The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.
However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.
That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.
The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).
It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.
Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.
Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.
While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.
In the magical kingdom of Dreamland, princesses just want to have fun. At least, Bean (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson) does, much to the consternation of her grumpy, despotic old man, King Zog (the ever-reliable John “Bender” DiMaggio), who wants to use his hard-drinking, hard-partying daughter to seal up a political deal in an arranged marriage. Such is the lot of a fairy tale princess.
Onto this scene come two interlopers, Elfo the Elf (Nat Faxon), booted from his smurf-alike village for not being happy enough, and Luci (Eric Andre), Bean’s sarcastic, wisecracking personal demon, sicced on her in a subplot that will no doubt pay off some time down the track.
In the meantime, though, what we get is essentially Futurama-but-with-fantasy-tropes (Fantasirama?), which is only to be expected seeing as Disenchantment is the latest TV series from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and the aforementioned sci-fi satire. 10 episodes will drop on Netflix this Friday and, based on having checked out the first seven, is worth carving some time out for over the weekend.
Let’s qualify that, though. Like all Groening series, Disenchantment takes its time to find its feet, and it’s not quite there yet. At the moment it’s a broad concept, some character traits, and a set of tropes that have been flung at the wall – we’re yet to see what sticks (Elfo’s characterisation is all over the shop right now, for example). It remains to be seen whether the fantasy genre, although a very broad church, offers to Disenchantment the depth and complexity that science fiction gave Futurama, in terms of providing a variety of subjects and dilemmas for the show to deal with. Right now we’re pretty much dealing with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales/Game of Thrones mash up, which is fine, but may not have the legs required for longevity. Fantasy has a pretty deep conceptual bench – here’s hoping the creative team use it effectively. Bring us Conan, bring us Elric, bring us Dunsany, Peake, Liever, and more.
In the meantime, the jokes-per-minute ratio is in the acceptable range (and certainly bluer than what the Simpsons ever got away with on network TV), the animation is comfortably familiar (only Luci pushes the boundaries appreciably, being a matte black demony kinda thing) and the voice cast is game and talented – Britcom fans please note the presence of Noel Fielding, Matt Berry, and Rich Fulcher in supporting roles.
Based on this first taste, Disenchantment is good, and promises to get even better once it’s found its groove. It’s probably greedy to expect a third bonafide classic in a row out of Groening and co. – but let’s hope for it anyway.