avoid these nitty-gritty morality and legality debates through sheer scale of the action. Most Superman stories don’t have to worry about questions like this because Superman is so powerful (and his threats so massive) that they cannot be boiled down to debates about “vigilantism.” (Although, to be fair, there have been debates over whether Superman does – or should – kill.) Similarly, there is something incongruous about Thaddeus Ross describing the Avengers as “vigilantes” in Captain America: Civil War.

Of course, superhero stories operating at that scale invite their own debates about morality and authority, as teams like the Avengers and individuals like Superman operate a level far beyond mortal law enforcement. With regards to the climax of The Avengers, there was considerable debate about the lack of concern for civilians in New York. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, it seemed like the production team made a conscious effort to scale back the damage and to show the heroes actually trying to protect civilians caught in the crossfire.

Stone cold reception.

Indeed, Joss Whedon acknowledged these issues as something informed his choices during the production of Age of Ultron:

“Something that Kevin and I talked about from the start was that we’d seen a little bit of a trend in movies where the city gets destroyed and the heroes say, ‘We won!’ And I’m thinking, Define ‘win.'”

With Ultron, said Whedon, the filmmaker wanted to “get back to what’s important, which is that the people you’re trying to protect are people. We knew that we wanted to play with a lot of big, fun destruction, but at the same time, we wanted to say, ‘There’s a price for this.’ So we got very specific about it, because whether the Avengers are heroes or not is called into question in this movie, or whether the hero as a concept is still useful for society. It sort of becomes the central issue in the final battle, and it’s also a good way for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to be put at a disadvantage.”

In some way, this theme resonates back down into the small street-level stories that address the ethical concerns of vigilantism in more low-key terms.

Daddy’s home.

The Marvel Netflix shows are all “street level” shows, in that they typically find the heroes facing opponents that are not too far outside the mandate of local law enforcement. Wilson Fisk might be “the Kingpin”, but he really isn’t so far removed from John Gotti or Tony Accardo. Similarly, Cottonmouth was a gangster while Mariah Dillard was a local politician. Kilgrave was a sex offender with mind control powers. None of these figures would merit the attention of a single Avenger, let alone the whole team.

As a result, these same moral issues are typically framed in smaller (and arguably more concrete) terms. Do these vigilantes have the right to operate in their communities? Do they run the risk of supplanting local law enforcement? How far are these characters willing to push things? Are these vigilantes willing to kill in pursuit of the “greater good”, and to what extent can that be justified? These are understandably tricky questions, arguably even trickier than the foreign policy and governmental authority questions that underpin the first hour of Civil War.

He’s in fine Forbes.

After all, the issue of lawful authority to use lethal force is quite loaded in contemporary culture. Many people are openly sceptical of this authority when it is invested in recognised agents of the state. Under President Obama, the United States Department of Justice launched a high volume of investigations into the use of lethal force by local police departments. In recent years, measures like police body cameras have been introduced to encourage accountability on the part of law enforcement officials. Public confidence in law enforcement has fallen dramatically.

At the same time, there are understandable anxieties about the use of force by private individuals. Gun control continues to be a hot button issue. It is often racially charged, as in accounts of the vigilante groups reported in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina or the shooting dead of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Although superhero stories are inevitably meant as escapism, the rather serious tone (and perhaps even prestige television affectations) of the Marvel netflix shows means that these concerns bleed into them.

The only sensei-ble response…

The Marvel Netflix shows all deal with the issue of vigilante violence in different ways. The first season of Daredevil suggests that the institutions of local government are so corrupt that the debate is essentially framed in Christian terms. The second season of Daredevil rides all the way down the slippery slope and insists that real men like Frank Castle exist to commit extra-judicial executions so Matt Murdock doesn’t have to trouble his little mind about the tough questions being asked.

Jessica Jones at least engages with the question, in its own weird comic book logic way. Jessica spends the first half of the season trying to figure out how to incapacitate and incarcerate Kilgrave, if only to prove that he exists to the world. However, a number of these attempts go disastrously wrong in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts. While these are arguably examples of the production team padding out the season to reach thirteen episodes, they do provide some justification for Jessica’s decision to kill her adversary in AKA Smile.

It is a rather murky subject.

In some ways, Luke Cage very cleverly uses the wider social context to justify its vigilante antics. After all, an series about a bulletproof black man is bound to be politically charged in the current climate. As Abigail Nussbaum argues:

The fact that Luke is a superhero operating within a community that has suffered from difficult relations with the official authorities gives his actions a weight that most other superhero stories have struggled to achieve.  In a year that has seen multiple attempts to grapple with the morality of superheroes, all of which fell flat, Luke Cage makes a convincing argument that what was missing from these stories was any acknowledgment of race (as in, to take a particularly blatant example, Civil War, in which two powerful, privileged white men grapple over the morality of committing global-scale violence, while the murdered and mutilated bodies that drop as a result of their dispute just happen to all be black).  The fact that the police in Harlem are unwilling or unable to properly police the neighborhood, to protect its residents without criminalizing them, gives Luke a justification for existing that Matt Murdock, for example, doesn’t really have.  The fact that the same authorities that wink at Matt, let Jessica Jones off the hook for cold-blooded murder, and bring Frank Castle into court alive, also mount a manhunt for Luke, carrying weapons especially designed to kill him, is a pointed and deliberate choice by the show’s writers.

As such, Luke Cage not only justifies the character’s vigilante heroism, but it also pointedly ends with Luke defeating Diamondback in You Know My Steez and turning him over to the proper authorities.

Smoke and mirrors.

In keeping with the general tone of the show to this point, Iron Fist opts to follow Daredevil. That means a lot of angst and conflict about the morality of killing bad guys, especially those who might otherwise be outside the reach of the law. Of course, this being Iron Fist, the resulting debate is a lot clumsier and weaker than Daredevil. As ever, one of the biggest issues with Iron Fist‘s unquestioning emulation of Daredevil is the simple fact that Finn Jones does not brood as well as Charlie Cox.

In facing the Hand, the heroes constantly debate the morality of killing. This applies to both the faction led by Gao and the group headed by Bakuto. A substantial portion of The Blessing of Many Fractures was spent on the team discussing what they would do upon confronting Gao. When Danny outline his plan to “grab” Gao, Colleen challenges him, “Grab her? And then what? Do we take her to the Chinese authorities? INTERPOL?” Given that Gao heads a cult of undead ninja with incredible reach, it’s a fair question.

Star pupil.

For his part, Danny seems to legitimately have no idea. He has not thought that far ahead. In one of the show’s most ridiculous lines, Danny assures Colleen and Claire, “Look, I don’t know, all right? It’s a long way to China. I’ll figure it out before we get there. If you don’t trust me, then don’t come.” It is surprising that there isn’t a scene on the plane where Danny threatens to turn his extraordinary rendition flight back around and there will be no more ninja fighting for anybody. This is entirely in-character for Danny, but no less frustrating.

Of the trio, Claire is the member with the strongest moral compass. When the pair have Gao tied to a chair at the dojo in The Mistress of All Agonies, Danny assures her, “I know what I’m doing.” Claire responds, “Really? Because it looks like we’re on the fast track to waterboarding here.” This feels somewhat ironic, given her decision to help Matt Murdock torture a Chechen goon in Cut Man. Still, it neatly defines her role in this dynamic. Although, to be fair, Danny proved perfectly willing to use torture to get information from the guard in Snow Gives Way.

Getting to the truth of the matter.

Somewhat awkwardly, although entirely indicative of the quality of writing on the show, the trio ultimately decide to get information from Gao using the tried-and-tested “truth serum” trope. It is Claire who hits on the idea, a qualified medical practitioner who should really know better. After all, “truth serum” is widely accepted to be completely useless:

If someone is dead set against telling your their secrets it might make them so disoriented that they’ll spill something. It’s just that, to make it at all effective, you have to positively know what you’re looking for already, because if they tell you that, they’ll generally tell you a lot of other things as well. And you’ll have to work on your tone, because someone under the influence of any of the ‘truth drugs’ will most likely tell you what you want to hear. The drugs make people a little more obliging, but mostly they suppress the parts of the brain that have to kick into gear if a person is to assess what’s wrong with a question, articulate it, and assert themselves to their questioner. It’s easier just to let their imagination go with the flow and tell the questioner exactly what they want to hear.

That is not a problem if all the questioner wants is a confession, right or wrong. If they want information, though, sorting out a person being honest, being imaginative, misunderstanding the question, and outright lying because it’s easier, is tough to do.

To be fair, The Mistress of All Agonies suggests that Gao is immune to truth serum, boasting that she spent “most of the seventeenth century being interrogated.” However, the plot thread involving Danny stealing the truth serum and Claire applying the truth serum allows the show to avoid actually committing to the “torture” debate before Bakuto shows up to conveniently take Gao into custody.

The father we fall.

Torture isn’t the only contentious issue. Characters also wrestle with the ethics and efficiency of killing their opponents. Once again, Claire is the voice of reason while Colleen is the most gung-ho. “Killing is wrong, no matter who pulls the trigger or why,” Claire insists during the flight to China in The Blessing of Many Fractures. She presses the point, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Colleen is having none of that. “It’s an easy opinion to have, when you’re not the Iron Fist.” Danny just sits there and broods as the conversation continues.

After all, the Marvel Netflix shows have consistently demonstrated the ineffectiveness of local law enforcement. Wilson Fisk turns the New York City Police Department into his private death squad in Condemned. Kilgrave is able to walk right into a police station without any risk to himself in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. Even Cottonmouth can afford to keep detectives on payroll in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? Even when the police are not corrupt or outclassed, they seem completely inept. Which makes sense, because vigilantes like Daredevil need to be justifiable.

Don’t let this escalate out of Hand.

However, it does mean that law enforcement cannot plausibly serve as a resolution to these stories, because it would raise the issue of why they are not more active participants. More than that, how is the New York City Police Department supposed to deal with mystical ninja cults? “Let’s just take her in,” Claire pleads in The Mistress of All Agonies. Danny insists, “I’m not turning her over to the police until I find out what I want to know.” Gao chuckles, “The police? Do you really believe that that is where I’ll end up?” She has a point.

There is a sense that Iron Fist is trying to have its cake and eat it, having characters broach the issue to seem edgy while avoiding the consequences of any follow-through. The question of what to do with Gao is neatly resolved by Bakuto, who takes her into custody in The Mistress of All Agonies and locks her in a room without trial in Black Tiger Steals Heart. Bakuto can get away with this, because he is a bad guy and so his decisions are spared the burden of moral introspection.

Say “Chi!”

Even when Danny opts to leave Gao locked in that room without food in Dragon Plays With Fire, it is treated as a passive decision rather than an active choice. In some ways, it mirrors the whole “I won’t kill you… but I don’t have to save you” logic of Batman Begins. However, Christopher Nolan did make a conscious point to have Batman himself reject this logic in later films, opting to actually save the Joker at the climax of The Dark Knight and making the events of The Dark Knight Rises a direct consequence of his refusal to save Ra’s Al Ghul.

On the other hand, Iron Fist seems quite happy for its villains to die, even if it is reluctant for its heroes to actively kill them. It is a strange dichotomy that plays out across the series. It comes into play at the climax of The Mistress of All Agonies; two goons fight to the death against our heroic trio, only to accidentally kill one another in the process. Conventional law enforcement’s corruption or inability to deal with these threats allows for endless debate about lethal force, but Iron Fist is remarkably unwilling to follow through on this debate through action or drama.

Harold was always a driven man.

Iron Fist and Daredevil would never actually allow their protagonists to kill in cold blood, despite the fact that they will cripple hordes of enemy henchmen with impunity. The willingness to kill antagonists, even in self-defense, is used by Iron Fist as shorthand for moral corruption. Colleen’s willingness to kill Gao, repeatedly citing the lives that Gao has “destroyed” foreshadows her corruption by the Hand as much as the cage fighting in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch or Eight Diagram Dragon Palm.

Indeed, Colleen’s redemptive arc is ultimately signaled by her refusal to kill in later episodes of the season. Despite the fact that she yields a samurai sword in Bar the Big Boss, she uses the weapon defensively. She does not hack at limbs or impale her adversaries, even as they attempt to do the same for her. In contrast, Davos’ moral ambiguity and descent into villainy is handily foreshadowed by the cuts that demonstrate his willingness to stab an opponent who is actively trying to murder him. For all this talk of ambiguity, Iron Fist has a very black and white morality.

Neon demon.

There is a sense that Iron Fist is not particularly invested in having this debate, only in the appearance of having this debate. After all, Iron Fist seems to buy into very basic logic: superheroes don’t kill and Danny is a superhero, so Danny doesn’t kill. It is logic rooted more in genre than this individual story, as Jacob Brogan concedes in his discussion of how Daredevil handled the same debate:

It spoils nothing to say that Murdock ultimately refrains from killing Fisk. I say that it spoils nothing because his path is obvious from the start. His eventual embrace of a selective pacifism is as inevitable as putting on the costume that he dons in the finale, a costume that features prominently in the show’s advertising. We know he’s on his way to becoming a superhero, and becoming a superhero means learning to pull your punches. It’s meant that since 1940.

As such, there is something disingenuous about the time and energy that Iron Fist invests in half-heartedly approximating the debate. As with so much about Iron Fist, there is a sense that the production team are going through the motions and running out the clock on their way to The Defenders. The answer is always known, and the debate takes place with the verdict already set in stone.

All clear to Claire.

Iron Fist strenuously works backwards to justify these storytelling choices. The angst that Danny and Colleen feel over Gao in The Blessing of Many Fractures and The Mistress of All Agonies bubbles back to the surface with Bakuto in Bar the Big Boss. After Danny bests Bakuto in combat, the characters discuss how best to proceed. Davos suggests that they kill Bakuto, because he is transitioning into the role of designated bad guy. Colleen has embarked upon a redemptive arc following her time with the Hand, so she advocates for sparing Bakuto.

“If we kill him, we’re no better than him,” Colleen insists. Danny takes her side in his disagreement with Davos. “The rules are different here,” Danny assures Davos. “There are consequences. You can’t just go around killing people.” Of course, Danny knows nothing about consequences. Danny has spent his life avoiding them. Indeed, Danny even pointed out to Davos in Lead Horse Back to Stable that he was rich enough to avoid consequences. Still, this leaves the question of what to do with Bakuto.

Gao is a little tied up right now.

“He’ll be the first leader of the Hand to be arrested,” Colleen suggests. It is a completely ridiculous statement, given what has been established of the Hand. Daredevil and Iron Fist have made it clear that the Hand exerts an incredible influence. Immortal Emerges From Cave suggests that Gao has servants in fields as diverse as kitchen staff and academia, while Lead Horse Back to Stable makes it clear that Bakuto has infiltrated public services like hospitals. There is simply no plausible way to convince the audience that law enforcement could hold Bakuto.

The script writers awkwardly avoid the issue through clumsy contrivance. Danny and Davos have a convenient brawl after defeating Bakuto in Bar the Big Boss, which distracts them long enough for the Hand to sneak into the scene and abduct Bakuto. The twist allows Iron Fist to avoid actually exploring how Danny would deal with a character like Bakuto, sparing him the awkwardness of facing the law’s inability to hold such a character to account and the horror of having to figure out a lasting way to solve this problem.

Say it, don’t spray it.

Then again, this is par for the course with Iron Fist, a show where any potential complications (or interesting ideas) can be neatly resolved by the clumsy intervention of the writing staff.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Iron Fist:

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