Netflix, Marvel, and the Therapeutic Individualism of Iron Fist

There’s a new season of Iron Fist on Netflix, adding ten more episodes to the ongoing Marvel-Netflix superhero bonanza, which is already gone past an hundred episodes in three brief years, and shows no sign of slowing down. Given this level of popularity, it’s worth thinking about what these stories have to say and whom they are trying to reach.

Marvel-Netflix shows contain a clear appeal to liberals: They cover race (Luke Cage), class (Daredevil), and gender (Jessica Jones). But that’s largely a cover up, since in their second season, they mostly abandon both theme and setting in favor of vaguely magical psycho-dramas that offers latter-day liberalism its entrance into full-blown individualism, where you don’t have to care about anyone but yourself. These stories quickly turn into a kind of therapy, focused on exploring the characters’ childhood abandonment and trauma.

Using drama for therapy is not such a bad thing, but in this case, it glamorizes a form of corruption. Entertainment used to have a social contract. That was the one activity in America where inequality was not just tolerated, but sought out and admired. In return, heroes, unlike so many powerful people in the real world, had to take responsibility for their communities. Perhaps the moral models in entertainment never impressed people very much, but it’s certain that nowadays an immoral desire to abandon one’s community is impressing itself on our fiction.

Absent the liberal ideology about justice, Iron Fist is nakedly about a self-involved protagonist and thus reveals an underlying class contempt. As the story unfolds, protagonist Danny Rand offers vaguely-Eastern sounding narration that recalls fortune cookie advice, but from the mouth of a careless, wealthy man who has no deep relationships, nor any sustained involvement in his friends’ lives. You could say the drama simply acts out what’s implied in self-help these days: Worry about yourself, ignore everyone else. Whereas in the first season the audience thought he would fall in love with the young woman he had met at the dojo, it turns out it’s the kind of love that requires abandonment, for the sake of seeking oneself.

Danny Rand needs to signal his virtue to the audience, so he plays a hobo in Central Park in his spare time! He has the proper bad conscience about his corporate wealth and no intention of relinquishing his privileges. These attempts to flatter liberal prejudices themselves reveal how much these shows glamorize power. The race-class-gender ideology is comparatively shallow.

More importantly, the glamour is vaguely libertarian, hipsterized, outside the American mainstream. Danny, much like the Karate Kid, gets involved with a dojo. Then there’s an Eastern cult later revealed as a criminal syndicate, which retails the therapeutic ideology in all its hipster celebration of Eastern wisdom as a path to accepting how different one is from others.

The show also offers insight into the psychology of American individualism. Danny Rand’s Buddhism-lite means taking control of one’s body and using it well. But this asceticism is a preparation not for spiritual discipline, but self-involvement. He neither learns something more important than satisfying the pleasures of the body nor does he become better able to think about what’s happening to him and what he should do with himself. Hence, the class contempt: rich Americans just happen to be fit, to jog, to diet, and to obsess over health. That morality, plus ideology, substitutes for everything from religion to public-spiritedness. The yoga class goes to yoga classes, let’s say.

By contrast poor Americans, probably don’t think their bodies are holy in the way Danny Rand does. They are largely banished from entertainment, are comparatively fat, die younger, eat fast food, and don’t exercise. As cleanliness is next to godliness, health is to immortality. The Eastern fads in America, though they seem counter-cultural, are the self-flattery of the well-to-do and the last American refuge of self-discipline, the meritocracy of the body. Wake up early, hit the gym before work, and you’ve earned privilege!

This is leavened with a psychological component taken from Christianity: People’s lives matter, being human is precious, and you shouldn’t be an obedient instrument of a doctrine. Instead of reminding people of their common humanity, this also becomes a form of class contempt. It just happens that Americans segregate along social class lines: The successful will have little to do with the unsuccessful in the modern economy. They don’t party or play together; they don’t work together; they don’t live together; nor do their kids ever meet.

Christianity can foster this kind of individualism, since it’s much easier to believe lives matter in the abstract than to shake hands with poor people. Also, it’s hard to believe being human is a blessing when you face others’ terrible suffering. So the more heroes in stories involve themselves in psycho-dramas, the less it matters that other people even exist. They ignore people for spiritual reasons! Not only does holiness feel good, but it doesn’t involve you in a community or in human suffering.

With Iron First, we see how the message fits the medium: Individualistic psycho-drama does the work of managing loneliness. That’s what Netflix sells. Our body-centered heroism is navel-gazing, not self-creation, and Danny Rand ends up as ignorant about other people as when he started, and just as alienated as well. However innocently, he’s in it for himself.

There’s always a tendency in American heroism to say, freedom really means freeing yourself from America, from social trouble and human hurt which are inescapable in family, friendship, love, community. Iron Fist is neither cruel nor callous. It’s earnest. But it’s disturbing to see how blithely the word “responsible”—after all, heroes are supposed to be responsible to and for other people!—turns out to mean taking care of oneself and nobody else.

Worse still, the consumption of our new long-form storytelling depends on individualism. If you’re too busy with the job, family, and an occasional vacation in the nostalgia-worthy America of previous generations, you don’t have the time for these complicated stories. If you can binge-watch a Netflix show in one weekend or less, you probably don’t have a family to care for or what people drearily call a social life. In between these extremes lie many different American lives, but the market needs people to get ever lonelier to succeed. Netflix sells relief from the boredom of a peaceful prosperity that doesn’t tell anyone what to do with their lives or even encourage them to figure out what really matters. This is almost a public service, since it keeps the peace by making people resign themselves to their loneliness.

So the medium and audience are inextricably connected, which bends stories around individualism. The other Netflix Marvel shows could have been different. Take Daredevil, the one worthwhile hero known to Millennials. He’s Batman with a Catholic soul. He’s not a killer, his power comes from his weakness, he’s tied for life to his neighborhood and the human beings he knows personally, and his desire to help people stems from his knowledge of how difficult it is to see any miracles in a world of humiliating injustices.

The show isn’t telling people to be heroes. After all, it started out trying to show Millennials something of divine grace—providence in Hell’s Kitchen. It shows that being human means making it your business to helps others. But even Daredevil turned into a story about magical ninjas from the East invading New York.

Netflix not only fosters individualism and bored isolation, but it changes stories, replacing social criticism by fantasies. Our very imaginations are used to isolate us further. Even Danny Rand had a chance to take responsibility for his family, his wealth, and help people out. Instead, he gets back to the psycho-drama of damaged Millennials who need therapy to deal with unloving mothers and childhood humiliations. It’s goodbye heroism, hello self-obsession. This is what identity politics really means in drama.