The Defenders came out last Friday on Netflix and a lot of people continue to kick Finn Jones for his portrayal of Danny Rand. While I understand audiences hated him in the first season of Iron Fist, I want to argue that Jones was not at fault, and that his performance in The Defenders proves it.
First of all, if you hate the idea of Danny Rand as a “mighty whitey” racist stereotype (and who could blame you, he is), The Defenders isn’t going to change that. He’s still the rich white kid who returned from a magical ancient Chinese city with a superpower that proves he’s the best.
But just as Dr. Strange tried to blunt the racist aspects of that character’s origin by turning The Ancient One’s monastery into a home for people from many continents, The Defenders tries to do the same for K’un Lun. The five immortal bigwigs in The Hand aren’t just enemies of K’un Lun, they were cast out centuries ago, and they’ve been trying to get back home ever since. What’s more, they’re a multi-racial group, including actors Babs Olusanmokun, Ramon Rodriguez, and of course Sigourney Weaver.
Is The Defenders trying to recast K’un Lun, which looked like a vaguely Asian never-never land in S1 of Iron Fist, into something less offensive? It seems so, and that’s a choice that should have been made from the very start.
Should the show have cast an Asian-American as magical martial arts hero Danny Rand? Sure, but considering how things turned out, I’m glad they didn’t.
Here’s why: S1 of Iron Fist had massive problems. It was shoddy and trite. The dialog was a godawful wreck, and no one seemed to understand what they needed to do to make Danny likable. But all of that could have been shrugged off if they’d paid real attention to the fight scenes. Instead, the martial arts was rushed and sloppy, then edited until it was impossible to enjoy. The whole thing was a mess.
And Finn Jones took the heat for it. Audiences didn’t care that he wasn’t the one choreographing the fights, they just blamed him for what they could see. And they didn’t care that he was put into trite situations and given on-the-nose dialog, they were annoyed by the character and blamed the actor.
Casting an Asian-American actor wouldn’t have changed the limited time allotted to rehearsing fight choreography, and it wouldn’t have made Danny’s conflicts with the Meachums any more subtle. Fans blame the lead, no matter who he was, and that would have gotten ugly. An AA actor would have taken all the heat that Jones got, plus he would have had jerks accusing him of being an affirmative action hire.
That feels like a dodged bullet.
Which brings me to The Defenders, and Finn Jone’s role in it. It seems to me that the showrunners have made a concerted effort to make Danny someone the audience can like, and they don’t do it by remaking him into a generic hero guy. They do it by taking the character from S1 of Iron Fist and letting him grow.
They also let him be badass in his fight scenes.
To address the latter first, Danny gets a fight in each of the first three episodes, and to be honest, the very first one in the prolog of the pilot, isn’t a winner. It’s dark, has lots of edits and frankly made me worry about the show.
In the second, he fights Luke Cage, and it’s the first genuinely fun fight scene. It’s played for humor, but there are real stakes, too, and even though Luke shrugs off all of Danny’s attacks (except the last) it’s shot and choreographed in a way that makes Danny look quick, graceful, and dangerous.
At the end of the third episode, the show brings all four heroes together for their big (obligatory) Netflix hallway fight. It’s no surprise that it starts with Danny fighting by himself, and that it’s a terrific scene. After all the shitty fight scenes in Iron Fist, it was great to see the character cut loose.
Later, when Matt Murdock enters the fight, he’s just as cool but with an entirely different fighting style. Where Daredevil has a boxing/MMA sort of thing going, Iron Fist has old school wu-shu body turns, sweeping kicks, and roundhouse punches. It makes a nice contrast between them.
Unfortunately, once you get to the fight scene that opens episode five, the shots are cramped, the action confused, and Danny’s choreography not nearly so distinctive. It’s even more evidence that much of what we like about the characters comes down to the writers and directors.
As for Danny personally, at the start of the season, he’s the same guy at the end of Iron Fist: still fighting The Hand because it’s his sworn duty/destiny, even though he doesn’t really understand why. Still tormented by the fact that he left K’un Lun unguarded, and that The Hand attacked while he was away. Still telling everyone he meets that he’s “The Immortal Iron Fist, sworn defender of K’un Lun.”
He still hasn’t accepted that the life he’s led, with its mystical cities and dragons, is so far outside the experience of most people that they just can’t accept it.
But the events of the season, especially his interactions with the other heroes, change him. He’s often played for laughs, still telling everyone his origin story (which the other characters don’t want to do), and still young and impetuous.
He’s learning, though. His story arc for the whole season has him stepping away from a personal vendetta and moving toward the sort of heroism that Luke and Matt embody. He’s also given a bunch of fun, light-hearted moments where he either bonds with the other characters or they deflate his portentousness a little. He’s not a perfect guy, but he’s not the annoying twerp from his own show.
I get that people hold an animosity to the character based on both the character’s racist underpinnings and the awful first season of his own show, but judging by my Twitter timeline, slamming Danny Rand has turned into a competitive sport.
All I say is: if you’re going to watch The Defenders (and if you like superhero stories, you should) do it with an open mind, even if you feel burned by season one of Iron Fist. With new showrunners, new writers, and new choices, it’s worth seeing this new take on Danny Rand, especially since he gets a lecture from Luke Cage on his own privilege, and he takes it to heart.
I want to write a review of the show, but I never seem to make time for reviews anymore. I always have too much to say and not enough free time to type it all out. Maybe soon.