The Importance of Getting The Details Right: Netflix's Iron Fist


My friends and I watched Iron Fist last weekend, despite all the middling reviews I'd seen littered over the internet.  Already by the time we started Friday night it felt like it had gone past harsh reviews to kicking a dead horse.  But we gave it a shot anyway, and I was...unimpressed, to put it mildly.   The series has a very slow start, a decent middle, and an utterly garbage ending.  Danny's naivete goes far past being charming into making him look like a child, while the Meachum plot takes center stage often enough and in enough episodes that they're almost co-main characters.

I didn't want to believe it.  When the poor reviews came out, I wanted to write them off as people being merely frustrated by Marvel's choice to go with a white Danny Rand rather than an Asian-American, a popular sentiment around the time the internet was speculating who would play the titular character.  But no, the show is simply mediocre, and easily the worst of the four Netflix series and likely will remain so for years to come even if Marvel and Netflix choose to expand their "street-level universe".

Don't read this before OR after watching the series, you'll just get mad.
 
To be clear, I'm not particularly a huge Iron Fist fan.  I never even cared about the character until Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction did their take on him with Immortal Iron Fist: a gorgeously drawn and well-written comic that expanded on Iron Fist's universe in ways I felt made him a character worthy of exploring in other mediums.  Iron Fist went from being a relative cipher in my mind to being a small piece of this massive world and lineage of gritty martial artists with arcane fighting styles.  So when the Netflix series were announced, I felt Iron Fist easily had the most potential alongside Daredevil, and my excitement only grew with the release of each surprisingly great Marvel Netflix series.

I knew I was being ridiculous, but as I watched the first two episodes I was frustrated and irked at the fact that so many who wanted a different Danny would no doubt be happy the show sucked.  Decades as a comic fan have conditioned me to want all characters (AND their worlds) to be as they were in the comics as closely as possible.  With few exceptions, I almost always prefer the characters in an adaptation to be as close to the comics as possible: I didn't ask for any changes/"notes" and they usually suck anyway, so just stick to the damn script/source material.   Yes, I'm all for diversity...I just also happen to believe the comics should take point and the films/television shows/lunchbox dramas should just follow their lead.

But as I finished Iron Fist and started running over the series in my mind, trying to figure out what went wrong...I wondered if my way of thought wasn't misguided.  Instead of getting superficial things like Iron Fist's race right, wouldn't it have been better if the show had nailed the harsh, dangerous martial arts world the character inhabits?  The more I thought about it, the more I realized the problem was much bigger than the story, or even the acting and casting.  And they were all problems that lied with the show runner, Scott Buck.  In charge of the whole show, Buck is responsible for much of the decisions that went into the series.  Obviously there's a whole room of writers that take on different episodes and they share much of the fault as well, but when the problems with a show involve getting the actual heart of a character and the tone of their world---that's something so deep that the blame has to fall at the feet of the person in charge.

And it makes me wonder: did the same decisions that led to casting Finn Jones as Danny Rand lead to creating the lackluster version of the Immortal Weapon that we got?  It's more than just the "white savior" trope being enacted and played straight, and it's even more than Danny Rand explaining Asian philosophy to Asian people, which is...unconscionably stupid, and someone really should have caught that.   But while these are grave missteps, the series has worse problems that make the series into the mediocrity it unfortunately happens to be.

If you haven't seen the show yet, spoiler: Ward actually ends up with a better character arc than Danny.
Everything about Iron Fist feels shallow--from Danny's cursory understanding of Buddhist philosophies to the fight scenes.  It all feels poorly researched, with the exception of the parts that have nothing to do with the real core of Iron Fist's character; boardroom drama and family pathos of characters that haven't been central to Danny's life in years.  As mentioned previously, the Meachum "subplot" takes up so much time that it makes me question if Scott Buck even wanted to do a superhero series at all.  If that sounds crazy, hold off a second and follow me for a bit.

The very first red flag that went up for the series for me came surprisingly close to its premiere, as these Netflix productions are usually kept very hush-hush until they're already airing.  Press interviews with Jones and Buck began hitting websites, and suddenly we got talk of the Iron Fist costume not appearing.  By itself, this isn't really a cause for concern, but the reasoning was a different story: Buck claimed they were going for a more "realistic" and grounded story, and thus a costume might not fit the story they were telling.

Ah yes, the realistic (or lazy) jeans/jacket combo, directly from the "Wolverine" collection.

Now aside from the fact that the words realism and grounded should send long-time comic book fans into rage-induced seizures, let's look at Danny's origin for just a moment.  He started out as a young child who survived a plane crash over some snow-capped mountains in China.  Now after this miraculous escape, he made it to a mystical city made up almost entirely of martial artists; the city of K'un Lun, a magical metropolis locked off from the material world aside from a brief window every fifteen years when the gate stands open for travelers to cross to and fro.  While there, Danny trained and trained, until he felt ready to take on K'un Lun's greatest challenge: Shou Lao the Undying, an Immortal Dragon who will grant his powers to a brave soul capable of plunging their fist into his heart and claiming them for themselves.  Only then, do they become...the Iron Fist.

That origin is about as realistic as a young child traveling to Earth in a spaceship as his home planet explodes, destined to become our greatest hero.  It presumes the existence of dragons, mystical cities with equally mystical entrance gates, and transference of supernatural powers to very natural human beings.  Scott Buck saw all of that and for whatever reason thought, "I'm going to do a realistic take on this character."

STILL, the show is still salvageable at this point!  After all, most people would say martial arts films are realistic, aside from everyone's superhuman tolerance to pain and bodily harm.  Just toss Danny into New York City with a mission to hunt down the Hand, maybe have him hook up with Misty and Colleen to do the job, and whenever someone asks where he's been, just have him give dodgy, vague answers like "Away.  A long way away."  Then pack the series with tons of high-impact fight scenes that would make even Daredevil cringe, and viola: an instant 8/10, at least.

I want to make a "bored room" joke, but I feel like there's no fresh fruit left on that tree.

But that's not what we got.  Instead Iron Fist focuses Danny regaining control over Rand Industries, a place Danny is as much a part of as Bruce is a part of Wayne Corp.  An episode is wasted on Danny being a hobo, but little to no salient points on homelessness are made, even though a show built around Danny building up a network of homeless informants to fight the Hand would have been quite the novel approach.  Then another episode is flushed as we explored the sheer absurdity of Daniel's origins in a psychiatric ward, a concept wasted that would have been much better explored by Moon Knight, a superhero with actual mental health issues.  Arguably, the series doesn't get going until episode four, and the far more interesting character morally and in terms of fight scenes is Jessica Henwick, a.k.a. Colleen Wing.  Funnily enough, the show's focus on "realism" did at least cause someone to actually think about how a 120 pound woman could straight up bully opponents twice her size, leading to the most brutal, intense fights of the series.

But poor Danny boy on the other hand is caught between being a faux-Batman, desperately trying to figure out who killed his parents while also somehow being too "Zen" to admit he cares, while also
being the "destroyer of the Hand".  Which brings us to Danny's lackluster fights--from the impact-less blows he lands on the security guards in the first episode, to the way he knocks Harold Meachum over in the final act of the thirteenth only to run away from him because he's holding a gun he can't even aim..because he's been knocked over, disappointment gradually became the normal state of things for a fight involving what is supposed to be Marvel's most impressive martial artist.

To be honest, this guy probably should've been Danny.  He definitely fought better.

There are some highlights to be sure, but even those come with a caveat, as they often feel so rote as to be cliche.  I rolled my eyes when the Drunken Master appeared in episode eight.  It was easily one of the best fights of the season, but it still felt like such a lazy inclusion; like it was just there because a lot of great martial arts films have drunken masters.  The RZA-directed episode six had a mini-tournament in it, but the fights were over far too quick, and Danny had far too much trouble with most of his opponents given who he's meant to be.  And that's before we mention the show's inclusion of fellow Immortal Weapon Bride of Nine Spiders--something that should have been a bigger deal--and wrote her off as a generic, poison-using seductress instead of the terrifying mistress of arachnids she should be.

All of this leads me to wonder how the show would have been if the show runner had cared less about "grounding" and more about the roots of the character.   Maybe they would have been more apt to do research into Asian culture, and Iron Fist could have sounded and acted like more of a martial artist at peace with himself rather than a petulant child who got halfway through a book about Zen philosophy and got too bored to finish it, but still spouts the phrases he thinks "sounds cool".  Perhaps they would have cared more about the choreography of each fight, and budgeted for a proper fight choreographer.  As it stands, Iron Fist's fights remind me of the 90's Highlander TV series' sword fights.  They're not great, but you're just impressed they're happening at all when most shows look more like Matlock and In the Heat of the Night.  But it's not the 90's anymore, and when Netflix series look more like long-form films than television series, the standards are raised even higher.  When I went into Iron Fist, I expected John Wick, but with These Hands.  I expected The Raid with maybe some light wuxia elements.  Honestly, I expected every other episode to have a fight scene on par with Daredevil season one's hallway scene, or season two's scene in the stairwell.  Instead we got Walker, Texas Ranger: Defender of K'un Lun.

It's rare that the supporting cast is so much more intriguing than the lead.

And maybe instead of wasting so much time with the Meachums, a different showrunner would have drawn further on Danny's actual supporting cast.  Like using Jeri Hogarth as a way to spot illegal activities happening around Rand Industries, or Misty Knight getting involved with a weird police case involving decapitations, who transferred to Manhattan after becoming disillusioned with the Harlem PD after the "Black Mariah" case went sour.  And maybe Davos appears far earlier and is far angrier Danny abandoned both their friendship and his post...and has mysterious powers much like the Iron Fist that Danny can't explain.

And perhaps the show runner who made all of these more thoughtful choices would have also cast an Asian Danny Rand?  Would the feeling of being an outsider to the community be as strong?  Not really, but if you weren't going to set the series in K'un Lun, what difference would that have really made?  Not much, and ultimately if everything else had been true to the character it would have been a small enough change that I think most comic fans (me included) would've easily accepted the casting.

Ultimately though, the biggest problem is that not nearly enough thought went into bringing this character to life, and far too much maybe went into being "realistic".  Even though Danny was a white guy, if they had even attempted to take advantage of what the comics were actually very smart about: a white male learning to navigate spaces that are almost always distinctively not white--it would have been a better series.  Whether it's him being the lone white guy in K'un Lun, or in Harlem working with Luke and Misty, or even as a vigilante in a city that is most likely increasingly turning against those type of people, Danny is usually viewed as an outsider. Ironically the work put in to make the series more relatable ended up being the series downfall-- they tried to bring us further into Danny's world of being ludicrously rich and privileged, and unfortunately the show was poorer for it. 

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