SPOILER ALERT: Marvel's The Defenders spoilers below!
It’s a whole lot harder to hate Iron Fist now — and that might just be The Defenders’ greatest accomplishment.
When it was first pitched, the idea of bringing Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist together in an event series seemed like a no-brainer. Fans were even more pumped when three of those four shows turned out to be pretty great — but then the first season of Iron Fist dropped. Like a rock. Marvel’s final solo Netflix series before The Defenders was a dud with critics and fans alike, panned for everything from its stilted acting, slow pace, tone-deaf subtext, and (most frequently) the fact that Finn Jones’ Danny Rand is basically a big, whiny baby.
In the wake of that critical shellacking, making Iron Fist a lynchpin of The Defenders didn’t just seem bold, it seemed crazy. Fans almost universally disliked the character, and his story of a super-powered, white, billionaire ninja seemed like an odd fit with the more street-level journeys of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. But, The Defenders turned out to be the perfect palate cleanser to actually make Iron Fist fit into this world. If Season 1 of Iron Fist was Danny Rand’s ultimate misstep of a first impression, The Defenders is his redemption. Danny might still be an odd duck when put side-to-side with the rest of these heroes, but he did find a place — which seemed a tall order in itself after his solo series.
So how did it happen? A perfect recipe of pacing, snark, humility, and humble inspiration.
Much like how Marvel has figured out The Hulk works best in an ensemble, the same can arguably be said for Iron Fist. Too bad for Danny Rand, most of his supporting cast in his solo series didn’t do him any favors. The only standout, and the only supporting player to carry over into The Defenders, is Jessica Henwick’s excellent take on Colleen Wing. It was a wise move to cut the chaff (namely, the Meachum siblings), and setting up Danny and Colleen as a duo really helped give him a strong presence to bond with. Put simply, having Danny hanging around with a lot of other, strong-willed characters helps dilute the things that made him so annoying. Yes, he still sometimes comes off like the petulant kid of the gang, but he gets called on it now, and the story moves on. That didn’t happen in Iron Fist.
To that end, the real story is how Danny fits into the line-up of The Defenders itself. In his solo series, his magically-powered fist is an odd McGuffin in a story that bobs and weaves from boring corporate intrigue to ninja beat ‘em ups. Things change when you drop him a room with a super-strong private eye; a guy with unbreakable skin; and a blind man who can hear your heartbeat two rooms away. Now? Yeah, he looks a bit less silly. Where the mystical elements of Danny’s story were left awkwardly hanging in the air during his solo show, they’re batted around for fodder in The Defenders. Luke has a running gag where he pokes fun at Danny’s claims of battling a dragon, while Jessica hilariously refuses to actually call him “Iron Fist.” That ribbing is just enough to take the edge off the character’s inherent silliness, and humanizes Danny in a way he desperately needed. Fans spent a whole lot of time making fun of Iron Fist the past few months. There’s something cathartic to see a few Marvel heroes do the same.
It’s clear Danny learns a lot and evolves throughout The Defenders’ eight-episode run, with Daredevil emerging as a semi-mentor to him by the end of the story. In Matt Murdock, Danny got to see a man use his abilities to protect the city that he loves. Danny gets a front row seat of what a hero looks like, as Matt never wavers — even as he faces his almost-certain doom at the bottom of a crater underneath Midland Financial Circle. Yes, Danny obviously suffered loss as a child with the death of his parents, but coping with Daredevil’s apparent death (as far as any of the Defenders are aware) seems to truly change Danny as an adult.
In Daredevil’s absence, Iron Fist seems to have finally found his place. That point is made crystal clear with that final shot of Danny, staking out a piece of roof in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, watching for trouble. There’s a legacy left unfilled in New York, and Danny looks to be replacing his home of K’un-Lun for Manhattan.
The MCU might be down one hero (at least for now), but Iron Fist finally seems poised to step into the void.