Iron Fist, the latest superhero series to be birthed by the Netflix/Marvel partnership, had two simple objectives – deliver a compelling character who audiences would want to see stand alongside Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage when the upcoming ‘Defenders’ miniseries premieres and not to rock the boat and undo all the goodwill the preceding series built.
To say Iron Fist failed in its objectives would be a colossal understatement.
Comprised of 13 dry, humorless and at times incomprehensible episodes, Iron Fist tells the story of Danny Rand, a young man who was presumed dead for 15 years after the plane he and his parents were in crashed in the Himalayas, as he remerges in New York City to rightfully reclaim his family’s billion dollar company – Rand Industries. Navigating his way through the treacherous world of corporate America, Danny attempts to prove his identity to childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum, both of whom have run Rand Industries alongside their father Harold since the Rand family went missing. Interfering with Danny’s attempt to reclaim his family’s legacy are his duties as the Iron Fist, the the martial arts protector of K’un Lun – a mystical city that our hero discovered as a child.
Along for the ride in this hero’s journey is Colleen Wing, a dojo-owning martial artist with a secret which may undo the blossoming romance between her and Danny, and former nurse Claire Temple, who is well-versed in the New York City superhero game as she has rubbed elbows with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Iron Fist will need all the help he can get as his sworn enemy The Hand, a sinister organization of lethal ninja assassins, continues to become a dominant force in New York City’s underground crime community.
(Warning: the below review contains some spoilers)
Iron Fist (The hero you love to hate)
All great stories have a compelling central character. While they do not need to be a good person, a story’s main character should capture your attention and not let go. They should have a vulnerability which makes their inevitable victory over a conflict a remarkable achievement. The character should learn something about his or herself after the tension of the story is resolved. In simpler terms – the main character should exit his or her story as a different person than the one they entered it as.
In that sense, Iron Fist is not a good show and Danny Rand (played by Finn Jones) is a terrible character. He’s not compelling – more often than not, you’ll find yourself audibly groaning whenever he appears on camera. While he does have vulnerabilities, he never seems to overcome them and instead finds shortcuts around them. Frustratingly, Danny never really changes as a person throughout the course of the show’s 13 episodes. He begins and ends Iron Fist as the same temperamental man-child whose bizarre behavior cannot be reckoned with. The supporting characters don’t come to admire Danny as much as they give in and acquiesce to him and his nonsense.
Both a superhero and the heir to a billion dollar corporation, Danny was always going to be a tough character for audiences to relate to. Making matters worse is how downright unlikable he is. He first appears as a doe-eyed, raggedy looking homeless man who is in a state of awe when he returns to New York City after having spent 15 years in K’un Lun. Barefoot and owning only one pair of clothes, the messy-haired, unshaven Danny is eager to reconnect with childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum and take a seat at Rand Industries’ Board of Directors. Believably, his childhood friends think he is a crazy impostor. Unbelievably, no one tells him to take a shower.
At no point does one ever sympathize with Danny as he is struggles to prove his identity. Despite being told countless times Danny is an enlightened buddhist and martial arts master, he comes across as a cranky child who is unable to read social cues. So odd is Danny that when he is institutionalized in episode 2 you feel a sense of relief as he truly seems to belong there.
It cannot be stressed enough how utterly buffoonish Danny comes across as. Not since Chauncey Gardiner from Being There has a main character been so completely unaware of what is going on around him. Rarely, if ever, does Danny figure things out on his own. He blindly stumbles upon important information or – and this happens at an alarming rate – he is manipulated into doing what others want him to do.
When Danny finally gains admittance to Rand Industries’ Board of Directors, he seems like a small child engaging in make believe. Or like a kid who is visiting his dad’s office on Take Your Child To Work Day. One can only imagine his Rand Industries’ office comes equipped with a tiny table, crayons and construction paper – seriously, there is a scene where Danny realizes his office chair can be lowered and he giggles with excitement.
Danny’s victory in regaining a majority stake in his family’s company never feels like a deserved win. How is this character, who has spent the last 15 years of his life practicing roundhouse kicks in the Himalayas, worthy of running a Fortune 500 company? Why are Joy and Ward wrong for thinking Danny is wildly incompetent and a threat to their business?
As the show progresses, Danny’s social circle widens as he befriends Colleen Wing (played by Jessica Henwick), Claire Temple (played by Rosario Dawson) and Jeryn Hogarth (played by Carrie-Ainn Moss). Strong, independent and highly competent, these three female characters are less sidekicks to our hero as they are babysitters. For example, if not for the assistance of Colleen, one can imagine the series ending on episode 2 when Danny is locked up in an insane asylum.
While it’s great this series has three terrific female characters, its bewildering to watch a show where the titular character is constantly playing second fiddle to his supporting cast. Danny seems to be aware he’s being outclassed as he is constantly snipping at and berating Colleen and Claire whenever they make an astute observation or say something our crybaby hero doesn’t want to hear. Even more embarrassing, Danny usually ends up apologizing immediately to these characters for his outbursts of uncontrolled emotions.
Then there is the issue of Danny’s superhuman ability. While being trained in K’un Lun, Rand encountered and bested Shou-Lao the Undying, a fearsome dragon whose heart contained an extremely powerful energy – because this would be exciting to watch happen, we are of course only offered the briefest flashback to this event. Danny was able to acquire the dragon’s mystical energy by striking his fists into Shou-Lao’s heart. By channeling this power and his chi directly into his hands, Danny is able to summon the power of the immortal Iron Fist – which has the power to not only destroy unbreakable objects but also heal the wounded.
Sounds exciting, right?
Well, no. As is the case with every other remotely promising part of this show, ‘Iron Fist’ likes to tease its audience with the prospect of fun before smothering it to death right before your very eyes.
Happening far too many times than one can keep track of, when in battle Danny’s hand will begin to glow with the power of the Iron Fist, and then… it just stops. We are told repeatedly this is because Danny’s chi is out of alignment – don’t worry, Iron Fist, it happens to the best of us. Danny’s inability to get his hand mojo going works as a sort of metaphor for the show. As the action begins to pick up steam for Danny and ‘Iron Fist,’ they suddenly experience performance anxiety and all sense of excitement evaporates. Danny and the show leave you confused, annoyed and ashamed of yourself for ever giving them the time of day. By the third or fourth time this happens, you’ll find yourself rolling over in bed to turn off Netflix and the lights and going to sleep.
“Goodnight, Danny. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.”
What the Finn?!
With a lousy script and a complete misunderstanding of what has made the Marvel Comics’ character compelling since his creation decades ago, Danny Rand/Iron Fist was always going to be a tough undertaking for actor Finn Jones.
While no one can fault Jones for being unable to rise above the dreadful material he was given to work with, the former Game of Thrones actor is responsible for sinking the Iron Fist character beyond the point of lackluster and deep down into the realm of laughably bad.
Meek, childish, and with a look of perpetual confusion upon his face, Jones acts his way through Iron Fist as though he has been heavily concussed. He gives Danny an awkward vacant stare in most scenes. He conveys anger when the scene calls for concern, confusion when a scene dictates anger, and fright when the character is supposed to display courage and determination.
Jones’ facial expressions while acting aren’t his only confounding choice as an actor. His line delivery is unnatural and he appears to be self-conscious – though to be fair the dialogue he was given was awfully uninspiring. There are moments in Iron Fist where Jones delivers his lines like he doesn’t know what words are.
It’s like Tommy Wiseau starring as a Marvel super hero.
Very early on in Iron Fist you begin to feel Jones was woefully unprepared for this role. It’s like Jones auditioned for the role of Danny on a Monday, was hired on Tuesday and started filming later that evening. There is no sense Jones, in anyway, prepared for his character.
Where Jones fails most spectacularly is in the physicality the role of a martial arts master demands. This is not meant to be body shaming, but a man who has spent the better half of two decades putting his body through the rigorous demands of becoming an elite martial artist should not appear soft and underfed. When participating in the show’s many kung-fu battles, Jones appears more like an interpretive dancer than a fighter. Never once do you buy Jones as an expert martial artist – a huge problem for a show about, you know, a martial arts expert.
From the beginning to its bitter end, Jones never seems comfortable in Iron Fist, which makes his casting as Danny Rand/Iron Fist all the more confounding.
Which leads us to…
The issue of cultural appropriation
The news of Jones’ casting as Danny Rand/Iron Fist led to an immediate firestorm of controversy on many social media platforms – in particular Twitter. While many have conflated the issue of a white actor playing Iron Fist with other recent Asian and Asian American underrepresentation controversies in film – The Great Wall and this year’s Ghost in the Shell remake – the annoyances many have expressed with Jones’ casting is not without merit.
Unlike Damon’s role in The Great Wall, which features a famous white American actor playing a character that inexplicably defends China from monsters during the Song dynasty, and Scarlett Johansson’s whitewashing of the Japanese character of Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, there’s nothing overtly offensive about a white actor playing the role of Iron Fist.
Created in 1974 by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Danny Rand has always been a caucasian. Though more subtle than the flagrant issues inherent in the casting of Damon and Johansson in their respective roles, Iron Fist has always been a problematic character. Iron Fist was created during a time where American pop culture was fascinated with martial arts. Bruce Lee was a major Hollywood attraction and, according to musician Carl Douglas, “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting.” So yes, while the Thomas and Kane Marvel Comics’ character was always white, he was birthed in a decade where the diverse cultures of an entire continent were transmuted into a singular racist substance known as “Orientalism.”
While many comic book fans have grown up reading Iron Fist and don’t bat an eye at his whiteness, it’s still shocking Netflix and Marvel would think the character could be translated to television without controversy. To be fair, they found themselves in the undesirable position of either potentially offending staunch comic book purists who are riled up over any small change to the established source material, or offending those rightfully sensitive about the dearth of Asian and Asian American characters in film, television and comics. That being said, Netflix and Marvel absolutely made the wrong choice in being slavishly devoted to the source material and casting a white actor as Danny Rand/Iron Fist.
Seeing a white male in 2017 being portrayed as the most elite martial artist in the world comes across as offensive and silly as it sounds. The show seems to be aware of this and is reticent to show Danny being trained by buddhist martial artists up in the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas. Rather, we are given brief glimpses of him acquiring his extraordinary skills.
However, Iron Fist can’t skirt around the absurdity for long. The script demands Danny be taken seriously as a martial artist. There are several laugh out loud moments where Danny is seen doing yoga and martial arts poses to focus his chi. Even more hilariously absurd is a scene in which Danny lectures Colleen’s students on the seriousness of martial arts. The teenagers – most of whom are people of color – openly laugh and mock Danny. It would be more offensive if the show wasn’t so consistently and aggressively terrible on every other possible front. The cultural appropriation issue just becomes one of an endless series of complaints one can have with this show.
How mad can you really get when Danny casually mentions his sifu, or when he makes an origami flower or sits under a tree invoking the image of Buddha meditating at the Bodhi Tree? It’s all so patently stupid.
If there is any consolation to the Asian and Asian American actors who were passed over for the role of Danny Rand/Iron Fist, it’s that one of the worst television shows in recent memory will not taint their IMDB filmography.
The storytelling and supporting characters
The biggest crime Iron Fist commits is in its story. Poorly structured and scatterbrained, Iron Fist has few moments which could be defined as fun.
Iron Fist is a character who, as a child, survives the harsh elements of the Himalayas, is taken in by buddhist monks and is trained to become one of the most powerful martial artists in the world. This would have been incredibly fun to watch and yet this show robs its audience from ever really seeing any of this occur. Instead, Iron Fist is more preoccupied with corporate America and watching the altruist Danny try and right the wrongs a greedy company in his family’s name has done in his absence.
Whenever the show begins to pick up any momentum it has to stop and to plant seeds for the upcoming Defenders miniseries. It’s like being the passenger in a car where the driver continues to slam down on the breaks every few minutes. It makes for one aggravating ride.
At 13 episodes, the show is just too long. There are long gaps of time throughout the series where nothing of consequence takes place. You can feel the writers of the show struggling to pad out a paper thin story so it will meet the 13 episodes requirement ordered by Netflix.
The show becomes a Sisyphean task where the same events occur over and over again. By mid-season, watching Iron Fist is a torturous task of repetition where Danny continues to try and prove his identity and we are shown the same flashbacks of Danny and his parents saying “I-Love-You’s” to one another as their plane begins to crash over and over again.
Was there any need for an entire episode to be devoted to Danny being trapped in a psych ward? No, but it eats up time so it happens. Was there a point to Ward suffering from a heroin addiction? No, not really, but it eats up time so it happens.
One of the few things Iron Fist gets right are the characters of Colleen Wing and Claire Temple. Jessica Henwick, unlike Finn Jones, clearly trained in martial arts to prepare for the show and she imbues every scene she is in with a sense of seriousness. So compelling is she as Colleen Wing that you wish Netflix and Marvel had made her Iron Fist. However, even Henwick cannot escape the stench of Jones’ acting, a poor script and bland cinematography. Rosario Dawson is yet again great as Claire – she’s appeared in both Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and both seasons of Daredevil. Her presence in this series is both a blessing and a curse though, as she serves as a reminder that Danny Rand is part of a larger universe and won’t remain tucked away in his own boring world forever.
In what should have been smooth driving on the road to ‘Defenders,’ ‘Iron Fist’ sees the wheels come off the once exciting interconnected universe of Marvel’s street-level superheroes and crashes it into a ditch of dreck. That there was not one competent driver behind the wheel of ‘Iron Fist,’ that it erupts into a fiery and embarrassing wreck, should have all fans amped for the upcoming ‘Defenders’ crossover very concerned.
The failure of ‘Iron Fist’ should give Netflix and Marvel pause for concern as well, as their luck in capturing lightning in a bottle has apparently run out.