‘Iron Fist’: I Binged It So You Don’t Have To
Over this past weekend, I sat down and watched Iron Fist over three days. I went into my binge fully aware of the baggage that Marvel and Netflix’s latest outing was bringing to the table as well as the poor early reviews based on the first six episodes of the series that were released early for critics and journalists. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first season of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones and having liked Daredevil‘s second season and the first season of Luke Cage enough to overlook their flaws and unevenness, I felt that it was important to get through this first season of Iron Fist and get my review out in order to bring some balance to the discussion. So many critical appraisals of other people’s art and works tend toward hyperbole. In an age where getting clicks and selling ads takes precedence over rational discussion, many reviews either hail something the greatest or worst ever. We’ve lost the ability to discuss things calmly and based upon their own merits. I hoped to change that toxic atmosphere. Thirteen hours of binging later, I still hope to do so.
That said, Iron Fist is the worst of the series that Marvel and Netflix have released to date.
No discussion about Iron Fist can be had without addressing race and gender, so let’s start there. When word broke that actor Finn Jones had been cast to play Danny Rand, the casting brought out articles on both sides of the race debate. Some argued that Danny Rand should have been portrayed by an Asian-American actor. Others argued that casting Danny Rand as an Asian-American would have been worse than casting a white actor. Both are valid points of view. Based on our cultures and perspectives, each of us brings a different point of view to the discussion, and it’s not my place to state that one position is right. What I can state are facts.
It is a fact that Asian-American actors are under-represented on American television, based on the percentage of the American population of Asian descent. It is a fact that in the narrative framework of the Iron Fist Netflix series, there is no reason that Danny Rand has to be a white guy. It is a fact that there is no narrative reason that the Iron Fist is required to be any specific race. The prime reason for Danny Rand being a white male seems to be because that is how he is written in the comic. Other interpretations of the character (video games, animation, etc) have had the character’s ethnicity remain consistent with its comic roots without public outage. The prime reason for Danny Rand being Asian-American seems to be because the character knows kung fu. Or, maybe because there is a perception that keeping the Iron Fist white will perpetuate the stereotype that Asians need a “white savior”. In this storyline, Danny is not acting as a savior to anyone, really. Certainly not the monks of K’un-Lun. He’s not saving the world nor protecting New York. He is literally not a hero in this season of the series.
In this particular interpretation of the character, there is no reason for Danny Rand to be any particular race. He could have been any race and it wouldn’t have impacted this particular storyline. In fact, with no real manipulation of the supporting cast, Danny Rand could have just as easily been Dani Rand. There is nothing specific about this character that requires him to be a him, her, white, Asian, black, hispanic, Jew, or anything.
Does he have a scene where Danny is showing off his kung fu to Colleen Wing, played by Asian-American actress Jessica Henwick? Yes. The guy’s been training in K’un-Lun for fifteen years and has earned the mantle of the Iron Fist. Colleen has not trained much in kung fu. Danny should be better at it than she. Does Colleen have a scene two episodes later where she embarrasses Danny’s ability to use a weapon? Absolutely. As she should. Danny uses kung fu. Colleen has trained in weapons. They have different strengths. Each is better at something than the other. Does that make the series racist and/or sexist? Again, each viewer will interpret that differently based on who they are and what they bring to the series.
For those keeping score at home, Iron Fist passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.
With that addressed, let’s move to the defining elements of this series. It’s hard to look at the story elements and the performances individually, so I’ll address them together. The story of Iron Fist is that after being the lone survivor of a plane crash that killed his parents, Danny Rand has spent the past fifteen years in the city of K’un-Lun. There, he was trained by warrior monks to become the latest in a line of prophesied Iron Fists, who protect the city from their mortal enemy, The Hand, who have appeared in both seasons of Daredevil. K’un-Lun is sealed off from the normal world, with the pathway between the two only opening every fifteen years. As soon as the path opens again, Danny abandons K’un-Lun and returns to New York City.
Showing up looking like a cross between a hobbit and a refugee from Point Break (the original 1991 film, not the 2015 remake), Danny begins to reinsinuate himself into the lives of his boyhood frenemies, Ward and Joy Meachum. Why did Danny return to New York City? It’s not until terribly late in the season that we learn the answer to this question, which I think was supposed to be the driving force of this season. Danny left K’un-Lun because being the Iron Fist is a boring job. Really, that’s it. There’s some other mumbo-jumbo about Danny not having dealt with the death of his parents yet, but that’s not the reason he left. There is nothing to make him think that there is anything to help him cope with that trauma in his “old life”, which has left the presumed-dead Danny behind. No, the real reason for his return seems to be that watching a mountain pass for the rest of his life, one that only opens every fifteen years, is a pretty crappy higher calling.
If Danny thought that guarding the gates of K’un-Lun was bad, he clearly didn’t have the Star Wars prequels as his in-flight entertainment on that fateful trip. The scenes at Rand Enterprises between the Meachum siblings and the Rand board of directors bring all the fun and excitement of trade negotiations and senate debates that the Star Wars prequels delivered without all those pesky flashing lightsabers to distract us from the business of running a government, or in this case a corporation. Just look at the photo above this section. The one with Danny at the podium. Those two characters flanking him are the Meachum siblings. See the blank expressions on their faces? That’s the emotional punch they bring to the series right there in one image.
Even their deceased father Harold, played by David Wenham, makes for a pretty crappy Sith Lord. He’s Senator/Chancellor Palpatine without the menace. If not for the fact that we are told that this is a bad dude, I think viewers would remain pretty ambivalent about the guy, if they managed to have any feelings about him at all.
The only newcomer to the Marvel/Netflix universe that adds anything other than a collective “meh” from viewers is Colleen Wing. At first she appears detached from what’s going on. She doesn’t need Danny Rand, so she doesn’t care about Danny Rand. As their partnership evolves, we find a depth of character sorely lacking in the rest of the cast. For example, when we meet Danny, he’s like a yoga instructor spouting off fortune cookie aphorisms. At times, he’s still a emotionally a ten year old boy trapped in a 25 year old man’s body. Then, at other times, he’s a ball of rage, experiencing blurriness (there’s no better way to describe the on-screen effect, which just looks horrid) and nearly uncontrollable anger. That’s not a complex character, it’s a frustratingly inconsistent character. Same for the Meachums, who at times are competent and confident, at other times comically inept, and at other times display jarringly out-of-character generosity (Ward) or insidiousness (Joy). Someone confused multiple, disjointed behaviors and attitudes with “complexity”.
That’s not to say that all of the performances are bad. The actors and characters making their way to Iron Fist from other series in the Marvel/Netflix universe are the only ones besides Henwick’s Colleen Wing that are bringing their “on my other show we actually gave a damn” mentality to Iron Fist. Of course there is the obligatory Claire Temple cameo, who has less screen time than she did on Luke Cage but more than on Jessica Jones and both seasons of Daredevil combined. It was almost worth powering through the prior twelve episodes just to get to Claire’s “you’ve got to be kidding me” performance in the final episode of the season. Jeri Hogarth, the tough as nails lawyer from Jessica Jones and the end of the second season of Daredevil, has multiple appearances. Her early interactions with Danny reveal a surprising humanity to her character, a side that wasn’t always apparent in her prior appearances in this television universe.
Looming large over the series is Madame Gao, played by Wai Ching Ho. Hers is a character that I still haven’t nailed down yet. She first appeared in the initial season of Daredevil, where she operated independently of The Hand, which was led by Nobu in both seasons of the series. In Iron Fist, Gao seems to be the leader of one faction of The Hand, who are the enemies of the Iron Fist, while still remaining cagey about who she means when she talks about her master, and occasionally dropping the knowledge that our hero needs. She is clearly a character to be feared and revered; Daredevil went to Gao for assistance in the second season episode “.380”, she has stated that she has been around for centuries, she mentions that her home is “someplace considerably farther” than China, she has met and had dealings with past Iron Fists, and she seems to have a handle on everything and everyone.
Other connections name-dropped include Karen Page at The Bulletin, the hard-drinking P.I. that Joy hired who “does good work when she’s not drunk”, one of Luke Cage’s tee shirts with a bullet hole in the shoulder, a few “Sweet Christmas” exclamations from Claire, and talk about events and characters from the greater MCU, such as “the incident” from The Avengers and “that green guy” (Hulk).
For a show that centers around kung fu and the title character having mystical kung fu powers, the action is pretty sad. The bar was set pretty high initially for any shows that followed the much acclaimed hallway scene in the first season of Daredevil. With Iron Fist, it’s almost like the producers knew they were never going to surpass nor get anywhere near that level of action, so they said “why bother” with their fight scenes. In the first four episodes, it feels almost like the fight scenes are slowed down, as if to make sure we see that Danny is such a master and his actions are so fluid that he doesn’t even have to try. What that approach accomplishes is just making everyone in the fight look lazy. From episode five on, the action feels like it is moving at the right pace and the scenes are considerably more entertaining, particularly one scene that included some drunken boxing.
Questionable decisions and wasted opportunities abound throughout Iron Fist. “Is this really Danny Rand?” is the question that the series leads with. The problem is that we the viewer know that yes, this is Danny Rand, so watching the other characters slowly (ever so slowly) come round to what we already know is a painfully uninteresting experience. There are so many places the writers could have taken this concept. What if it had been a swerve? What if this was Danny Rand but he wasn’t the Iron Fist? What if he had been some sort of John the Baptist figure that precluded the real Iron Fist, who then had to pick up the mantle and be the Iron Fist when things went south? What if this wasn’t Danny Rand at all, but the Iron Fist working in New York and using the identity of the deceased Danny Rand in order to do so? Like the casting decision, there is nothing wrong with sticking to the comic source material. One could argue that doing so is the right call. But, if you’re going to do so, then please make it interesting.
Another missed opportunity surrounds Ward’s addiction and mental health. What if Harold Meachum wasn’t resurrected, but a figment of Ward’s shattered mind, akin to Norman’s mother in Psycho? Rather than having Ward’s descent into madness all but end with his killing of Harold, why not go all-in and make him absolutely mentally broken when he finds his father has been resurrected again? There are so many angles that could have been worked in this twisted father-son relationship that, frankly, it’s surprising that they said, “let’s go with mild annoyance” when it came time to write and shoot those scenes.
The series feels like a bunch of false-starts and half-realized ideas that never really gain any traction. An early example is Darryl’s cage fighting for money. Colleen scolds Darryl that cage fighting might make him some cash, but will cost him his honor. Okay, I’m with you, Colleen. Not long after, Colleen starts cage fighting, less for the money (which she needs, as she points out in the early episodes, to keep the dojo running), but for the rush. Now, here’s an interesting dilemma. Will Colleen be forced to face Darryl in a cage fight? Will she accidentally or purposefully injure Darryl? What impact will this have on their sensei/student relationship, particularly when Darryl is showing cell phone video of Colleen’s fight to the others in the class? What will be the ramifications for Colleen selling out her honor? The answer, unfortunately, is that there are no repercussions. Apparently cage fighting wasn’t as dishonorable as Colleen had made it out to be.
Even the setting feels like a let down. In Daredevil, you can feel the tension in Hell’s Kitchen. Jessica Jones had a distinct grittiness to it. Luke Cage‘s Harlem is iconic. By comparison, Iron Fist‘s Manhattan looks like it could be any fairly large city. Like the rest of the cast and the storyline, it doesn’t have a distinct character.
That, I think, sums up the problems with Iron Fist. Yes, you can project your perceptions of race and gender inequality onto this show, because the show lacks any character of its own. It’s not trying to say anything. This is a show about no one. About nowhere. About nothing. It tries to connect the dots and move the pieces into place for The Defenders without actually attempting to say or do anything on its own.
With that in mind, yes, you’ll probably want to watch Iron Fist before The Defenders comes out later this year, if for no other reason than to get some idea who these characters are and where this fight against The Hand stands before that meta-crossover is available. However, there is no need to sit down and binge it in a weekend.