Marvel’s Netflix universe hit the ground running at superhuman speed back in 2015 when Daredevil‘s first season hit. They followed it with the even-better Jessica Jones. Things started to slow down as the still-good-but-flawed second and first seasons of Daredevil and Luke Cage hit. With the first season of Iron Fist now out and done with, I’m wondering if Daredevil and Jessica Jones were flukes.
Almost nothing about Iron Fist even approaches its predecessors in quality, and there are really only a few bright spots along the way.
Oh, you say he’s a billionaire?
Iron Fist isn’t very good, but it would’ve been looked upon much more fondly five or six years ago. The Iron Fist character, as a quick elevator pitch, is wildly derivative. What fans of the character love him for, what’s allowed him to persist for four decades is his sense of style. He’s a funky, goofy, hip-hop character, and the Iron Fist of the Marvel Netflix Universe is none of those things.
Danny Rand is the son of a billionaire. After the plane he was in with his parents crashed over the Himalayas, Rand disappeared for fifteen years, only to resurface with special abilities and a life-or-death mission. Where was he all that time? In a mystical land isolated from the rest of the world taking in the mantle of destiny assigned to him by the universe. Now that he’s back, Rand has to balance his two identities, the famous son of a billionaire and the legendary Immortal Weapon, the Iron Fist.If you’ve been paying attention to superhero movies and television shows in the last 10 years or so, that sounds suspiciously like every other superhero show. The background of Batman, the mystical training of Doctor Strange, the “five years in Hell” of Arrow, and the angst-ridden dead-seriousness of Daredevil.
When we look around at the other superhero stuff, even ignoring the many movies, it quickly becomes apparent how well-trodden every aspect of Iron Fist‘s story is.
Daredevil had awesome fights. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage had compelling characters and some great villains. CW shows like The Flash and Supergirl wear their comic-book influences on their sleeves. Iron Fist has none of that. It has a petulant and immature character, stale fights, and forgettable writing. It does things that other shows did before, but long past the expiration date.
Without the style or sense of humor that helps the Iron Fist comic-book character stay relevant, it’s just another hero show in a rapidly deepening sea of hero shows.
If Iron Fist did have that humor and style, it might’ve made up for what a slog the story, writing, and most of the characters are.
Stuff that might be B-stories in other shows ends up being A-stories in Iron Fist. Hours of time are wasted with boardroom drama. The executive machinations could help add some real-world grounding as the backdrop of the show, but here it’s at the foreground. It’s not just that the show spends as much time in the boardroom as it does in battle, it’s that it spends more time in the boardroom.
In each of the preceding Marvel Netflix shows, the few settings they used helped tell a story. Matt Murdock is a lawyer, but he lives in poverty and helps the poor, adding to the religious overtones of the character and story. Jessica Jones’ surroundings remind us that she doesn’t care about her body. Luke Cage’s Harlem neighborhood roots him in New York City’s black community and reminds us constantly of the world he lives in.
Iron Fist‘s primary sets are static rooms that tell us nothing remarkable about their characters. They’re just places. Boardroom. Dojo. Penthouse. They don’t belong to anyone, and they don’t matter.
And in those places, the things the characters say and do matter just as little. Most of the writing is simplistic and descriptive. Characters telling each other what just happened and saying in plain words how they feel. Instead of the writing feeling straight-forward, though, it borders on disrespectful or lazy.
Danny himself is easily the least compelling of the Marvel Netflix leads yet, and is less compelling even than some of the series’ side characters. He spends his time waffling about who he is or should be and being surprised by his own abilities instead of following his supposed conviction. He feels as aimless as his show. Half the time he summons the Iron Fist, he does it as if it’s second nature. The other half, he’s as surprised as we are that it happened.
Danny is supposed to be a man stuck between two worlds. He has a decade of experience as a child in the world of the rich and famous and a bit more than that in a monastery training to be a warrior monk. Yet his emotional responses to situations reflect only his inner 10-year-old, and never the monk. Even if we could justify these responses as being realistic, they’re boring at best and painful at worst.
One common thread throughout the previous Marvel shows has been some of the best villains we’ve seen in superherodom. Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk was very nearly as sympathetic as Matt Murdock himself. David Tennant gave Kilgrave just the right amounts of deadly menace and childish petulance in Jessica Jones. Luke Cage‘s Cottonmouth and Black Mariah were less villains and more people just trying to do right for their neighborhood using the upbringings they had as reference.
By contrast, the villains of Iron Fist, with the exception of Madame Gao, are wildly inconsistent. The Meachum family acts as one of the main sources of Danny Rand’s troubles, but their motivations and behavior are never believable. One consistently good, smart character takes a turn down a dark path at the last second that feels about as compelling as Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side (though, admittedly, even this is still better-written than that). Another’s flip-flopping back and forth feels less like unpredictability and more like inconsistency. The third is less a villain and more of a science-fiction monster. In a moment of ironic appropriateness, his son has him listed on his phone as Frank N. Stein.
A character named Bakuto enters into the picture in the second half of the series and he is neither compelling nor effectual. I’m not sure whether it was the writing or the actor, but he had little in the way of on-screen presence, and the twists and turns he led the story through didn’t feel like they added anything to it.
Perhaps the biggest crime out of all of this is that, with two exceptions, the fights in Iron Fist are dreadfully boring. They have no visual flair and no sense of style. They’re not shot in interesting ways, and they tell us nothing interesting about the characters. They aren’t even brutal with, again, a few exceptions. The show has its share of violence and gore that puts it in the same league as other Marvel shows, but it’s there for shock value. Instead, fights often cut away from this stuff, and they’re left feeling more like a light brush of the hand than an iron-fisted punch.
Some of the fights are bad. Really, genuinely bad. Perhaps the worst is a fight against a poison-wielding woman. The fight itself is hackneyed, but the set design looks like the back corner of a Party City in October or an Elvira midnight movie.
The two fights that hint at greatness add to the disappointment by showing us what could’ve been. One fight, which occurs mostly in an elevator, hints at some stylish choreography and camerawork that is painfully lacking from the rest of the show, while a fight against a drunken boxer played by actor and stuntman Lewis Tan gives us an idea of the sort of martial-arts homages the show should’ve been packed with.
Part of what makes all this worse than it could’ve been is that Danny Rand never puts on a mask at any time in the series. That means that fight sequences required the involvement of lead actor Finn Jones much more often than the sequences in Daredevil, which were filmed almost exclusively with a masked character and, as a result, allowed for more use of experienced stunt fighters. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage didn’t have the kind of fights that demand that kind of decision, but Iron Fist does.
Iron Fist‘s character arc is about the obligation he has to his dual homelands, and the show delivers on that, but not in a good way, and not in the way it intended.
Once Daredevil proved that superhero shows were going to be a source of profit for Netflix and Marvel, a plan was quickly hatched to birth a franchise. Daredevil is part of the Defenders, so a Defenders show there must be. This gave us Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, through which Marvel established a clearer and clearer style and moved closer to the endpoint of spawning a Defenders show.
Iron Fist is, once again, a victim of the context it exists in. Where the character feels tired because of the other superhero shows, the show itself feels obligatory. For The Defenders to exist, Iron Fist must first exist. Without the Defenders, Iron Fist would’ve never made it to television.
Because of this, the path for the show was, to some degree, prescribed. Much of the show is set up for the Defenders’ battle against the criminal organization known as The Hand. Time that could’ve been spent teaching us about Danny Rand is instead spent focusing on the machinations of The Hand. Whatever shape Iron Fist could’ve taken was hammered into a square to fit into the space between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders. Its destiny was written before its script.
It feels, to me, like Thor did to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor would never have existed without the Avengers movie making it necessary.
Bright spots in the darkness
The show isn’t without good points, mostly by the women surrounding Danny.
Madame Gao, the deceptively fragile crimelord first unveiled in Daredevil, shows her face again in Iron Fist and is consistently one of the best-written and best-acted characters. She behaves consistently when other characters shift back and forth from scene to scene. She has her own agenda and, while it’s not always clear exactly what it is, she always seems to act with it in mind.
Also returning are lawyer Jeri Hogarth, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, and Claire Temple, by Rosario Dawson. Again, these characters behave like they do in the other shows, acting as a voice of the outside world, calling characters on their poor decisions and asking questions that any rational person would ask. Dawson gets some of the few laughs in the show and each of her scenes manages to feel weighty in comparison to those around it.
And finally, there’s Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick. Despite the writing given to her, Henwick plays Colleen believably. She’s something close to a moral center of the show, and her conflicts garner the most sympathy. She’s often relegated to the role of love interest or story-pusher but manages to be captivating anyway.
I wanted so badly to like Iron Fist and, for brief moments, I did. Bright flashes gave me hope that the show was on the right track, only for it to veer off again.
It’s a victim of its place in the universe, stuck between a set of shows and coming after a whole group of similar characters. It’s just a detour on the way to something else.