Iron Fist and the Failure of the Gray Area
Editor’s Note: Contains spoilers for Daredevil Seasons 1 & 2, and Iron Fist Season 1
For the last ten years or so, television and movie audiences have become obsessed and fascinated with complex characters that operate in gray areas. Gone are the days of heroes who are morally superior and friendly to all. Viewers no longer seek someone to look up to when watching a film or television show. Instead, we want to see anti-heroes: flawed, imperfect, and struggling characters who will at some point struggle, and maybe even succumb to the dark side; characters that can just as easily become an angel or a devil. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Pope Pius XIII/Lenny Berardo (The Young Pope), Don Draper (Mad Men), Batman (The Dark Knight), and Louie (Louie) are all the heroes of their stories while exhibiting traits of the classical villain.
The trend is becoming so popular that some TV shows and movies are going further, creating entire worlds made up entirely of gray areas where no one side or character is necessarily right or wrong. Shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld have created entire universes where, aside from a few specific exceptions, no one character is considered the “hero” or “villain.” Morals have been thrown away to make room for interesting and complex characters. Instead of telling the viewers who is good and who is bad, film and television writers simply give them the characters, their goals, and the ways they try to achieve those goals, allowing the audience to decide who they wish to root for on their own. Even Star Wars, the epitome of the conflict between the light and the dark, now seems to be drifting in that direction as characters are beginning to question who they fight for and why.
Therefore, it is no surprise that Marvel, a powerhouse in the movie and television business, would try to benefit from this creative field. Their best work showcasing this creative choice comes from Daredevil, in which Daredevil and the The Punisher, our two “heroes,” both display anti-hero and even villainous traits. There are moments when the audience is forced to question whether Daredevil’s vigilante approach to justice is actually good and right, while The Punisher will brutally kill anyone he considers a criminal, no questions asked. In addition, the main villain, Kingpin, has redeeming, hero-like qualities. His love for Vanessa and tragic childhood create an aura of sympathy around him, making it more difficult to root against him than your average classic villain.
This brings us to Iron Fist, the fourth series in the Netflix Marvel lineup that also includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Defenders, and The Punisher. Iron Fist follows Danny Rand, a young billionaire who returns to New York City after being presumed dead for 15 years. During those 15 years, Danny trained with monks in K’un-Lun, mastering kung-fu and gaining the mystical power of the Iron Fist so that he could help them defeat the Hand, a mysterious organization of ninjas, drug dealers, and immortal beings. However, when Danny returns to New York City, he discovers that his city has been infiltrated by the Hand and that he must now use his abilities to save his city.
Like Daredevil, Iron Fist tries to bring its characters into the gray area. In the later half of the show, Danny is introduced to Bakuto, another master martial artist who helps him capture Madam Gao, a high ranking member of the Hand. However, Bakuto later reveals himself to be a member of the Hand as well, but not the evil faction that Danny has been fighting all along. This is also when Danny discovers that his girlfriend and sparring partner, Colleen Wing, has been working for the Hand this entire time. The two of them try to explain to Danny that the monks that raised him have been feeding him lies, that the Hand is really a force for good, and that the people he has been fighting all along are the extremists. This is a shocking twist as the Hand has been the main villain so far.
Now, there are a lot of problems with this show: the lack of a set and unique tone (which warrants its own article), the uninspiring, uncharismatic lead, its many similarities to Arrow, etc. But this “twist” was the most confusing and off-putting flaw as it not only betrays the narrative, but also fails to create the gray area it is clearly aiming towards. For starters, it is never really explained. There is clearly a conflict between Bakuto’s Hand and Madam Gao’s Hand, but it is never fully developed. Furthermore, there is no evidence presented to us that Bakuto is any different from Madam Gao. Colleen does not explain why she joined him and we never get to see what he is really up to. In fact, to the shock of Colleen, his best and most trusted student, he ends up being very similar to Gao, continuing her drug trade and attacking Danny multiple times.
Secondly, we are never given any reason to question Danny’s understanding of the Hand. To create a gray area, we need to see both sides exemplifying good and bad traits. We never meet the monks to K'un-Lun in a fulfilling way so we don’t actually know anything about them. All we see is Danny, and, since Danny is the good-guy, we assume the monks are good. At the same time, we also never see the Hand do anything good. As stated above, Bakuto never does anything to differentiate himself from “radical” Gao. All that the audience has seen from the Hand has been them destroying the city and innocent lives, making it very difficult for us to see them in any other light. You can’t create a shade of gray if you just show black. You need some white as well.
However, the most compelling reason as to why this “twist” is a major problem comes from what makes Marvel projects so great: the shared cinematic universe. Iron Fist is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a collection of interconnected movies and TV shows that all exist in the same universe, allowing characters from one movie to crossover into other characters’ movies. This “it’s all connected” approach can be very fulfilling at times, as we have seen from movies such as The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War, where the same versions of characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor appear side by side despite each having their own independent movie franchises.
Sometimes, though, this can be a problem. Since every movie and show is connected, they all have to account for what happens in each other’s projects. Every movie and TV show has to make sense in the overall narrative, while also standing on its own for those that have not seen every installment in the MCU. So, if villain X dies in an Iron Man film, he cannot then appear in a Captain America film since he is already dead in that universe. If the Washington monument is destroyed in a Thor movie, we should not expect to see it in a Doctor Strange film as it has already been destroyed. You get the idea.
Which brings us full circle. While Iron Fist is its own show with its own story, it does not exists in a vacuum. We cannot see the gray of the Hand because we have already met them in the MCU. The Hand were the secondary villains in the first season of Daredevil and the main villains in season two. We have already seen how evil they are as they have killed many innocent people, been major sponsors and beneficiaries of the New York drug trade, and are part of a greater war for the fate of NYC. We have spent two seasons emotionally rooting against them. To ask the audience to change course without any solid evidence is just unfair.
A counter to this would be that Bakuto is lying, wants to take over Gao’s operation, and become the leading member of the Hand in NYC. However, this does not fit the overall narrative. As previously noted, this is our third season with the Hand, and not once have we seen any hint of a power struggle within the organization or heard of any mention of Bakuto. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Colleen would stay in the organization if Bakuto really was as bad as Gao, and just as unlikely that Bakuto would not tell Colleen his full plan since she was his best and closest student. The fact that Colleen stayed with him for so long implies that he somehow is different from Gao. This brings us back to the fact that there is no solid evidence that he is different and ends putting us in a loop with no real answers.
It is possible that all of this will be resolved in The Defenders (the four way team up between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist where, once again, the Hand will be the main villain (only making it more difficult to believe Bakuto)). However, if The Defenders really does reveal that Bakuto was as bad as Gao all along or that he really is different, the point still stands. Despite the fact that Iron Fist is part of a shared cinematic universe, the property must be able to stand on its own just in case viewers decide not to tune in for the big crossover. Marvel, or any other film company for that matter, cannot expect fans to watch all their properties, which means that they must all be somewhat independent. All the Marvel movies and shows that focus on a single hero, while connecting to larger universe, have been independent stories for their respective heroes. Iron Fist should be no different.
Perhaps it won’t be resolved in The Defenders, but instead in Iron Fist season two, thereby making the last few paragraphs irrelevant. Based on how the season ended, though, I would not bet on it. The show has established that the Hand is bad, and I don’t think we, the audience, will accept anything different. Perhaps the monks to K’un-Lun are not as great as they seem, but that will only create two villainous organizations, the Hand still being one of them. Regardless, season one of Iron Fist fails where Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Daredevil thrive: creating complex characters that balance the dark and the light. As this theme seems to be all the rage right now, let's hope they get their act together for season two.