With Dragon Plays With Fire, it is almost as though Iron Fist remembered that it had its own story to wrap up and that it was not simply a lead-in to The Defenders.
The bulk of Iron Fist has been dedicated to setting up characters and concepts for use in The Defenders. Most notably, the series has devoted a lot of attention to developing the Hand, even repurposing large parts of the Iron Fist mythos to set Danny up as a key part of The Defenders by aligning him against the Hand. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight revealed that the Iron Fist was “sworn enemy of the Hand”, while The Blessing of Many Fractures suggested that the Hand played a role in the death of Danny’s parents.
Iron Fist spent so long playing into The Defenders that it would easy to forget that the series has own narrative arc to fulfil. Indeed, it even seems like Iron Fist itself forgot about those obligations, to the point that Bar the Big Boss played almost like a season finale with Danny vanquishing Bakuto and the Hand before heading home with Colleen for some funky Tai Chi action. However, at the last minute, Bar the Big Boss seems to remember that Iron Fist still has to resolve the whole Harold Meachum business, and possibly set up a second season.
The result is that Dragon Plays With Fire is an incredibly rushed piece of television, covering what feels like multiple episodes worth story in the space of fifty minutes while also cramming in a bunch of sequel hooks to both The Defenders and a hypothetical second season of Iron Fist. The finale is deeply disappointing, much like the season before it. More than that, it is a constant reminder of how little of its own identity was afforded to Iron Fist.
There is some irony in the central theme of Iron Fist. The series is largely preoccupied with warped familial relationships, with children manipulated by their parents rather than following their own destiny. Harold has warped Joy and Ward, along with Danny. He acknowledges as much at swordpoint in Bar the Big Boss, confessing, “Ward I invested my life into you, to raise you to be a great man. You’ve been the biggest disappointment of my life.” This is to say nothing of the Hand’s manipulation of young minds or Danny’s experience with K’un Lun.
So much of Iron Fist is dedicated to characters pursuing their own destiny or asserting their own identities, charting a course different from that laid out to them. This is a standard superhero story theme, but Iron Fist invests a lot of stock in that idea. It makes all the more ironic that Iron Fist has never been afforded that same opportunity. It is no wonder that the show sympathises with Ward and Danny, because it subject to the demands of its own parents. Iron Fist cannot be what it wants to be, because it has to be a prelude to The Defenders.
This is most obvious in how deeply Iron Fist disappears down the rabbit hole of the Hand, the ninja cult that is clearly intended to be the glue that holds the crossover event together. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones were largely left to their own devices, with minimal ninja involvement. However, the Hand came to dominate both the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist, to the point that the series seemed to suffocate under the demands of setting up what was to come in the big superhero crossover series of 2017.
Everything in Iron Fist is secondary to the demands of The Defenders, to the point that the series even warps its source material to better integrate with the looming crossover story. In the comics, Danny Rand has relatively little to do with the Hand. The Hand are traditionally enemies of Daredevil and Wolverine, with Danny’s most extended interaction with the ninja death cult coming at the end of Ed Brubaker’s run on Daredevil. However, Shadow Hawk Takes Flight backports the Hand into the Iron Fist legacy, making them sworn enemies of K’un Lun.
All of a sudden, the Hand are tied into everything that Danny Fist does. Harold Meachum reveals that he was resurrected by the Hand in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. The Hand are revealed to have infiltrated Rand Industries, even taking over a vacant floor in Felling Tree with Roots. Danny discovers that his parents were killed by Hand poison in The Blessing of Many Fractures. Danny discovers that Colleen Wing is an agent of the Hand (and that her dojo is a front operation) in Black Tiger Steals Heart.
Indeed, Iron Fist is so committed to the Hand that it reinvents the organisation twice. Largely rejecting the generic ninja horde that appeared in the second season season of Daredevil, the series instead ties the previously unaffiliated character of Madame Gao to her own Chinese mystic capitalist branch of the Hand and then introduces the character of Bakuto as the leader of a more new-age faction of the organisation. All of this is heavily integrated into the plot threads unique to Iron Fist, about Danny’s return home, his role as Iron Fist, and the Meachum family.
It is somewhat telling that, once Iron Fist winds down the storytelling focusing on the Hand in Bar the Big Boss, it feels like the season is pretty much over. Had the season concluded with Danny and Colleen retiring to the dojo to flirtatiously practice Tai Chi, it would not have seemed unreasonable. Sure, there would have been some dangling plot threads involving the Meachums, but those could easily have been left for another year. In fact, the cliffhanger in Bar the Big Boss, a reminder that Iron Fist has its own story threads to wrap up, comes so quick as to be jarring.
In most comic book narratives, the tie-in elements are generally a minor distraction from the story being told. Those elements tend to be inserted into the middle of a flowing narrative as a way to tease what is happening beyond this individual story being told with this individual character. They have been a feature of comic book publishing for quite some time, often taken to absurd degrees by the major publishers. Civil War many only run through seven issues of the main series, but it impacted at least ninety-eight issues of around twenty monthly titles.
This can be heightened to absurd degrees, particularly in modern comic book publishing where linewide events seem to land once every few months. To pick one arbitrary example, writer Al Ewing stewarded twenty-three issues of Mighty Avengers across two volumes between September 2013 and June 2015. Of those twenty-three issues, thirteen were tie-in issues connecting with five linewide events. In under two years, Mighty Avengers intersected with Infinity, Inhumanity, Original Sin, Axis and Secret War. It was so dizzying as to be disorienting.
To be fair, comic book events have been a fixture of the market since the late eighties at the latest, kicked into gear by massive stories like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths. Great writers have done wonderful things by tying into events and using them as springboards to tell their own stories. Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing arguably reached its crescendo while tying into Crisis on Infinite Earths, while Grant Morrison has tended to tie his own books quite well into events that he is spearheading; Justice League of America in D.C. 1,000,000, Batman into Final Crisis.
At the same time, it can be exhausting. Joe Quesada, whose tenure as editor-in-chief at Marvel largely inspired this shared Defenders universe, has acknowledged that “event fatigue” is something that effects creators as much as consumers:
Also, when I’m referring to event fatigue, it’s not just about the readership. It’s event fatigue within editorial. It’s event fatigue within the creative community. There’s a lot of that stuff going on where you start to hear your creators and editors talk about this exhaustion that comes with putting these events together. So in our case, we’re taking a look at this and saying, “It’s a good time to pull back from this for a bit. It’s good for our readership, it’s good for our creators, it’s good for our publishing division to take a breather, to take a look at what our creators want to do and the stories they want to tell and then to come back on all cylinders.” Quite frankly, I look at this particular time as an investment in our future. It’s a clearing of our heads so that we can then dig in and blow our reader’s minds one more time.
After all, writers understandably want to tell their own stories. One of the central tensions between writer J. Michael Straczynski and Marvel during his Thor run was the desire to tie the book into any number of larger events in the shared universe. This ultimately led to his departure from the monthly series.
One of the big innovations that Marvel Studios brought to their multimedia platform was the use of comic book storytelling tropes within the framework of film and television. The company’s success has largely been predicated upon building the kind of shared universe that has existed in comic books for decades, but which had never been deemed particularly feasible (or appealing) in film or television to that point. Marvel Studios even treats its universe as a long-form narrative, seeding ideas for crossovers in films and television series that will not pay off for years.
The result can be intriguing. The tease of Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man was eye-opening. Although the plot twist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier meant that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent the first two-thirds of its first season spinning the proverbial wheels, it was fascinating to see a long-form narrative deal with the fallout from a big piece of event storytelling. When Thanos finally takes to the stage in Avengers: Infinity War, it will be as a result of half-a-decade of teases dating back to a post-credits scene in The Avengers.
The key to all of this is balance, ensuring that each story within this larger narrative framework can be deemed satisfactory on its own terms while playing into that larger narrative. The first season of Daredevil was split neatly into two halves, but it positioned the episode Stick between them as some heavy-handed foreshadowing of a greater evil awaiting its protagonist down the line. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones teased enough little easter eggs and connections without ever suffocating under the weight. Iron Fist is not so lucky.
It is tempting to look at this as the live-action equivalent of event fatigue, with Iron Fist positioned as the last speed bump on the road to The Defenders, existing primarily to build anticipation for the event story rather than to thread its own narrative. This has been a criticism leveled at certain Marvel Studios films, most notably Iron Man II. It demonstrates the dangers posed when the narrative of the story being told is secondary to the demands of the larger universe.
The best Marvel films are often those with the most distinct identities. It is very difficult to reconcile the ending of Iron Man III with where Avengers: Age of Ultron finds Tony Stark, but that discontinuity is offset by the fact that Shane Black had a distinctive story that he wanted to tell using the character and was afforded the freedom with which he might tell that story. Jessica Jones is in no way undermined by the fact that she spent thirteen episodes facing a villain who is unlikely to return for The Defenders.
The way in which Iron Fist has seen its narrative subsumed to the demands of the larger crossover is very much an extension of the concept of major event tie-ins, a thirteen-episode series that seems to spend more time setting up The Defenders than it does telling its own story. In terms of crossover-to-content, Iron Fist certainly leans closer to Mighty Avengers than to Swamp Thing, although Scott Buck and his creative team are nowhere near as effective at juggling those competing demands as Al Ewing.
As a result, when Dragon Plays With Fire circles back around to resolving the central plot that drives this thirteen episode season – Danny returning to New York to take back his company and live up to the title of Iron Fist – it feels almost like whiplash. When the DEA agents swarm into the dojo at the end of Bar the Big Boss, it is jarring. The audience would be forgiven for taking a moment to think, “Oh yes, Harold.” After all, Harold is nominally the big bad of the season, the antagonist played by the special guest villain recognisable for character roles in popular films.
The problem is that all of this feels like an anticlimax, despite the fact that it is the central thread of the season. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that Harold Meachum really isn’t that convincing an antagonist after Danny has faced down two separate armies of ninja. More than that, the season’s sorting algorithm of evil placed Harold squarely below the Hand in terms of power and threat. It took Danny only a few weeks to defeat a threat that had kept Harold under its thumb for over a decade. What threat can Harold pose?
Danny just went seven consecutive episodes against two groups of undead ninja. How can a business man almost twice Danny’s age mount a credible defense against the so-called “living weapon”? The idea of Finn Jones squaring off against David Wentham evokes the memory of Keanu Reeves baring down on Michael Nyquist at the climax of John Wick, but at least there the anticlimax was a refreshing contrast to the earlier action scenes. Given John’s mental and physical exhaustion, that final throwdown had an air of finality to it. Here, Danny is rested and primed.
Dragon Plays With Fire seems aware of this issue and so hilariously overplays its hand, to the point that the episode descends into self-parody.How could Harold possibly hold his own against Danny? Has he been secretly building super weapons in his spare time? Does he have a magical relic? Has he found his own sinister way to tap into the Iron Fist? Has he taken a leaf from the evil industrialists populating the Iron Man franchise, and will he emerge wearing a giant suit of armour? The answer to all these questions is: “no.”
Dragon Plays With Fire insists that Harold’s secret weapon and key advantage against Danny is: “guns.” Yes, regular issue firearms carried by security stuff. The same guns that Danny mocked at the docks in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, and which have never been effective to this point in the narrative. Dragon Plays With Fire seems to suggest that the Hand might have fared a lot better against Danny if they eschewed poison and blades and mysticism in favour of some good old American firepower.
It is ridiculous, not least because both Daredevil and Iron Fist have filmed action sequences involving firearms before, and they have never been treated as a serious concern for the characters. Bakuto was armed to the teeth with both katanas and guns when he stormed the penthouse in Bar the Big Boss. It made no difference in the final confrontation. After all, this is a comic book show. It would be somewhat disappointing if guns trumped superpowers. However, because the creative team working on Dragon Plays with Fire have no better idea, guns are now a serious threat.
In keeping with the general style of Iron Fist, the belabours the point in the most cringeworthy fashion imaginable. When Ward reports that Harold has armed guards on the floor, Claire protests, “Unless you’re bulletproof, we have to wait.” When Danny presses ahead with the assault, the script makes sure to repeat the threat for the audiences in the cheap seats. Colleen is running towards the lift after Danny incapacitates two guards. She closes within feet of the guards who are still stunned, and realises they are armed.
“Oh, guns,” she remarks, turning around and running the other direction in an unintentionally hilarious sequence. The choreography of the moment does not help, with Colleen being close enough to the stunned guards to easily incapacitate them before deciding to retreat at the sight of their firearms. “Remember,” Harold urges his guards upstairs, almost at that same moment, “Iron Fist or not, he’s not bulletproof.” There is a massive sense of over-sell going on here, as if somebody halted the climax of The Avengers once Captain America realised that the aliens had lasers.
To be fair, it makes a certain amount of sense that all of this plays like an afterthought. Dragon Plays With Fire effectively crams several episodes worth of story into a single episode while also wrapping up the season and setting up threads for a hypothetical second season. In Dragon Plays With Fire, Harold frames Danny for drug crimes, Danny becomes a fugitive from the DEA, Danny confronts Gao about what happened to his parents, Danny finds evidence exonerating himself, and Danny confronts Harold before Ward kills him.
For the sake of comparison, it’s worth stressing that Luke Cage covered many of these same beats over its final four episodes; Take It Personal, Now You’re Mine, Soliloquy of Chaos and You Know My Steez. While it seems fair to suggest that these plot points were somewhat stretched over those final four episodes, with Take It Personal and Soliloquy of Chaos covering a lot of the same ground in terms of plot and theme, there is certainly too much plot for Iron Fist to digest in a single episode.
The irony is quite stunning. Iron Fist kicked off its first season by extending a single-episode’s-worth of plot over four straight episodes; Snow Gives Way, Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. However, Iron Fist then closes its first season by condensing four-episodes’-worth of story into the space of a single season finale. Dragon Plays With Fire is one final reminder that Iron Fist needed a much stronger sense of pacing.
Dragon Plays With Fire is also a reminder that Iron Fist needed a much tighter sense of plotting. Why does anything happen in Dragon Plays With Fire, beyond the fact that it is the season finale? Why would Harold turn on Danny so suddenly and so dramatically, leaving so much to chance? Harold has spent ten years in hiding, so why would he turn his return into some ad hoc spectacle? More than that, it isn’t as though Danny had proven himself capable of independent thought or difficult to manipulate, so why target Danny so suddenly?
In fact, given Harold’s stated plan to continue selling heroin (and its cure) through Rand Industries, one imagines that a massive and ongoing DEA investigation into the son of the company’s founder would make his long term goal a lot more difficult to execute. It would surely make more sense to lull Danny into a false sense of security and dispose at him once everything was settled down. If Harold can make a bullet in the middle of a forehead look like suicide, Danny should pose no real threat.
Of course, the plot point can be excused by reference to Harold’s mental instability. Iron Fist has never seemed entire sure what do with Harold, about how skillfully he is manipulating events. Harold seems to wrap Ward and Danny around his little finger, but those two characters never seem like particularly challenging opponents. Harold is not Wilson Fisk or Black Mariah (or even Cottonmouth), as The Mistress of All Agonies demonstrates with its “came back wrong” plot thread.
However, outside the narrative, this is lazy writing. “… because he’s crazy” is never a convincing character motivation on its own terms. Harold seems to act out against Danny because the season is coming to a close and he stands as the last major opponent standing between the hero and the close of the season. Iron Fist needs to wind down, and it needs to come to a somewhat satisfying conclusion in which Danny vanquishes Harold and retakes control of the company. This should have been the climax of the season, but it winds up as an afterthought.
This is particularly apparent in how desperately Dragon Plays With Fire tries to claw back a sense of threat and motivation from the rest of the season. In The Blessing of Many Fractures, Danny recognised the effects of Hand poison from the bodies of the pilots in the Himalayas. The obvious inference was that Madame Gao had murdered Wendell and Heather Rand, with Danny speculating that they had discovered her heroin operation. Madame Gao does not protest the accusation with any real conviction, and Bakuto does not correct it.
There is an obvious reason to tie the Hand into the deaths of Wendell and Heather Rand, because it allows Iron Fist to add a personal dimension to the conflict between Danny Rand and the Hand. It makes the stakes more intimate and compelling, at least in theory. However, it also makes the shift in Dragon Plays With Fire seem even more cynical. The writing staff work very hard to avoid directly contradicting anything previously confirmed on screen, but the result feels very much like a last ditch “hail mary” to reclaim a sacrificed plot point.
Dragon Plays With Fire reveals that Harold Meachum actually murdered Wendell and Heather Rand. He set up the Hand’s heroin operation in China, and was worried about what Wendell would do to Joy and Ward if he discovered that shady deal. In pure concrete terms, this changes very little. Madame Gao was still complicity in the poisoning of the pilots, and the Hand still provided the poison that led to the plane crash. However, the intention is clear. Danny now has a personal motivation to go after Harold, because Harold was the one who really murdered his parents.
Again, this represents an attempt to re-centre the season around a narrative element that is particular to Iron Fist rather than tied into The Defenders. The Hand are obviously part of the larger shared universe, while Harold is very specifically tied into this series. Given that so many superhero stories are tied up in the death of the hero’s parents, the character responsible for those deaths takes on an outsized importance. Indeed, Batman went so far as to write the Joker into the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Cramming this reveal into Dragon Plays With Fire feels absurd, as if the production team realise that Harold has spent most of the season in the backseat and needs a serious upgrade if his death is to bring a sense of closure to the season around him. The result is a rather convoluted bit of plotting that allows both Harold Meachum and Madame Gao to be complicit in the deaths of Wendell and Heather Rand, which allows Iron Fist to tie its superhero origin story to both this individual season of television and the demands of the crossover around it.
This does lead to a weird dissonance in Dragon Plays With Fire. In providing all the requisite exposition, Gao reveals her complicity in the death of the Rand family. After all, she was the person who forced Harold Meachum to set up the heroin operation and she was the person who provided him with the necessary poison. By any logic, Madame Gao is a clear accessory to murder, even if it is implied that Harold poisoned the pilots himself. However, because Harold is the focus of the finale, Danny seems to afford Gao a pass.
The characters in Dragon Plays With Fire spend an inordinate amount of time agonising over what to do about Harold Meachum, indulging in that stock vigilante show angst about the morality of killing. Colleen hits upon a (relatively) logical solution to the fact that Danny is a hero and shouldn’t kill, by promising to take the sin upon herself, somehow misunderstanding the nature of the debate while still proactively problem-solving. To be fair, she was inspired by Davos’ intervention at the climax of Bar the Big Boss.
However, while the team debates who should get to kill Harold Meachum, Danny never seems particularly bothered about Madame Gao. To be fair, she has the appearance of an old and infirm lady who is still in captivity, but both Danny and Colleen accept that she is only still at the Hand compound by choice. “There are metal screens on those windows,” Danny states. “You could have escaped.” Indeed, later in the episode, it is revealed that Gao has escaped. It is implied that she has aligned with Davos and is corrupting Joy by proxy.
So Dragon Plays With Fire is in a very strange position. Danny seems eager to kill somebody for the death of his parents, and he is confronted with two figures who played a role in the death of his family. Madame Gao is the mystical leader of an army of undead assassins who exerts incredible influence and has escaped captivity countless times. Harold Meachum is a corrupt business executive who spent the last decade imprisoned in a penthouse at the mercy of that army of undead assassins. In a game of “kill or imprison” with those two characters, the choices seems obvious.
To be fair, the climax of Dragon Plays With Fire makes a point to have Danny explicitly decide against murdering a fifty-odd-year-old business man in cold blood. “You’re going to prison,” Danny warns Harold. “Only this time, it’s gonna be nowhere near as nice as the one you spent the last thirteen years in.” It probably sounded like a sick burn in his head. Then again, Iron Fist‘s idea of witty dialogue consists of Harold declaring “you destroyed my family!” and Danny responding that “the funny part is that now I’m gonna kill you.”
Of course, Danny’s decision not to murder Harold Meachum in cold blood is treated as a big heroic beat for the character, proof of how much Danny has grown. However, Iron Fist is not satisfied with sending Harold to prison. So it quickly comes up with a way to kill off the character without having Danny murder him in cold blood. The entire thing plays as self-defense, with Danny kicking Harold backwards so as to impale him on a spike during a brawl and then having Ward shoot Harold off the roof after Harold attempts to shoot Danny.
Dragon Plays With Fire ensures that everybody keeps their hands clean and that the season has a “satisfying” ending. It is a sublimely cynical piece of television writing, more of a checklist than a story. It feels like Dragon Plays With Fire is a weird interlude between Bar the Big Boss and the start of The Defenders, fifty-odd minutes of television in which Iron Fist remembers that it has its own characters and arcs to service beyond the demands of the massive television crossover looming on the horizon.
While the final scene, with the dead bodies of the Hand and the missing city of K’un Lun, is quite obviously intended to tie directly into The Defenders, Dragon Plays With Fire spends considerably more energy setting up threads for a potential second season of Iron Fist. This is most notable in the short scene between Davos and Joy in France, in which the two pseudo-villains vow to destroy Danny Rand as Madame Gao sits in the background smirking. As with a lot of the character work in Iron Fist, the development is not exactly logical for any of the three characters.
According to actor Sacha Dhawan, Davos is not intended to appear in The Defenders and the set-up is exclusive to the second season of Iron Fist:
I’m not in the Defenders, no. The crux of Danny and Davos’ story I think really begins towards the end of season one, and I think they didn’t want to start it straight away into the Defenders, and wanted to save it for series two.
It is something that exists purely within the world of Iron Fist, something not to be shared.
Of course, it is also a very tried-and-test superhero adaptation storytelling device. Davos first appears in The Mistress of All Agonies, and is properly introduced in Black Tiger Steals Heart, as a potential ally to Danny who is suggested to have a fatal and tragic character flaw. It mirrors the introduction of Harry Osborne in Spider-Man as a spoiled rich kid, and more explicitly the character of Baron Mordo in Doctor Strange as a straight-laced by-the-book type interested in rules and procedures. Davos’ betrayal is all but expected, although he jumps to murder surprisingly quickly.
To be fair to Iron Fist, and perhaps fairer than the series deserves, there are little indications of attention to detail in the way that the series is laid out. Iron Fist is a complete mess of a season and a massive misfire, but there is a surprising attention to detail in how certain images and plot points fit together. There are certain images and character beats that recur across the season, mirrored between the first half of the year and the back half of the year that suggests an interest in structure that is not borne out by the rest of the season as a whole.
The hawk that is rendered with terrible computer-generated imagery in Snow Gives Way is explained as the hawk that guided Danny back to the world in Lead Horse Back to Stable and which makes a small appearance in Dragon Plays With Fire. Harold’s return to the land of the living in Dragon Plays With Fire mirrors Danny’s resurrection in Snow Gives Way. The institutionalisation of Ward in Bar the Big Boss mirrors that of Danny in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. The opening shot of Ward in Bar the Big Boss evokes that of Harold in Felling of Tree With Roots.
These touches are clever, juxtaposing these three key figures. However, the attention paid to these little dove-tailing visual elements only draws attention to the countless ways in which the season does not add up. Given the care taken to contrast Harold trapped in his oxygen tank in Felling of Tree With Roots with Ward tied down in his bed in Bar the Big Boss, it is frustrating that Iron Fist never bothers to explain how Colleen could need money for the dojo in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, given revelations about the Hand’s involvement in Black Tiger Steals Heart.
Then again, this is very much the story of Iron Fist. It is a lot of raw potential, squandered in the laziest possible execution.
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