In real life, powerful people put a lot of effort into being powerful. Even that bumbling amateur Trump has been trying to be president for more than a decade, proving that no one gets to grab the scepter without wanting it very, very badly.
In fiction, though, we prefer our movers and shakers to be untainted by the ugly business of, say, moving and shaking. Frank Capra’s vacuously idealistic Jefferson Smith gets appointed to the Senate without ever having to dirty himself with the business of getting elected. Harry Potter finds out, to his naïve astonishment, that he’s the most important wizard in the world. Even Katniss Everdeen is forced to dress up in fabulous clothes and spearhead a political resistance movement even though she has no interest in politics. If only we had innocent leaders, these stories suggest, all would be well.
Iron Fist follows in this pure-hearted tradition. Its protagonist is Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, an improbable hero who is both fabulously wealthy and completely without guile. Danny and his billionaire parents were flying over the Himalayas when, in standard orphan superhero fashion, Danny’s parents are killed in a freak accident while he survives – and is fortuitously taken in by mystical warrior monks, naturally. They train him to be a living weapon, but not, apparently, to wear shoes.
Danny returns to New York 15 years later to claim his position in the Wayne-like Rand Corporation. Finn Jones plays Danny as a confused hippie elf-man, wandering around New York with bare feet, doe-eyes, and a Buddhist greeting card aphorism for every occasion. He sidles into the Rand offices without an appointment, cheerfully expecting to be embraced by the current owners of the company, old pals Joy and Harold Meacham (Jessica Stroup and David Wenham). Danny is just so nice and friendly and hopeful – shouldn’t everyone else be nice and friendly and hopeful too? the show seems to ask. Doesn’t it make you feel nice and friendly and hopeful to watch him?
In theory, Danny’s innocence is supposed to be charming and validating. In practice, at least through the first six episodes available for preview, he’s kind of irritating. Jones doesn’t have the comic timing or presence to sell Danny’s aw-shucks bumbling doofyness; Jackie Chan, he is not. As a result the character comes off less as an innocent and more as an entitled, slumming boho jerk.
His refusal to accept ‘no’ as ‘no’ is framed as a part of his naïvete; mystical martial arts warriors don’t get trained in the mundane art of not being a dick.
Danny’s treatment of the two female leads, in particular, is outright creepy. He borderline – and more than borderline – stalks both Joy and martial arts instructor Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). Through the first episodes, Danny follows both women, breaks into their homes, and generally refuses to back off even when they tell him repeatedly. His refusal to accept “no” as “no” is framed as a part of his naïvete; mystical martial arts warriors don’t get trained in the mundane art of not being a dick. Cultural difference feels like an excuse rather than an explanation, though. Innocence here doesn’t mean acting kindly. Instead, it means being a jerk and getting away with it.
The same logic extends to Danny’s billions. He claims over and over that he doesn’t want the Rand fortune. Yet, he pursues the cash doggedly through the first half of the series. The message is that the pure of heart don’t care for material things, which effectively means that good intentions mean he can be shockingly greedy in practice without anyone questioning his motives. Iron Fist joins Batman, Iron Man and Bill Gates in that super club of vigilantes who are entitled to obscene wealth because they (say they) want to spread beneficence to all. (There was some nattering from fans early on that Iron Fist would be a critique of the one-percent. But the critique amounts to little more than a vague suggestion that everything would be okay if billionaires were just a little bit nicer.)
What’s especially frustrating about Iron Fist is that it does have the engaging, non-innocent, shoulda-been-the-star Colleen Wing. Rather than parachuting into superpowers via K'un L'un or a rich daddy, Wing has scrabbled to build up her own martial arts studio. She struggles to keep afloat financially and to give the neighborhood kids a safe space to hang out and work together. Colleen’s grounded in a network of responsibilities, dreams and frustrations – and you can see it even in her fight sequences.
In Danny’s choreographed battles, Finn Jones comes across as whiny when he’s being beaten and breezily disconnected when he’s winning; he’s petulant or boring, with not much in between. Jessica Henwick as Colleen, on the other hand, projects scrappy determination, precarious danger and battle lust. You can see her both enjoying herself and trying not to enjoy herself. She’s not above it all – she’s present in her body, in her scruffy hoodie, and in her neighborhood. She seems like a much more natural fit for Netflix’s gritty Marvel franchise – Luke Cage and Danny are canonically friends, but it’s a lot easier to see Cage forming a partnership with this Colleen than with this Iron Fist. The series only really finds its way at those rare moments when it stops trundling after its title character and puts Colleen at the center of the story.
Jeph Loeb, the director of Marvel’s television division, said that Danny had to be white, rather than Asian-American, because he’s an “outsider.” It’s not an explanation that makes a lot of sense, and even less so when you watch the series. The story isn’t about cultural difference and cultural shock, really. Instead, it’s about purity. Danny as presented in the story isn’t marked because he doesn’t understand the culture of the United States. He’s marked because he’s just so trusting and sweet… and barefoot.
Which is maybe the real reason Marvel felt Danny had to be white. People of color, like Japanese-American Colleen Wing, aren’t typically given the chance to escape their past and their position; they aren’t allowed to be universal. It’s only white people who get to wash off their class and background in someone else’s mystical city, and return cleansed of guilt. America loves its ignorant white billionaires. We didn’t need Iron Fist to tell us that.