Iron Fist takes a long time to say very little.
There are arguments to be made that series like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were somewhat over extended. Jessica Jones had an incredibly frustrating tendency to have Jessica capture Kilgrave, only for him to escape and prolong the series; AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts all played the same card. Luke Cage fell apart in its second half, taking its protagonist out of action for several episodes while essentially repeating itself over the final four episodes, with Luke going from fugitive to hero to fugitive to hero.
However, Iron Fist is particularly notable for placing this drag at the very start of the season. The first four episodes of Iron Fist can effectively be written off, accomplishing very little in terms of moving the plot forward and establishing a series of obstacles that are handily dispatched and which fail to either move the plot forward or provide keen insight into the characters. Luke Cage might have opened slowly with Moment of Truth and Code of the Streets, but at least it provided a sense of character and place. Jessica Jones built up its sense characters.
In contrast, the driving plot of Iron Fist only comes into focus at the end of Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. Which makes the preceding four episodes seem like a waste of time and energy.
To be fair, Iron Fist is not more streamlined in the final nine episodes of the season. The series starts with four episodes of filler, but it struggles to balance its cast across the rest of the season. There is a lot of pointless padding in the final two thirds of the season. Ward becomes a heroin addict in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus and Immortal Emerges from Cave, only to be miraculously cured in Bar the Big Boss. The series spends an entire episode half-heartedly suggesting that the Hand might not be bad guys in Black Tiger Steals Heart, only to quickly backtrack.
However, the meandering nature of the first four episodes is particularly striking. Indeed, there is a reasonable argument to be made that these four padded go-nowhere episodes might have been as responsible for the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Iron Fist as the show’s questionable racial politics. Critics reviewing Iron Fist were only provided with the first six episodes of the season. When four of those first six accomplish nothing in terms of character or drama, it is understandable that critics would not be charitably inclined towards the series.
In some ways, Iron Fist is the culmination of a long-simmering problem with these Netflix television shows. Streaming has fundamentally changed the way that producers and audiences approach television, the culmination of a shift that began with the wide availability of DVD at the turn of the millennium and which only accelerated with the embrace of time-shifted viewing. Although broadcast networks are still very much a reality for many working in television production, there has been a major shift in content production and delivery for streaming services.
Like most other Netflix shows, Iron Fist is not delivered on a weekly basis. The entire series was released online all at once, for the pleasure of the audience watching at home. Viewers would not have to wait a week after the end of Rolling Thunder Canon Punch to see how Danny escaped death plunging down the side of a skyscraper. The next episode is only ever a click away. Less than that, in fact. Watching a Netflix series, it takes more effort to stop watching the show than it does to keep watching.
Gone are the restrictions associated with network television. As James Poniewozik outlines, the streaming model has allowed television production to burst out of the box:
As a critic, I’m used to championing greater options for artists. We’re lucky to live in a time when TV creators have freedom from arbitrary constraints. But more and more of my TV watching these days involves starting an episode, looking at the number of minutes on the playback bar and silently cursing.
Historically, network television was like a container ship; the product had to fit standard boxes for ease of shipping. Networks needed predictable schedules and had to turn over specific time slots to affiliates.
It was a process — 15-minute episodes were a presence in the early days of television — but 30 minutes generally came to mean comedy, and 60, drama. Episodes used to be longer, in that commercial breaks were shorter, but the journey from beginning to end stayed the same. And networks occasionally tinkered with length. NBC supersized its popular Thursday night sitcoms in the early aughts; Fox inflated American Idol like a Macy’s parade balloon. But those stunts were exceptions.
To be fair, some of this freedom can be seen creeping in around the edge of cable and non-profit broadcasters like HBO and BBC.
On the British national broadcaster, producers and writers like Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have been allowed to inflate the runtime of Doctor Who on occasion. On HBO, superstar production teams have been allowed to set their own terms. For Westworld, the first episode of the first season (The Original) ran almost seventy minutes while the season finale (The Bicameral Mind) ran nearly ninety. The producers working on Game of Thrones have been allowed to set shorter seasons and also to tinker with the runtime on occasion.
Obviously, these freedoms are nothing like the freedoms that Netflix affords to its own production teams. There are minimal content restrictions, and no Broadcast Standards and Practices to cast judgement. Episodes do not have to be trimmed to fit a time slot, and the production team’s biggest challenge is not getting the audience to actively come back the following week. All that a Netflix production team has to do is to prevent most viewers from actively pressing stop on their television remotes.
In television production, form tends to follow function. A lot the shape of television is dictated by concerns that are not artistic in nature. As James Poniewozik argues, the changes driven by the streaming model are as much driven by commercial and social concerns as the rigid structure of broadcast television:
HBO series like Deadwood — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.
As tempting as it might be to laud the artistic freedom afforded by the Netflix model, where producers are allowed more freedom to pace and structure their stories on their own terms, the truth is that the model comes with its own challenges and expectations.
Releasing the full season of Iron Fist all at once changes how the series is received. Watching the show becomes a race, struggling to complete the season before somebody on social media (whether accidentally or deliberately) posts spoilers. It becomes a competitive activity, as the audience member rushes to the end as a feat of multimedia endurance and pop culture stamina. There are arguments to be made about whether this model even induces a sort of weird pseudo-Stolkholm Syndrome, in which viewers are more likely to defend their viewing than otherwise.
There are other factors as well. The audience who binge-consume a television series rarely take the time to properly process the show until after it has finished, meaning that binge television shows can get away with a lot of sins if they end on a strong enough note. After all, any viewer finishing such a breathtaking viewing experience is likely to remember the last episode most clearly. As such, there is a disproportionate emphasis on endings, as they will make the strongest impression upon binge viewers.
(The shifting attitude toward Luke Cage might be indicative here. The show’s first seven episodes were released to critics for review, and they were much stronger than the final six. As such, critics tended to love the show. It helps that the final episode of those seven, Manifest, ended with one hell of a cliffhanger. In contrast, the second half of the show was a much messier and more muddled affair. Upon release, it seemed like the social media discussion of Luke Cage has been dominated by the weakness of those six episodes rather than the strength of the first seven.)
In some ways, Iron Fist is designed to recognise this. The entire show is dull and plodding, but the bulk of the problems are contained in the opening four episodes. These four episodes comprised two thirds of the episodes given to critics, and so they largely coloured the immediate and visceral reaction to the series. In contrast, the second half of Iron Fist is comparatively stronger than the first. The second half is not great, but it is better. It could reasonably be argued that Iron Fist ends stronger than it starts, and might be the first Marvel Netflix show to do so.
However, none of this excuses the disaster that is the opening four episodes of Iron Fist. These four episodes feel like wheel-spinning, as if the production team had mapped out six episodes of story that they could stretch back to nine, but still needed to figure out a way to fill four hours of airtime. The first four hours of Iron Fist accomplish exactly nothing in terms of storytelling, getting the characters to the point where the story can actually begin by engaging in dull exposition and pointless plot tangents.
It is worth reflecting on what exactly happens in the first four episodes of Iron Fist. In Snow Gives Way, Danny Fist comes to New York and asserts his identity. Joy and Ward Meachum oppose him, as he tries to prove his identity in a number of different ways. Danny eventually proves his identity in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch by finding his fingerprint on an old piece of pottery. In Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, Danny is committed to a psychiatric institution before breaking out. In Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, Ward vows to fight Danny’s ownership claim.
All of this could easily have been explained in a single episode of television, or glossed over entirely. After all, Batman Begins did a fairly handy job of exploring the “lost billionaire long thought dead returns from the Far East” plot without resorting to such nonsense. Indeed, there are points in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm where it seems like even the characters are tiring of all these diversions and narrative cul de sacs, of all of these delays and tangents that add nothing to the narrative.
Harold Meachum resolves the big conflict of the opening three episodes with a single line of dialogue, affirming that Danny Rand should be allowed to take back control of Rand Industries. “Drop all litigation against our friend here,” Harold instructs Ward. “No more roadblocks. Offer him everything he’s owed as the rightful heir of Wendell Rand.” With that single line, Harold Meachum negates one-hundred-and-eighty minutes of plot, rightly dismissing it as completely unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, this resolution is only slightly more trite than having Danny Rand use the Iron Fist to break out of the psychiatric institution at the end of Shadow Hawk Takes Flight or having Joy give Jeri an artefact that proves Danny’s identity at the end of Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch. The tidiness of these resolutions, all timed perfectly for the end of a given episode and negating entire episodes of storytelling, is almost as trite as the storytelling decisions themselves.
While the remaining nine episodes of Iron Fist do have a (somewhat) tighter focus, they suffer from a lot of the same problems. It is increasingly clear that the production team has a very simple plot that they have been asked to stretch out over an inordinate amount of airtime. It is perhaps revealing that the major organisations in Iron Fist all undergo several changes in management over the remaining nine episodes, with these betrayals and reversals creating the illusion of forward momentum while changing very little in practical terms.
Danny might have secured his place at Rand Industries, but the corporate hijinks continue across the season. The board ousts Joy and Ward in The Blessing of Many Fractures, while Harold retakes the company on their behalf in Black Tiger Steals Heart. Then Harold steals the company from Danny in Dragon Plays With Fire. Similarly, the Hand remains a recurring threat across the season, but the emphasis shifts from the Chinese branch overseen by Gao to the South American branch overseen by Bakuto in Black Tiger Steals Heart. All to extend the runtime.
Even Jeri Hogarth seems to be growing impatient with the plotting and pacing on Iron Fist. When Danny gets into one of his more philosophical moods in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, she tells him how it is. “Now, we can continue this walk down memory lane. But since it is all billable hours, what do you say we get to work?” There is a sense that the writers are finally getting the memo, and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm finally brings the plot of the season into focus as Danny comes face-to-face with the influence of the Hand in New York City.
To be fair to Iron Fist, the other Marvel Netflix shows had a tendency to start with tangential arcs that didn’t engage with the primary plot. The first season of Daredevil opened by focusing on the title character’s engagement with the Russian mob in episodes like Cut Man or Condemned, as Wilson Fisk positioned himself behind the scenes. The second season opened with a mini-arc focusing on the Punisher from Bang to Penny and Dime before pivoting to Electra and the Hand in Kinbaku.
Jessica Jones opened with a strange arc about how Kilgrave’s top secret weakness was anaesthetic, focusing on Jessica’s awkward plan to steal some anaesthetic from a hospital in AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Indeed, both of those episodes ended with a focus on what Kilgrave so dangerous, creating the impression that Jessica Jones was essentially repeating itself three episodes into a thirteen episode season. As such, this is a problem with all of the Netflix series, to varying degrees.
However, the difference between Iron Fist and the other Marvel Netflix series is the sense of character and place. The opening episodes of Daredevil were instructive from a psychological point of view, providing a glimpse at how characters like Matt Murdock, Wilson Fisk and Frank Castle saw the world. Jessica Jones could fall back on its lead character to support these repetitions. More than that, there was at least a clear sense of progress to those early arcs, as shaky as the pacing might be. There was a sense that stories were going somewhere from that starting point.
Iron Fist lacks that confidence or sense of direction. There is no sense that Danny proving his identity will be relevant to later plot points. Given that Danny was drugged and committed to a psychiatric institution for asserting his identity, his incarceration and psychiatric treatment does not feel like an exploration of the post-traumatic stress disorder suggested by Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. Neither the writers nor Finn Jones have a strong sense of its lead character, so the psychiatric head games of Shadow Hawk Takes Flight feel shallow and pointless.
There is an argument that all of the Netflix Marvel series could stand to lose three to five episodes, and that is true of Iron Fist more than any other. In some ways, this suggests that producers working on these shows are subject to their own restrictions. According to Sam Adams, the thirteen-episode season is a corporate mandate:
Netflix’s binge-watching model allows creators to think of a season as a single entity rather than a series of small ones, but being relieved of a weekly series’ obligation to hook viewers from the start and keep them hooked has resulted in a lot of slack and shapeless seasons. Netflix may be changing the way people watch TV, but the structures of TV production still require that shows be pieced out in regulation-size chunks of 45 to 60 minutes, each with their own opening and closing credits, not to mention their own writers and directors, and that their seasons run for 13 episodes, which is a standard network TV order. (Networks have usually placed a separate order for the “back nine,” bringing a season to 22 episodes in total.) Thirteen episodes still seems like a “real” TV show, which is what Netflix needs to keep their subscribers feeling like they’re getting their money’s worth. They might shun the 22 episodes of a full network season, but in general, longer is better. The creators of Making a Murderer pitched Netflix an eight-hour true crime series: Netflix asked them for 10.
Given the model of distribution, the lack of advertisers to satisfy, and the absence of other outside limitations, there is no reason why a Netflix show should be a fixed length. Just as episodes of Daredevil or Iron Fist can vary in length, it seems fair to suggest that seasons should be allowed to run as long (or as short) as necessary.
There is already anecdotal evidence to support this argument. Broadcast television has begun creeping towards eight- or ten-episode seasons. Although Netflix declines to publish concrete viewing figures, the eight-episode Stranger Things is arguably one of the distributor’s most successful series. In fact, it has been confirmed that The Defenders will run only eight episodes. Given the bloat affecting the four series leading into it, this might not be the worst thing in the world.
There is a solid argument to be made that Iron Fist would work a lot better with a shorter run. Most obviously, cutting the opening four episodes would get the season off to a quicker start and allow the plot to get moving at a quicker tempo. Spreading the budget over fewer episodes would allow the series to engage in more ambitious storytelling. Perhaps Shou-Lao the Undying could appear in Dragon Plays with Fire as more than just a set of eyes, and perhaps K’un Lun could appear in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight as more than a nondescript room.
Still, there is little point focusing on what might have been. More than two hundred minutes into the season, Iron Fist is finally ready to begin.