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Iron Fist – The Mistress of All Agonies (Review)

Inevitably, being a street-level superhero show that owes a huge stylistic debt to Daredevil, Iron Fist inevitably wades into the whole “thou shalt not kill” side of superheroics.

Matt Murdock has spent the better part of two seasons wrestling with that same question. In the first season, he agonised over the question of whether he should kill Wilson Fisk, a criminal who was otherwise above the law. This angst informed episodes like Nelson v. Murdock and The Path of the Righteous. It was a reasonably solid plot line that worked as well as could be expected because it was rooted as much in Charlie Cox’s performance and Matt Murdock’s Catholicism as in any large moral or legal framework.

Knife to see you…

However, Matt Murdock revisited the question with less success during the second season. Confronted with Frank Castle’s lethal methods of crime fighting and an undead ninja cult, Matt found everything was up for debate. The series did not handle the dilemma with any real sense of grace. Frank Castle constructed a ridiculously elaborate moral dilemma in New York’s Finest, while Matt Murdock seemed to confess that the Punisher’s methods worked in .380. One of the most tone deaf sequences in the series had Frank Castle kill a bad guy so Matt would be spared.

Iron Fist puts it own spin on the age-old debate of vigilante morality. In keeping with the general tone of the series, the debate is lazy and clumsy, ultimately resolved through the same sort of tidy deus ex machina that got Danny proof of identity in Rolling Cannon Thunder Punch and control of his company in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. It is not satisfying storytelling.

Supervillains understandably have fewer moral qualms about killing.

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Iron Fist – The Blessing of Many Fractures (Review)

As “The Last Defender”, Iron Fist bears the burden of tying most heavily into The Defenders.

This is not a surprise. This has been a large part of the Marvel Studios model, with productions teasing concepts and characters that will not arrive for quite some time. By the time that Thanos moves against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers: Infinity War, it will have been more than half a decade since the stinger at the end of The Avengers teased his looming threat. Even since Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. dropped by the stinger in The Incredible Hulk, these teases have been a way of doing business.

Glowing yellow peril.

As such, it makes sense that the company would put a lot of groundwork into setting up the summer’s big-ticket crossover between the four different Marvel Netflix shows. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage had largely been their own thing, while Daredevil had devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to introducing concepts and ideas that would pay off down the line. However, as the last of the shows to be released before the big summer event series, Iron Fist carries a heavier burden than any of its predecessors.

Unfortunately, Marvel and Netflix seem to have wholeheartedly committed to the idea of the Hand as the enemy of choice for this eight-part crossover miniseries. And so Iron Fist gets burdened with the Hand.

“Time for snooping.”

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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.

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Iron Fist – Immortal Emerges From Cave (Review)

Immortal Emerges From Cave might just be the best episode of the first season of Iron Fist.

Of course, Immortal Emerges From Cave is not a good episode of television. It is bedevilled by all the other issues with Iron Fist, from inconsistent characterisation to dead-end subplots to pacing issues. It even adds a few new problems of its own, especially with a ham-fisted and ill-judged attempt to bring the character of Bride of Nine Spiders into live action. Immortal Emerges From Cave is unlikely to make much of an impression, and it certainly doesn’t rank with the other best episodes of the Marvel Netflix series.

“Three men enter! One man (or two men) leave!”

At the same time, Immortal Emerges From Cave is the episode of Iron Fist that perhaps comes closest to fulfilling its own ambition. Immortal Emerges From Cave is a relatively self-contained narrative in the middle of the season, in which Danny finds himself forced to compete in a tournament against the Hand in order to save an innocent life. It is a hokey premise, but one that leads to a series of fairly middling set pieces in which Danny Rand works his way through various “levels” in pursuit of his goal.

Immortal Emerges From Cave feels very much like some forgotten z-list direct-to-video martial arts film from the nineties, a pulpy and absurd excuse to string together a collection of fight scenes. The result is not spectacular by any measure, but it is far more entertaining than the meandering story being told around it. Immortal Emerges From Cave might not succeed on general terms, or even on its own terms, but it at least has a strong sense of its own identity. That is enough to put it ahead of the rest of the season.

Glowing reviews.

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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.

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Iron Fist – Eight Diagram Dragon Palm (Review)

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.

My kung fu is better than yours.

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.

“Yes, Father. I shall become a dragon.”

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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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Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist (Review)

Iron Fist is a spectacular failure.

There are a lot of different reasons for this. On a purely practical level, so much of the show disappoints. The cast are bland and forgettable. The dialogue is awful. The stunt work is pedestrian. The direction is sterile. The special effects work looks like it was lifted from the later nineties. The editing is jarring. The attempt to recreate foreign locales looks like something from nineties television. These are all very significant problems with the production, aspects that would be irritating on their own, but come together to create a larger problem.

However, the flaws with Iron Fist are even more fundamental than this. Iron Fist is a show with an interesting premise but a complete lack of ambition. The show has no sense of its own identity or direction, its very existence dictated by external factors. It is a series that exists simply because it must exist, not because the writing staff had something interesting to say or because Danny Rand was the perfect hero for this cultural moment. Iron Fist exists because there is a slot in the schedule that needs to be filled, and Iron Fist aspires to do nothing more than fill it.

This is perhaps the most severe problem with Iron Fist. It is not that the show is bad, although it is definitely bad. The unforgivable flaw with Iron Fist is that the show is boring.

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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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