It’s an understatement to say that Iron Fist hasn’t done well with critics, and in many ways the critics are right. There are a number of problems with it, most notably a weak lead character and fight-choreography that falls far below the standard established by Daredevil. But the show has several redeeming qualities: a good supporting cast (whose performances are better than Jones’, for the most part); an interesting villain; and some compelling subplots, especially those involving the Meachams. But one of the most interesting things about Iron Fist is the way in which it explores the meaning of suffering—the role that suffering plays in shaping who we are, how we relate to the people around us, and especially how we relate to our home and our environment.
The first arc of the show—the story of Danny Rand’s return to New York from K’un Lun—is especially concerned with the role that suffering plays in Danny’s homecoming. From the moment that he steps into Rand Enterprises for the first time, his return to his old home and life is marked by pain and discomfort at every step. He suffers injury after injury in fights with various bad people. He suffers mentally in the institution where the Meachams have him admitted: the drugs that the psychiatrist has him on disorient him and deny him access to the source of his power, and he must endure the anguish of living in a world that denies him his basic identity. He suffers emotional blows at every turn, frequently recalling the plane crash that killed his parents and watching the most important people in his old life either betray or reject him.
And we learn through flashbacks that Danny’s entire life since the plane crash has been marked by pain. In one striking scene, we see a young Danny enduring a beating by the monks of K’un Lun. The image of the boy grinding his teeth and yelling but bravely enduring the pain seems to belie the story that Danny tells about the mystical heavenly city, and when he tells Joy about the experience, she remarks that it sounds like the monks abused him. Danny shrugs off the comment and says that his rough treatment by the monks made him who he is today, explaining that it is the violence of battle that most fully brings out his power.
Indeed, it is only in moments of intense suffering that Danny begins to become the Iron Fist. His escape from the mental institution, for example, is only possible because one of the guards locks him in a room with three other patients who beat him mercilessly, intending to kill him. The beating awakens something inside Danny, and this is when we first begin to see him as not just another white martial artist but as the Living Weapon.
People familiar with Homer’s Odyssey might notice that the opening arc in Danny’s story is similar to the story of Odysseus: both men suffer a great deal in their homecoming; both are made stronger by their endurance of pain; both not only suffer at the hands of others but also cause pain to friend and foe alike; both must fight off bad people who seek to take what rightfully belongs to them; and both return only to find it changed irrevocably in their absence.
One scene that ought to be striking to anyone who is familiar with Homer’s epic poem is Danny’s first night sleeping in the apartment that Jeri Hogarth provides for him. Instead of sleeping on the luxurious bed, Danny chooses to sleep on the floor. The image of him lying down on nothing except a blanket recalls Odysseus’s first night in his own home after his return from Troy. His wife (who doesn’t know that the man disguised as an old beggar is her husband) offers him a bed and a bath, but Odysseus refuses, saying that he’d rather sleep on the floor. The implication is clear: Odysseus’ painful journey isn’t complete until he drives the suitors from his home. The same is true for Danny Rand. He sleeps on the floor because he has not yet recovered his home, his friends, or his inheritance.
One of the loudest complaints critics and fans alike have made about the show is that Danny never truly becomes the Iron Fist that we know from the comics, and that is certainly a valid complaint. He often comes across as whiny and incompetent, a man not really worthy to be called the Immortal Iron Fist. It’s hard to deny that this is at least mostly a failure on the part of the showrunner, the writers, and of Finn Jones himself. But one thing that we might consider is that what looks like a failure of storytelling and acting could be part of the point.
The unfortunate thing is that the show never quite seems to deliver on the ideas that it raises early in the season. As plenty of others have noted, Danny never truly becomes the Living Weapon that we’re promised. There are hints and glimpses of what he can be throughout the season, but he never really becomes what we all want him to be.
That’s definitely a problem. Here’s hoping that The Defenders and future seasons of Iron Fist solve it.