Ow! My chi!
by Thom Yee
Did you guys know Iron Fist came out? I feel like if I wasn’t actively keeping up with this stuff, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Anyway, Iron Fist is just the latest in Marvel’s series of prestige-format Netflix shows focused on the more human side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that began with Daredevil in 2015 before giving us Jessica Jones later that year and Luke Cage just last fall. Though the mandate for the Marvel Netflix shows has been to focus on more grounded stories in the MCU (at least in comparison to the movies), they’ve gradually but definitely moved more and more towards the fantastic. Where Daredevil told the story of a mysterious blind vigilante who had trouble reconciling the limited scope of the law with his own vision of justice (who just happened to have superhuman senses) and Jessica Jones was the story of a superhumanly strong woman who hated her powers and what they’d cost her, Luke Cage built its very identity on the notion of a bulletproof [black] man, and now with Iron Fist, the streets of the MCU are being invaded by Asian mysticism.
Crucially, the Iron Fist character is also the last piece of the puzzle for The Defenders, the Avengers-like assemblage of street-level heroes who will, no doubt, come together to face the foes no single street-level hero could withstand later this year. It’s perhaps more as a milestone in building yet another team of disparate MCU superheroes that Iron Fist will be most positively viewed, because, to be honest, just about the only other thing the character is known for at this point is cultural appropriation. Though there was an impassioned plea from cultural pundits to cast an Asian-American in the role of the Kung-Fu-fighting superhero, the producers stuck to the original concept, a white man raised in the martial arts by a group of mysterious monks who would go on to become their champion. And that didn’t sit well with people. It really didn’t sit well with people. So much so that by the time Iron Fist was actually released, I really don’t think it had a fair chance to succeed. Having seen it now though, I wouldn’t worry too much about that stuff. It gets much worse than that.
What’s it about?
When wealthy industrialist Wendell Rand’s plane unexpectedly crashes somewhere in the Himalayan mountains, he, his wife Heather, and son Danny are all presumed dead, leaving his partner Harold Meachum (David Wenham) in charge of the Rand company. Years later, however, Danny (Finn Jones) returns, seemingly back from the dead, all grown up, in possession of incredible martial arts skills, and looking to reclaim his place as the heir of the Rand family name, and…y’know, it’s never very clear what he’s trying to do, but there are lawyers to fight over the company, ninjas and Chinese gangs to fight hand-to-hand, a samurai girl/potential love interest to fight by our hero’s side (Jessica Henwick), and a lead character whose fist “smoulder[s] and glow[s] until it becomes unto a thing of iron” (i.e., he charges it up and punches things with it), so… yeah…
Of all the Marvel characters chosen for the Netflix treatment, Iron Fist is probably the least grounded, trading in mysticism, spirituality, and all kinds of things that depart from the elements of a normal life, so, like Doctor Strange in the MCU movies, it makes sense that he’d be introduced this late in the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe story. You don’t start up a universe with these kind of characters. Created by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Iron Fist debuted in that precious little decade known as the ‘70s, more specifically 1974, in that very specific pocket of time just after Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon electrified North American audiences and during the time of David Carradine’s diametrically inferior Kung Fu, and alongside Marvel’s Shang-Chi, he remains one of the two most enduring martial arts figures in the Marvel Universe. Of course, “enduring” isn’t nearly the same thing as “important” or “recognizable”, and by 1978 he would be partnered with another hero, the superstrong, supertough Luke Cage (who was himself inspired by another ‘70s cultural phenomena [Blaxploitation]) in Power Man and Iron Fist, a title specifically designed to save the two characters from cancellation.
By the time 1986 rolled around, Iron Fist was actually dead, killed while napping in a chair by another superhero in what turned out to be an accident, a death that was later retconned out of the Marvel Universe canon in a terribly convoluted and confusing series of events that would revive the character in the mid-‘90s. And that’s how I first met Iron Fist. Though it took more than a bit of research and a lot of questions to my father (who introduced me to comics) to figure out what was up with this weird Iron Fist guy, I eventually became a mild fan of the character, which I think was actually a bit of an achievement in itself, because it wasn’t until more than a decade later that he would ever star in a comicbook worth reading, 2007’s The Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker and David Aja. If you want to get started with the character, it’s that series that I would absolutely recommend you begin with as it’s a strong introduction to the character that gives him important layers and it’s one of my favourite comicbook runs of all time. If, however, you’re leaning more towards just watching Iron Fist on TV… well, you can read on to find out more. Short answer though? I’d stick to the comics.
Is It Any Good?
“Oh no. Oh no. Oooh nooo!” That’s pretty much what watching Iron Fist is like. When it manages to make you feel anything at all that is.
Though, as a show, Iron Fist faced a greater existential crisis than its Marvel Netflix forebears, even when putting aside the more controversial aspects of the show, I’m not sure it actually ever made that much sense to bring the character to series. Daredevil was an appropriate first step for these shows as he’s both the most well known of these characters (thanks Ben Affleck!) and the one with the most well-established and thought-out backstory, Jessica Jones attempted to tell an important story of female re-empowerment, and Luke Cage, as a bulletproof black man, was incredibly relevant, but Iron Fist? He’s just a Kung Fu guy. What important story was he going to tell? What perspective was he going to have? I think the only way a show like Iron Fist could ever have worked as an entertainment product would be going deep into the mythology — mysticism, philosophy, and all — and proudly wearing it on its sleeve. Imagine something like the opening scenes of Enter the Dragon but carried throughout an entire series.
As over the top, ridiculous, and culturally insensitive as scenes like that might seem, they at least point to something greater, they’re kitschy and instantly engaging, and most of us Asians still kind of love them because, even if they are a bit reductive, at least they’re reducing us down into something that could kick all of your asses.
But Iron Fist didn’t do that. I don’t know if the producers ever put that much thought into what this show should be.
Iron Fist isn’t absolutely all bad though, and I would even say I enjoyed the first episode of the show which focused on Danny Rand’s attempts to reintegrate into a world he’d been missing from for the past 15 years, something that would be difficult for any normal person and something that becomes incredibly awkward given the naiveté of the character relative to his hometown, New York City, and his family business, a multinational corporation with revenues in the billions. Portraying Danny as an almost airheaded man-child who, nevertheless, has an undeniable core of wisdom seemed like a good way to create conflict and contrast between his upbringing as a boy raised by monks for the last 15 years and the type of world his former childhood friends, Ward and Joy Meachum, now in control of Rand Enterprises, grew up in. What I also appreciated about this initial direction for the show, with Danny trying to prove who he is and reunite with the only family he has left, is that it didn’t take too many episodes for Ward, Joy, Rand Enterprises, and the rest of the world to eventually accept that this is Danny, not some imposter, as that type of story would have grown tired if stretched out too long.
Unfortunately, Danny’s transition from a seemingly confused but undeniably wise and charming young man who lives on the streets to an accepted member of the Rand family who lives in an expensive Manhattan high-rise and drives an Aston Martin is accompanied with a near-complete loss of the wisdom and peace the character had first carried hmself with, not because money or power corrupted him but because Danny just kind of turns out to be a lost, confused little jerk. I could write a review-length article just on how bad the Iron Fist character himself is in Iron Fist, but it all boils down to Danny having a mix of traits that make him very unlikable. He walks around saying things like “What my father meant for me to have” while deep-sixing the profitability of his company with bad business decisions that seem almost willfully shortsighted, he stubbornly sticks to his belief that he must defeat the Hand (the primary, but poorly defined villains of the series) while being surprisingly weak-willed in everything he does, he’s often wishy-washy and yet somehow still seems impetuously forceful. As an audience, we can get behind a character who’s unsure of himself and we can even like a cocky jerk if he has some redeeming qualities, but Finn Jones’ Danny Rand somehow hits all the wrong notes, all of which would be hard to take by itself but is just made worse when accompanied with the meta-context surrounding the show’s casting.
Finn Jones is also a pretty bad martial artist, and it’s plain to see for anyone like me who either grew up watching Kung Fu flicks or who actually has some training in martial arts. Jones’ form sucks. It’s as simple as that. He looks like someone who didn’t really notice the finer details of the fighters he’s emulating. His movements
lack force or conviction and suggest passivity. That might work if they had continued with the more passive elements of the character that they started with, but eventually Danny becomes very aggressive, and he just can’t pull it off in his posture, his style practically screaming a lack of commitment. Frankly, of all of the martial-arts enabled characters on this show or in the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, he seems like the least of all of them and not at all the champion/living weapon protector of a hidden city of Kung Fu masters destined to defeat the Hand.
It would be hard for Iron Fist to be very good with such a broken lead and the general air of negativity that’s surrounded it, but the other story and characters explored in the series are almost equally bad, and here, as I try to put into words what it felt like to watch this show, is where I would say that the whole thing feels like a study in how to build hard feelings and make enemies of friends, family, and associates. Ward and Joy Meachum both have far more depth and reality to them than Danny, but they’re also at least slightly unlikable, neither is ever dynamic or compelling, and, to be honest, I don’t even know what they do at Rand. Is Joy a lawyer? Ward is… some sort of executive? They both have nice offices. Harold Meachum, their father, is straight out of a soap opera and completely over the top, but rarely in ways that make him enjoyable. There are a few times where it’s possible to find something in the character, like when he’s verbally assaulting his assistant or when he’s wailing on some dead bodies with a claw hammer to try to destroy any hope of dental identification, but for the most part every time I saw him onscreen I had to keep reminding myself that David Wenham can’t possibly be this bad of an actor (I mean, he was decent as Faramir). Colleen Wing, swordswoman and martial arts instructor, is introduced early into Danny’s world almost by accident as the two meet randomly in the park, and of all of the show’s main characters she makes out the best, but mostly in that I have no major issues with her. She’s at least spunky even if she doesn’t always have a very particular point of view, she seems to have the courage of her convictions, and she comes the closest to aligning with the concept of honouring oneself, which is probably the best and most positive message you can take from the Eastern philosophies this show is trying to hint at (without ever really getting there). Probably the best character in this entire show is Jeri Hogarth, first seen in Jessica Jones, who shows up sporadically as Danny’s lawyer. Jeri is such a breath of fresh air every time she shows up, mostly because she’s the only one willing to call bullsh*t on what these characters (and this show) are doing.
As stupid as all of this might sound, Iron Fist is also a very boring show, one that spends entirely too much time with dull, pallid business dealings, in extremely plain settings, and populated by way-too-ordinary-looking people. I complained in my Luke Cage review that Luke could’ve looked a lot more heroic and impressive if he wasn’t always hiding his imposing frame under a loose-fitting hoody, but at least he had a look. At least that show was visually interesting. In terms of the enemies Danny faces, Madame Gao, who first appeared in Daredevil, shows up as someone deeply entwined in the machinations of Rand Enterprises (y’know, whatever it is they do), and that’s a great long-term payoff for anyone who’s been watching these Netflix shows from the beginning, but the method through which Danny infiltrates her organization is painfully lifeless, almost literally boiling down to Danny finds a hidden floor in the Rand building and takes the elevator there. Like some of the worst aspects of the other Marvel Netflix shows, Iron Fist also switches focus between who the main bad guy of the show is, a storytelling choice that robs the show of focus and prevents us from having a villain to understand, but what’s even worse with this lack of focus is that the producers’ chose the worst of all options for the show’s final fight, which turns out to be Iron Fist, the living weapon, versus an old guy with a gun. There were some decent fights throughout, the best probably being Colleen’s Japanese katana versus a Chinese jian swordswoman, but overall very little about the fight scenes stands out, and that’s really the bread and butter of this type of show. Even the Iron Fist itself comes across as nothing more than a cheap lighting effect.
So Should I See It?
Rather than an age of enlightenment and the pursuit of equality, the times we live in right now seem to be the age of hating white men, and that’s a narrative that’s dominated Iron Fist like a bully picking on that weirdly arrogant kid that honestly doesn’t understand why everybody keeps telling him he’s wrong. Personally, as a Chinese man, it’s an age even I’ve become sick of at this point and can’t help but disagree with because it, like all other forms of negative discrimination, proposes disregarding people for things they can’t help, and even if those things have proven to be unfairly advantageous to them in our existing power structures, I still don’t think it’s fair to say that someone’s wrong simply for being white or simply for being a man. I’m not trying to say the choice of casting a white man for Iron Fist was a good one or a necessary one, but this, all of this outrage and click baiting, it’s all very hostile and it’s all very transparently indicative of the kind of dig-in-your-heels, never-listen-to-what-we-don’t-want-to-hear-or-haven’t-already-heard, more-interested-in-revenge-than-working-towards-equality attitudes that lead to racism in the first place. It shows that people are just as happy and maybe far more personally satisfied to have a cause to fight for rather than wanting to see things actually get better.
If we’re talking about what Iron Fist actually is instead of what it represents, then think of everything wrong with any of the Netflix Marvel shows, lob every insult you’ve thought or heard about them, and they all apply to Iron Fist, those and more. It lacks focus, it’s too long, it switches villains in the middle, it’s too pleased with itself and thinks it’s better than what’s on network TV. But it’s also not engaging and frequently actively disengaging, it’s boring and unconvincing, and it boasts a lead that’s almost impossible to like. Daredevil was tough as nails, Jessica Jones was mean as hell, Luke Cage was charming as eff, and Iron Fist sucks all the air out of the room. Daredevil was a real superhero, Jessica Jones explored uncomfortable territory, Luke Cage was socially relevant, and Iron Fist makes us think unpleasant thoughts. There’s really only one way to look at Iron Fist and not view it with disdain, and that’s to look at it less as a show about heroes and villains, and more as the story of a bunch of tragic people. Danny wasn’t just a jerk or just a reluctant hero but a lost soul suffering from anxiety and deep psychological issues. Ward was basically tortured for years by the weight of his father’s company. Joy was kept in the dark to the point of resentment, and what she ends up learning might change her forever. These people aren’t just imperfect, they’re broken, they’re hurting, they don’t know what they should do because they’ve never done the right thing before, and looking at the show from that perspective… well, it’s still not good, but it’s maybe just a little bit less bad.
Thom’s Iron Fist season 1 final score
On the Edge
- Y’know, Danny looks a lot more like he’d be Harold’s son and Ward a little bit more like Wendell’s.
- Especially after Luke Cage, I really feel they should’ve pursued a less urban soundtrack. Iron Fist needs its own identity, maybe ’70s Lalo Schifrin?
- “It drains my chi.” Is that a euphemism?
- Madame Gao’s attempts at negative manipulation reminded me a lot of my grandmother. I guess for the sake of politeness I probably shouldn’t specify which one. Or if I just meant both.
- How did Harold get that ice cream without Kyle’s help? Isn’t he still in hiding? Doesn’t he need Kyle to get him pretty much anything?
- What are the odds Ward’s personal bank/embezzlement account would come out to a round dollar amount with no change?
- Considering how often he’d be shirtless on the show, I would’ve expected Finn Jones to work out a lot harder. He just looks like a naturally skinny guy who did a few pushups and sit-ups.
- Danny’s a pretty bad businessman, but I appreciate that he at least got his employees’ dental plans back
- Why is everyone in Bakuto’s compound dressed so poorly?
- And what was with that girl with the overtly revealing sports bra?
- So if Colleen was being backed by Bakuto this whole time, why did it seem like her dojo was always on the verge of being shut down due to lack of money?
- That’s funny sounding, “backed by Bakuto”.
- I can’t believe one of the main bad guys is the annoying guy from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
- A lot of weird shenanigans happened at that company in recent weeks. Dead returns (more than one), mysterious murders, major executive shake-ups. Enough to shake investor confidence at least.
- Damn, Danny, you wait all series to get a decent haircut?