Marvel's The Defenders
A Chinese restaurant becomes a refuge for The Defenders’ superhero quartet in “Royal Dragon,” a chapter that has the series slowing down to catch its breath after the exhilaration of “Worst Behavior.” Most of the action takes place inside this restaurant, with a small cast that suggests the episode is meant to balance out the show’s budget. Cutting costs can occasionally lead to creative ingenuity, but that’s not the case here. “Royal Dragon” starts strong, but it lags as the script delivers scene after scene of exposition without intrigue.
The cold open of the heroes rushing into the restaurant and catching up on the basics of the plot is the most thrilling part of the episode, and the early exposition is imbued with urgency and humor to keep the story moving. The dialogue moves at a clipped pace, with Jessica providing contemptuous comic relief that undercuts the more unbelievable fantasy elements. “Royal Dragon” makes Danny a more entertaining character by pushing him in a humorous direction, and he’s almost adorable as he fails to contain his excitement at the prospect of being part of a team. Danny is downright giddy, and he really wants these potential new allies to stick around. He says that the restaurant owner forced him to order four of every menu item, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did that on his own as a way to keep everyone around. They just survived a big fight, so they’re probably starving.
Luke, Matt, and Jessica are constantly getting lumped together while Danny is the odd man out. In the premiere, they were all in New York City while Danny was out of the country. They all refuse hero labels while Danny wears his proudly, constantly reminding everyone that he’s “the Immortal Iron Fist.” They don’t want to be part of a team, but Danny thinks that fate has brought them together so they can be his allies in his war against the Hand. Using fate to explain their very coincidental meeting at Midland Circle is a stretch, but in order to convince them, Danny has to make them believe in forces beyond what they can see.
Of course, Jessica bursts Danny’s bubble over and over again. Most of her one-liners come after a ridiculous claim that she refuses to let slide. When Danny says that they’re fighting a group called the Hand, Jessica responds, “What are they really called?” (When she has to repeat their name later, she makes her mocking tone very clear.) When Danny announces he’s the “sworn protector of K’un-Lun,” Jessica asks if he’s on lithium. Danny isn’t the only one made a target of her condescension, either. When Matt refuses to show his face to Luke and Danny, Jessica reveals that she knows what he’s trying to hide: “You’re the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Or Devil Boy. Or whatever it is you like to be called.”
Krysten Ritter is the MVP of this episode, and not just because of her comedic delivery. Jessica has the most intense internal conflict of anyone in the group, and while the other heroes are easily convinced to work together to stop the Hand, she’s adamantly opposed to fighting a war that she’s ill-equipped for. Jessica and Luke’s past relationship also gives them the most compelling dynamic within this group, and their chemistry reignites when they reconnect. Their first conversation highlights their casual flirtation, and Luke is the one who tries to convince Jessica to stay when the situation becomes too much for her to handle. Luke and Jessica still care for each other, and that affection comes through in both Mike Colter and Ritter’s performances.
There’s a later moment that makes me think Jessica isn’t the only person flirting with Luke in this episode. At the end of a conversation where Danny tells Luke that they make a good team, he offers Luke a pot sticker that is downed in one bite. Danny gives Luke a coy, playful look that looks a lot like flirting, and the camera lingers on his reaction just long enough to make it feel like more than just platonic amusement. Maybe it’s because Jones played a gay character on Game of Thrones, but this is the first moment when I considered that Danny could be queer, which would bring a brand-new layer to his character. Sure, it would piss off the fans who want to see Danny get together with his comic-book girlfriend, Misty Knight, but that would also make his character stand out from the other billionaire white male heroes that proliferate the genre.
Danny’s privilege came up in the last episode, and privilege continues to play into the series. “Royal Dragon” features four heroes, three of them white, barging into a Chinese restaurant, which they immediately claim as their own and then destroy. Danny offers to pay the restaurant’s rent for six months, which gets him a pointed look from Luke, but he’s going to have to pay for a lot more than that: In the episode’s final moments, Jessica crashes a car through the front window to save her new allies from Alexandra and Black Sky.
What if Danny doesn’t survive this ordeal? I know that won’t happen because there’s going to be a second season of Iron Fist, but Danny doesn’t when he makes his deal with the restaurant owner. There was no contract signed with Rand Industries. If Danny dies, these civilians will have no choice but to rebuild their lives on their own. I’m overthinking what happens to this restaurant after the superheroes leave it behind, but given how much time is spent there, it’s hard not to consider how their actions have big consequences for ordinary people.
The pacing of “Royal Dragon” slows down once Stick appears and starts telling the group about the Hand and the Chaste’s history. This straightforward info dump isn’t a graceful way to provide new information, and I’ve come to realize that the dueling ancient groups are more captivating when less time is spent on their mythology. Alexandra is tight-lipped about details, and the Hand is a lot scarier when it doesn’t make its motivations known. When the episode jumps away from the restaurant, it’s mostly to explore simmering tensions within the Hand, and it dips considerably from that moment onward.
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that Marvel’s Netflix shows have struggled when it comes to Asian representation, and that struggle continues in this episode. Iron Fist introduced some new Asian characters, but most of them were villains who did not get the definition of a Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, or Cottonmouth. Iron Fist’s main positive contribution to Asian representation came via Colleen Wing, but she’s nowhere to be seen in this episode — even though she could have easily been brought in since she was the last person seen with Stick.
Instead, the Asian characters in “Royal Dragon” are the restaurant employees who have to stay past closing because four random people decided to make their workplace a hideout; Black Sky, who is essentially a killing machine; and Murakami (Yutaka Takeuchi), the final finger of the Hand who is introduced while butchering an endangered Asian black bear. Murakami’s scene is so over-the-top that it’s laughable, and I don’t think that’s the intent of the creative team. In one especially heavy-handed moment, he holds up one of the bear’s organs as he criticizes Alexandra for not wanting to get her hands dirty. It’s supposed to reinforce how scary he is, but the main reaction it got from me was an eye roll.
Compare this debut to Alexandra’s, who was immediately presented in a vulnerable light to gain our sympathy before revealing her villainous ways. Murakami gets a severe, gory introduction to make the character seem intimidating, but when so many other Asian characters in these shows have been portrayed in similar ways, I find myself yearning for more complexity and nuance. We get a little bit of this from Black Sky’s curiosity about who she was before her resurrection, but when she appears at the end of the episode, she’s not so much a person as the physical embodiment of death, clad in a hooded black robe that makes her look like the grim reaper. In my recap for episode three, I praised the The Defenders for making the Marvel Cinematic Universe more inclusive, but “Royal Dragon” reminds us that there’s still a lot of room for improvement with Asian representation in these stories.