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Iron Fist – Felling Tree With Roots (Review)

Danny Rand is perhaps the biggest problem with Iron Fist.

In many ways, Danny is really just an extrapolation of the kind of live action comic book hero seen in Daredevil and Batman Begins, the angsty young man with father issues who struggles to get past his own dysfunction to become the hero that the city (if not the world) needs at this exact moment. Danny is full of emotional turmoil, with Iron Fist revelling in his insecurities and uncertainties. Even when he succeeds, the show makes a point to stress how incredibly difficult it is to be Danny Rand.

Sleeping beauty.

This feels ill-judged on several levels. Finn Jones lacks the sort of nuance and ability that is necessary to bring that sort of mopey self-centred sulking to life in an engaging manner. Jones is no Charlie Cox, and he’s certainly no Christian Bale. However, Iron Fist itself also struggles to properly capture the right tone. Immortal Emerges From Cave ends with Danny saving an innocent life, but he spends Felling Tree With Roots whining about it. The loss of K’un Lun in Dragon Plays With Fire is treated as something that affects Danny more than its residents.

Ironically, the Iron Fist himself seems to be the weakest aspect of Iron Fist.

Her Hand-iwork.

Tone is very much an issue here. Iron Fist never entirely settles upon a consistent characterisation of Danny Rand, let alone a consistent set of motivations. When Danny returns to New York in Snow Gives Way, he immediately sets about trying to reclaim his father’s billion-dollar company. However, his motivations are never clearly outlined. Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch discards money as a motivation, but also makes a point to stress that Danny is fighting for a billion-dollar stake over a hundred-million-dollar settlement.

The closest that Iron Fist comes to explaining Danny’s motivations is to suggest that Danny is driven by the belief that he is entitled to his share of the company. Danny wants the company because it belonged to his father, and so it should be his inheritance. He does not have a clear vision for what the company to do, nor a clear list of how Joy and Ward Meachum have betrayed his father’s ambitions. All that Danny knows is that his name is on the building and therefore he owns it. Danny might be legally entitled to that, but it is not a compelling narrative hook.

Badge of honour.

To be fair to Danny, Iron Fist suggests that the character is well-intentioned on a case-by-case basis. His desire to sell life-saving drugs at cost in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm is certainly laudable and serves as effective shorthand that Danny is a decent human being. Similarly, his genuine apology to those affected by chemicals from the Rand Industries plant in Under Leaf Pluck Locus and his desire to close the planet down (while paying staff) to support an investigation in Felling Tree With Roots also make it clear that Danny means well. It’s clumsy, but it’s effective.

None of this gets past the basic issue of Danny’s sense of entitlement that runs through the thirteen-episode season. In Snow Gives Way, Danny breaks into Joy’s home and into Ward’s car. He is motivated by the fact that he really is Danny Rand, and that Joy is living in a house that used to belong to him. It does not matter that there are better ways to make the point, and Iron Fist never calls him out on this. Danny acts as if he is entitled to anything he wants, without having to justify it to others. It is suggested that prestige is his motivation for becoming Iron Fist.

Pointing fingers.

He behaves in a similar manner towards Colleen. He shows up at her dojo uninvited in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, which is arguably justifiable given that he needs refuge and has nowhere else to go. However, he also presumes to teach a class at the dojo and to physically discipline a student without Colleen’s awareness or consent. Again, he seems blissfully unaware that he has crossed any lines or done anything that could be considered unreasonable. At worst, he is sorry for beating the student, not for presuming to supplant Colleen as teacher.

This entitlement bubbles to the surface in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus. While Colleen is instructing Claire Temple, Danny shows up uninvited with an overly elaborate meal from his father’s favourite restaurant complete with table, chairs, and wait staff. “I ordered take out,” Danny informs her. Colleen protests, “I’m in the middle of a lesson.” Danny doesn’t care. Colleen starts to object to Danny’s entitlement, “You cannot just show up here with all this stuff expecting…” However, once it’s made clear that Danny has no romantic intentions, the matter is dropped.

Broken Wing.

To be fair, it initially seems like Claire and Colleen are aware and upset by Danny’s actions. Claire makes a point to stay around, gatecrashing the meal. Danny objects, but Colleen insists. Over the course of the meal, Danny says nothing that would reassure any reasonable person. However, Claire decides to bail, leaving Colleen and Danny alone with one another. Again, Iron Fist seems oblivious to Danny’s entitlement issues. The series accepts that his behaviour is a little odd, but he is mostly harmless.

This issues is compounded by the fact that Danny decides to buy the lease on Colleen’s dojo. He does not gift the lease to her, although one imagines that it would be chump change to him. Instead, he uses the purchase and the takeaway as emotional leverage to blackmail Colleen into helping him mount a reconnaissance mission down at the docks where the Hand are planning to smuggle something into the country. When Colleen hesitates, Danny reassures her that she can forget about this month’s rent.

“Oh, hey. The Iron Fist reviews are out. We should check them out.”

It is a very cringy portrayal of Danny Rand, one that is incredibly self-centred and unaware. Danny is repeatedly oblivious to anything beyond his own feelings. When Davos makes a perfectly reasonable point that Danny abandoned K’un Lun in Bar the Big Boss, Danny responds by half-heartedly apologising for the hurt that he personally caused to Davos and refusing to accept responsibility. Danny seems completely oblivious to the fact that he took on important social role that came with a set of clearly articulated social responsibilities.

Iron Fist invests a lot in what Danny wants and what Danny deserves. Danny might be willing to cut profits to ensure that poor people can get medicine in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, but he also ensures that he has a stylish (and expensive) ride in Immortal Emerges From Cave. In fact, Ward Meachum seems impressed at how quickly Danny has embraced the materialist trappings of a corporate executive. “Monastery boy in an Aston Martin,” Ward reflects. There is a sense that Danny’s projected decency is as much an affectation as the sports car.

Taking the matter in Hand.

Finn Jones has argued that part of backlash against Iron Fist is rooted in this precise cultural moment, in the general frustration with the excess and indulgence of Donald Trump:

“I think the world has changed a lot since we were filming that television show,” he said. “I’m playing a white American billionaire superhero, at a time when the white American billionaire archetype is public enemy number one, especially in the US.

“We filmed the show way before Trump’s election, and I think it’s very interesting to see how that perception, now that Trump’s in power, how it makes it very difficult to root for someone coming from white privilege, when that archetype is public enemy number one.”

While Jones is discounting the other myriad problems with Iron Fist, he might have something resembling a point. Donald Trump has dominated public discourse, ensuring that everything is seen as a reflection or commentary.

Cutting retort.

Still, Jones is being overly simplistic. It is entirely possible to tell a story about a rich white man who lives a life of sheltered privilege and becomes a superhero. Just look at The LEGO Batman Movie, a film that was produced before Trump’s election and released after he was sworn into office. The film has met with positive reviews and box office success, demonstrating that it is not impossible to use that archetype to tell an engaging and likeable story within the current political climate. In fact, The LEGO Batman Movie has even been read as a metaphor on Trump.

To be fair, even if Iron Fist was produced before Trump’s election, there is no excuse for the awkward and entitled portrayal of the title character. It isn’t as though Danny’s behaviour would have been perfectly fine on 20 January 2016. Even if this problem is magnified by the heightened awareness of these issues in the age of Donald Trump, it was always baked into the core concept of Iron Fist. The production team could have chosen to deal with it, but instead chose to let it fester.

Tree’s company.

After all, Christopher Nolan was tasked with adapting a similar superhero in his Batman trilogy. Like Danny Rand, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire industrialist with daddy issues. However, Nolan was smart enough to understand the politics at work beneath the archetype. Batman Begins explained clearly why Bruce wanted to reclaim Wayne Enterprises. Class was a major thematic point in The Dark Knight Rises. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises made a conscious effort to separate Bruce from his inheritance for an extended period.

It should be noted that Christopher Nolan produced these films long before Donald Trump took the political stage. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were released during the tenure of President George W. Bush, before Trump had even entered the political arena with his racist “birther” nonsense. Even removed from that context, Christopher Nolan understand the challenges posed by the politics of entitlement and made a conscious choice to explore them in his films. It could be argued that The Dark Knight Rises has aged phenomenally.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Madame.”

With that in mind, there is no defence for this clumsiness. Bruce Wayne’s relationship to his family company was a subplot in a two-hour movie, but it still dealt with the issue of wealth and class and entitlement more thoughtfully than Iron Fist, which devoted the bulk of its first four hours to that plot threat. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, Iron Fist would still have these problems and could still have chosen very easily to explore and to disentangle them. The failings here rest entirely with the Iron Fist writing staff.

Even looking at Iron Fist itself, it is hard to argue that Danny Rand’s biggest problem is the election of Donald Trump. After all, Iron Fist features a set of characters who are also billionaires and who are a lot more fun that the title character. Harold Meachum is arguably even more of a Trump archetype than Danny Rand, a blonde and increasing deranged billionaire who has left his company to be managed by his children while he serves a higher calling. Ward Meachum is just as entitled as Danny, only Iron Fist understands that his entitlement is not lovable.

Brother in arms.

To be fair, Iron Fist struggles with Meachums for extended periods of the run. The Meachums are arguably even more central to the boring corporate shenanigans that bog down the season than Danny is. At least Danny occasionally gets to compete in a kung fu tournament in a dilapidated old warehouse, while Ward and Joy spend most of their scenes on boring old office sets plotting to either protect or reclaim a billion-dollar company with a very vague mandate. Iron Fist gives Joy little to do, and sends Ward off on ridiculous soap opera plot tangents.

And, yet, in spite of that, the Meachums are far more interesting than anything involving the Hand or Danny Rand. Their messed up familial relationship often veers into pure soap opera, but there is something strangely alluring in that. There is some truth in the old cliché that comic book superhero stories are often “soap operas for boys.” Nobody knew that better than Chris Claremont, the writer whose run is a (strangely and inexplicably) formative influence on Iron Fist.

Joint venture.

Iron Fist fails to properly cast Danny in a kung fu action movie, but it successfully casts the Meachums in a ridiculously heightened soap opera. There are betrayals and schemes, drug addictions and rehabilitations, murders and resurrections. The Meachum plotline could easily have appeared on Days of Our Lives. It is not necessarily good television, but it is strangely compelling television in its own weird and dysfunctional way. For all the other problems with Iron Fist, the show’s biggest issue is that it’s boring. The Meachums are not boring.

It helps that Harold and Ward Meachum actually do a better job of playing through stock superhero tropes than Danny himself. Harold is a ridiculously terrible father figure, with Iron Fist making a few thinly veiled references to his own troubled childhood in episodes like Shadow Hawk Takes Flight and Dragon Plays With Fire. He honestly does not care about Ward or Joy beyond their immediate utility to him. There is something endearingly blunt about how self-centred Harold is, how transparent all of his manipulations actually are.

“Yeah, but hear me out… what if there was MORE boring office meeting room stuff?”

At the start of Felling Tree With Roots, Harold confronts two goons from the Hand. They threaten to cut off one of his fingers. He tells an obvious and easily disprovable lie. However, to make the lie slightly more convincing, he adds, “I swear on the lives of my children, I have nothing to do with Danny Rand.” When he asks Ward to help him clean up after murdering the goons, he compares it to that time they went hunting. “We never went hunting,” Ward corrects him. Covered in blood, Harold offers a half-hearted shrug. “Maybe it was your sister.”

The abusive dynamic between Harold and Ward, in which Harold treats Ward as nothing more than a tool, is obviously designed to mirror the abusive relationship that Immortal Emerges From Cave established between Danny and Lei Kung. “You are my creation,” Harold warns Ward. “You belong to me. Never forget it.” Lei Kung also used the word “belong” to describe his relationship to Danny in Immortal Emerges From Cave, setting up that very clear parallel.

Father knows best.

The problem is that Harold and Ward are much better developed than Danny and Lei Kung. Lei Kung only ever appears in the show as a projection of Danny’s subconscious, or as a character referenced in conversation. The Meachum family dynamic is meaty and melodramatic, offering something into which audience and actors might sink their teeth. Even when the scripts have no idea what these characters are doing on a scene-to-scene basis, they are at least interesting to watch.

A large part of this is down to the two performances. Tom Pelphrey is delightfully engaging as Ward Meachum. Pelphrey is a veteran of American soap operas like Guiding Light and As the World Turns, so he attunes himself very skilfully to the tone of the show. Taken as a whole, Ward Meachum’s arc plays like a black comedy. The heightened string of seemingly unrelated events unleashed upon Ward make him seem almost like a character raging at the heavens for the absurd narrative inflicted upon him.

A bloody mess.

There is something delightful in Ward’s middle-finger salute to the powers that be in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus or his exasperation at trying to load two bodies into his sedan in Felling Tree With Roots. Watching the show as a binge experience, Ward’s increasing frustration and exasperation resonate with the audience. Bakuto shows up at his bedside in Bar the Big Boss, informing the young executive, “I am from the Hand.” Ward throws his head back and rolls his eyes, more exhausted than frightened. “Oh sh!t.” Yep, just what the show needs, more Hand.

Wenham is similarly effective. Harold Meachum is by some distance the weakest primary antagonist of any of the Marvel Netflix shows, although he remains more effective than Diamondback. Wenham never seems too concerned with consistency of character, instead embracing every opportunity that the show offers him to chew down on the scenery. The Mistress of All Agonies suggests that the process of death and resurrection might have driven Harold insane. It is not a satisfying character motivation, but Wenham has a lot of fun with the idea.

Gotta get the Gipper.

It helps that Wenham is clearly enjoying himself, right down to pitching the character’s accent as a deranged Ronald Reagan. Wenham speaks fondly of his experiences being recruited to join the show:

I was in Sweden, and it got a phone call from Jeph Loeb, telling me about and asking me if I’d like to be involved in this particular project. It was about a half-hour conversation where Jeph basically talked about the world of Marvel, the Marvel universe. Then, the story of Iron Fist, which I wasn’t familiar at the time.

His conversation for half an hour had me sort of floating in air in Sweden. He said, “would you like to be involved.” He couldn’t tell me exactly what my character did. He said, “But, trust me. You’ll have an amazing time. Then I agreed. I flew from Sweden back to Australia, packed a bag, and then flew out to New York. Began an adventure, not even knowing what I was diving in to. The world of Marvel is more secret than Donald Trump’s tax returns. It’s like, you just have to trust him.

I play Harold Meachum. I play Ward’s father. Harold was a business partner with Danny Rand’s father. They have a corporation called Rand. He’s a very wealthy, powerful individual. That was fun to play, because I’m not.

Wenhamhad a great deal of fun working on Iron Fist, a playfulness that comes out in interviews. Asked about the show’s stunts, he quipped, “I did basically everything; I did most of my walking and talking myself.”

Hammering out some differences.

Wenham pitches Harold as a delightful camp antagonist. Nobody in the Iron Fist cast can perform half as well while splattered in blood. Although Harold is really just a collection of stock “bad dad” and “evil industrialist” archetypes, Wenham gives him a little bit of an edge. There is a strange charge to his interactions with Gao in Rolling Thunder Dragon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, along with is belt-slapping flirtation with Kyle in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. Harold is a weirdly magnetic presence, largely thanks to Wenham’s performance.

Iron Fist is a mess, and the Meachums are also a mess. However, at least the Meachums are fun. That is more than can be said for Iron Fist. Or Iron Fist, for that matter.

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

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