Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist has a lot of issues in its mixed first season—but among the muddled mess, there already lies a diamond in the rough, a hero the show was desperately looking for. It’s not Danny Rand, the Living Weapon. It’s Colleen Wing, the superstar Iron Fist deserves.
This past weekend I sat down to watch through the back half of Iron Fist, which I enjoyed a bit more than I did the clunky first six episodes provided for review. A lot of the issues I had with the opening half still persisted. But the one thing that intrigued me the most about the series, Jessica Henwick’s performance as dojo teacher-turned-streetfighting-asskicker Colleen, continued to flourish, to the point that I was watching to see her more than I was to see whatever the hell was going on at Rand Enterprises.
While Danny Rand spends much of Iron Fist feeling rudderless, his goals beyond getting control of his family business back (and fighting the Hand ninjas, I guess) were left more nebulous than they should be. There’s little in the way of internal conflict in Danny’s arc that makes his journey compelling in this first season. And as actor Finn Jones has gone on to say, Danny Rand is a very much a work in progress by the end of the season, a character who still has a lot to learn and develop while heading into The Defenders and beyond. Colleen, on the other hand, feels like a hero that has a much more definable arc.
Colleen’s core struggle when we first meet her—balancing her desire to honor the history behind the martial arts she teaches at her dojo and the financial strain of keeping it open—feels much more conflicted and intriguing than Danny’s story of getting his million-dollar business back. And when Colleen dips into a bit of New York underground cage fighting, her regret about using her skills illicitly to earn money grounds Colleen in an emotional struggle that’s engaging to the audience, an internal turmoil rarely shared by the show’s titular hero. It’s an interesting debate about culture and respecting your past that at the very least feels nuanced in the ways Danny’s plight does not.
Later on, when there’s the “twist” that Colleen is actually a member of the Hand, that same struggle continues. Colleen has to wrestle with the idea that the beliefs she was raised to have—namely, that a faction of the Hand was doing good and helping people better themselves—was just was nothing more than a front, a lie predicated on her belief in honor and justice. It makes the moment she does ultimately choose to side with Danny feel much more impactful, and gives a sense of resolution for the character.
When people argued that the problematic roots in Iron Fist’s comic book history could be at least countered by flipping the head on expectations with an Asian or Asian-American lead, this is the sort of material they hoped for—a character who struggled with issues of legacy and the heritage of her culture, one that ultimately reconciles her own heroic journey within herself when she takes on and defeats her former master, Bakuto. That’s something, arguably, Danny never gets to truly do in his conflict with Harold Meachum, his corporate and ultimate adversary, since Harold’s son Ward kills his father to save Rand Enterprises anyway, when Danny can’t.
Colleen’s character isn’t perfect; in fact, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the nebulous nature of Colleen’s heritage acts a stand-in for all East Asian cultures in Iron Fist, so its true protagonist can cherry-pick from them when needed in an awkward manner. But in the end, even with some issues, her journey represents a much more interesting path than the one Danny Rand meanders on throughout Iron Fist’s first season.