INTO THE BADLANDS Season 2 premiered on AMC tonight, coincidentally on the same weekend that Netflix debuted its IRON FIST series. Both are fantastical martial-arts adventure series; ITB was predated by Season 1 (which I found a highly ambitious mixed bag), IRON FIST by the three hugely successful and provocative Marvel shows DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES, and LUKE CAGE.

From the jump, INTO THE BADLANDS’ second season displays a more confident editing style, ramped-up fight choreography, and probably an increased budget — the opening sequence, in which our hero Sunny (played by Daniel Wu) faces imprisonment in a mining camp, impressively presents a visually-rich dystopia recalling the bad-future scenarios in Gilliam’s BRAZIL or, more recently, LOGAN. This is important, because Season 1 introduced us to a wide palette involving slave plantations, the opium trade, and the politics of concubines and land bosses, so the stakes are high. 

M.K., the kid with the secret power, is still kinda a whiny kid, but he’s nowhere near as whiny as Danny Rand in IRON FIST. M.K. (I’ll just call him MortalKombat for short) begins the new season in the keeping of a mysterious clan (who dress not unlike the monks in IRON FIST) teaching him to control his devastating power move, which, for those keeping track, is basically an Iron Fist.

And here’s where I’ll just start carting out all the various ways in which INTO THE BADLANDS beats the crap out of IRON FIST, because they are both martial arts stories drawing from East Asian tradition. Yet BADLANDS succeeds with its audacious hybrid of cultural references and progressive casting, while IRON FIST feels more regressive with every culturally-appropriating episode I binge. 

Daniel Wu’s grace and acrobatics in the opening fight scene makes a strong case for him playing Iron Fist, Shang-Chi, or for that matter any Marvel hero who jumps around and kicks people — I buy that he is that guy, who is both constantly in danger and inherently deadly. By contrast, IRON FIST’s standardized fight sequences could use a lot more exaggerated wuxia tricks to help us swallow the premise that Daniel Rand is the best martial artist on Earth. 

INTO THE BADLANDS also scores with the iconography that’s sorely missing from the latest Marvel superhero series; a symbol-laden compass, dramatically colorful costumes, moments when the camera lingers on a blade tip or a throwing star — these are visual elements which help the audience surrender to an augmented reality, whereas in IRON FIST we’re mainly looking at Finn Jones’ beard a lot, a beard that depressingly confines us to the real world. 

The climactic action sequence in “Tiger Pushes Mountain” (btw, both ItB and IF use esoteric-sounding kung-fu-isms as episode titles) is really cool, with Tilda and the Widow sword-and-explosive-arrowing their way through a small army of Clippers to get to the baron’s wife Jade. The Widow’s chase of Jade through narrow hallways while slicing up her bodyguards very much evokes the thrilling stairway battle scene in DAREDEVIL Season 2, but, y’know, with Black Widow. 

We only reconnect with Sunny’s lover Veil at the end of the episode, but it’s a tender moment introducing us to their newborn Blasian baby, and surprise, a villain from last season that comes back to life, not unlike all those villains in the Marvel Netflix series. 

All this to say, this strong opening from INTO THE BADLANDS, while nerdgasmic in its own right, also serves as bittersweet reminder of what IRON FIST could’ve been, if anyone had listened to the #AAIronFist proponents, if they had done the homework, if they had aspired to make a show which was conscious of the culture it owes its existence to, if they’d tried to engage social issues while also having fun superhuman spin kicks (as all the other Marvel Netflix series do), if they had a stoic Asian guy as the hero instead of a dippy blonde hipster, basically if they’d committed to anything in the show being cool besides Colleen Wing, who btw is super-outstandingly-cool. 

So, maybe half a win there for Asian representation. As I drudge through the back half of IRON FIST episodes later this week, I’ll have a more informed conclusion. 

And yes there’s also a video game of INTO THE BADLANDS now, if you’re into that sort of thing!