So, what is Iron Fist about?
To be fair, it is a tough question to answer. The final Netflix series, publicised as “the Last Defender”, seems to have been a hard sell. Indeed, the emphasis on the show’s position as “the Last Defender” recalls the marketing of Captain America: The First Avenger. In both cases, Marvel was selling a property that posed a creative challenge by tethering it to a looming mass-market crossover, counting on its position as “the last piece of the puzzle” to draw in audiences that might otherwise hold little interest in the material.
And, by and large, Iron Fist is defined by these outside demands. Any audience member trying to figure out what Iron Fist is or what purpose it serves will arguably get a better sense of that by tracing the outline established by the other Marvel Netflix shows. Iron Fist is not a television show that defines itself, instead existing in a narrative and marketing space that has already been defined for it by the demands of other multimedia. Iron Fist is not so much a television show as a bunch of stuff that fits in that space before The Defenders.
That much is evident even as early as Snow Gives Way, the first episode of the Netflix series. The pilot is arguably as instructive in what it fails to do as it is in what it actually accomplishes. It eats up fifty minutes of airtime without providing the audience with any real sense of who these people are, what they want, or what the series is trying to say that isn’t on the agenda already set up by the other Marvel Netflix shows.
To be fair, it could reasonably be argued that these shows have been affected by the pragmatic realities of the Netflix model. The streaming company has a tendency to release all the episodes of its series simultaneously into the world, a release model designed to encourage “binge” consumption of the series. Unconstrained by the realities of broadcast television, Netflix can adjust the runtime of a given episode and no longer has to stagger a season out across several weeks of airtime. It can arrive all at once.
There are certainly advantages to this approach. The ability to construct an entire season of television without worrying about week-to-week ratings should empower writers and producers to tell more bold and ambitious stories without receiving continuous meddling or feedback from executives or commentators. The freedom to tinker with the length of individual episodes, and even to take detours and to meander, allows writers more freedom to tell the story that they want to tell. And viewers seem to like it, devouring a season of television in about a week.
At the same time, the Netflix model can be as daunting as it is liberating, particularly in the hands of an undisciplined and inefficient creative team. Sometimes the creative restrictions of broadcast television can serve as a structural support framework for writers and producers who would otherwise lack creative restraint. The Netflix bloat is a great example of this, the tendency to stretch a story out to fill a predetermined runtime because there is no real advantage to tightening the narrative in the Netflix model.
In defense of Iron Fist, lot of the issues with the series are issues that are in some way carried over from the other Marvel Netflix shows. Both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were arguably longer than they needed to be, feeling padded and over-extended. The second season of Daredevil demonstrated the limits of undead ninja armies as primary antagonists. All three of those seasons suffered from pacing and structural issues, which are arguably a major concern for Iron Fist. However, Iron Fist only amplifies and deepens the problems.
Whatever structural problems that Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage had with the basic workings of television storytelling, they at least understood the function of a series premiere. Into the Ring and Cut Man played out a conventional superhero origin in a way that set the tone for the season ahead. AKA Ladies’ Night did an excellent job of establishing who Jessica was, what she did, and what she was avoiding. Moment of Truth established a sense of texture and place that wove Harlem into the fabric of the series.
Daredevil even understood the role that a season premiere plays in setting the tone for the year ahead. While the second season of Daredevil was a mess with no clear sense of focus and driven by a series of nonsensical character arcs, Bang at least set out the table properly. While Daredevil might technically take place in the present day, Bang evoked a heightened late-seventies-esque version of New York that informed movies like Escape from New York and The Warriors. In doing so, it provided a framework for the Punisher and hordes of undead ninja.
However, Iron Fist completely botches this function of a season premiere and pilot episode. Literally the only thing that Snow Gives Way has to do is to establish the character of Danny Rand and convince the audience to invest in him. It really shouldn’t be as spectacularly difficult as Snow Gives Way makes it look. Danny Rand shouldn’t be an unlikable character. He is a kung-fu hero who witnessed the death of his parents, who was trained as a living weapon, and who has returned to New York after years in exile.
In some respects, the Captain America comparison feels entirely apt here. Like Steve Rogers, Danny Rand is a blond-haired man out of time who serves as the last stop on the road to a major crossover. He is a blank cypher and a broadly-drawn archetype. However, Danny Rand suffers several disadvantages over Steve Rogers. Most obviously, and most notably, actor Finn Jones lacks any of the charm and warmth that Chris Evans brings to Steve Rogers. More fundamentally, the writing team have no idea what to do with the character.
After all, Iron Fist is hardly an A-list comic book character. Danny Rand is more of a comic book footnote than a funny book fixture. Created at the height of the kung-fu craze by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Danny Rand held down ten issues of the showcase Marvel Premiere beginning in May 1975. He then transitioned to his own title Iron Fist in November 1975. Iron Fist published fifteen issues over twenty-three months, wrapping up in September 1977. The creative team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne would make a much more significant impact on Uncanny X-Men.
Danny Rand never held the spotlight. He was teamed with Luke Cage in an effort to wed Marvel’s blaxploitation and kung-fu output, rebranding Power Man as Power Man and Iron Fist with its fiftieth issue in April 1978. Rand was even casually killed off by writer Jim Owsley in the final issue of the series, published September 1986. He remained dead for half-a-decade, before being revived in the pages of Namor the Submariner. He has appeared on various teams, from Heroes for Hire to Bendis’ New Avengers to Matt Fraction’s Defenders.
Perhaps the closest that Danny Rand ever had to a character-defining run was The Immortal Iron Fist, a twenty-seven-issue-and-change series launched by writers Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker with artist David Aja. The series did a number of interesting things with the larger mythos, creating a compelling framework for the character and his world. It also arrived as part of the same era of comics that produced Bendis’ New Avengers, Bendis’ Daredevil, Brubaker’s Daredevil and Bendis’ Alias, all comics massively influential in shaping the Marvel Netflix shows.
And, for some reason, Iron Fist completely ignores the vast majority of The Immortal Iron Fist. Perhaps the strongest connection is the character of Madame Gao, who may or may not be the Crane Mother. Either way, she was introduced in Daredevil, becoming a legacy character. Instead, Iron Fist draws heavily from the original seventies comics, populating the show with characters like Ward and Joy Meachum, along with plots about corporate takeovers and familial angst. This is material that the comic book character has largely outgrown, and for good reason. It’s suffocatingly generic.
Iron Fist seems pathologically terrified of any element that could seem remotely comic booky. Executive producer Scott Buck has talked at considerable length about the decision to avoid Danny Rand’s iconic green and yellow comic book costume:
“There was no good reason we could imagine to put Danny Rand in a costume. Because Danny Rand is still discovering who he is as a hero and where he is going to be, so he’s not yet ready to put on a mask or a costume.”
Having no mask, just like his fellow Hero for Hire Luke Cage, puts him at risk, as Buck goes on to say, “[A]t the same time he is someone who is rather well known as a billionaire, so he can’t necessarily go out in public and do the things he does without being recognised. It does become an issue for the character.”
To be fair, not every superhero needs to wear a costume. The first season of Daredevil spends its entire run building to the iconic red suit in Daredevil. Jessica Jones openly mocks the idea of a costume in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me. Luke Cage plays with the character’s iconic outfit in Step in the Arena.
However, there is something very different about Danny Rand. The character of Iron Fist has very little that defines him as a distinct creation. He doesn’t have the same level of prestige as Jessica Jones established through Brian Bendis’ run on Alias. He doesn’t have the cultural weight that anchors Luke Cage as a bullet-proof blaxploitation hero who became a cornerstone of the twenty-first century shared Marvel Universe. He doesn’t have the level of cultural impact afforded to Daredevil through Frank Miller’s genre-redefining work on the character.
It could reasonably be argued that all Danny Rand has is his costume. That is the most memorable aspect of his character, something that has remained with him since his earliest days in Marvel Premiere through to the recent Kaare Andrews Iron Fist twelve-issue limited series. In fact, it could be argued that the superhero costume aspect of Danny Rand is essential to the character, with Iron Fist’s defining attribute being the reframing the kung fu antics of earlier Marvel character Shang Chi in more conventionally superheroic terms.
Though co-creator Roy Thomas is one of comics history’s most gifted scribes, the Iron Fist character was not his finest achievement: His most interesting writerly move was to have all the narration done in the second person, e.g., “But you have grown careless, Iron Fist, in allowing yourself even a moment’s contemplation of the carnage your limbs have wrought.” Subsequent writers, including the great Chris Claremont, have always struggled to make him distinctive.
But one thing definitely worked right away: Danny’s costume. Artist and co-creator Gil Kane outdid himself, as did inker Dick Giordano and colorist Glynis Wein, two of the best ever in their respective fields. Iron Fist’s look drew upon elements from martial arts movies — a dragon tattoo, flat slippers, a sash around the waist — while also being distinctively superheroic. His primary color was a deep green, complemented by smiley-face yellow on his absurdly high collar, belt, shoes, and — most important — simple mask, which seemed to consist of a large bandanna with vicious black outlines around the eyeholes. Combine that outfit with coiled poses from Kane and the eventual penciler on Danny’s solo title, John Byrne, and you had visuals that jolted. Iron Fist simply looked cool, which is a key ingredient for the creation of any successful superpowered crime fighter.
As such, it seems self-defeating for Iron Fist to draw so heavily from those original seventies comics without taking what was undoubtedly their most successful element.
However, this complete disinterest in such a core component of Iron Fist’s identity speaks to the uncertainty that permeates this season of television. There is a recurring sense that the writing staff have no idea what makes Danny Rand unique or how Iron Fist might be distinguished from the other characters in the broader Marvel wheelhouse. At a time when the market is absolutely saturated with superhero output, this is a problem. In a world where Guardians of the Galaxy is a breakout property, there is no excuse for toning down a property’s weirdness.
Even in terms of The Defenders, the decision to portray Danny Rand as a generic hero feels ill-judged. After all, Matt Murdock already fills the vacancy on the team for “white dude who is good at kung-fu and has a mysterious past where he was trained as a weapon against the Hand.” Plus, you know, Daredevil at least brings a snazzy costume. Iron Fist does very little to define Danny Rand as anything more than the obligatory “… and Iron Fist” in publicity around the looming release of The Defenders.
“One of the things that appealed to me about Danny was that even though there have been several comic books written about him, there wasn’t this great big backlog of information or stories about him,” Buck says. “It allowed us to be a little bit more creative and take a slightly different direction with this character.”
“Also, if you do go back and read the Iron Fist comics, some of them show a completely different origin story from one series to another, and Danny is very different character in different comics. That gave us the freedom to create the character we specifically wanted to.”
However, the big issue with Danny Rand from Snow Gives Way is the sense that there is absolutely nothing specific about the character. Iron Fist is largely a collection of concepts and ideas imposed from outside the character himself and the writers themselves. It is a generic mess.
To be fair, this is quite obvious from the outside. The opening credits are painfully generic. They lack the evocative religious imagery of Daredevil, the sense of place of Jessica Jones or even the thematic weight of Luke Cage. However, even Trevor Morris’ score feels hopelessly derivative. Even the opening theme feels like it was sampled from more popular and memorable soundtracks, from Ramin Djawadi’s work on Westworld to Daft Punk’s soundscape for Tron Legacy. Trevor Morris is heavily influenced by Hans Zimmer’s Batman scores, especially in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm.
It is more than just the soundtrack that feels cobbled together from outside sources. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight sends Danny to a psychiatric institution for an episode that recalls the “identity-crisis-in-a-psychiatric-institution” stock plot that is a fixture of the superhero genre, from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth to The Last Arkham to Insane in the Brain to Dreams in Darkness. Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch has Danny scaling a skyscraper in his best impression of Spider-Man.
Iron Fist even feels hopelessly derivative of Daredevil, the original Marvel Netflix series. Much like Luke Cage did in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? or the second season of Daredevil did in New York’s Finest and Seven Minutes in Heaven, Iron Fist eventually offers its own version of Cut Man‘s hallway brawl in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. As early as Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, it is once again suggested that the Hand are running another property scam. Even Danny’s backstory is reworked so that the Iron Fist is now “sworn enemy of the Hand.”
To a certain extent, it feels like Iron Fist has settled for being “generic street level grounded superhero”, consciously emulating the tone and aesthetic established in the first season of Daredevil. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that Iron Fist goes even further back, drawing no shortage of inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s work on Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy remains a touchstone for live action superhero adaptations more than a decade after it was originally released.
To be fair, the influence of Batman Begins on Iron Fist is not necessarily a bad thing of itself. After all, Batman Begins is beloved for a reason. In many ways, the first season of Daredevil was a thirteen-episode adaptation of Batman Begins, right down to the ninjas with the weapon of mass destruction at the docks in Stick. This worked out rather well, with the series using that framework to weave Frank Miller’s core themes into the story. Batman Begins provided a structure for the season, a template that could be tweaked and played with.
The problem is that Daredevil grabbed most of the best bits of Batman Begins; the gritty urban underworld giving way to something more pulpy and superhero, the psychologically damaged main character trying to transform himself into more than just an angry young man raging at the world, even the secret ninja cult infiltrating the city with weapons of mass destruction tied to the hero’s back story. Iron Fist finds itself trapped between a rock and a hard place, forced to either adapt elements that Daredevil already used or pick at the remains of the carcass.
Iron Fist splits the difference. The Hand were exhausted as credible opponents some time around The Man in the Box, so porting the secret ninja cult over from Batman Begins feels like a miscalculation. Iron Fist eschews a lot of the street-level urban crime aesthetic in favour of boardroom scheming as Danny tries to get his company back, lifting a similar plot from Batman Begins without a cast as strong as Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman and Rutger Hauer. Similarly, Iron Fist really hangs a lot on the relationship between Danny and Joy, without giving any real reason.
Indeed, the childhood flashbacks of Danny and Joy playing in Snow Gives Way evoke the opening scenes of Batman Begins, of Bruce and Rachel running together on the grounds of Wayne Manor. However, nobody watched Batman Begins for the romance between Christian Bale and Katie Holmes. Well, nobody except maybe ABC Family viewers. Casting Joy as Rachel feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of what audiences liked about Batman Begins. Rachel was such a secondary concern that Christopher Nolan could recast the character between films.
Iron Fist consciously emulates Nolan’s films in a number of other, smaller, ways across its runtime. The confrontation between Danny and Ward in the parking garage in Snow Gives Way is consciously filmed in such a way as to evoke the introductory action scene in The Dark Knight, especially the shots of the car swirling wildly up a spiral ramp. As Danny dangles off the edge of the building in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, the score channels Hans Zimmer’s iconic work on the films. Iron Fist clearly aspires towards the trilogy.
Of course, Iron Fist defines its identity in other ways. Mostly, the series asserts its identity by reference to the boundaries that have already been established by the other Marvel Netflix shows. More than any of the other three shows, Iron Fist is about colouring in between lines that have already been mapped out. Some of those lines were laid down by the two seasons of Daredevil, introducing characters and setting up concepts like the quick shot of the Steel Serpent heroin in The Path of the Righteous and The Ones We Leave Behind.
However, Iron Fist is also defined by the demands of The Defenders, positioned as “the Last Defender” to broadcast before the event miniseries. Scott Buck has acknowledged as much:
“Sometimes things are done because they’re fun, just drop them in and go ‘Eh, the next series will figure them out!’,” Buck says of the continuity between the series. “There’s a bit of that, but I do speak to the other showrunners, and because we are leading into The Defenders, we have to leave our show in a very specific place [but] we do plant seeds and stories that will then come to fruition.”
Indeed, The Defenders demands a complete and fundamental reworking of Danny Rand’s relationship to K’un Lun, right down to reimagining the character as a warrior whose primary purpose is not to represent one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, but instead to defeat the meta-arc’s big bad.
“It is my duty to destroy the Hand,” Danny rants at Harold Meachum in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. Somewhere, Matthew Murdock feels a weight lifting off his shoulders. In some of the series’ most clichéd dialogue, which is a pretty competitive bracket, Danny vows, “I’m the only one who can do it.” This is a complete re-conceptualisation of Danny Rand’s character, one hard to reconcile with any fundamental aspect of the comic book character’s history, beyond maybe an overly literal interpretation of his nickname “the Living Weapon.”
It is hard to overstate how dramatic a reversal this is, how severely this alters the character’s origins and roots. It essentially subordinates his own mythology to that of The Defenders, in the most cynical and crass manner possible. Almost any other change to the character would seem minor by comparison. An alteration like (to pick a completely random example) changing Danny Rand’s ethnicity would be less severe than subverting the character’s entire established mythology in favour of the demands of a crossover event series.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with changing a character’s back story or mythology. Characters change and evolve, and there is a lot to be said for the adaptability of archetypal characters like Danny Rand. Indeed, changing Danny Rand’s ethnicity would add a lot of interesting storytelling opportunities. Tim Burton’s Batman films bear little resemblance to the source material, but are still interesting and worthwhile on their own merits. Occasionally, media like Batman: The Animated Series can make changes that actually bleed back into the source material.
The problem with Iron Fist is not that it changes Danny Rand’s character in order to tell a more interesting story. The problem with Iron Fist is that it treats Danny Rand as a blank slate on to which it can project the expectations and demands of other stories. There is no agency here. As early as Snow Gives Way, there is little sense that Iron Fist is a television series that wants to be interesting or engaging on its own terms, that it wants to offer something new or interesting or exciting. Instead, it a staging post for The Defenders, one last stopping point before the carnage.
Perhaps Iron Fist gives way too easily.