This year has been very productive for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Today, let’s focus on the culmination of its smaller Netflix world, and the goodbye it said to The Hand, the grand antagonist. Not to mention, the second best secret society of the MCU.
When The Defenders came out this summer, it was assumed to be “The Avengers of the Netflix shows”. After only two years and 5 seasons establishing 4 different characters, it was time to see them team up to take on a common enemy. This common enemy was The Hand, a secret society built up across those shows to become the grand antagonist of that first finale.
Most of the Netflix shows had had great critic receptions until then, except for Iron Fist. But The Defenders was definitely not the culmination that The Avengers had been for the MCU first phase. Let’s not start with blaming Iron Fist entirely and take a closer look at the whole thing through the lenses of its villain.
Naturally, spoiler alert for the entirety of the MCU, but mostly The Defenders, Daredevil and Iron Fist.
Where we started
The first and possibly most important difference between the two secret organizations I wanted to talk about is their history. Within the MCU that is. Hydra appeared originally in the Captain America movies and kept being an important part of them for a while, before moving to television. The Hand, on the other hand (sorry), was never anything more than a villain made for the Netflix shows. As such, it only has two years of existence in our context.
They first appeared in the first season of Daredevil. And it’s not a real complete appearance—we didn’t even hear the name of the organization.
Because this first season focused on the conflict between Matthew Murdock and Wilson Fisk, the Hand couldn’t be a major antagonist. It was relegated to the background, in a way that would establish their importance for the future, without stepping on the shoes of the main storyline. We feel like there is something going on. But the show itself keeps coming back to Vincent D’Onofrio’s interpretation of the Kingpin.
Actually, until the middle of the season, we just know them as “the Yakuza”. There is only one episode dedicated entirely to their story, and it’s mostly to introduce Matt’s mentor, Stick, and its own secret society. The name of this organization also stays unmentioned. Fans of the comics surely knew by know, but the rest of the audience could only guess.
By that point, the only things the show had tell us was that this was an evil organization. They believed in something called a “Black Sky,” which apparently was a child. And they really wanted to acquire a very specific building in New York. We knew that their leader, Nobu, was a ninja and a very good one at that.
In an odd way, that’s the Hand at its best. While we don’t even know for sure who they are, it’s established that they are powerful enough to make even a man like Fisk hesitate to take them on. But it’s also clear that they aren’t completely over-powered and controlling half of New York. Because Wilson Fisk already does that.
We know they are preparing for something, but we don’t know what. That’s a great mystery surrounding a secret society. Stick establishes that there is a war going on since forever. And we’re told it’s coming to New York next. Straightforward and simple. This method leaves us guessing what all of this means and that’s what you want when you establish this kind of enemy.
The 7th episode introducing Black Sky, in my opinion, is particularly good at that. It’s a weird departure from the Wilson Fisk plot, for sure. But it also allows the show to give us a long look at what Matthew went through for training, it focuses more on its feeling toward Stick. And in the background, there is this mystery growing. By the end, the viewer is as frustrated as the character, because he doesn’t get all the answer. That’s a good thing.
At the same time, it didn’t really matter by that point. The focus on the show was still very much Wilson Fisk. That’s the story we needed a conclusion to. As soon as the show finished with Stick and Nobu, the Kingpin’s story took precedence over everything else, and we got an ending to this story.
And yeah, I know Madame Gao is a member of the Hand, but this is clearly not established by that time. So, I leave her part out for now.
The expected come-back
Even if the first season had a satisfying conclusion, fans of the show were still waiting for a continuation of the plot-points introduced. We didn’t have to wait that long. The Hand is, arguably, the main antagonist of the second season of Daredevil. And that might just be the reason this season wasn’t as well received as the last one.
First, the Hand wasn’t the only antagonist of the season; they had to share that with the Punisher. The comparison didn’t go in their favor. Jon Bernthal was amazing in the role. The confrontation between the two characters is great. Frank Castle was intimidating and fascinating. He was just a plain good character and a fun antagonist.
So, when his story ends to give Daredevil a new enemy, it wasn’t going to please everyone. Worse, for a time there was no character to represent the Hand. And not in the “waiting for the revelation” kind of way, like in the first episodes of the show. There simply was no one to be the antagonist, except for a limitless number of red ninjas.
Stick came back to explain what they were up against. Elektra appeared, delivering some interesting exposition about Matt’s past. Finally, Nobu came back to life and was apparently the main bad guy of the season. Those three didn’t manage to make the Hand all that interesting.
I’ll come back to the characters, but the main issue I found here was the lack of motivation. We don’t know what the Hand wants. They are digging something in New York and are trying to make Elektra join them because she is Black Sky. But the show never establishes what it means. Even after The Defenders, it’s still unclear to me.
Are Black Skies people extremely good at martial arts, naturally gifted, but unable to control their urge for violence? That seems to be Elektra’s driving force. That’s not uninteresting, seeing that part of her personality interacting with Matt’s, whose belief have been reinforced through the confrontation with Punisher, is fun. But how do that all relate to the Hand?
This second season does a similar job to the first one, just a little deeper. It presents the viewers with mysteries about the Hand, without showing too much. The main concept we’re presented with is the fact that The Hand can resurrect people. And that could make for a great reveal, in my opinion. Especially the scene where a ninja is about to be autopsied only for the characters to discover he already was a while ago.
Unfortunately, the only character that really come back to life is Nobu. He had a cool fight with Daredevil in the first season. And that’s about it. The character was even less impressive during this second season. Not just because we’ve seen him defeated before. He wasn’t shrouded in mystery anymore. Stick pretty much tells everything we need to know. And that’s not a lot.
Season 2 felt like a let down from season 1, because the Hand stepped forward without revealing enough. By the end, Matt won, yes, but against what? Neither the purpose, nor the goals of the organization were clear. And so, the victory rang hollow.
I had to rewatch parts of Iron Fist for this. And… honestly, it’s not the worst show in existence. But it’s also very boring. There is nothing fresh, nothing new, nothing interesting about it. The actors are decent. The actions scenes ring false. And the ultimate showdown is just a check on a list.
In that context, it’s hard to say if the Hand is responsible for how bland the show was, or if the show is responsible for how bland the Hand becomes.
The worst thing about Iron Fist is that, watching it again, I felt like there was a ton of wasted potential around the Hand. The family drama was cool too, but the few things revealed about the Hand could have lead to some much fun.
Iron Fist reveal that the Hand has a connection to K’un L’un, the mystical city where Dany Rand trained. That’s not the most fascinating part of their history, but that gives us a start. What the show tells us, however, is that the Hand is not one singular organization. It’s a compound of several smaller organizations. That’s really good, by itself. It allows for more flexibility around the secret, and it makes sense that something that old would have different doctrines and ideas, developing with the years. Telling us that Madame Gao had been part of the Hand the whole time make sense in this context.
The thing is, with a multi-faceted organization like this, you have tons of opportunities for stories. The Hand stops being some kind of monolithic enemy, with thousands of faceless ninjas coming to kill you. That part of the organization could have a code of honor, while another part would be pure criminal. Another one could have kept the mysticism of their beginnings, while some newcomers would like to push the organization towards technology. It’s stupid, but you can diversify your plot a lot through this simple premise.
Unfortunately, Iron Fist doesn’t do anything with it. Even the reveal that one branch of the Hand is responsible for the training of Colleen doesn’t add much. Bakuto, her master, likes to use troubled youngster, easily manipulated. Again, an interesting idea. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t do anything with it since pretty much everyone, but Colleen completely adhere with everything Bakuto says.
By the end, the show shifts entirely from that story to the family drama surrounding Rand enterprises. Which mean that the few moments we had with Madame Gao and Bakuto don’t really amount to anything. Especially since we know both survive. And that they’ll probably come back for the showdown that The Defenders should be.
The only thing we truly learn during this show is that the Hand is linked to K’un L’un, and even then, we don’t know why and how. We meet more charismatic leaders than Nobu. Unfortunately, neither Gao, nor Bakuto really give the impression of working for something greater.
Finally, we were going to know everything. What is the Hand? What do they want? Why do they keep digging beneath New York? The Defenders manages to answer all those questions and more, in an extremely disappointing way. Even Sigourney Weaver can’t save the Hand.
What we learn is that the 5 original member of the Hand (hence the name) were all from K’un L’un and learned there how to be immortal, exploiting a power they shouldn’t. They were cast away a long time ago. They created 5 crime empires and used this power to stay alive since then.
The main issue here is that the entire plot of the Hand revolves around the mystery of what they’re doing in New York. And it’s not that complicated: they are just looking for more immortal juice. That’s why they’re here. Because soon they won’t have it anymore, and they’ll die. They don’t like that.
And yeah, incidentally, they might destroy the city, but that’s really not their point. They just want to stay alive. It doesn’t make for very frightening villains. Alexandra, the leader played by Sigourney Weaver, is compelling. She shows a true fear of death, there is stakes, emotions. But still, we don’t know a lot about her. Plus since there is a Twist™ and she isn’t really our final antagonist.
That was it! 2 years of careful planning to bring us…pretty much nothing. The mystery behind the Hand was just an evil crime syndicate. By itself, that’s not a bad thing. However, the build up created for this organization through the shows made it quite disappointing in the end. There is no big reveal, no real twist to the Hand’s story. They’re just evil ninjas. And the five evil dudes at their head are cool, but they don’t have personalities, or backgrounds. They’re just bad guys.
The tragedy of the Hand
They should have never been put in the center of the plot. Not without a true purpose to deliver on. They’re good at being bad guys when they don’t have to deliver on their motives.
It’s also difficult to say whether everything planned in the beginning paid off. The plot surrounding the Hand and K’un L’un may have changed several times. I said Daredevil’s first season introduced them well, but it also introduced a member of the Chaste, ordering Stick around. One that you’d imagine being important to the scenario of the sequels. And it seems like the immortal juice weren’t so rare in Iron Fist, or the Hand wouldn’t waste it on Meachum.
The organization could have fallen victim to the constant need to adapt to different scenarios and tones, without much care for consistency. The result is an impossible last season. The Hand is revealed to be empty.
By design, the leaders of the Hand couldn’t have personal relationships to our heroes. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones especially, one could have been a mentor to Matthew or Dany Rand, one could have been a rival to an old Iron Fist. The last one was almost implied, actually.
I’m not one to say the antagonist must absolutely be related to our protagonist, but it would have helped fleshing out the characters. All of Netflix’s Marvel shows, even Iron First, are character-driven. The antagonist must oppose them on principle, not just because they are bad guys and good guys. That’s what made a character like Wilson Fisk stand out: he had a goal. An objective that forced Daredevil to go against it.
Simple crime syndicate are good villains. They oppose our heroes because they’re criminals. And they’re criminals because they want money. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s simple and effective. But you can’t build an entire mystery about it.
Ultimately, what killed the Hand wasn’t so much the lack of interest in their character. They had fun ones, Madame Gao, Alexandra, even Elektra in some regards. The issue was that none of those characters have a true purpose we can get behind. As weird and silly as Hydra can become, changing motivations every season. From killing all of their enemies through helicarriers to resurrect an old Inhuman god. At least those were something.
The Hand’s purpose was to stay alive, to maybe go back to K’un L’un at some point? That wasn’t clear. They opposed the heroes not because their purpose was fundamentally against the Defenders’ principles, but because they happened to be in New York.
Future of secret societies
With Hydra most definitely gone and the apparent defeat of the Hand in The Defenders, can we expect more secret societies to appear in the MCU? I’d say there is a high chance that yes. The Punisher chose to use secrets and mysteries, surrounding federal agencies and government this time, for its plot. The Runaways’s entire pitch seems focused on the idea that many families share a secret cult.
I’m sure Marvel comics contains many secret societies just waiting for their adaptations. However, we might not see them on the Netflix shows. Those series are character-focused and need antagonists that reflect in some way their heroes. I’m certain it’s possible, but maybe we shouldn’t expect it too much.
From what we know, Jessica Jones’ season 2 might focus on Jessica trying to understand her past and how she got her powers. That would be nice. Depending on the pay off, it’s a nice premise.
In the meantime, maybe we can take some time off the secrets and the mysteries, focus on what the characters have to say. That’s what the MCU has been the best at. Let’s remember Hydra and the Hand, for all their flaws, they were fun enemies at some point, even menacing at other. We may never see them again.
Or not. You know, it’s Marvel. Nobody ever really dies.