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Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist (Review)

Iron Fist is a spectacular failure.

There are a lot of different reasons for this. On a purely practical level, so much of the show disappoints. The cast are bland and forgettable. The dialogue is awful. The stunt work is pedestrian. The direction is sterile. The special effects work looks like it was lifted from the later nineties. The editing is jarring. The attempt to recreate foreign locales looks like something from nineties television. These are all very significant problems with the production, aspects that would be irritating on their own, but come together to create a larger problem.

However, the flaws with Iron Fist are even more fundamental than this. Iron Fist is a show with an interesting premise but a complete lack of ambition. The show has no sense of its own identity or direction, its very existence dictated by external factors. It is a series that exists simply because it must exist, not because the writing staff had something interesting to say or because Danny Rand was the perfect hero for this cultural moment. Iron Fist exists because there is a slot in the schedule that needs to be filled, and Iron Fist aspires to do nothing more than fill it.

This is perhaps the most severe problem with Iron Fist. It is not that the show is bad, although it is definitely bad. The unforgivable flaw with Iron Fist is that the show is boring.

There are great stories that could be told with Danny Rand. There are great stories from the character’s rich and nuanced history that would pop out on screen. More than that, Iron Fist is a kung fu superhero. The very concept screams pulpy fun, high-concept trashy entertainment that doesn’t need to be taken too seriously and which can be enjoyed on its own merits. The Iron Fist provides a nice framework to play with genre expectations and tones, perhaps like Luke Cage toyed with blaxploitation.

These Marvel Netflix series are heavily influenced by the twenty-first century comic books, the more adventurous comic book titles being published during the first decade of the new millennium; Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias, Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers, Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil. Given that the best Danny Rand comic ever, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s The Immortal Iron Fist, was published during that period, this television should be a slam dunk. After all, Cheo Coker did Luke Cage without a run as formative to draw upon.

There was a lot of controversy around the release of the show about the decision to focus a martial arts show around a white protagonist. There is too much there to go into in this recap, but the truth is that there are any number of ways to play with that. Danny Rand is not so iconic a character that he needs to be cast as a white actor, and changing his ethnicity would open up interesting ideas. Shang-Chi is a character just resting on the shelf. There is even an interesting story to be told if Danny is kept white, about cultural appropriation and white saviour narratives.

So there is an extraordinary amount of potential going into Iron Fist. There are any  number of ways to tell this story that could be fresh and exciting, whether drawing from existing source material in the way that the first season of Daredevil riffed upon Frank Miller and Brian Bendis or largely reworking and reinventing the core framework like Legion. Whatever happens, Iron Fist should be compelling viewing. Even if the storytelling doesn’t work, there should be enough kung fu action and enough thematic resonance to draw the viewer in.

This only serves to make Iron Fist all the more disappointing. The problem with Iron Fist is not that the series fails to do anything interesting. The problem with Iron Fist is that the series fails to try to do anything at all. This is a television series that seems to exist to fill thirteen episodes of dead air before the release of The Defenders, to fill a release slot on the Netflix calendar. Iron Fist follows the path of least resistance, trickling slowly downwards towards the demands of the larger crossover.

The laziness on display is striking. The dialogue is woeful. “You destroyed my family,” Harold Meachum taunts Danny Rand at the climax of Dragon Plays With Fire. Danny responds with the witty retort, “You’re wrong. The funny part is, now I’m going to kill you.” That feels like a quote lifted from a truly dire direct-to-video eighties action sequence. In Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Joy angsts over environmental regulations. “What if they discover something new in the future? There are laws that don’t exist yet.”

The character motivations in Iron Fist are always cartoonishly straightforward, and yet characters struggle to express them in anything resembling the way that people talk. None of the characters in Iron Fist express themselves clearly, which is particularly frustrating when their emotional states are so simple that even a five-year-old child might understand. This is basic script construction stuff, the logic that could be tidied up with a basic rewrite or sufficient care on the first pass.

Similarly frustrating is the clunky exposition, with Iron Fist repeatedly treating its audience like morons with short attention spans. The series keeps flashing back to the plane crash sequence, perhaps because it actually invested money in that scene. Characters stop just short of prefacing statements with “as you already know…” and “as you’ll be aware…” while bringing the audience up to speed on current developments in a manner that is completely (and frustratingly) inorganic.

This is most striking in Snow Gives Way, with Joy telling Ward information they both already understand for the benefit of the viewers at home. “It’s been like fifteen years since Danny and his parents died, and this guy just shows up out of nowhere?” she asks. When Danny accosts the security guard from Rand Enterprises that Ward assigned to follow him, he bluntly states, “You’re the security guard from Rand.” In The Blessing of Many Fractures, Colleen won’t shut up about the lives that Gao has “destroyed.”

There is an awkward po-faced earnestness to the dialogue in Iron Fist, which feels distracting for a television series about a man who can turn his fist into a glowing yellow weapon. This is particularly obvious when the characters talk about contemporary capitalism, reading lines that feel like they were clumsily lifted from a Twitter feed. When Danny wrestles with the morality of making money from a potentially life-saving drug in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Ward assures him, “I know how this looks, but this is how business works.”

When Danny discovers that Gao has been operating an international drugs business from inside Rand Enterprises in Felling Tree with Roots, he grabs one of the middle-men. When Danny warns the woman that Goa is using his business “to sell poison”, she pithily responds, “Is that really so different from what you’re doing on the top floor?” It is incredibly superficial. Much like Bakuto’s rhetoric about “corporations” and “oligarchies” in Black Tiger Steals Heart, it all reads like a terrible approximation of genuine frustration at corporate interests.

This laziness is reflected at a plot level, when it constantly feels like the writing staff working on Iron Fist have no idea how to properly fill thirteen hours of entertainment. To be fair, this has been a problem with other Marvel Netflix series, but never to this same extent. Iron Fist feels like a jumble of characters and plot points that have appeared in other superhero media thrown together and stretched to breaking point. The writing staff cannot even be bothered to reheat the clichés before employing them.

Danny’s arrival in home in Snow Gives Way recalls Bruce Wayne’s attempts to take back control of Wayne Enterprises in Batman Begins. In fact, the series even returns to the lost childhood friendship with a girl who grew into a young professional woman. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight reveals that Danny Rand has been turned into a “living weapon” in a war against the Hand, recalling the back story in Daredevil. Danny even comes to share Matt Murdock’s sense of guilt and responsibility.

Even the visual cues are familiar, which is sorely disappointing given the potential offered by the Iron Fist mythos. Danny finds himself fighting in a warehouses in Immortal Emerges from Cave and The Blessing of Many Fractures, as Matt did in Speak of the Devil, The Ones We Leave Behind and A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, and as Luke and Jessica did in AKA You’re a Winner. He brawls at the docks in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, like Matt did in Into the Ring and Stick. It is all very urban and generic, which feels like a disappointment.

After all, the Marvel Netflix series have consciously built outwards and upwards. Daredevil was the most conventional superhero origin of the bunch. Jessica Jones avoided a conventional origin to tell a story about trauma and survival with a character who had super strength and who took on a guy who could control minds. Luke Cage was the story of a bulletproof black man rooted firmly in Harlem and strongly disconnected from the tone of the other shows. Iron Fist should have been able to push further.

Instead, Iron Fist retreats to the familiar. There are constant references and nods to the mythos over the course of the series. Danny and Davos repeatedly allude to Shou-Lau the Undying, the dragon that Danny had to defeat in order to claim the title of Iron Fist. However, the closest that the series comes to showing this dragon is two glowing eyes in the darkness in Dragon Plays With Fire. Sure, dragons cost a lot to render, but it would have been worth losing a few dull fights or a couple of dud episodes to see even a silhouette or an outline of the creature.

Similarly, Iron Fist never ventures beyond the mortal world. The show consciously alludes to the magical kingdom of K’un Lun, but refuses to embrace it. The closest that the audience gets is a forest scene in Lead Horse Back to Stable and a few glimpses of it in the distance. In fact, its absence is transformed into a plot point in Dragon Plays With Fire. However, even in dialogue, Iron Fist works hard to downplay any sense of the magical or the wondrous about this city that only exists on the mortal plane for short periods of time.

“I had the fastest donkey cart in K’un Lun,” Danny tells Ward in Immortal Emerges from Cave, explaining his comfort with an Aston Martin. “We’d steal drinks and then fill the pots with water so nobody would know,” he explains to Colleen in Felling Tree with Roots. There is a recurring sense that life in K’un Lun was not so radically different from life in New York City. The only problem is that Iron Fist makes life in New York City seem deathly dull for a superhero show.

Iron Fist wastes far too much time on boring corporate takeover plots. This is hardly what jumps out at most fans when they hear the words “kung fu superhero.” These shenanigans are constantly coming up and dropping out, making no real sense on an episode-by-episode basis, except to suggest that Rand Enterprises really has no clear corporate hierarchy or consistent management structure. Problems arise, only to be promptly and neatly resolved so that new challenges might present themselves.

Danny shows up and asserts his ownership in Snow Gives Way, only to find himself committed to a psychiatric institution. He breaks out in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. He hires a lawyer in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch. Harold Meachum capitulates at the start of Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. Then Danny causes a controversy in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus and fails to meet his obligations in Immortal Emerges from Cave. Ward and Joy are ousted in The Blessing of Many Fractures, while Harold manoeuvres them back in during Black Tiger Steals Heart.

Nobody cares about any of this. Nobody is particularly invested in the question of whether Danny gets a one hundred million dollar buyout or manages to wrest back control of his company. Certainly, nobody watching a kung fu show cares enough about the challenges of being a New York billionaire enough to watch the ownership of a vague multinational corporation change five times over thirteen episodes. That is time that could easily have been spent elsewhere.

Or course, this is not the only desperate lifeless padding. Most obviously, there is every plot point involving Ward Meachum, the selfish dimwitted son of Harold Meachum who manages to develop a massive heroin addiction in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus because Danny brought a tiny sachet into his office. However, that is okay, because Ward is subsequently miraculously cured of his addiction by Bakuto in Bar the Big Boss. There is a sense of Iron Fist constantly trying to drag itself out and extend its runtime by any means necessary.

This is perhaps most striking in the final two episodes of the season. Bar the Big Boss ends with Meachum family reunited, and with Danny seeming to defeat the Hand while experiencing a schism with Davos. At the end of the episode, Danny seems happy in the dojo with Colleen, to the point that there is a cute (if overly extended) sequence of the pair doing stretches together. However, then the writing staff remember that there is still one more episode to go. So Danny suddenly becomes a fugitive and Harold Meachum steals Rand Enterprises one last time. For reasons.

Iron Fist is so bloated and padded that it can’t even settle upon one generic interpretation of the Hand. The second season of Daredevil struggled with the pseudo-mystical ninjas, experiencing a great deal of trouble in trying to develop them into an interesting foe. In episodes like .380 and The Dark at the End of the Tunnel, the Hand were nothing but a horde of faceless ninja without out any defining characteristics. Inexplicably, Iron Fist doubles down on this approach. It offers two progressively blander interpretations of the Hand.

There is something slightly frustrating in Marvel’s inability to settle on a single interesting take on the Hand, even within a single thirteen episode season. However, it is striking that Iron Fist finds two separate ways to make the Hand even less interesting than they had been in their appearances on Daredevil. Appearing in silhouette in the early part of the season, Madame Gao is reintroduced at the end of Under Leaf Pluck Lotus. She apparently represents a different faction of the Hand than Nobu or Bakuto.

While Nobu was interested in creating weird weapons of mass destruction and zombie armies, Gao has much more modest ambitions. She manages the Hand like a moderate corporation occupied by middle managers. She even has an office in the Rand Enterprises building, as revealed in Felling Tree with Roots. Her soldiers use iPads, and don’t dress in robes. They offer rebukes like quarterly appraisals, only with the loss of a finger or tongue at the end. In many ways, they are no different than the generic foreign narcotics smugglers who populate pulp fiction.

However, Bakuto operates his own branch of the Hand, making it seem like something of a weird supervillain franchise. Bakuto operates a school for young people, who he then seeds back into society in key positions. Although Gao and Bakuto share Nobu’s ability to raise the dead, they don’t seem particularly invested in it. While Gao appears to have sold out and gone for the cash, Bakuto deals in dime-store socialism. He offers a more overtly friendly iteration of the Hand, one that seems to owe a debt to the work of Charles Xavier.

As a result, it feels like Iron Fist has stripped away anything distinctive about the Hand. Indeed, Gao and Bakuto might as well be generic foreign criminals. Their goons don’t even wear the distinctive robes associated with the ninja from Daredevil, instead simply colour-coding in read and black. The result is a version of the Hand that is somehow even less memorable than the villains who drove the second season of Daredevil. Given that the Hand are being positioned as the primary antagonists of The Defenders, this is incredibly frustrating.

At the same time, the decision to downplay the distinctiveness of the Hand might represented a concerted effort to get away from some of the more unpleasant stereotypes associated with the villains. The Hand are less overtly “generic Asian bad guys” in Iron Fist, even if they still trade in heroin and are headed by a mysterious wise old Asian woman named “Madame Gao.” So it isn’t as though the problem has completely gone away. The Hand are still a collection of pop culture stereotypes, but a less striking one.

That said, there is something disconcerting about the portrayal of Bakuto’s version of the Hand in the second half of the season. In particular, it seems influenced by very conservative anxieties about contemporary youth movements. Bakuto is recruited the young and the disaffected with his critiques of capitalism, cultivating sleeper networks of diverse individuals working in furtherance of some grander plan. The Hand is a group that subsumes individual identity in favour of the collective, evoking those primal “red scare” fears of socialism or communism.

This portrayal of the Hand is particularly uncomfortable given that the Hand is far more diverse than the rest of the Iron Fist ensemble. The bulk of the primary cast on Iron Fist is white; Danny Rand, Harold Meachum, Joy Meachum, Ward Meachum, Jeri Hogarth, even Kyle the Intern. The most prominent person of colour in the supporting cast, Colleen Wing, is revealed to be a sleeper agent of the Hand in Black Tiger Steals Heart. The second most prominent person of colour in the supporting cast, Claire, is carried over from the other shows.

These criticisms play into the larger issue with Iron Fist, even beyond its narrative and production shortcomings. Iron Fist is fundamentally a story of cultural appropriation, of a white saviour who discovers that it is his destiny to protect a foreign land. This issue is compounded by Iron Fist’s place in the cultural canon. Much like David Carradine presented a white-audience-friendly surrogate for Bruce Lee on Kung Fu, Danny Rand was created as a white-superhero-audience-friendly surrogate for the character of Shang-Chi.

There was a lot of debate and discussion about how best to handle this theme in the twenty-first century. After all, popular consciousness has come a long way from the kung fu exploitation of the seventies. Luke Cage provides an interesting template here, a schlocky blaxploitation hero who evolved and grew into a multifaceted character. Luke Cage took a character who had troubled roots and told a compelling and engaging story about the African American experience. There is no reason why Iron Fist could not reclaim the more troubled aspects of the character’s roots.

Again, the other Marvel Netflix shows has blazed a trail, demonstrating that the streaming platform was interested in more nuanced and thoughtful superhero content. While Daredevil was a very conventional superhero story, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were defined by their subversions and explorations of that narrative. Jessica Jones was the story of a woman recovering from trauma dealing with a villain who was the personification of rape culture. Luke Cage was a series about a black man who was immune to bullets rooted in Harlem.

There are any number of interesting stories that could be told using Iron Fist. The production team could change the race of the character, and alter the more problematic dynamics by allowing an Asian character to protect a mystical city, instead of setting a white protagonist against hordes of generic Asian bad guys. Indeed, given the series’ awkward rejection of the more outlandish superhero elements of the Iron Fist mythos, there is a solid argument to be made that Iron Fist should really have been an adaptation of Shang-Chi.

To be fair, there is also an argument to be made that Danny Rand should be white, that there is some value in exploring these tropes and conventions. After all, there is a lot of drama to be wrung from that central contradiction and the issues tied to it. Danny confronting his privilege is a very interesting story arc, and it could be argued that a villain like Davos is the best way to tell that story. After all, Davos is a native character who has seen his arc appropriated by a tourist with no respect for the workings of his culture. That is an interesting story.

However, Iron Fist is completely and utterly unwilling to engage with this gigantic elephant in the room. Danny Rand remains white, and his narrative appropriation of Asian culture and heritage is never challenged or explored. Danny’s decision to abandon the prestigious position afforded him is treated as an expression of his self-determination rather than a betrayal of the culture that adopted him. Much like Ward Meachum is shown to come into his own by rejecting his father, Danny Rand’s journey to self involves the rejection of Lei-Kung.

There are moments when it seems like Iron Fist might allow Davos to score some points on this matter. “He was the first outsider to be chosen,” Davos explains to Claire in Lead Horse Back to Stable. He continues, “He stole the Fist from K’un Lun. He stole from us.” However, Davos’ complaints are never treated as legitimate. Instead, they are treated as the first steps on the road to villainy, rather than calling Danny out for his dereliction of duty. “I apologise,” he immediately confesses to Claire. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice.”

In fact, when Danny and Davos come to blows at the climax of Bar the Big Boss, the script goes out of its way to delegitimise Davos’ position. Davos is portrayed as reckless for using lethal force to subdue the army of death ninjas employed by Bakuto. When Davos confronts Danny, Iron Fist treats it as an overly emotional response to a personal betrayal. “I hurt you, I get it,” Danny sighs, exasperated. Danny is not being called out for abandoning K’un Lun, but for leaving Davos. It is a deflection of interesting thematic subtext in favour of visceral emotional reaction.

In some respects, this is par for the course with Marvel adaptations. Captain America: Civil War did something similar with its central political problem. Confronted with the reality that Bucky was a mass murderer, Steve sidestepped the question of whether superheroes should be held to account for the consequences of their actions by focusing on his personal relationship to Bucky. It didn’t matter that Bucky was a dangerous killing machine; Bucky was Steve’s friend, and everything was second to that. Iron Fist defuses Davos in the same way.

To be fair, the closing moments of Dragon Plays With Fire suggests that there are consequences for Danny’s decision to abandon K’un Lun. However, there is also a sense that the loss of an entire city of people in Asia will only serve to justify Danny’s angst. After all, the only person that the audience knows to have been in K’un Lun is Kei-Lung the Thunderer, and he only appeared as a projection of Danny’s troubled psyche in Dragon Plays with Fire. The loss of an entire city of Asian people only serves as emotional leverage for a white protagonist.

Then again, this taps into another major issue with Iron Fist. The show simply is not fun. Iron Fist tries too hard to pitch itself as a grim and gritty crime thriller, focusing on broken and damaged people. K’un Lun is not a magical kingdom, it is instead a very brutal and cyclic place. Much is made of the idea that growing up in a magical and mystical kung fu city with a freakin’ dragon in it was a source of anxiety and trauma for Danny. Danny acts like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders all the time, despite the fact that he wrestled a freakin’ dragon.

Danny repeatedly suggests that he was beaten as a child, confessing as much to Colleen in Snow Gives Way and flashing back to it in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. When he tells Joy about his experiences in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, she states, “That sounds like abuse.” In Immortal Emerges from Cave, he talks to Colleen and Claire about how he lived in constant fear of being challenged and forced to fight. There is very little about K’un Lun that sounds like fun, to the point that the audience might even be happy that it dropped off the face of the planet.

K’un Lun talks to Danny as though he were a child slave in Immortal Emerges from Cave. He boasts, “You belong to me, and me alone.” Much is made of the fact that Danny is a “living weapon”, a tool used without self-determination. “Would you like to choose a weapon?” an assassin asks. “I am the weapon,” Danny replies, channelling his eighties action hero persona. “Really?” the assassin taunts. “Because weapons don’t feel pain. Weapons are designed for one thing and for one thing only, to serve their master.”

Davos has internalised this. “A weapon knows no feeling,” he tells Claire in Lead Horse Back to Stable. Repeatedly, the show suggests that Danny Rand and the Iron Fist are at war with one another. “Should you live…,” the Thunderer begins. Danny finishes, “… my former self will be destroyed.” The Thunderer muses, “Are you willing to kill Danny Rand so that the Iron Fist might live?” In Felling Tree with Roots, Gao taunts, “You left K’un Lun because you wanted to be Danny Rand.”

All of this is suffocating. It is stock superhero plotting, but in no way specific to Danny Rand or Iron Fist. It often feels like a repeat of the character arc afforded to Matt Murdock. “Sometimes I get these flashes,” Danny confesses at one point. “Anger. It’s like a fire, burning inside of me.” This is a character beat that has already been played for Matt Murdock, dating back to his attack on Turk in the teaser of Into the Ring. It feels redundant to have Danny Rand play that exact beat all over again.

Iron Fist has no identity, no sense of self or purpose. It exists merely to fill time, to lead into The Defenders. The battle is lost before it has even begun, and yet it rages for thirteen hours anyway.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Iron Fist:

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4 Responses

  1. The show sucks? Aw man, now I wanna throw my own Iron Fist at the wall.

    I won’t do that since though it would break my hand.

    • It’s very Chi-sy.

      • I guess reviewing all the episodes must not be a marvellous prospect for you?

      • Ha. Ah well. I basically tried the same approach I took with Luke Cage, breaking down the reviews into effectively a thirteen-chapter essay on the show that just happened to be built around the contours of each episode. (So, about Finn Jones and Danny in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, about Gao’s Hand in The Blessing of Many Fractures, about missing K’un Lun in Lead Horse Back to Stable, about the pacing in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, etc.) I think it worked out quite well.

        I’m very proud of the Bar the Big Boss review, which is effectively the culmination of all of this exploring the racial politics of Iron Fist.

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