While watching the Season Only (Deo volente) finale of Iron Fist the other night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the titular character unleash his titular fist to very cool effect. I turned to my wife and dead-panned, “Neat. They could have made an entire show about a guy doing stuff like this.”
Iron Fist has been routinely savaged in reviews for a great number of reasons, some of which I think are silly. But this surely has to be the worst: anyone who wants to watch a show about Iron Fist doing Iron Fist things should skip to episode 9 or 10 out of 13. This thing is a story-telling mess.
I’m completely in the bag for kung-fu movies, mystical warrior movies, and supernatural movies. I read comic books as a kid (though not Iron Fist). I have enjoyed Marvel video games. I have loved Marvel’s other Netflix adventures; heck, I even can tolerate their big budget SFX extravaganzas. I should love Iron Fist. That’s how bad it is.
Whoever wrote this show was simply not interested in telling the story of the Iron Fist and did not have any idea how to make even a formulaic origin story fall out of it. The core of the story is so simple, I could have written it (for that matter, did write it) as a teenager:
Hapless nobody is rescued by warrior monks from another dimension, trains to become their sacred defender, but then abandons his post to return to Earth to discover…something. The truth about himself, his parents, his mission? A kind of reverse vision quest! On Earth he finds an army of the sworn enemy of his people and sets about destroying them instead of “holding the pass” against them. He is pursued by his best friend who is angry that he was not chosen as the sacred defender, and the two come into conflict over how best to discharge the responsibility…and then the mystical city is sacked/destroyed/lost/unknown in their absence.
This story could be executed in a variety of ways and been anything from vaguely interesting to excellent addition to the Hell’s Kitchen story arc of “street heroes.”
Instead, the story-writing is given to someone who does not have grounding in anything related to kung-fu movies of any kind. Worse, the main character is not simply mis-drawn; he is a bundle of story-telling contradictions and omissions.
- Iron Fist has trained for fifteen years with warrior monks to become an Immortal Weapon but spouts fortune-cookie Buddhism and looks like a hipster who backpacked across China with frosted highlights in his hair (???).
- He is an awe-inspiring master of both internal and external energy who doesn’t know how to meditate to restore his chi, becomes completely unhinged emotionally, and is shocked–shocked and blessed!–to receive clap-trappy secular talk therapy advice from the otherwise-wonderfully recurring character of Claire.
- Warrior monks from another dimension rescued him from a plane crash in the Himalayas when he was ten years old…and again, trained him for fifteen years to become an Immortal Weapon…but he is written as a time-capsule character who climbs under his father’s desk to delight in the stickers he placed there as a little boy. He throws a deranged tantrum that unhinges his entire moral center when he is deceived.
- He should be, and every once in a while is, depicted as alien to our world…and yet he is a fountain of secular pieties and New Age gibberish…who is “too harsh” with a student in a dojo scene that is otherwise completely out of character with his let’s all get along demeanor…before he becomes obsessed with murdering the one responsible for the death of his parents.
Enough rage. Now the sorrow: there are a few genuinely good ideas lost in this pile of smoldering rubbish. What good can be said of this show?
Whoever wrote this show did have a story they wanted to tell, and it was an interesting one; it just had nothing to do with Danny Rand and the Iron Fist. Theme: parents, how we raise our children, and how they respond to bad parenting in their search for love. The Meachum family is the only part of the show written with any passion at all, and for some reason we keep interrupting this tale of dysfunctional corporate billionaires with random pratfalls of semi-kung-fu from a hipster-douche.
Colleen Wing. I won’t repeat the plaudits she has received for this show, but everything about this character is interesting: sensei of the young and disadvantaged who struggles to make ends meet, badass martial-artist and semi-samurai disturbed by her own fascination with violence, later struggling to make sense of her own sensei and the family that raised her. I’m not sure she should have her own show as others have urged (and I’m sure she’ll get one), but she is hands down the most compelling single character in Iron Fist.
The nature of evil. The Hand returns once again, but this time under the more Satanic guise of helpers of the young. The uncertainty of just how bad the Hand really are, the possibility that they are the good guys, the breaking of our silly secular fascination with good == nice and evil == mean…there’s a great core concept here. It’s just a bridge too far in terms of complicating the show. We’re already way outside the story of Iron Fist and now we have to try to understand the inner workings of the Hand? No thanks.
Finally, corporate justice. There was a savage review a few weeks back that accused Marvel of being obsessed with white billionaires as heroes. I think that review missed the mark for a number of reasons–Danny isn’t even the main character of his own show, frankly–but it does touch upon something important to understand about Marvel comics and these Netflix shows.
Marvel is obsessed with wealth, the renunciation of wealth, and the injustices associated with wealth inequality. The entire Hell’s Kitchen setting is based around exploring justice for the weak and the poor, taking us back to a time when Superman was breaking up street-level crime bosses instead of bludgeoning Invincible Cosmic Superpowers.
The heroes of Hell’s Kitchen, the Defenders (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Punisher, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, etc.), all tackle various aspects of sticking up for the weak of the world. They are special, sure, but not Omega Level Mutants or Sons of Jor-El or Norse Gods. Luke Cage is a black man fighting against racism, Jessica Jones is a woman fighting against sexism, Daredevil is a lawyer who defends the poor from the rich who use the law as a weapon of oppression. Instead of confronting alien invasions, they face drug addiction, unemployment, unfair labor practices, gang violence. Their nemeses are personifications of social ills that can’t actually be solved with super-powered ass-kicking, but we take a kind of opiate pleasure in imagining it to be so and we learn some basic good-and-evil values.
Iron Fist’s place in this story is just “Daredevil, but with cooler moves,” except for the fact that he is also Danny Rand, billionaire. He’s a good guy working from the other side of the corporate table, struggling against his own evil empire to make sure that they are not plundering the earth and its anawim.
But man, did the writers of this show do a terrible job of trying to make that happen. They actually opt to do the Rand story instead of the Iron Fist story, which they then kinda-sorta reveal a little in the second half of the show. When they finally get around to kung-fu, it’s just reheated stuff they’ve already done in Daredevil–forgivable on its own, but basically a mortal sin given how bad everything else is.
A laundry list of grievances remain, too numerous and varied to gather into synthesis. There are a few ok moments if you stick through the opening episode, but eventually the actors look like they can’t believe the lines they have to say. The moral seriousness of the other Netflix series disintegrates into nonsensical pseudo-arguments about killing and violence. Finn Jones may not be the worst miscast in the history of television, but that hair! Oi! And the backstory of the delightfully compelling Madame Gau collapses under a bundle of contradictions (True or false: Gau was not Hand in Season One of Daredevil? Why did she need an alliance with Kingpin if she already had Rand?).
So that’s the end of that sad affair. Next up: the Defenders, when we mash all four/five of these Hell’s Kitchen heroes together with absolutely no hope of a unified story!