After genuinely cutting-edge series about Marvel‘s heroes, Netflix‘s ‘Iron Fist‘ turns out to be more misfortune cookie than genuine martial-artistry…
Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is supposed to be dead. After being on board a plane that crashed into the Himalayas over fifteen years ago, the world has moved on without the young boy or his rich parents, once the toast of New York. But the family’s empire thrived under the guidance of business partners the Meachams – (Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and his sister Joy (Jessica Stroup). Imagine, then, their surprise when a young man walks into the lobby of their sky-scraper with merely the clothes on his back (and not even a pair of shoes), claiming to be Danny.
Even stranger is that ‘Danny’ claims he not only survived the plane crash but that he has been living in another dimension, trained to be a warrior by a secret society of monks and that only a rare portal in time and space has helped him return to the world of his youth.
With no friends and pitted against a disbelieving and ruthless family, Danny will have to try hard to convince his possible new allies (such as Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick) and enemies of not only of his real identity but also of the amazing power he has been trained to wield. But even if he can, how will that power be used and who may want to harness Danny for their own agenda?
And so, the final member of the Netflix / Marvel ‘Defenders’ has just been launched by Netflix… and it’s quite a different animal.
Where Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all felt like they were placed mere inches above the street-level problems of the everyday dark and sometimes depressing world, Danny Rand’s is placed in an odd mixture of penthouses, skyscrapers and corporate management and viewed by a guy who looks like he’d be equally impressed by a totally radical wave to surf. The ‘lightest’ of the series to date, Iron Fist takes its nods from the Marvel comic of the same name and basic premise, but its pacing is different than its stable-mates – a laconic delivery that immediately can’t quite find its tightrope: is this a wacky kung-fu outing, a boardroom power-play or the latest superhero fix in an era that is already looking crowded?
Even before a single moment of Iron Fist had been seen, the controversies were loud – a sifu’d swirl of good news/bad news in quick succession. GOOD NEWS! Netflix and Marvel, fresh from major successes with the likes of Murdock, Jones and Cage were putting their efforts into one of Marvel’s premier martial-artists! BAD NEWS! The main character would be a white Caucasian. GOOD NEWS! Hey, it’s Iron Fist and that’s the essence of the entire story. BAD NEWS! Wait, you’re not hiring a really strong martial-artist to play him?
For a while the nature of a white-guy at the heart of a high-profile martial-arts show was seen as another example of cinematic whitewashing (something we’ll discuss at length another time) but as some others pointed out, this might be a slightly skewed fight to pick. The casting issue could feel redundant with Iron Fist because however much the campaign to have Asian actors in key roles is a worthwhile and needed drive, the character was always a ‘white dude whose life is transformed through eastern spirituality and power’ – that’s its whole hook. Those complaining about this particular casting swept the leg of their own argument. To have Danny played by an Asian actor would be the same as having Luke Cage played by a Caucasian performer… it would fundamentally change the DNA of the story and character. But that very fact is what makes the production problematic: it’s not casting, it’s the entire premise.
If you’re playing to an audience interested in the martial-arts side of proceedings (and that’s certainly in the marketing thrust) then it’s immediately disheartening to see a western surfer-dude instruct an Asian-American (one who even owns her own dojo!) in what she’s doing wrong and offer to teach her how to be better. Disheartening is the kind word, some may go further and find that whole notion insulting and falling back into a template of ‘superior-westerner’ that feels way out-of-step with the progress and awareness of eastern culture and genre of films.
And that, in essence is the unavoidable problem with Iron Fist. It’s not, despite what you may have heard in the past few weeks from early reviews, irredeemably terrible. Far from it. It’s a workable adventure show with decent, adequate performances but… well, Rand and Co. are bland in execution. Netflix, SO much one of the current key players and frontrunners in edgy, interesting television, has produced a show that would feel at home with the safest network and is penned and directed in a way that feels like it could have been broadcast a decade ago.
Perhaps all of that could be forgiven and subverted if the martial-arts were truly cutting-edge and placed front and centre in the show as you’d expect it would be. But at best they feel passable and used as reluctant punctuation – which is a shame as it is respected fight coordinator Brett Chan (who had recently completed two seasons of Marco Polo in Malaysia for Netflix) who was overseeing the fights.
For a show with martial-arts at its heart, Iron Fist makes a good corporate raider: even when RZA directs a later episode that is – finally – more action-orientated, it still feels like the show would rather be talking mergers than ninjas and exploring the fish-out-of-water idea of a ‘hippy’ Danny in a bespoke-suited meeting. A lot of time is spent with the machinations of the Meachams and their slow realisation that the stranger who is disrupting their lives might actually be the real Danny Rand who has been missing for so long – and a major complication to their business dealings. There are cursory fights and rent-a-thug punches thrown as things progress, but no more than many a generic tv show and the ‘Iron Fist’ technique itself doesn’t even show up until the end of the second episode… and a big glowy hand doesn’t feel like the climactic revelation it should.
Finn, as Danny Rand, does indeed bring a boyish charm, but it’s not really defined… it’s as if the writers themselves don’t know who Danny is or what he wants and are hoping the script will magically reveal itself. The actor recently responded to the mixed reviews from critics, stating: “…these shows are not made for critics, they are first and foremost made for the fans.” – which is a little silly as it’s quite possible to be a professional critic AND be a fan and want a project to be a winner. And it’s not.
The truth is that Iron Fist is watchable, silly fun – a perfectly reasonable but unremarkable show for the casual viewer that might thrive on a parallel-parked evening network schedule… but in an era where we have better Marvel/Netflix collaborations and superior shows such as Into the Badlands, this feels like going into a safe zone. Those looking for light escapism WILL find it’s a series worth watching – there’s infinitely worse ways to spend your time. But those looking for a show that finally celebrates eastern philosophy and puts martial-arts at its heart will likely be baffled about how that remit is all but distilled down to a selection of short fight scenes and the kind of spiritual insight found in a fortune cookie.
*A longer version of this review will appear in the next print issue of MAI.