Monday, April 17, 2017

Iron Fist REVIEW Part 3 (The Villains) SPOILERS

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Before moving on to the side characters in my series of Iron Fist reviews, we need to take some time and talk about the villains.  There are three of them in the series, and each have their positive aspects.  However, none of the villains are perfect.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe catches a lot of flak for its lack of good, well-rounded villains, particularly on the movie side.  I have noted in my movie reviews that I find most of these complaints, though valid, to be overblown.  On the television side of the MCU, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has done a respectable job of creating compelling and interesting villains, particularly once they were able to take off the gloves and really push the Hydra angle in the back third of season 1.  However, the most interesting and compelling villains in the whole MCU have been those on the Netflix side:  Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, and Diamondback, in particular.  Thanks to the extended runtime and binge-watching format, these villains were all given full arcs and fleshed-out back stories tying them to their respective heroes in personal ways.

Unfortunately, this strong streak does not continue with the three villains of Iron Fist.

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The first villain introduced is Madame Gao, reprising her role from Daredevil seasons 1 and 2.  This is a fun nod to the constant comments ever since Daredevil season 1 that Gao must be Crane Mother and will play a major role in Iron Fist.  However, all of the hype surrounding her character really just led to an equally-big letdown when we saw her in Iron Fist.  Though she is still as enigmatic and surprisingly powerful as ever, her motivations and plans continue to be mysterious.  That in and of itself is not a bad thing; however, Iron Fist actually contradicts Daredevil slightly in terms of Madame Gao’s character.  In Daredevil season 1 (and to some extent season 2), Gao is a heroin importer, but makes it clear that she does not see heroin as an end in itself, but rather as a means to a different end.  In Iron Fist, however, heroin—and specifically her synthetic heroin—is an end in itself.  Why the change?  Additionally, Gao in Daredevil is using Fisk and his Russians to distribute her heroin, while Iron Fist reveals that she has been using Rand to import and transport her heroin for at least 15 years.  When asked about her “home” in Daredevil season 1, Gao comments that the “home” she is returning to is “a good deal farther” than China (implying K’un-Lun or another heavenly city); Iron Fist suggests that though Gao is an immortal of K’un-Lun, she left a long time ago—well before Daredevil season 1.  Is this a continuity error?  Finally, Daredevil season 1 strongly implies that Nobu represents the Hand in Fisk’s “cabal.”  However, Iron Fist reveals that Gao is also affiliated with the Hand.  Is her connection to the Hand recent?  That’s unlikely given that she was involved with them already when Danny’s family was killed.  Did they represent different factions within the Hand?  That’s more likely, but never particularly clarified.

I understand why they decided to keep Gao as something of an enigma:  the season concludes with her poised to return as the major villain for Iron Fist season 2.  However, at least some of these things needed to be clarified in terms of timeline, particularly with regard to her ultimate plans with the heroin.  I thought that the heroin would give Gao power to influence anyone taking it, which was suggested a bit by Ward’s withdrawal from the heroin.  However, it was never mentioned and did not factor into the story at all.  Maybe this is setting up The Defenders, but it is not done well enough for Iron Fist.

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The second villain introduced is Bakuto, who is introduced as a friend and as Colleen’s mentor.  Bakuto teaches Danny a little more about the Iron Fist, specifically how to use it to heal and how to replenish his chi.  However, in reality he is the leader of a different faction of the Hand from the one Gao represents, and seeks to turn the Iron Fist (traditional enemy of the Hand) into a tool of the Hand.  Though Colleen is unwilling at first to accept that Bakuto has been lying to her and using her, she turns on him when he orders her killed and her blood siphoned out.  Bakuto is a much different type of villain from Gao:  he is (on the surface) kind and compassionate, rather than evil and calculating.  He gets what he wants through manipulation, rather than fear.  He does reveal himself to be a capable fighter, though Danny evades him and escapes a little too easily.

To be honest, I think the worst aspect of Bakuto as a villain is that he is not the main villain for the season.  If they had just left out everything having to do with the third villain (who is really the “main villain”) and focused the final half of the season on Bakuto’s manipulation of Danny and Colleen, their battle against him, and the revelation that he had in fact been distracting them so his Hand ninjas could storm K’un-Lun while it was vulnerable, that would have made for a much more satisfying conclusion to the season, to say nothing of setting up the second season better.

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In my opinion, the third and final villain is the worst part of the season—even if the Netflix version of the character is an improvement over the comic book version (not particularly difficult to do).  Harold Meachum was introduced right in the first episode, and his story was fleshed out over the course of the season:  he became sick and the Hand offered to save him—by giving him immortality—in exchange for allowing them to use Rand to smuggle heroin, among other things.  Since then he has been in hiding with no one to help him except his assistant (Kyle) and Ward.  Because the Hand saved him, he has been serving Gao’s bidding ever since, using Ward to enforce his will at Rand.  Between the immortality and isolation, Harold has become exceedingly unhinged.  When Danny appears, Harold sees him as a beacon of hope because he is the “sworn enemy of the Hand.”

Harold’s relationship with Danny is a longstanding one, and Danny views him as a father figure.  This makes Harold’s betrayal—including the revelation that Harold had his parents killed—all the more personal for Danny.  Consequently, it makes sense for Danny to fight Harold and be willing to kill him.  However, Harold’s motivation is never made particularly clear.  Why did he hate the Rands so much that he wanted to kill them—in spite of Gao’s warnings against it?  Why did this carry through to the point that he threw Danny under the bus as soon as he had served his purpose?  It’s not enough for a villain to do bad things; he also has to have a compelling reason for doing them.

While Harold does contribute something to the season, I think his contributions could have been spread out to a number of other characters while he himself remained dead.

It is unfortunate for the season that the villains are so anticlimactic.  There were a lot of nuggets of greatness buried within them, hinting at a much better and more interesting conflict.  However, either the Scott Buck decided to hold those things back for the next season, or Joe Quesada required that certain things be added to prepare for The Defenders, or something.  Either way, the villains in this season may be the worst that we’ve gotten in a Marvel Netflix show so far.  As I stated in my previous reviews, I think both Danny and Colleen are successful characters (which bodes well for their future appearances in the Netflix shows), so the series does its job on that account.  The villains just needed to be a little better—and the plot a little more thought-out—for the season itself to be successful.

What did you think of the villains in this season?  Do you like Madame Gao’s character so far?  Do you think they should have left Harold out of the season entirely?  Let me know in the comments!

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