Iron Fist is such a tremendous failure on so many levels that it’s fascinating to dissect. It’s not fascinating to watch, however. The latest Marvel series on Netflix is a 13-hour bore that’s 15% martial arts show and 85% boardroom drama. There’s maybe 5 hours of story (I’m being generous) stretched out like a cheap sweater and just as stylish.
Did you want an unevenly paced superhero show that’s mostly about the internal politics of a major corporation? Where every other scene involves two rich siblings discussing the plot in a corner office or a conference room?
Iron Fist is the epitome of inessential television. It’s TV as background noise–the sort of thing you play while getting other things done. I was going to say it was TV as radio, but that’s not fair to the radio, which can usually be fun, smart, and exciting. Iron Fist is none of these, though its biggest sin is its dispassionate fight choreography. Iron Fist is a martial arts show that sucks at the martial arts, which makes sense since our protagonist Danny Rand (Finn Jones) basically sucks at everything.
Iron Fist (Season 1)
Release Date: March 17, 2017 (Netflix)
Everyone thought Danny Rand died with his parents in a plane crash 15 years ago, but he really survived and learned martial arts in a magic Himalayan city called K’un-L’un. He shows up barefoot in New York at his family’s building, spouting off fortune cookie mysticism like a low-rent Billy Jack. This kicks off a protracted battle for control of the company rooted in childhood bullying and soap opera-style family resentments, which is just what fans of the character wanted to see, obviously.
The pilot episode is so dully inert. with Rand trying to assert his identity while former childhood friends Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) find different ways of say, “Nuh-uh, no you’re not.” Riveting. There’s one slow, klutzy, 30-second fight in the episode with security guards. There is also a wise, disposable homeless supporting character who dies of a heroin overdose, seeding another season-long plot point.
Iron Fist is a character who got his superpowers by punching a dragon in the chest, yet the show is treated with the aggravating seriousness of a prestige cable drama. The only saving grace of the plodding business drama stuff is Harold Meachum (David Wenham), the father of Ward and Joy who lives in hiding after faking his own death. Wenham is so invested in his character’s giddy evil, and he oozes the charisma that’s lacking in Jones as a lead. I can’t blame Jones entirely for being so unintersting. He’s not a good actor, but the writers give him nothing to work with.
The second episode of Iron First takes place in a mental hospital, with Danny strapped to a bed most of the time. Beds are what I think about when I think of martial arts. Even a pseudo-tournament episode directed by the RZA feels static: Iron Fist ascends each level of a building fighting characters who have more personality than him. A skirmish in a later episode with a drunken-style fighter made me realize yet again how awful Danny is on so many levels. Iron Fist has feet of clay and a brain of rock. When he’s not making the dumbest or wrongest decision, he’s pilloried with self-doubt. His scowling facial expressions hint at tears on the verge. He’s often so flummoxed with anger that he can’t use his magic fist to punch things really hard. Danny Rand is Anakin Skywalker with erectile dysfunction.
But yes, the fights. Oh god, the fights.
Good fights tell stories. A character’s fighting style reveals something about who they are inside, like some external manifestation of the self. They may have a signature move (Ric Fair’s figure four leglock) or a unique weapon (Captain America’s shield) or a personal fighting style (Ip Man’s wing chun) that differentiates them from others.
The primary characters in Iron Fist fight the same way–slow, clumsily, like actors in a martial arts show rather than martial artists. Their movements vary only superficially, and there is nothing dynamic or unique about the fights that pepper the series. Danny essentially fights just like fellow martial artist Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) even though she uses a sword and they have entirely different martial arts backgrounds. The fights of Iron Fist all look like glacial, inartful brawls. Seasoned fighters are turned into mere goons. I expected more from a martial arts show, namely decent martial arts.
The fights of Daredevil put this show to shame; ditto the action in Arrow and Into the Badlands and even every iteration of Power Rangers. The camera angles obscure movement in the frame, the shots are banal and shaky, and there are so many confusing cuts that interrupt the flow of the action to the point of incoherence. It’s amateur hour in the dojo and the editing bay. What’s more, the fights all feel so perfunctory, or even like a chore, as if the writers thought, “A fight scene? Aww, do we have to? I really wanted to get into that class action lawsuit subplot.”
We’re told that the Danny Rand is the world’s greatest martial artist, but he fights like a guy who took karate at the Y two summers ago.
Why does a security guard with a knife give this guy so much trouble? The person Danny dispenses of the fastest in the entire show is a teenager he hits in the ankle with a shinai. He wasn’t expecting it either (sucker shinai?) and Danny preceded his assault by verbally berating the dojo for not taking martial arts seriously. Some hero, right? Hell, Danny doesn’t even take off his shoes when he’s in the dojo. Didn’t they teach you anything in K’un-L’un, buddy? I’m pretty sure they at least took off their shoes at the Cobra Kai dojo. A great martial artist and he has the emotional intelligence of a bratty 10 year old and the balance of a newborn fawn.
Later episodes of the show seem to break the fourth wall and acknowledge that Danny is a really crummy character. While he’s trying to rescue a person being held captive, Danny’s scuffle with a goon leads to said captive getting stabbed in the chest. What a hero. After watching him fight, one character even says, “Wow, you really are the worst Iron Fist ever.” The final scene of season one even has Danny tacitly acknowledge that yes, he really does suck at everything, doesn’t he?
Danny Rand’s bumbling heroism makes Colleen Wing that much more compelling as the show’s secret protagonist. She’s a poor martial arts instructor who helps her students make smart, moral choices while she’s struggling to make ends meet. She compromises principles, she shows generosity to others, she learns and grows from her mistakes. Henwick does what she can with the script, and she has enough presence to carry the scenes she’s in amiably. I found myself grateful for every Colleen Wing scene–finally a character to care about (other than David Wenham’s Evil Faramir).
There’s so much at stake for Colleen, and she has so much potential to carry a show on her own, but she’s relegated to supporting status. Danny Rand is Jack Burton to Colleen Wing’s Wang Chi, but in a boring version of Big Trouble in Little China that’s mostly about the intricacies of the commercial trucking industry. “Have you paid your dues? Well, let me explain the importance of unionization in a field such as ours over a power lunch.”
By the way, we never see Iron Fist punch the dragon in the chest. We don’t even see the dragon and we barely get a look at K’un-L’un. This was probably due to budgetary constraints. Everything about Iron Fist looks laughably cheap.
I didn’t touch on the issue of cultural appropriation or orientalism in this review, which is oddly the least of the show’s problems. I’m actually okay in theory with Danny Rand being white so long as the show was interesting. The show is not interesting. You don’t even need to watch it to understand what will happen in Netflix’s The Defenders. That sort of completism is for rubes. Just read about the set up online. There’ll be more illumination in three or four sentences than there is in 13 hours of dreck with a weaksauce ending. The story in your head will probably be better anyways. There’s so much you can do in life with 13 precious, precious hours. Don’t make the mistake of watching Iron Fist.