Every team needs its lighthearted member, especially if it’s otherwise predominantly composed of brooders. Or, in the case of Netflix’s Marvel dramas, a show about punchy Catholic guilt and ruining all your personal relationships, a show about having your will stolen from you and ruining all of your personal relationships and a show about ...
OK, Luke Cage wasn’t quite as dark as Daredevil or Jessica Jones but it was still by no means about happy endings. I admit I was allowing myself to hope that Iron Fist, necessarily the most fantastical of its Marvel Netflix siblings, would distinguish itself by embracing the post-modern superhero trend of The Lego Batman Movie, Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy.
But I’m not surprised that Iron Fist isn’t a comedy. I’m surprised that it’s so bad.
And it is laughably bad.
Netflix has only provided reviewers with the first six episodes of Iron Fist’s 13-episode season, but watching them was a baffling experience. After Jessica Jones (a revelation), Luke Cage (flawed but still brilliant) and Daredevil (outshone by the competition but still very solid), I fully expected Iron Fist to be a decent adaptation ultimately hobbled by an unwillingness to stray too far from its dated source material. Instead, I found myself incredulously texting coworkers who also had screener access to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
And let me be clear: Iron Fist’s problems with its portrayal of Asian cultures and Asian Americans are embedded throughout every episode. It’s just that its problems with delivering exposition, crafting consistent characters, and even basic dialogue writing run right alongside.
Sure, this is a show where a white male character explains how to punch to an Asian-American, female head of her own dojo, in her own dojo ... wait, let me be painfully specific. A white male character explains his martial art — which was made up by white men in the 1970s as a nonspecifically Asian but definitionally more powerful technique than those invented by actual Asian cultures — to an Asian-American, female expert in actual martial arts developed by actual Asian cultures.
But it is also a show that — in a scene that is played completely straight — delivers vital exposition by having a homeless man walk up to the lead and ask him if he wants to google anything on the phone that he just stole. Less than an episode later, this mystical Exposition Hobo friend dies of an apparent overdose with no warning or impact to the narrative.
Several major characters have motivations that seem nonsensical. One character inexplicably still trusts two others as allies even after they had him falsely committed to a mental health facility for several days. Another develops a violently expressed addiction to painkillers in practically the space of a single episode.
Iron Fist regularly delivers exposition by having characters explain fundamental aspects of their lives to people who’ve known them for years, and it routinely has its leads reveal their emotions by baldly stating them out loud. “I’m questioning things,” says a lifelong corporate manipulator, virtually without preamble, to another lifelong corporate manipulator. “Are we on the right side of this?” These are really basic screenwriting problems.
The situation becomes most dire in the case of our lead, Danny Rand, who is a veritable cypher. Between the script and Finn Jones’ delivery, we never get a consistent sense of Danny’s inner thoughts. The closest he comes to expressing them are in the platitudes of hokey martial arts films — Buddhist or pseudo-Buddhist koans and lower-register-delivered action movie snores like “It’s time.”
Compounding this is that Iron Fist has decided that one of the major mysteries of the first season would be the reason why Danny — the Iron Fist, champion and sworn protector of Ku’n-Lun, we are repeatedly told — left his kung fu life to come back to New York. The result is that we have essentially no idea of who Danny is as a person, even half-way through the season.
He’s an ascetic monk, but one who fights hard to recoup billions of dollars of money, corporate power and physical property for himself. He’s been training to fight the insidious cult known as “the Hand” since the age of 10, but seems shocked that they are active in New York. The show attempts to frame Danny’s naïveté as charming, or a mark of his otherworldlyness, but it comes off more as social ineptitude and childishness.
Iron Fist repeatedly frames Danny’s training in Ku’n-Lun as a tragic backstory — while also saying that he’s the best of the best, that he struggled long, hard and willingly to triumph in his discipline and literally attain magical punching powers. Instead of kung fu adventure, the first six episodes have a strange preoccupation with corporate maneuvering, as if that is the reason we’d be watching a show about a martial arts master who can summon the power of an ancient dragon.
Speaking of, the fight scenes in this martial arts hero show are, well, bland. Nothing in these episodes approaches what Luke Cage or either season of Daredevil did by combining choreography, cinematography and emotional stakes into scenes that riveted the viewer. An entire episode about Danny fighting Themed Assassins was barely worth sitting forward in your seat for.
Iron Fist does have some bright spots. Carrie-Anne Moss and Rosario Dawson do remarkable work with flat dialogue, breathing life into their scenes for just long enough to remind you of the shows that Jeryn Hogarth and Claire Temple originated in. Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, similarly, is so far a bastion of relatable decision making, one of the only characters show so far whose problems seem like real problems and whose reaction to them seems like an understandable response.
Iron Fist is not the strongest of its siblings, but team dynamics being what they are, it’ll no doubt benefit from the association. There will be plenty of folks out there who watch the show to keep up with the overall plot of the Marvel Netflix shows, and to see how Iron Fist presumably sets up for The Defenders later this year. Unfortunately, I can’t say at the moment that there are other reasons to binge.