Iron Fist season two is an improvement on Iron Fist season one in the way that stubbing your toe is an improvement over jamming your finger in a car door. Even if you grade on a superhero-movie curve, you would still have to be a die-hard stan to defend it as anything other than the least interesting title in the Netflix/Marvel team-up collection, an interlinked series of dramas of which even the superior entries — Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Daredevil — have their own problems, chiefly Netflix bloat. This second season develops something resembling momentum around episode five — this is what passes for improvement in a show presented by two major entertainment companies, apparently — but up until then, we have to endure poorly written conversations between mostly flat characters that go on two or three times longer than they need to in order to communicate essential character and plot information, and performances that could be described as “heroic” only in the sense that everyone onscreen is a trained professional trapped in the thespian version of an Old Testament conundrum: How to make bricks without straw?
Incoming Iron Fist showrunner Raven Metzner inherited a series that was already poised for change and potential improvement, but the result is slightly more bearable tedium. Following the supposed death of Matt Murdock at the end of The Defenders mini-series, hero Danny Rand (Finn Jones) — a.k.a. Iron Fist, a.k.a. Martial Arts Master Richie Rich — has accepted the mantle of New York’s protector. But our initial glimpses suggest he’s far from being up to the task. K’un-Lun, the mythical city where Danny and his nemesis/opponent Davos (Sacha Dhawan) trained and fought, lies in ruins; Danny blames himself, and it’s not just self-flagellation.
The new season picks up in Iron Fist’s Orientalist fantasy of New York’s Chinatown, which is experiencing what Danny’s partner and girlfriend Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) describes as “a power vacuum” that has left Danny “without any clearly defined role.” (Iron Fist characters are forever describing their world in tediously expository terms you’d expect to see on an “About This Show” page.) Danny and Colleen try to intercede between warring gangs and persuade them to negotiate a truce, but of course it doesn’t work out, for the same reason that attempts to avert high-noon showdowns in a Western are doomed to fail: Peace and reasonableness are not what we came to see. Meanwhile, there’s more internal drama at Rand Enterprises, with Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) pushing to get bought out of her contract so that she can pursue a new scheme involving patents, and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) entering Narcotics Anonymous.
Like the second seasons of Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage, season two of Iron Fist spends a lot of its time finding ways to un-ring narrative bells that it rang in season one, which is never an easy task. But for whatever reason, the dispiriting obligation to tidy up and rearrange seems to weigh on the writers, directors, and actors alike, and the process takes forever. The only minor compensations here are Ward, who is more compelling in quiet conversations than Danny is when he’s kicking people across rooms, and the addition of “Typhoid” Mary Walker (Alice Eve), a character who’s introduced as a small-town naif crushing on Danny — she tells him she’s from “Oak Creek, Wisconsin, home of stifled dreams, lost hopes, and mediocre pie” — but quickly seems like more of a potential Fatal Attraction–type. Suffice to say that there’s more to this character than initially meets the eye, and that if Marvel and Netflix didn’t want me to say any of this, they wouldn’t have announced in advance that they were adding this particular established character to the show. Eve gives Mary an itty-bitty voice that amounts to a withering commentary on adult women who try to sound helpless in order to attract men, and when the character becomes (vaguely, then intentionally) threatening, her gaze turns a murderous blank, like a cobra’s. She’s so unnerving that she throws the skim-milk blandness of the rest of the show into sharper relief.
The fight scenes are marginally better than they were the first time around, although they still often resolve with Danny putting ye olde Iron Fist to use (raising the question of why he doesn’t just use it in the first place, and how many uses he gets per day). They still have a bit of a 1990s CBS-action-show vibe: Think Walker, Texas Ranger, which had fights good enough for government work, in both choreography and direction, but rarely more than that. (The God’s-eye-view shots are nifty, however.) Even when the action scenes work through some potentially good ideas — as in a restaurant sequence that cross-cuts between a fight in a kitchen and one occurring out in the main dining area — they never attain that ecstatic sense of dancelike release that you experience watching a fight scene where the choreographer and director seem to be of one mind, designing moves and shots so that each amplifies the badass beauty of the other. Even the best of them can’t touch the least of Atomic Blonde, the John Wick series, the absolute worst bits in the Matrix or Lethal Weapon films, the most forgettable Golden Harvest kung fu movies released between the 1970s through the early ’90s, or for that matter, AMC’s Into the Badlands, which becomes more accomplished at mayhem as well as characterization every year.
Danny is more sour, troubled, and self-pitying this time around, and some of the other characters, Colleen in particular, describe him (intriguingly) as a potential agent of chaos who sees himself as a hero: a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself unless he’s fighting people. But absent a brilliantly controlled and charismatic lead performance — which Jones has yet to give — none of this really comes across, except in dialogue where the characters keep telling us what’s happening emotionally to themselves and others. More so than in any other Netflix superhero show, Iron Fist never figures out how to build an aesthetic that reconciles its naturalistic performances and its dialogue, which tends to fall into one of two categories: no-frills information delivery or failed cleverness. (Though Colleen’s, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” is funny, in a groaner sort of way.) With their lurid colors and gloomy swaths of negative space, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and the Daredevil-adjacent The Punisher affect a neo-noir, hardboiled vibe that never matches the crystalline visual brilliance of the old films they’re referencing, but you can still appreciate that they’re at least trying for something — that they have an idea and they’re working it out as they go along. Luke Cage offers its own twist on the formula, infusing a bluesy sensibility and playing up Luke’s connections to his community.
In contrast, Iron Fist still feels like a show in search of an urgent reason to exist, beyond the obligation to serve as one part of an intellectual property quintet that periodically intersects for team-up mini-series. An exhausted sense of corporate obligation hangs over every scene, which might explain why so much of the season is content to tell you what’s happening to the characters rather than devising exciting and original ways to dramatize it. Two seasons in, Iron Fist is still powered by what a playwright friend of mine described as “Because I Say So dramaturgy,” and readers, consider yourselves warned: It’ll drain the joy out of you, if you submit to it.