The debut of Marvel’s latest Netflix offering Iron Fist has been shrouded in controversy. Many fans were uncomfortable with the decision to keep the story of Iron Fist as close to the source material as possible, with the role of Iron Fist going to a white man, Danny Rand. This seemed at odds with a rising tide of more diverse casting, and felt a little like a step backwards for Marvel, which has always seemed to at least make an effort in such matters. In the comics realm, Marvel has passed the role of Spiderman onto an Afrolatino youth named Miles Morales, revealed a female secret identity for Thor, and given the mantle of Iron Man (now known as Ironheart) to Riri Williams, a Black woman. But for some reason in the case of Iron Fist, they decided to stick with an Orientalist mess birthed from the kung fu fever of the 1970s. After watching the first season of Iron Fist, I have to agree that the casting decision was a mistake. But it’s difficult to say whether or not a different lead would have saved the show that ultimately relies on the development of a frustrating and unsatisfying character arc.
The first season essentially covers this series of events: Danny Rand arrives in New York, 15 years after being assumed dead in a plane crash near China that killed both his parents. While away he was trained by monks in the mystical city of K’un L’un and became ‘the Iron Fist, the immortal weapon.’ Danny is genuinely surprised that he should be treated with suspicion when he returns home and becomes determined to win back his rightful place at the head of Rand Enterprises, the company his father founded along with his best friend, Harold Meachum. He goes head to head with the Meachum children, Ward and Joy, who he grew up with, now major executives and heads of the board at Rand. Danny discovers that The Hand, a shadowy organization that employs ninjas and sword-wielding security almost exclusively, is active in New York, within Rand, and as the Iron Fist he is compelled to destroy them. Along the way he meets Colleen Wing, an instructor of some kind of martial arts and the indomitable Claire Temple (who, yes, saves his ass) and they work together to unravel the mysteries of The Hand. Throughout the season we watch as Danny struggles to balance his responsibilities at Rand Enterprises with his overwhelming need to take down an evil he has trained 15 years to fight. We also see as time goes on that Danny’s training is incomplete, and he is still suffering from the psychological trauma of the plane crash, which has been exacerbated by his training in the monastery that taught him to push away any and all emotions.
This would all be well and good, if Danny Rand were not the most annoying main character we’ve seen in a Marvel Netflix show to date. His personality and motivations are consistently muddy, as viewers we don’t understand who he is nor what we’re supposed to be rooting for him to do or become. The major theme of the show is Danny’s internal conflict with being Danny Rand as well as the Iron Fist. Both identities threaten to consume him entirely, but he can never quite figure out what he wants and what his purpose is. He experiences moments of clarity, when he fights against The Hand, or to save his friends, but otherwise it’s incredibly difficult to tell what Danny actually wants. He left K’un L’un out of desire to fill an emptiness inside of him, because he wanted to discover who Danny Rand truly is. But as soon as he finds acceptance as that identity (which takes a grueling three episodes to confirm and move past) Danny is unsatisfied and dives back into being the Iron Fist. He declares that it’s out of a sense of duty, but it’s abundantly clear that Danny simply finds fighting bad guys more fun and fulfilling than sitting in board meetings.
Honestly? I don’t really blame him. Iron Fist seems to attempt to blend the genres of kung fu action and corporate drama, which might work if there were more substance to the corporate side beyond “Danny doesn’t know anything about running a business, makes extreme demands on his first day, and doesn’t show up to any meetings because he has to run off to fight ninjas.” Joy Meachum (played by Jessica Stroup) has some incredible moments of cold-hearted business genius, but we never really get to see her embrace that, which leaves much of the drama of corporate affairs to fall flat. Her brother Ward ends up with more of the scenery-chewing scenes, making him one of my surprise favorites of the season, but we’ll get into that later.
When it comes to the kung fu action though, Iron Fist also fails to deliver. After the controversy about the casting, I was hoping ‘maybe at least this will still be a fun action show?’ The choice to keep the corny 1970s kung fu vibe didn’t sit well, but at the very least the commitment to that aesthetic might mean some really incredible martial arts sequences. My hopes were dashed as the majority of the fight scenes in Iron Fist are terribly choreographed and shot, mainly relying on distracting cuts and awkward angles to hide the lack of experience and skill on the part of Finn Jones. There are certainly some exceptions, several fight scenes shot in glorious over-the-top style, but they usually require a more skilled fighter in the mix to balance the scales. The internet has been buzzing about Lewis Tan, who stole the show with a single fight scene in one episode. An homage to Drunken Master, Tan’s scene is utterly delightful, but it just goes to show that all the good camerawork in the world can’t hide bad fighting and stuntwork. The shots look great, but it’s Tan’s rhythm, movement, and cheeky charisma that really make the scene. In the first episode, Danny’s initial reveal of his power is shot from a wide angle, with almost no cuts, but the choreography still feels slow and arranged. The magical quality of great kung fu action, where the motions are natural, organic and smooth, is lost here. Finn Jones is obviously no Jackie Chan (and I mean, how could he be?), but this discrepancy leaves you wondering: why did we have to go with this casting if Jones is neither a great martial artist nor the best actor on the show?
That honor, I believe, goes to David Wenham (closely followed by Wai Ching Ho and Rosario Dawson, who play Madam Gao and Claire Temple, respectively) who plays Harold Meachum. Harold is believed to have died of cancer 13 years ago, but unbeknownst to anyone beyond Ward and a few trusted assistants, he is still alive, locked away in a glamorous penthouse in a dazzling Art Deco building. At first we believe Harold faked his own death, but it is shortly discovered that he did indeed die, but was resurrected through a deal he made with The Hand. The polar opposite of Danny Rand, Harold Meachum knows exactly who he is and what he wants and will go to any lengths to achieve his goals. Harold gets some of the greatest one-liners on the show, delivered with such sharp acidity by Wenham that they often end up punctuating a scene. His gradual descent into supervillainy as his immortal gift clearly takes a toll on his mind is the most compelling story in Iron Fist. His manipulative and abusive relationship with his son Ward creates some of the most intense moments in the show; Tom Pelphrey really shines as he depicts a high-strung businessman slowly unraveling as his life of secrets and shame becomes too much for him to bear. I was expecting Ward to be a boring asshole when he was first introduced, but as the show progresses, Ward’s multiple transformations are much more interesting than Danny’s repetitive inner turmoil, and his emotional explosions are absolutely riveting to watch. He quickly became one of my unexpected favorites, and I regularly wondered more about the conclusion of his character arc than Danny’s. The creepy and volatile Meachums are easily the most interesting part of Iron Fist, which shouldn’t really be the case when your main character is a billionaire martial artist superhero who trained for 15 years in a mystical city and is being hunted by ninjas and immortals.
Finally, let’s talk about Colleen Wing and Claire Temple and the emotional labor of women of color! Can these two just get together and spar forever and stop having to clean up all of Danny’s messes? Probably not, because Colleen and Danny are supposed to be swolemates or something. Claire is once again the perpetual nurse to the wounded superheroes, pulled into a dangerous situation and barely ever thanked for it. Danny rarely takes the time to appreciate everything Claire and Colleen do for him, and regularly claims that he doesn’t need their help despite the fact that whenever he runs into trouble, they are the first people he turns to for protection and restoration. The one good thing to come out of Iron Fist in this category was getting to see Claire kick a little more ass than she usually does, and be one of the few people to tell Danny straight up when he’s being a moron.
And Colleen is a great character (with the best jackets), but her scenes with Danny have such a confusing chemistry, and their romance feels completely forced. The only thing these two have in common is a disciplined upbringing rooted in martial arts, and Danny’s initial interactions with Colleen are off-putting and intrusive. He absolutely never takes no for an answer with her, essentially forcing himself into Colleen’s life because she was the one person who only treated him with general unease rather than immediate hostility when he came back to New York. From the very beginning, Danny makes his well-being Colleen’s responsibility, asking her to help him get out of the psychiatric hospital because he doesn’t know anyone else and he needs her. Colleen has no reason to trust Danny or believe that he’s telling the truth about being mistakenly admitted to a mental ward, but she sees a person in trouble and feels compelled to help. Then, her kindness is immediately rewarded with disrespect.
I’m basically never going to stop being angry over the fact that the first handful of interactions Danny has with Colleen involve him directly ignoring her requests and concerns, depicted as him caring about her and knowing what’s best. When Colleen gives Danny a place to stay after he breaks out of the psychiatric hospital, she tells him to be gone by morning. He does not leave, and ‘charmingly’ insists that she needs his protection because she is not as strong a fighter as he is. When Colleen allows Danny to stay, she tells him not to interfere with her lessons and to stay away from her students. He immediately not only attempts to teach, but attacks one of the students for being disrespectful, and chastises Colleen for her lack of discipline when she stops him. And perhaps the most egregious imposition, when Danny arrives at the Dojo to have a talk with Colleen in the middle of a lesson with Claire and effectively insists that she drop everything she’s doing and accommodate his needs. Because he brought ‘take-out’ (an entire catering setup complete with table and candles) which apparently can’t be canceled or boxed up or postponed in any way. This is after knowing Colleen for all of about two days. A few episodes later, the couple gets their inevitable sex scene, but their resulting bond as ‘kindred warrior spirits’ just feels like going through the motions, tired and trite.
There are more things I could say about Iron Fist but ultimately what matters is that it fails because it’s an unfocused show that centers around the arc of a frustratingly unfinished character. Just like Danny Rand, Iron Fist can’t decide what it wants to be: a funky kung fu romp, a corporate suspense story, or a familial drama. And though the tone gets more consistent as the show unfolds, you just can’t tell an unfocused story as a vehicle for an unfinished character and expect gold. Iron Fist definitely has its moments, but it is unquestionably the weakest of Marvel’s Netflix shows, which is made all the more disappointing by the fact that its predecessors left such a lasting impression. Danny Rand could have been a lot more interesting for many reasons, but you go to war with the immortal weapon you have and unfortunately, this one’s a dud.
Originally posted on Medium.