Iron Fist and the Cultivation of Humility
Marvel’s Iron Fist was the fourth and final offering of the Netflix Defenders standalone superhero series to debut in 2017. Unlike its predecessors—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage—Iron Fist got off to a rocky start, suffering from lackluster writing and an unpopular portrayal of the titular character by actor Finn Jones. Even still, despite poor ratings and a lukewarm reception from fans, the character of the Iron Fist (alter ego of billionaire Danny Rand) went on to feature in the Netflix miniseries The Defenders (2017) and season 2 of Luke Cage (2018). The series itself renewed for a second season, which debuted this fall.
Danny’s willingness to pause and examine himself—when he’s in a position to reclaim the power—sets him apart as being a worthy hero and a good man.Although still far from the strongest offering of the Netflix Marvel series, Iron Fist season 2 rebounds from its rough first season with a far more sympathetic Danny Rand—a hero no longer striving to reclaim his name and identity (as he was in season 1), but one struggling with what it means to hold, harness, and steward great power. As we learned in season 1, and as is expounded upon in season 2, Danny was brought up and trained by monks in a place called K’un-Lun. There, he fought for and earned the right to wield the power of the immortal Iron Fist—a weapon made up, essentially, of chi, that manifests in the bearer’s fist when needed to vanquish his foes. Passed down from champion to champion for generations, Danny is just the next Iron Fist in line in a grand tradition of defenders of K’un-Lun. However, his “brother” Davos—the son of the leader of K’un-Lun and his best friend—considers him unworthy to hold the fist, and so follows him to New York to claim it for his own.
Iron Fist season 2 takes a step back from obsession with self and identity, which is part of what hobbled the show in season 1. As such, perhaps it reveals that our culture is changing tides as well. When all we focus on is “Me, me, me,” and how we can be true to ourselves, sometimes the rest of the world becomes victims of our self-focused agendas, especially when the people being true to themselves are those who hold great power, influence, and privilege. Danny Rand wasn’t a bad guy in the first season, but he was almost insufferable to watch on the screen as he whined about what was owed to him, how important his name was, and how he just had to center his chi.
Whiny entitlement isn’t a good look on anyone, especially not privileged white male billionaires—not these days when abuse of power seems to be our news du jour. Perhaps this is why, in season 2, the writers chose to take Danny in a different, more humble direction. Not only does he have to come to grips with the consequences of his actions in becoming the Iron Fist in the first place, but he also must reckon with his abandonment of K’un-Lun to pursue his family name and fortune in New York and the toll that has taken on his relationship with Davos (Sacha Dhawan).
Davos, in a fit of jealous rage (and black magic), takes the power of the Iron Fist from Danny early in season 2, crippling him in the process. Much of the season is spent on Danny and his girlfriend/trainer Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) trying to get the power of the Iron Fist back from Davos as he wreaks death and destruction around New York City. At first obsessed with getting the Iron Fist back, Danny slowly comes to realize the power the Iron Fist awoke within him was addictive, all-consuming, and dangerous. Perhaps he doesn’t necessarily deserve to hold that power, even though he desires to use it for good. “I want it back more than anything,” he tells Colleen. “But I know who I become when it’s a part of me.”
This self-realization is a step toward humility that is rarely seen in those wielding great power, whether in the real world or in stories, and Danny’s willingness to pause and examine himself—when he’s in a position to reclaim the power—sets him apart as being a worthy hero and a good man. Would that we saw more of this from those in power, particularly when that power is challenged, or even on the brink of losing it all, and especially in the socio-political climate of 2018.
What is the corrosive, and addictive, nature of power? And how does one learn to wield it well? The literal power of the Iron Fist is unique among the superhuman powers of the Defenders in that it is transferable, and so when Danny has it taken from him by force, he faces this choice: Should he take it back for himself? Or give it to someone more worthy?
In an act of surprising humility, when given the opportunity to defeat Davos and take back the power that had been stolen from him, Danny chooses instead to pass the power on to his girlfriend, Colleen. Colleen is reluctant to accept the Iron Fist from him, urging him to accept it himself—to learn from his mistakes. Colleen even accuses him of shirking his responsibilities. But for Danny, it’s not about shirking his responsibilities; it is about learning from his mistakes and his abuses of the power he once held. Humbly, he acknowledges that sometimes we have to lay aside our power—to not wield it for a while—to grow and learn. “But I can’t do that if I’m holding the fist.”
For Danny, stepping down and stepping back is an act of deference, a cultivation of the virtue of humility, which is underscored by his offering the fist to a woman, who often find themselves at the mercy of more powerful men. Iron Fist season 2 indirectly speaks a message of truth not only about how power itself should be handled with great care, but about imbalances of power between men and women and how the cultivation of the virtue of humility can help heal the hurts of our current age.
It was, in a way, an odd story progression to watch the main character lose his powers, come to realize those powers were corrupting him, and then pass the powers on to someone else at the end of the season. Deep down, I wanted to see Danny Rand reclaim the Iron Fist, defeat Davos, and emerge the triumphant, traditional hero. But ultimately to see a man—a white man at that—lose his power and opt not to pick it back up again out of the knowledge that he might not be worthy of handling it was bold and powerful storytelling, and it was the story that needed to be told.
Now that Iron Fist season 3 has been cancelled by Netflix, the future of the character is uncertain. A teaser at the end of season 2 shows both Colleen and Danny with powers, but now we don’t know how much of Danny’s journey we’re going to get to learn. For my part, I hope it doesn’t undercut the important message of season 2: that even power wielded for good can corrupt, and it’s one of the great lies of our age that we tell ourselves it’s okay to bend moral law to achieve, hold, and harness power (usually under the banner of “A greater good!”). There lies pride and, if you pay any attention at all to superhero stories, villainy. A better virtue, a more Godly path, is humility.