Iron Fist has not suffered critically because it’s only for fans (though, as with Marvel’s other Netflix outings, fandom certainly has its rewards).
Nor has it been lambasted because of the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency. I’m sorry Finn Jones, I appreciate that having your show taken to task sucks but sometimes you just have to own up to it’s problems and say, “hey, we didn’t make a perfect show. We’ll try harder next time”.
Iron Fist is problematic because it places a white billionaire as, possibly, the pre-eminent practitioner of an Asian martial art. Danny Rand is your friend who went away on a gap year and came back talking about enlightenment, only this guy can punch through steel with his bare hands. The problem is perhaps most elegantly displayed when Danny shows up the Iron Fist‘s female lead, the Asian-American Colleen Wing, in her own dojo. Now admittedly they are students of different martial arts and Danny is supernaturally empowered but still… there’s something about the scene that feels off. Props to the team behind the show for having Colleen not just accept what has been criticised as a moment of mansplaining by Danny but, regardless, it fits into perhaps the core issue of Iron Fist: this is a show suffering from an identity crisis.
For every moment the show spends on martial arts fantasy, it flits back to the corporate intrigues of the Rand Corporation. This is a show that desperately wants to be about a mystical city that taught a young boy how to channel his chi and become a living weapon but, grounded in the grimmer reality of the Marvel Netflix Universe, it has to also be a corporate thriller concerned with the machinations of a billion dollar business and those who have taken control of it in Danny’s absence.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say the business aspects of the show are bad compared to the martial arts bits. I actually enjoy this kind of intrigue and boardroom banter, it is reminiscent of Daredevil‘s lawyer sections. The issue, however, is that while it is certainly possible for the two elements of Iron Fist to be properly intertwined, they too often seem to instead be ungainly clashing against each other.
Even when it gets to the fighting, a lazily sinuous style I actually enjoyed, it is clear, as star Finn Jones has himself confessed, that there often wasn’t as much time for choreography as would be wished. Though the general feel of the fights is something I admired, the easy confidence contrasting well against Daredevil’s trained but admittedly brawling methods, there are definitely moments in which the ease of the combat does not feel a result so much of any of our heroes’ training but rather because they simply didn’t have the time to come up with something more complex.
Again though, it should be highlighted that this element of the show does not fall as flat as other critics have claimed. As I’ve said, there is a style that, though perhaps not allowed to flourish to its full potential, is rather satisfying in its surety. Calling on everything from the oeuvre of Bruce Lee to Hero, Iron Fist has obvious aspirations to the classics of martial art cinema. At its peak, the ambition is perhaps best displayed in the RZA-directed Episode 6, the one you’ve most likely heard praised by other critics, in which Danny must fight in a tournament against several Hand assassins.
Yet again however, Iron Fist‘s potential falters under its slapdash ambition. Placing Danny against the Hand offers the furthering of explaining this shadowy organisation’s plans for New York and lets him go up against opponents similarly skilled to him. However, it also brings up one of Iron Fist’s flattest moments: the end. Without spoiling too much, in essence, Iron Fist doesn’t know who it’s main villain is.
It’s a problem that also beset the other Marvel Netflix show that I felt more lukewarm about: Luke Cage. Perhaps fittingly, and concerningly, Iron Fist and Luke Cage are destined to end up partners. In both shows though, we spend half the season focused on an interesting bad before, towards the end, switching them out for a villain that though not necessarily weak never quite develops into a full fledged Big Bad in the way Kingpin was for Daredevil or Killgrave was for Jessica Jones. Daredevil Season 2 arguably suffered the same issue though with Punisher never really a villain, it’s somewhat different.
Again though: identity crisis. Bait and switch from martial arts enemy to business enemy. End with an ambiguous tease for a second season that doesn’t really seem to lead into the Defenders, the actual immediate follow-up to Iron Fist. Though there are some great final scenes, including a seismic use of the iron fist itself (which does admittedly make me think they maybe saved a bunch of budget for this which is why it doesn’t come up before), it really comes to a close with more of a whimper than a bang.
HOWEVER. Despite all the problems, I like Iron Fist. I really do. Finn Jones does an admirable job as Danny Rand and though the character doesn’t always go the way I would prefer, I don’t think his performance is at fault. David Wenham rather wonderfully sways between simpering and sociopathic, even if he is somewhat wasted across the course of the series. Rosario Dawson continues to be the real heroes of the Defender shows, and by god I pity her for having to put up with another superhero’s shit.*
*Small side note, I think it’s pretty interesting that Daredevil, the least superpowered of the Defenders, is the only one to really fit the superhero mould. He wears a costume, he’s out there trying to do the whole city defender thing. Each of the other Defenders have costumes winked at but never suit up and are arguably driven by far more personal goals than the broader “protect Hell’s Kitchen” mission adopted by Daredevil. Just a cool little thing.
Of course, the standout of the show is Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. Yes, she is a welcome positive diversity representative but, more importantly, she isn’t defined by it. She’s kickass and nuanced and doesn’t take Danny’s nonsense just because he’s the Iron Fist. Coming out of Game of Thrones, where she was sidelined into one of the more savaged storylines, it’s great to see Henwick step up and assume a role that, if she gets her wish, could eventually see her teamed up with Luke Cage’s Misty Knight (played by Simone Missick). If you don’t want to see those two laying waste to crime and having approximately all of the attitude together, I don’t know what will make you happy.
There are some good arcs as well for Jessica Stroup’s Joy Meachum and Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meachum, Ward getting a particularly satisfying transformation across the course of the season and serving as a “relatively” understandable perspective throughout. Other characters pop in and out and are all ably performed but never really make much of an impact. And it’s because again, and to really put this issue to rest now, Iron Fist’s identity crisis drags it down. In some ways it’s fitting, the same way Danny is torn between his duty as Iron Fist and his desire to reclaim his old life as Danny Rand, so the show can’t decide between Iron Fists’ mystic martial arts and Danny Rand’s corporate intrigue. But even more so, the show suffers because it doesn’t define itself enough.
For the faults present across all three of them, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all very much had their own flavour. Iron Fist doesn’t do quite enough to pull itself out as something new. While the mystic elements of the show are interesting, Daredevil has already dealt with shady corporations, Daredevil has already shown us a martial artist hero (even if there are stylistic differences and a lack of super punching in DD) and Daredevil has even fought the Hand himself. Essentially, Iron Fist feels like a retread in too many ways.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the show. Maybe that’s coming at it from an already predisposed to positivity perspective. As a fan of the Defender shows, I’m always down to see more and there are actually a fair few elements to Iron Fist which I’m looking forward to them diving into more. There’s a lot of potential here if the show can just work out what it is it wants to be.
All images courtesy of Netflix