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The Defenders – Ashes, Ashes (Review)

As much as The Defenders is hobbled by the Hand, it is also handicapped by Iron Fist.

It is very clear that the production team heading into The Defenders intended for Iron Fist to be a springboard to the crossover, to move the last pieces into place before the big event miniseries. After all, Iron Fist was heavily marketted as “the Last Defender.” More than that, the series devoted pretty much all of its thirteen-episode runtime to fleshing out the Hand, the secretive ninja cult that would serve as the primary antagonists of The Defenders. There was a clear sense that the production team saw Iron Fist as something of an extended lead-in to The Defenders.

Sorry, Danny. But it’s true.

There was just one problem with all of this. Iron Fist was terrible. By all accounts, the show was the result of a rushed production cycle that explains some of the shoddiness in terms of practical effects and direction, but its biggest problems were more fundamental than that. Finn Jones was the weakest series lead of the Marvel Netflix series by a considerable distance. Scott Buck was the weakest lead writer on a Marvel Netflix series by a considerable distance. The result was a car crash of a television series.

Given that this car crash was intended to serve as the lead-in to The Defenders, this causes significant problems for the sprawling eight-episode crossover.

Luke is a real hero.

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Iron Fist – Dragon Plays With Fire (Review)

With Dragon Plays With Fire, it is almost as though Iron Fist remembered that it had its own story to wrap up and that it was not simply a lead-in to The Defenders.

The bulk of Iron Fist has been dedicated to setting up characters and concepts for use in The Defenders. Most notably, the series has devoted a lot of attention to developing the Hand, even repurposing large parts of the Iron Fist mythos to set Danny up as a key part of The Defenders by aligning him against the Hand. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight revealed that the Iron Fist was “sworn enemy of the Hand”, while The Blessing of Many Fractures suggested that the Hand played a role in the death of Danny’s parents.

“This makes me so angry that I might flash back to my parents’ death again!”

Iron Fist spent so long playing into The Defenders that it would easy to forget that the series has own narrative arc to fulfil. Indeed, it even seems like Iron Fist itself forgot about those obligations, to the point that Bar the Big Boss played almost like a season finale with Danny vanquishing Bakuto and the Hand before heading home with Colleen for some funky Tai Chi action. However, at the last minute, Bar the Big Boss seems to remember that Iron Fist still has to resolve the whole Harold Meachum business, and possibly set up a second season.

The result is that Dragon Plays With Fire is an incredibly rushed piece of television, covering what feels like multiple episodes worth story in the space of fifty minutes while also cramming in a bunch of sequel hooks to both The Defenders and a hypothetical second season of Iron Fist. The finale is deeply disappointing, much like the season before it. More than that, it is a constant reminder of how little of its own identity was afforded to Iron Fist.

“Oh hey, it’s the ending of Star Trek: Nemesis, everyone’s favourite Star Trek movie!”

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Iron Fist – Bar the Big Boss (Review)

It’s impossible to talk about Iron Fist without talking about cultural appropriation.

There are multiple reasons for this. The most obvious are baked into the character himself, from his origin all the way back in Marvel Premiere as a white guy who travels to a mystical Asian city and becomes better at kung fu than any of the inhabitants before returning to America. There’s also very much the conversation that has been happening around the television series, which has prompted larger debates about the role of Asian performers and culture in Hollywood. Finally, there’s the fact that show so expertly puts its foot in its mouth.

Shaping up…

Bar the Big Boss is the perfect point at which to address this. Again, for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that it represents the last point at which the most obvious aspects of Asian exoticism are in play; barring the closing scene of Dragon Plays with Fire, this episode is the end of the Hand and K’un Lun as narrative forces in the context of the larger narrative. It is also an episode that effectively allows Davos to lightly touch upon the issue of cultural appropriation before brushing his concerns aside by turning him into a stock villain.

But, really, the issue is so firmly baked into the Iron Fist mythos that it is impossible to talk about in isolation.

Warding off evil spirits.

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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.

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Iron Fist – Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch (Review)

Iron Fist draws its influences from the strangest possible places.

As a rule, the Marvel Netflix shows are heavily rooted in the reinvention of Marvel’s street level heroes that began around the turn of the millennium. There are generally two key creative figures associated with this era, artist-turned-editor Joe Quesada and writer Brian Michael Bendis. Working the bunch of street-level properties, these two figures invented and reinvented a number of characters and concepts that would become a cornerstone of this shared television universe.

Hitting the wall…

Sometimes the influence was rather direct. Jessica Jones draws fairly heavily and literally from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ twenty-eight issue run on Alias. Sometimes that influence was more conceptual. Luke Cage tells its own unique story, but it is heavily influenced by Brian Michael Bendis’ rehabilitation of the title character during his runs on Alias and New Avengers. In some ways, Daredevil is an outlier, drawing on the iconic eighties run by Frank Miller, but it is still heavily influenced by millennial runs by Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker.

Given this existing framework, there is a very obvious influence from which the creative team might draw. Written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and illustrated primarily by David Aja, The Immortal Iron Fist was launched in November 2006. The run was launched during the tenure of Joe Quesada and spun directly out of Daredevil. It was also praised by critics and adored by fans for its radical and thoughtful reinvention of the Iron Fist mythos. It was also just plain fun, with Michal Chabon summarising it as “pure, yummy martial-arts-fantasy deliciousness.”

More like bored room, am I right?

With all of this in mind, it seems like Iron Fist should not have to look very hard for an influence. The Immortal Iron Fist was a comic that reinvented a long-forgotten character in a way that made him accessible to modern audiences that had never latched on to Danny Rand. More than that, by focusing on the history and legacy of the title, Fraction and Brubaker had found (some small way) to defuse the potential racial controversy simmering beneath the production. Emphasising the tradition of K’un Lun, The Immortal Iron Fist diversified the mythos.

And yet, in spite of all of that, Iron Fist chooses to draw most heavily and most overtly from the original appearances of Danny Rand in Marvel Premiere and Iron Fist, a run largely forgotten by history and notable primarily as a stepping stone to much greater things.

Hardly gripping.

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Iron Fist – Shadow Hawk Takes Flight (Review)

Who is Danny Rand?

It is a question that any television show should be asking of its lead. The audience will be spending an extended period of time with this character in this world, so the character needs to be interesting and compelling in their own right. The other Netflix Marvel shows made a point of answering this challenge out of the gate. Into the Ring made it clear that Matt Murdock was a ball of repressed rage buried beneath Catholic Guilt. AKA Ladies’ Night established Jessica Jones as a self-destructive super-strong survivor. Moment of Truth sets up Luke as the immovable object.

There are probably easier ways to make sure that Finn Jones stops giving interviews.

There is a recurring sense that Iron Fist understands that establishing its lead character is an important thing to do. Certainly, Snow Gives Way spends enough time on Danny Rand asserting his identity as the sole heir of the Rand Corporation. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight locks Danny in a psychiatric institution in which he is forced to prove his identity to people who believe that he has lost his mind. These are all plot points that, in theory, hinge upon Danny demonstrating who he is. They are, in theory, a solid way to introduce the character to audiences.

However, in practice, there is a recurring sense that Iron Fist simply doesn’t care about making Danny Rand interesting. Iron Fist seems to think that it is enough that the character exists and loosely resembles a superhero. Just like Iron Fist seems to think that it is enough that the show exists and loosely resembles a superhero show.

Not quite a glowing endorsement.

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Iron Fist – Snow Gives Way (Review)

So, what is Iron Fist about?

To be fair, it is a tough question to answer. The final Netflix series, publicised as “the Last Defender”, seems to have been a hard sell. Indeed, the emphasis on the show’s position as “the Last Defender” recalls the marketing of Captain America: The First Avenger. In both cases, Marvel was selling a property that posed a creative challenge by tethering it to a looming mass-market crossover, counting on its position as “the last piece of the puzzle” to draw in audiences that might otherwise hold little interest in the material.

Fist first.

And, by and large, Iron Fist is defined by these outside demands. Any audience member trying to figure out what Iron Fist is or what purpose it serves will arguably get a better sense of that by tracing the outline established by the other Marvel Netflix shows. Iron Fist is not a television show that defines itself, instead existing in a narrative and marketing space that has already been defined for it by the demands of other multimedia. Iron Fist is not so much a television show as a bunch of stuff that fits in that space before The Defenders.

That much is evident even as early as Snow Gives Way, the first episode of the Netflix series. The pilot is arguably as instructive in what it fails to do as it is in what it actually accomplishes. It eats up fifty minutes of airtime without providing the audience with any real sense of who these people are, what they want, or what the series is trying to say that isn’t on the agenda already set up by the other Marvel Netflix shows.

He’s acting. Really hard.

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