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Iron Fist – Lead Horse Back to Stable (Review)

K’un Lun is a notable void at the heart of Iron Fist, even before the closing moments of Dragon Plays With Fire.

There are any number of terrible mistakes that were made during the production of Iron Fist, fundamental flaws that could easily have been avoided by a more competent and committed creative team. The series was assigned a showrunner with a horrific track record. The production team cast a lead actor without any raw charisma and who was incapable of doing his own stunts, while refusing to put the character in a mask. The series focused more on board room antics than kung fu fun. The Hand were used as the primary antagonist.

You shall not pass.

However, one of the most grating disappointments is the simple fact that a lot of the really fun and interesting stuff about Danny Rand happens long before he stumbles back into New York in Snow Gives Way. There is a solid argument to be made that Danny Rand is a third- or fourth-tier comic book character, but there undeniable cool parts of the Iron Fist mythos. None of them take place in the offices of Rand Industries. Iron Fist is the story of a man who gained his power by punching a dragon in a heart. Whatever an adaptation of Iron Fist should be, it should never be boring.

And, yet, for whatever reason, the first season of Iron Fist makes a point to consciously shoot around the more impressive and distinctive parts of the Iron Fist mythos, reducing its title character to a cut-rate (and ironically trust-fund) Matt Murdock. Danny left K’un Lun behind, and it was a terrible mistake.

The watcher on the pass.

A lot of the problems with Iron Fist boil down to the fact that the series is essentially a half-hearted cover version of Daredevil. A young man skilled with martial arts is raised as a living weapon against the Hand, and takes on ninjas in contemporary New York. On top of that, there is a lots of brooding and surprisingly serious aesthetic for a series about a secret ninja death cult at work on Manhattan. None of this is particularly original in the context of pulp fiction, but it’s particularly uninspiring as part of the lead-in to The Defenders.

Iron Fist lacks a sense of distinctive flavour or identity, something that sets it apart from every other superhero story to hit these gritty urban beats and from Daredevil in particular. Danny doesn’t even have a costume, just a cheesy special effect that causes his fist to glow once or twice an episode. This is particularly frustrating, because the Iron Fist mythos quite plainly has these distinctive elements. There are any number of problems with Iron Fist as a comic book, but having a dull back story is not one of them.

Glowing enthusiasm.

After all, Danny Rand was a kid who was stranded in the Himalayas following the death of his parents and taken in by a bunch of monks in the mystical city of K’un Lun. Once there, he trained in the art of combat and rose to become champion. He eventually wrestled a dragon, plunging his hand into its heart and making his fist “a thing like unto iron.” There are undoubtedly issues with cultural appropriation and cliché in that origin, but damn is it doesn’t sound more impressive than “beats up some guys in a hall” or “beats up some guys in a warehouse.”

Iron Fist largely eschews these trappings. The series begins with Danny returning to New York to reclaim his company, which is kind of like opening a Superman movie with Clark Kent researching his thesis on Edward R. Murrow. The series goes through three whole episodes of Danny fighting for control of a billion-dollar company and trying to prove to the other characters that he is totally the lead character in this thirteen-episode series. It is the weakest part of Batman Begins, with a much weaker cast.

There’s going to be bloody murder.

In contrast, Danny makes repeated allusion and reference to the finer points of the Iron Fist mythos. There are lots of winks and nods that fans will recognise, delivered in cringe-inducing exposition. When Colleen threatens that he’ll soon know what a practice sword to the side of his face would feel like in Snow Gives Way, he replies, “I already do. Ask Master Lei Kung the Thunderer.” While in an institution in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, Danny talks about “the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.”

Danny is full of little stories about K’un Lun. In Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, he talks to Joy about being a “xiaoguilao” in this magical city. In Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, he boasts to Claire and Colleen about how “sometimes [he’d] sneak out with [his] friend Davos” to “go eat donkey.” In Immortal Emerges From Cave, he boasts about how he “had the fastest donkey cart in K’un-Lun.” In Lead Horse Back to Stable, Danny and Davos joke about witnessing Lei Kung’s “private meditations” in the nude.

Bakuto to basics.

These are all little details designed to add texture to Danny Rand’s history and back story, but they also feel like clunky exposition. Iron Fist is telling rather than showing. To be fair, there are ways to make this kind of storytelling work, most notably by entrusting this exposition to an actor who can convey the appropriate sense of second-hand awe through his performance. However, Finn Jones is not that performer. The weakest of the Marvel Netflix leads by a considerable distance, he makes K’un Lun sound like a rather dreary gap year.

Over the course of Iron Fist, the audience gets to see very little of K’un Lun and its inhabitants. The only named characters from K’un Lun are Lei Kung the Thunderer and Davos. Lei Kung appears as an hallucination inside Danny’s head in Immortal Emerges From Cave, but never outside of that episode. As such, he feels more like a (literal) projection than an actual character. Davos first appears in The Mistress of All Agonies and is properly introduced in Black Tiger Steals Heart, but is primarily set up as a villainous tease for the second season.

Family misfortunes.

Similarly, the audience rarely gets a chance to actually look inside K’un Lun. Iron Fist repeatedly cuts back to the plane crash (and its immediate aftermath) in Snow Gives Way and Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, most likely because those were very expensive scenes and the production team wanted to get their money’s worth. However, the only real glimpse of life inside K’un Lun comes from a quick cut of Danny being beaten by the monks in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, in which one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven looks… like a nondescript room.

Lead Horse Back to Stable takes the audience closer to K’un Lun than any other episode. It opens with Davos finding a Danny in the wilderness, immediately after Danny wrestled with Shou-Lao the Undying. There are also any number of short scenes of Danny’s life outside K’un Lun, guarding the pass into the city. The stony pass is very clearly a studio set, but it has a certain cheesy appeal. It looks like something from Star Trek, which fits nicely with the kung fu b-movie aesthetic. However, K’un Lun remains a spectre in the distance, a CGI rendering.

Snow way back.

Even allowing for the fact that Danny’s training at K’un Lun took place before the opening scenes of Snow Gives Way, there are ways in which the production team could work the concept into the show, if they so desired. Jessica Jones was arguably more of a superhero retirement story than a superhero origin story, but still found an excuse to delve into Jessica’s history in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me and AKA I’ve Got the Blues. Luke Cage began with its hero fully formed, but flashed back to his origin for a blaxploitation tribute in Step in the Arena.

Even Daredevil indulged in non-linear storytelling, sprinkling snippets of the character’s history and back story into episodes like Into the Ring, Cut Man, Stick, Nelson v. Murdock and Kinbaku. It is entirely possible for Iron Fist to tell a flashback story about K’un Lun. Not only has Danny been trained in K’un Lun, but Madame Gao claims to have spent time in the city. There is certainly fodder for exploration, particularly given that so much of Danny’s history is rooted in the place and his single biggest character-driving decision was made by reference to it.

A little tied up right now.

This has very severe storytelling implications for the closing scene of Dragon Plays With Fire, when Danny and Colleen discover that K’un Lun has gone missing. In theory, this should be devastating. Not only has Danny failed in literally his only responsibility as Iron Fist, but an entire city full of people has spontaneously disappeared. This should seem catastrophic. However, because Iron Fist never bothers to establish K’un Lun as a place that actually exists with a real texture, it seems like an abstract concept at best.

To be fair, there are any number of reasons why Iron Fist might opt to avoid spending too much time in K’un Lun. The most artistically credible reason is rooted in storytelling, assuming that the exclusion of K’un Lun was intended to make the story better. There is certainly an argument for this in the abstract. After all, the series spends a whole three episodes with Danny desperately asserting his identity to his childhood friends and to certified mental health professionals. Keeping K’un Lun out of the show might have been intended to seed doubt.

It’s smart-cas Friday at the Hand.

After all, Danny is consigned to a psychiatric institution in Shadow Hawk Takes Flight, in which he finds himself forced to assert his own identity and sanity. (“I am Danny Rand! I don’t care what you think!”) It might have been fun to play with the idea that this whole mystical thing was all in Danny’s head. Indeed, it might help Danny to integrate better with more ground characters like Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, who are a step removed from mystical ninjas. If Marvel Netflix is so committed to grim and gritty that would be one way to do it.

There is certainly precedent. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch introduced Thor that way in The Ultimates, suggesting that the character was really a delusional hippie with advanced technology rather than a literal deity. It was a nice way to integrate Thor with more grounded figures like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and set-up a a very nice reveal at the end of the second miniseries. Given the influence that The Ultimates has had on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would fit neatly with Iron Fist, perhaps setting up that validation for the end of The Defenders.

Call it a wash.

Of course, if this is the storytelling justification for keeping K’un Lun so sidelined, the writing staff bungle it repeatedly. On a superficial level, the show is called Iron Fist. These shows are not so subversive that the audience would ever believe Danny Rand is genuinely crazy, which would undercut his arc. More than that, Snow Gives Way and Shadow Hawk Takes Flight show flashbacks of Danny’s origin in a way that makes it quite clear that it objectively happened. The audience is never meant to doubt Danny, never meant to question him.

(Iron Fist is clear on this point. Danny loses access to the Iron Fist in Black Tiger Steals Heart when he doubts himself. More than that, the show never calls Danny out on his sense of entitlement or responsibility whenever anything goes wrong. Danny is never challenged for breaking into Joy’s home in Snow Gives Way or just showing up to Colleen’s gym during her lessons in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus. When Danny loses his temper in The Blessing of Many Fractures, he receives a light rebuke. Davos’ temper in Bar the Big Boss foreshadows his looming villainy.)

“Do you have a license?”
“No, but it’s different. I’m rich. And white.”

So, if K’un Lun is not left out for storytelling reasons, why else would it be excluded? The most plausible and pragmatic reason is simple economics. Creating a plausible depiction of K’un Lun and Shou-Lao the Undying would cost money. Finn Jones suggested that this money was not in the budget:

I’d love to have the budget for these shows to have a full-on Game of Thrones style dragon. But unfortunately you know, we have budget restraints. That’s the nature of the show. We do allude to it in Iron Fist, in a very intelligent way. And definitely in The Defenders… but I think, you know, we’ve got to be realistic.

This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the Marvel Netflix shows have been relatively light on “showy” computer-generated imagery and primary filmed in and around New York. More than that, by all accounts the production of Iron Fist was quite rushed, a fact demonstrated even in the choreography.

Robed of his rightful place.

At the same time, there is a sense that the production team have only themselves to blame. Netflix can do epic large-scale productions. Marco Polo filmed in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malysia for a scale worthy of a mid-level feature film. Netflix can also do impressive special effects. Stranger Things brought its “demogorgon” to life through a mix of practical effects and computer-generated imagery. Netflix can even do hyperstylised storytelling. A Series of Unfortunate Events eschewed realism in favour of painted backdrops from John E. Wilcox.

Indeed, looking at Iron Fist, it is hard to see where the show’s budget went. Filming in New York is expensive, but the rest of the budget never shows up on screen. It lacks a salary-sapping headline star. David Wenham is pretty great, but his star is certainly not on par with other Netflix Marvel regulars like Vincent D’Onofrio, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, David Tennant, or Jon Berenthal. He arguably wouldn’t compare to guest stars like William Forsythe or Clancy Brown. Similarly, Finn Jones seems unlikely to have demanded an exuberant fee.

A legacy in tatt(oo)-ers.

The stunt choreography does not seem to have been top of the line. The soundtrack is nowhere near as flash as Luke Cage. The practical in-camera effects are less demanding than either Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. With the exception of RZA, the directors are on Iron Fist arguably less “hot” than other Marvel Netflix directors like Paul McGuigan, Guillermo Navarro, Vincenzo Natali or Floria Sigismondi. Similarly, it is hard to imagine that Scott Buck was a more expensive investment than Drew Goddard had been.

And yet Iron Fist appears horrifically, dramatically, embarrassingly cheap. This is most notable in the middle of the season. In Immortal Emerges From Cave, the Hand stage their martial arts tournament in the same warehouse that has appeared in most other Marvel Netflix shows, although they do spring for some nifty banners and atmospheric lighting along with a dry ice machine and torn bed sheets. In The Blessing of Many Fractures, Danny takes a trip to a version of China that looks like something from a syndicated nineties adventure series.

Staying sharp.

Indeed, a lot of Iron Fist looks horribly, datedly, painfully nineties: the awkward nostalgic flashbacks to Danny’s childhood with the Meachum’s in Snow Gives Way; the weird blurry lens flare approach that Iron Fist uses to transition into flashback; the accompanying flashback sound cue to ensure that even the most televisually illiterate audience member understands that it is a flashback. Iron Fist might have been a passable television series in the middle of the last decade of the twentieth century, but it is embarrassing this far into the twenty-first century.

As such, it’s very hard to see where the budget actually went. Unless the budget was dramatically lower than the budget on the three other Marvel shows, Iron Fist drastically misinvested the money invested in it. The most expensive shot special effects shot in the series is the plane crash that is endlessly recycled in Snow Gives Way and Shadow Hawk Takes Flight. However, the attention lavished on the plane crash misses the point. This is the least interesting aspect of Danny Rand’s origin. Dead parents are a dime a dozen. Punchable, undying dragons? That’s the key.

K’unning plans.

As with a lot of the first season of Iron Fist, this feels like a painfully mismanaged investment of time and money. The production team should have started with the important things and worked backwards. Getting the kung fu right should have been more important than shoehorning in the Hand. Having a lead character who could convincingly do impressive stunts should have been more important than casting a guy from Game of Thrones and eschewing the superhero mask.

Showing K’un Lun and Shou-Lao the Undying, adding texture that distinguishes Danny Rand and makes him more than a knock-off Matt Murdock? That is important to the point of being essential. That is certainly more important than any number of other things that made it into the show: (a.) a run of thirteen episodes, (b.) that footage of Heather Rand getting sucked out of the plane, (c.) any scene set at Rand Industries. Even if the result is a two-hour television movie with the outline of a dragon, it is preferable to thirteen episodes without K’un Lun or Shou-Lao.

Parking their ideas.

Then again, there is another reason that the production team might have wanted to avoid excessive focus on life in K’un Lun. There were early suggestions that the company was unsure exactly how much it wanted to commit to the mysticism built into the character’s background. As early as July 2015, Devin Faraci reported internal disagreement:

What I’m hearing is that Marvel still hasn’t decided what the direction of the show will be. They’ve brought in a lot of people to pitch, and have been having a lot of discussions, but so far nothing has stuck. My understanding is that one of the big hold-ups is the mystical element, with lots of different opinions on just how much weird wuxia to bring in to the show. I don’t know if there are other arguments about the race of the character, although I do hope they’re considering how to best proceed with that.

It is entirely possible that the shift in focus away from K’un Lun is the result of a conscious decision on the part of the production team, rather than a result of budgetary concerns. Certainly, the way that Iron Fist addresses K’un Lun feels like exactly the sort of false compromise that results from these sorts of executive level discussions: okay, you can mention K’un Lun all you want, but you can’t actually show it.

All good in the wood?

Outside of budget, there are lots of reasons why certain creative personnel would want to downplay the emphasis on K’un Lun and the more mystical aspects of the Iron Fist mythos. After all, Iron Fist was a hugely controversial series from almost the moment that it was announced, touching up notions of cultural appropriation and white saviours. Executives were likely anxious to avoid fanning those particular flames, and perhaps hoped that if Iron Fist anchored its story in New York that the conversation might just go away. Suffice to say, it did not go away.

(Indeed, it honestly seems like the production of Iron Fist was a result of poor decision-making and spectacular disorganisation. While Luke Cage was organised so far ahead of time that the production team could slip a teaser post-credit stinger on to the last episode of the second season of Daredevil, A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, there were early rumours that Marvel was considering scrapping Iron Fist entirely in favour of a show starring Jon Berenthal as Frank Castle. That ultimately proved not to be the case, but it suggests a troubled production.)

Danny Rand, moral pillar.

If the decision to de-emphasise K’un Lun was a conscious effort to downplay the more troubling aspects of Iron Fist, it was a curiously misguided one. After all, the Asian stereotypes are still baked into the premise of the show. More than that, Marvel and Netflix seem to have settled upon the Hand as the opponent of choice for The Defenders. Even if Iron Fist makes a conscious effort to pull back on the “ninja cult” aspects of the Hand, they are still a hotbed of Orientalist clichés. Madame Gao still speaks in fortune cookie riddles, and the Hand are still defined largely as Asian.

More to the point, de-emphasising K’un Lun means that Iron Fist instead channels its vague pseudo-Asian philosophy through a blonde white guy who doesn’t respect the customs of his adoptive home enough to actually do the job he volunteered to do. Danny comes across as a tourist who just so happened to take the Iron Fist home with him from a world tour. If the lack of focus on K’un Lun was meant to shift attention away from the stereotype of magical Asians, it instead forced Iron Fist to turn towards a white billionaire as an authority on Asian tradition and history.

Easy Chi-sy!

Danny comes across as a gap year student who spent a summer in Thailand, performative in his appreciation of Asian philosophy with actually understanding it or engaging with it. Danny will happily stage a very showy “Buddhist tradition” on Joy’s doorstep in Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, but he will also brag about sneaking out of the monastery to eat meat in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus. Aside from his entitlement, one of Danny’s defining character traits seems to be wrapping himself in the trappings of Asian culture without any actual commitment.

(This is somewhat literalised in Danny’s inability to adhere to any of the vows that he makes over the course of the series. He acknowledges his “vow of chastity” in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, but takes the first opportunity to sleep with Colleen in Felling Tree With Roots; somewhat awkwardly, though he is a virgin, it is Danny who insists on asking Colleen, “You sure?” Similarly, Davos explains in Lead Horse Back to Stable that Danny took the vow to protect K’un Lun and just ran away to New York at the first opportunity. Danny is not the most committed character.)

Calire’s acerbic commentary has Danny in stitches.

The result is to push Asian characters and Asian voices to the fringe of a narrative that borrows gleefully (and clumsily) from a variety of Asian cultures. The narrative’s refusal to ground Danny’s experiences in any context means that most of the Asian voices in the narrative are positioned in conflict with him. Davos is introduced so he can become an enemy in a hypothetical second season. Madame Gao is a mystical Chinese immortal. Lei Kung is a figment of Danny’s imagination. Even Colleen Wing is a member of the Hand who needs Danny to open her eyes.

The treatment of K’un Lun is the ultimate extension of this exoticism of Asian culture. It is not a city that exists in its own right or to its own ends. It is not a place with a texture or identity of its own. It is an entire mystical Asian kingdom that exists only through the prism of Danny Rand, to provide him with kick-ass skills and ambiguous back story. Even in the closing moments of the series, as Colleen and Danny trek through the pass, K’un Lun seems to exist primarily to serve as character motivation for Danny heading into The Defenders.

Well, that’s one way to make sure somebody gets through the whole season.

When it comes to the issue of cultural appropriation, the Iron Fist mythos was on shaky ground to begin with. However, the creative decisions and emphasis of the show only compound these preexisting issues, rather than either working around them or even subverting them. It serves to bring the issue of appropriation to the fore, making it something impossible to ignore in discussions of the show. Iron Fist does not attempt to atone for or even gloss over its original sin. Instead, it commits to it.

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

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