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Iron Fist – Under Leaf Pluck Lotus (Review)

With Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Iron Fist truly embraces its inner Batman Begins.

To be fair, there were shades of this in the earlier episodes. Snow Gives Way introduced Danny Rand as a long-lost (legally dead) billionaire who returned home from a trip to the orient. Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch embroiled Danny in battle to take control of his company and reclaim his father’s legacy. Indeed, it seemed fair to reflect that if Daredevil had gorged itself on many of the more interesting and compelling facets of Christopher Nolan’s superhero origin story, then Iron Fist had been left to gently pick over the remains of that particular corpse.

Ain’t gonna Gao…

Under Leaf Pluck Lotus finds Iron Fist borrowing even more from Batman Begins, lifting plot points and story beats that were already stolen by Daredevil. The bulk of Under Leaf Pluck Lotus focuses on Danny’s discovery that a cult of secret ninjas have been using his company to smuggle dangerous materials into the city, having made a dangerous alliance with “the chemist.” This leads to a dangerous confrontation on the docks, recalling one of the most memorable sequences in Batman Begins and Matt Murdock’s own dockland adventures in Into the Ring or Stick.

When Under Leaf Pluck Lotus isn’t borrowing heavily from Batman Begins, it is awkwardly emulating Daredevil. Once again, the Hand are using the docks to smuggle something dangerous into New York City. Once again, that dangerous object turns out to be a person rather than an object. All of this feels very familiar, almost suffocatingly so. There are any number of interesting stories to be told about the character of Danny Rand and using the Immortal Iron Fist. Why settle for a dull retread of a story that has already been told within this run of television series?

On the defensive.

It made sense for Daredevil to cite Batman Begins as a key cinematic and storytelling influence. After all, Christopher Nolan’s work on Batman Begins was heavily influenced by the work of Frank Miller on Batman: Year One. As a result, both Daredevil and Batman Begins could be seen as sharing the same DNA. They are both cousins, after a fashion. It would make sense for a show about a character so heavily defined by the work of Frank Miller to bear some resemblance to a movie about another character so heavily defined by the work of Frank Miller.

More than that, Daredevil was the first of these Marvel Netflix television series. It was something new and exciting, something which had never been attempted before. It represented a challenge for the production team, who had no frame of reference for a thirteen-episode story arc that would be released on a streaming platform. Batman Begins provided a solid framework around which the production team could craft a thirteen-episode origin story. Batman Begins was a pretty great set of training wheels for an ambitious new project.

It’s all about chemistry.

Iron Fist has none of these excuses. As a comic book property, Iron Fist has no textual connection to Frank Miller’s work on Batman. Although Frank Miller had a fondness for ninja narratives like Ronin or concepts like the Hand, he had no significant influence on the evolution as Danny Rand as a character. Indeed, the comic book character Danny Rand was such an awkward fit for Frank Miller’s aesthetic that wedding the two concepts would result in an ungodly mess like Kaare Andrew’s run on Iron Fist: The Living Weapon.

More than that, Iron Fist is the fourth of four television series being produced in the run-up to the release of The Defenders. It is the fifth season of television produced as part of that process. Marvel and Netflix have demonstrated an ability to try new concepts with the format, leading to success stories like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. In short, there is absolutely no reason why Iron Fist should feel the need to fall back to citing both Batman Begins and the first season of Daredevil as its reference points.

Keep on truckin’…

In recent years, there has been something of a backlash against the work of Christopher Nolan and the way in which the director has redefined blockbuster cinema in general and superhero movies in particular. Some of these criticisms are quite fair, most notably those concerning the treatment of female characters in his work. However, Nolan has made a conscious effort in films like The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to respond to those criticisms and to flesh out his female characters.

However, other criticisms of Nolan’s work insist that the director has had a negative impact in how these stories are told. Nolan’s work fundamentally altered the dynamics of blockbuster storytelling in ways both obvious and subtle. Most obviously, Nolan introduced an era of taking prima facie ridiculous concepts at face value, crafting a trilogy of films around the psychological study of a man who dresses up like a bat to fight crime. More subtly, Nolan changed the way that these films address theme, often clunkily working it into dialogue and stressing it in the actual text.

“Um.. are you sure you want the warehouse lit in this ominous green light?”

Some critics have been quick to blame Nolan for the rake of subpar imitations that followed, the comic book blockbusters like Fantastic Four and Man of Steel that take themselves far too seriously for their content. There a vocal minority of internet commentators who believe that superheroes should never be taken seriously:

In a two-plus hour film featuring explosions and moody tones and car chases and at least two men driven mad by having sh!t thrown in their faces (be it pancake makeup or burning acid), in no place during the film did anyone seem to accept the conceit that the entire premise was absolutely ludicrous. Guys… Batman. He’s a rich guy who dons tights and fights crime. Crime perpetrated by men in makeup and brightly coloured clothes (and more tights). Only in Christopher Nolan’s view of Gotham, the tights are replaced by a military-grade teflon suit and the Joker’s perfect makeup reimagined as erratic and manic as his character.

But… we’re still talking about grown men wearing costumes and fighting each other on public streets. Are you suggesting to me that comic books do not exist in this world? Because if they did, the people of Gotham would put a stop to all of this nonsense so quickly because even they would see the Joker and the Batman as lame weirdos rather than any sort of threat way before they dug up the access to afford rockets and tank-sized Batmobiles.

And yet, this movie is supposed to be so good because it’s so real? Lighten up, dudes!

This is obviously a ridiculous argument, because it implies that there is only one right way to tell a story and that all other approaches are invalid. Part of the appeal of a character like Batman is that the character can support stories and tones as diverse as Batman!, Batman, The Dark Knight and The LEGO Batman Movie.

Love is the drug.
Also, this drug is the drug.

At the same time, there is a kernel of truth to the argument that the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a double-edged sword. The films quickly became a template for other studios to emulate, suggesting that audiences wanted darker and edgier blockbusters dealing with weighter themes. It is churlish to blame Christopher Nolan for any of this. After all, his Batman films still stand among the very best blockbuster films of the twenty-first century. They are classics, and it is only fair that classics should be considered influential.

All that said, there is a sense that the success of Batman Begins led to less talented production teams mindlessly attempting to emulate Nolan’s approach without any real thought about why that approach worked. Batman Begins might of been a relatively serious film, but it was also very well-written, very well-directed and very well-performed. It worked from a very clear understanding of its central character. To assume that Batman Begins worked simply because it was “dark” is a very lazy interpretation of the film.

In need of assistance.

Then again, Iron Fist is very lazy. The bulk of the show attempts to rework its central character in the style of Bruce Wayne or Matthew Murdock, without any real consideration of what that means or why that approach might fit for this character. Executive producer Scott Buck has talked quite a bit about his own disinterest in Danny Rand as a unique entity, finding his costume inessential and deeming his superpower fair generic. It seems like Buck falls back on the idea that Danny Rand is a superhero and Batman Begins was a good superhero movie, so the two should fit.

As such, Iron Fist consciously reworks its superhero origin as something horrific and brutal, suggesting that Danny is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in K’un Lun. Whenever Danny talks about his training, it seems horrific rather than exhilarating, as if the production team are trying to add as much grit and darkness as possible. There is no way that this process could be considered fun. Instead, we are constantly assured that Danny has lived a harrowing and horrific life, akin to Jessica’s experiences with Kilgrave or Luke’s in prison.

It’s tough to be the boss.

When Danny flashes back to K’un Lun in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, he imagines himself being beaten. When he discusses his training with Joy in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, she characterises it as abuse. When he imagines Lei Kung the Thunderer in Immortal Emerges from Cave, the master treats him like a slave. In both Immortal Emerges from Cave and Felling Tree with Roots, characters insist that Danny was being fashioned into a “living weapon” in a manner that recalls child soldiers which left a severe mark on him.

This is all a very stock deconstruction of the superheroic fantasy, very similar to the work the Frank Miller and Alan Moore did in the genre during the eighties. In fact, had Frank Miller ever been tasked with reinventing Danny Rand, he probably would have taken a similar approach. It’s certainly close enough to what he did with Daredevil, so close that Matt Murdock must be scoffing at Danny Rand’s repeated assertions that only he can fight the hand. This interpretation on its own would have been tiring in comics two decades ago, and in other media one decade ago.

All Claire.

To be fair, there is a sense that Iron Fist might be trying to avoid some of the more unfortunate subtext of the mythos. After all, one of the strongest criticisms of Iron Fist has been one of cultural appropriation. The fantasy of a white man who travels to a mysterious land, and learns its arts better than the local residents is very tired and cliché, offensive in this day and age. It makes sense for Iron Fist to try to side step that. However, side stepping that issue by embracing the cliché of the persecuted and victimised white man in a foreign land feels self-defeating.

The real problem with Iron Fist is more fundamental than this ill-judged tone. The simple fact is that Iron Fist has no clear direction and no sense of purpose. It also lacks a strong writers’ room. It has no creative vision. The writing on Iron Fist is uniformly terrible, and so many issues with the production can be traced back to the fact that the writing staff have no idea what they are doing or how exactly they want to do it. This explains the terrible dialogue, the tone deaf sequences, the avalanche of clichés, the dull repetition, the lack of internal coherence.

“You know, I always thought I’d become addicted to cocaine or horse tranquilisers.”

After all, Under Leaf Pluck Lotus is the episode in which Ward Meachum decides that it might be a good idea to try weapons grade heroin because Danny came into his office and left a sachet on his desk. This heroin addiction then serves to justify a whole host of plot-enabling erratic behaviour in episodes like The Blessing of Many Fractures and Bar the Big Boss. If the only way to hit those necessary plot beats is to get a major character miraculously hooked on heroin (and immediately clean off heroin) then maybe the writing staff needs a little work.

This is to say nothing of the internal inconsistencies. Episodes like Snow Gives Way and Under Leaf Pluck Lotus make a big deal of how Colleen Wing is struggling to keep the dojo afloat. In fact, her cage match fighting in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm is enabled by that financial necessity. However, it is subsequently revealed in Black Tiger Steals Heart that Colleen is a member of the Hand and there her dojo is a recruitment post. So why would the dojo ever need money, if it is bankrolled by the Hand?

Keeping it Hand-y.

The dialogue is woeful. In the closing scene of Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Madame Gao confronts the poor anonymous mook who witnessed Danny breaking “the chemist” out of Hand custody. “He punched through solid metal with his bare hands,” the goon reports. Gao studies the damage done to the truck. “His hand,” she idly muses. “Are you sure it wasn’t his fist?” While it is very clear what the show is getting to, to the point that it is surprising that Gao doesn’t say “… it wasn’t his IRON fist?”, it is still very clumsy. How does Gao people normally punch things?

Then again, this is a recurring issue with the Marvel Netflix shows. Not everybody can write for television, and so finding talented creators to curate intellectual property is a major concern. The first season of Daredevil got very lucky with its creative talent, when Drew Goddard was drafted in to oversee production. When Goddard moved on to greener pastures, he was succeeded by Steven DeKnight. Both Goddard and DeKnight are television veterans who understand how to write entertaining television.

No mean eat.

In contrast, later developments seemed to suggest that Marvel was skimping on the creative talent involved in these shows. The second season of Daredevil was overseen by Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, two writers with very limited experience outside of working on the first season of the show. The result was a very messy and uneven season of television, full of missed opportunities and poor decisions. However, the company has decided that Petrie and Ramirez should be the producers and writers tasked with overseeing The Defenders.

Iron Fist is overseen by producer Scott Buck. To be fair, Buck has a much broader pool of experience than Petrie and Ramirez. Notably, his previous creative experience involves work on hit shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter. However, Buck’s pedigree is less than perfect. Notably, Buck served as a writer and producer on the later seasons of Dexter, after the creative shine came off the show. Indeed, Buck was the showrunner on the critically-maligned and much-reviled final season of Dexter, which would make him a questionable choice for a series like this.

“You can’t just show up here like this, expecting…”
“Oh, don’t worry, Joy had no problem with me breaking into her house, and I didn’t even bring food that time.”

In fact, critics have been quick to single Buck out for criticism when it comes to that troubled final season. Dustin Rowles makes the case in a somewhat hyberbolic manner, when trying to pinpoint the individuals responsible for Dexter‘s decline:

Scott Buck was a writer on Six Feet Under, having joined that series in its second season (note: He was not part of the first season, one of the greatest seasons of television ever). He took over as showrunner in season six of Dexter, the Colin Hanks year, which you may recall was the second worst season until this final season came along. Why would Showtime entrust their highest-rated, most acclaimed series to the guy who wrote Tremors 4: The Legend Begins is a complete mystery to me. He, however, is clearly bad at his job, and should’ve been fired after season six. Either he had no interest in creating good television, or he simply doesn’t recognize good television. Whatever the case, he obviously did not put in the work and effort required of a show of Dexter’s caliber.

While Rowles might be making an over-emotive argument, the point stands. Buck hardly has the most compelling or convincing record in scripted television, especially as a showrunner. Buck seems a very poor choice to handle a concept as tricky as Iron Fist.

Picking at the Corp-se.

In some ways, this is a recurring problem with Marvel’s multimedia output. The company does not have the strongest track record for pursuing creative talent with the necessary vigour or enthusiasm. There are counter-examples, of course. Kenneth Branagh did great work on Thor, while Shane Black brought his own style to Iron Man III and James Gunn was an inspired choice for Guardians of the Galaxy. However, the corporate giant has never been particularly invested in creative personnel with strong storytelling sensibilities.

Jon Favreau parted ways with Marvel over Iron Man II. Kenneth Branagh did not return to direct Thor: The Dark World, citing scheduling issues. Patty Jenkins signed on to the Thor sequel, only to drop out due to creative differences. Joss Whedon has talked at length about the difficulties in maintaining his own creative vision while working for the company. Ava DuVerney could not work out a way to direct Black Panther to her own satisfaction, although the company did eventually settle on Ryan Coogler.

“Yep, it’s gonna be one of those days.”

In contrast, Marvel has shown an interest in hiring television directors to work on their films. Joss Whedon had directed films like Serenity when he was tapped to direct The Avengers, but he was still known primarily as one of the industry’s first third-generation television writers. Thor: The Dark World was eventually directed by veteran Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor, who cited heavy studio interference. Before directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were known for their work on Community.

Part of this is rooted in budgetary concerns. Marvel is a notoriously cheap studio, despite its blockbuster output. It was suggested that Disney invested in the company precisely because Marvel Studios could “make a great looking movie for a fraction of the price of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.” The cast of The Avengers had to fight tooth-and-nail for a salary bump after the original film broke records. Apparently this penny-pinching attitude almost forced Kevin Fiege’s resignation when Ike Perlmutter tried to cut corners on Captain America: Civil War.

A bloody mess.

Given all of these considerations, it makes sense that Marvel Studios has had trouble attracting (and keeping) top-notch creative talent. Writers are somewhat less high-profile than lead actors or performers, so they have less negotiating leverage. As such, it seems that Marvel and Netflix have had a great deal of trouble retaining creative personnel on the level of Drew Goddard and Steven DeKnight, who simply see better opportunities elsewhere. It seems fair to say that this stinginess is reflected in the quality of the product.

It could also be argued that this issue with the creative talent reflects a deeper issue with how Marvel Studios approaches its output. Much is made of how much Marvel Studios have carried over from the source comic books, in terms of storytelling and structure. The Avengers and The Defenders are essentially massive multi-character crossovers rendered in live action, while much is made of the continuity that ties various aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. These are concepts imported wholesale from the original material.

There is no Joy in this.

In some  ways, the actual creator responsible for a given episode or series doesn’t matter. Marvel Studios is more invested in the intellectual property and the brand than in any individual’s creative vision. It is an approach that has worked well, as Graeme McMillan argues:

So who is the author of a Marvel movie, if not the writer or the director? It’s tempting to make the case for the Marvel brand itself. It’s the name that audiences identify the movies with as a whole, and it’s the name that has come to define expectations for subsequent movies. We know what to expect from a Marvel movie, and we grade each new release against the Marvel movies that came before. In many ways, the Marvel brand is the most successful creation of Marvel Studios to date, achieving in less than a decade what took Pixar, Disney et al far longer to cement in the minds of their fan base.

This is something that feels carried from the comic books, where the demands of an individual writer or creative team are often secondary to concerns of the character or the universe. Audiences and readers tend to follow characters and brands, rather than writers.

Rose to the challenge.

Although this has arguably changed in recent years, comic books have long been predicated on the idea that an individual creator’s contributions are secondary to the work itself. Comic books would frequently change creative teams on the drop of the hat, with little rhyme or reason. Writers would find their work rewritten by editors at short notice. Even today, many creative runs are constantly interrupted by the demands of the latest universe-shattering crossover.

Many Golden Age stories were uncredited, or credited to the wrong people. Bob Kane’s “authorship” of Batman is one example, with the creator consciously downplaying (and ignoring) the contributions made by others to the character, especially Bill Finger. This attitude prevailed for a long time, perhaps most obviously in the way that Stan Lee came to overshadow (and arguably still overshadows) other contemporary comic book creators. Companies like Marvel were historically unwilling to recognise the contributions made by creators like Jack Kirby to their output.

“Um, Scott? This wasn’t what we had in mind when we said Iron Fist needed strong female heroin?”

Obviously, these cases all have very real financial and moral consequences for the people involved, but they do speak to a larger issue with how comic book companies (and comic book fans) approach this sort of material. There is a recurring suggestion that the intellectual property is far more important than the talent, or at least more indicative of quality. It is a dangerous and short-sighted perspective, one that ignores the reality that intellectual property is only as good as its most popular or iconic form.

Iron Fist is perhaps the zenith of this approach, as far as Marvel Studios are concerned. It is a television show that leans almost entirely upon the intellectual property to carry and support it. Iron Fist is important because it is based on the comic book character. Iron Fist is important because it leads into The Defenders. Iron Fist is important because it might provide some background material about the Hand. These are all arguments that the show seems to make for its own existence, none of which are argued on the merits of the show itself.

Holding a candle to Daredevil.

All of these arguments are perhaps best distilled in Finn Jones’ infamous defences of Iron Fist as a show that was meant “for the fans”:

“Well I think there’s multiple factors. What I will say is these shows are not made for critics, they are first and foremost made for the fans.

“I also think some of the reviews we saw were seeing the show through a very specific lens, and I think when the fans of the Marvel Netflix world and fans of the comic books view the show through the lens of just wanting to enjoy a superhero show, then they will really enjoy what they see.”

According to Jones’ logic, the appeal of Iron Fist is predicated upon pre-existing fandom. Iron Fist is not “for people who enjoy good television” or “for people who like good storytelling.”

“My mother says I cannot avoid meeting people like you…”
“Superheroes?”
“Entitled douchebags.”

It is a very narrow and short-sighted perspective, but it is an argument that explains a lot about Iron Fist. It explains why Marvel Studios would hire Scott Buck to oversee production, despite his spotty track record. It explains how these scripts made into production despite their myriad errors. It explains why Iron Fist settles for emulating Batman Begins and Daredevil instead of trying to do something unique or interesting with its core concept. It is an argument that explains why Iron Fist always follows the path of least resistance.

The best moments in Iron Fist come when the characters flirt with self-awareness of the crummy narrative in which they have found themselves. It might be impossible to make sense of Ward Meachum’s character arc, but there is something oddly endearing in his suggestion that only way to get through the season is to get hooked on weapon’s grade heroin and passive-aggressively snark at the ridiculous plot developments. Confronted by Bakuto with a conveniently magical cure for heroin addiction in Bar the Big Boss, Ward rolls his eyes. The audience can empathise.

We are all Ward.

It’s hard not feel a pang of sympathy for the characters caught in this uncaring narrative, and imposisble to condemn their efforts to escape it.

“great new product” “estimated triple profit” “hitting the market in two weeks.” “overing security and versitility.” “it’s one-hundred percent pure, one-hundred percent of the time”

(“If you broke him.”)

“It’s spewing poison into the air, the ground, everything around us.” Victims. Rand Industries.

Danny. Entitled. “I ordered take out.” “I’m in the middle of a lesson.” … “You cannot just show up here with all this stuff expecting…”

What exactly did Danny expect in the trucks? Surely the wooden frame inside the last truck was a dead giveaway?

“Give me your credit card.” “Whatever it costs.”

 

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