Since DAREDEVIL debuted in the spring of 2015, Marvel fans have been waiting in anticipation for the release of Netflix’s DEFENDERS, Marvel Studios’ second attempt at a shared superhero universe. The success of this first show was further built on by the release of JESSICA JONES and, to a lesser extent, DAREDEVIL Season 2 and LUKE CAGE, all of which continued to set the stage for an epic street-level superhero team-up. However, unlike the aforementioned shows, IRON FIST failed to meet the mark on so many levels, delivering what might well be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first real critical flop. And, while there are a number of factors that led to this negative reception (i.e. poorly choreographed action sequences, a dull boardroom plot, the lack of a compelling villain), perhaps the biggest of them all was its inability to give Danny Rand a compelling character arc. And this, in turn was due to his narrative lacking in an element that made the other DEFENDERS story-lines so compelling: a discovery of one’s identity. (Spoilers ahead)

 

Beginning with the first season of DAREDEVIL, this franchise immediately establishes its central theme through the arc of Matt Murdock, a man who wishes to protect Hell’s Kitchen from harm on two fronts. Since he never dons his iconic costume until the final episode, the majority of Season 1 serves as a build-up to the moment Murdock assumes that identity, thus requiring him to grow through his relationship with other characters. We see him and Foggy Nelson struggle to work as lawyers in a city plagued by crime and corruption, serving as a last line of defense to protect innocent clients from harm. Yet Murdock feels that this method is not enough, choosing to dress up in his Frank Miller-era garb and take the fight directly to the criminals’ turf. In these battles, we see a hero who remains incredibly vulnerable in spite of his enhanced senses – most notably the infamous hallway fight scene – engaging in brutal fights and suffering numerous injuries regardless of the outcome. Torn between these two identities, Murdock finds himself tormented by Catholic guilt, wishing to do the right thing inside and outside of the law, yet never able to confess his sins in fear that it will compromise his mission.

In this search to discover his identity, Murdock is forced to battle Wilson Fisk, an antagonist who also sees himself as Hell’s Kitchen’s savior. Like Murdock, Fisk is made a compelling character through his narrative arc, operating from the shadows to make his city a better place. The two characters differ in how they wish to achieve their objective, with Murdock using his law skills to lock away corrupt men like Fisk, and Fisk using murder and corruption to hold the city under his “protection.” In Fisk, Murdock sees a reflection of himself, one who isn’t bound by limitations or emotional restrictions that prevent his goal from being achieved. In this respect, the journey of our hero is made compelling because the villain has been portrayed as a manifestation of his identity gone too far, one who is willing to go over the line in order to justify his goals.

Season 2 further builds upon this idea of an antagonist who serves as a dark mirror to the hero’s goals. It introduces new villains/antiheroes in both the Punisher and Elektra. Unlike Fisk, who built an empire upon Hell’s Kitchen’s seedy underbelly, Frank Castle is a victim of that corruption, with gang violence claiming the lives of his wife and daughter. Castle uses vigilante justice similar to Daredevil’s but unlike Murdock, he is willing to use murder to see vengeance/justice delivered. The rooftop exchange shared between these characters highlights the blurred line between their individual ethics, with Castle deeming Murdock’s means a temporary “half-measure.” By cynically rejecting Daredevil’s faith in the legal system, Castle tests Matt’s heroic identity by giving him a foe that wishes to achieve a similar goal, albeit without the belief that criminals can be redeemed.

READ: See how DAREDEVIL managed to nail its overall tone within the span of its first two episodes

Finally, there is Murdock’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend Elektra, who serves as the figure of temptation for his moral code as a vigilante. By choosing to spend more time with her over the course of Season 2, Matt begins shedding his responsibilities as a lawyer and alienating himself from his friends at Nelson and Murdock. In Elektra, Matt finds a path that strips him of the moral code that he had tried to maintain for the majority of Season 1, something he felt put his crusade above that of Wilson Fisk’s. In this sense, DAREDEVIL Season 2 furthers the test of its protagonist’s religious faith, forcing him to own up to his personal sins while avoiding the lure that sin provides in his hero work. Therefore, his character arc comes not out of finding one’s identity but holding onto it in spite of all enticement that might sway him from going down a path of violence without restrictions.

 

Where DAREDEVIL was a story about its hero discovering their identity, JESSICA JONES takes a different approach towards this theme and focuses on a hero who must reclaim their identity. Unlike Matt Murdock, who used his agency to train and become a vigilante, Jessica Jones’ first attempt at heroism resulted in her falling under the mental control of Zebediah Kilgrave, a man with the power to control people’s minds. Because of this encounter, the Jessica that we meet in the main storyline has lost faith in her ability to control her free will and worries that, on some level, Kilgrave is still in her head. She is a damaged woman fighting to not let that trauma define her, yet feels that this means distancing herself from those close to her to protect them from harm.

Jessica Jones’ character arc focuses on her struggle to retake control over her life and, in turn, overcome Kilgrave’s mind games for good. Despite learning that she can resist Kilgrave’s verbal commands, Jessica finds herself at odds with the antagonist due to his ability to influence/hurt others with just a single word. This marks the most chilling thing about Kilgrave’s character: every horrible action he commits out of a self-delusional mentality that the victims do not mind what he does to them. His petulant man-child behavior is the result of living in a world where no one can refuse his demands; thus, Jessica’s refusal to obey his commands, as well as her disgust at him professing his love to her, present an obstacle that Kilgrave simply cannot understand. He genuinely does not see that what he did qualifies as a form of rape, and thus sees no problem with stripping others of their will and identity because, in his mind, it counts as “consent.”

READ: Is the trailer for JUSTICE LEAGUE too good to be true? 

Both Jessica and Kilgrave represent a unique role reversal of classic film noir tropes, with the woman serving as the cynical private eye and the man the manipulative femme fatale. Jessica isolates herself from the world in a misguided, though justified, attempt to protect others from being used as Kilgrave’s pawns. She finds solace at the bottom of a bottle, relying on alcohol as a means of escaping past trauma and reinforcing her “I-don’t-give-a-shit” attitude towards the world. Despite this, Jessica finds herself obligated to help others because it is the right thing to do, recognizing that she isn’t responsible for actions forced upon her by an external source. Kilgrave, by contrast, doesn’t comprehend the extent to which his powers hurt others, and thus acts as if his refusal to not control Jessica this time around is an act of chivalry. He never realizes that the simplest of his actions, the demand that Jessica “smile,” is just as much a form of harassment as sex without consent.

 

Arguably the most political of the Marvel Netflix shows, LUKE CAGE dealt with with intense social commentary during a rise in activism by the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.  Yet within the struggle of its main character lies a different theme of identity: the acceptance of one’s own self. It is revealed throughout the season that Luke Cage is just an alias for Carl Lucas, a former cop framed for a crime that he didn’t commit and thus sentenced to an unfair prison sentence. Subjected to harsh treatment within the prison by guards and prisoners alike, Lucas is forced to partake in an underground fight ring established by the guards’ corrupt system. Comparing this treatment of inmates to slavery, Lucas’ attempt to expose the corruption results in him being left critically injured and used as a guinea pig for the experiment that gave him his unbreakable skin. It is because of his past that Lucas- now Luke Cage – ended up with superpowers, as well as the reason he chooses to lay low in Harlem following the events of JESSICA JONES.

At first, Cage does not want to get involved in the corruption thriving within Harlem, instead choosing to keep a low profile as a barbershop sweeper as if he were an ordinary man. However, the influence of nightclub owner/gangster Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Mariah Dillard eventually becomes too much for Cage to ignore, resulting in him taking the fight to them once their actions take the life of a friend. It is here that Luke Cage runs into a conflict of identity, trying to make a difference within a public/legal system that continually labels him as a target of suspicion. Time after time, Cage proves himself to be someone who genuinely wants to make a difference, but is afraid that these heroic actions will cause his old identity to resurface. And when he does try to help, that image of heroism gets turned on its head by not only the antagonists (Cottonmouth, Dillard and later Diamondback) but also the police and media. Rather than label him a hero, Cage is stereotyped for how he looks and dresses, echoing the excuses made by real-life officers for the shootings of unarmed black men.

Like Cage, the antagonists of this story are motivated by their pasts, using the teachings they learned in their youth to justify their corrupt nature. Cottonmouth and Dillard were groomed for a life of crime by their grandmother, a mobster who resorted to upholding power at all costs, even if it meant the death of family. Likewise, Diamondback is motivated by feelings of revenge against Cage for being birthed as his half-brother, the result of an affair that neither boy learned until they grew up. All of these characters choose to be defined by their pasts and therefore see Cage as an obstacle standing in the way between them and the power/influence to control Harlem. What makes Luke Cage stand out as a character, and furthermore as a protagonist, is that he rejects his past as something that defines him, instead choosing to use the identity he holds in the present in order to make a difference.

READ: Were the problems for IRON FIST already in plain sight? Let’s take a look at the central problems within each Marvel Netflix series

 

And finally, this brings us to IRON FIST, Marvel Studio’s first true narrative flop. Even with all the problems regarding the series’ dialogue, editing and stunt choreography, I believe these problems could have been lessened to an extent had the story been worth caring about. Yet throughout his narrative, Danny Rand is presented as an entitled child whose actions never fit his status, constantly failing to prove his fighting abilities during numerous action sequences while simultaneously being praised as K’un Lun’s greatest fighter by one too many characters. Granted, one could equate this factor to poor choreography, but considering the praise given to DAREDEVIL’s hallway fight, there really is no excuse for sloppiness in a show centered on mystical kung-fu. And yet, underneath this convoluted mess of a narrative lies a theme that could very well have tied in with the other DEFENDERS shows: the rejection of one’s identity.

When Danny Rand returns to New York after fifteen years stuck in K’un Lun, his mindset is that which the monks raised him to be: the one who will defeat the Hand as the Iron Fist. In spite of his ineffectiveness as a fighter, Danny constantly tries to justify why he needs to take down the Hand through a single line that he constantly repeats to himself and to others: “I am the Iron Fist.” This line is delivered with a cult-like sense of devotion, suggesting that Danny is not doing this job because he wants to, but rather because the Order of the Crane monks have drilled it into his head that this is his destiny. Where the other Defenders have learned to create their own identity, Danny had an identity given to him and was trained to see the world through that single perspective, viewing his side as good and the Hand as inherently evil.

It is not until much later in the season (episodes 10-11 unfortunately) that this theory is confirmed for the audience, as well as the reasoning behind Danny’s sense of naivety. Up until this point, I honestly believed that the irrationality of IRON FIST’s protagonist was due to Finn Jones’ portrayal of the character, but these episodes confirmed that Danny was relatively new to wielding the Iron Fist’s power. The arc that he goes through, at least in theory, is that of a man trying to apply his newfound status as the Iron Fist to the real world, only to realize how much the K’un Lun teachings interfere in his desire to lead a normal life.As a result, Danny is forced to learn that simply holding the Iron Fist title doesn’t mean that he can single-handedly take on the entire Hand. Instead, he must not only learn to work with others and actually have a plan beyond “run in and fight,” but also embrace the duality of his lifestyle. Instead of just being what the Crane monks want him to be, Danny must forge his an identity that he can call his own.

READ: For an example of IRON FIST done right, check out our review of IRON FIST #1

This is the arc that I believe IRON FIST wanted to tell, but unfortunately it failed on a number of levels. There are scenes in the final episodes that should have existed in the beginning or middle in order to give its characters much needed depth than what we actually got. Other storylines, such as the majority of scenes involving the Meachum’s family, feel unnecessarily drawn out and pointless, to the point that it feels as if they are a bigger A-plot than Danny’s own arc. But above all, IRON FIST fails because, despite some interesting themes, it is unable to rationalize why this story needs to be told. Cultural appropriation criticism aside, the show does little to explain why Danny is a worthy inheritor to the Iron Fist, and those moments that attempt to do so are presented in a manner that I found rather confusing. Without any flashbacks detailing his training in K’un Lun or even facing off against Shao Lao the Undying Dragon, we are left with only the words of others to persuade us that Danny Rand is worthy, which run contradictory to IRON FIST’s poor fight sequences. At worst, it’s just sloppy storytelling and at best, it’s a waste of good potential.

CONCLUSION

Up until this point, the current lineup of Marvel’s Netflix Defenders – Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage– succeeded from a narrative perspective because each story dealt with a different approach towards the theme of identity. They were underdogs who overcame immense obstacles that posed a threat to their friends, families and communities alike, in turn allowing these heroes to discover or rediscover a part of themselves. IRON FIST attempted to do the same thing, but because of its inability to properly convey this theme to its audience, or even from a storytelling standpoint, it did not succeed. Perhaps DEFENDERS will be a second chance for Finn Jones, allowing him to give audiences the Danny Rand we all hoped to see but didn’t quite get the first time around. Of course this raises a big question: if 25% of the lead cast of a series is part of the problem, can DEFENDERS truly shine as a series? Hopefully it will, if the writing is better.

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One Comment

  1. gdolezal

    May 7, 2017 at 11:21 am

    I thought it started slow but got really good by the end. I guess critics can’t love every single production or they’d cease to be critics. I enjoyed the fight scenes and the characters did develop.

    As for the controversy about the race of the lead I think sticking to the original comic is just fine. No one gets upset at Wu Tang Clan for co-opting Asian culture for example. I think one of the quintessential aspects core to the American culture is that we are a creole. While I agree that ‘white washing’ exists I don’t think that is what happened here.

    If the complaint is that there were Asian stereotypes, as someone who has lived in Asia for 10 years I can say just look at every movie coming out of Hong Kong, Seoul, or Bangkok if you want to find a healthy dose of that. The cliches can get old to be sure, but I thought Iron Fist was more complicated than that.

    I wish that Asian American writers would emerge with narratives and positive depictions of Asian characters which will have mass cultural appeal. That’s the ultimate answer to the problem of wanting more roles.

    So, to summarize, stop hating on Iron Fist and go out and make new stories – audiences are happy to see Asians in lead roles, but they need to break the stereotypes. Actually, Asian kung fu master is more cliche…. How about an Asian character who is bad at math and terrible at computers and kung fu, who is good with the ladies (for a male role) and destroys all the tired cliches?

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