It pains me to write this, because I was beyond thrilled when a C-level Marvel Comics hero spawned in the 70s was chosen to round out Netflix’s ‘Defenders’ lineup. Because he had the most fantastical origin, which involves leaving the monastery where he was raised in order to battle a dragon barehanded and steal its power, it made sense to leave him until the end of the batting order after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. But amidst all the hubbub about cultural appropriation and whitewashing, the showrunners committed a far greater sin: they made a boring show. About a comic book character. And not just any comic book character, oh, no.
You see, when writer Matt Fraction teamed up with Ed Brubaker to create a new book for Danny Rand’s alter ego ten years back, he was asked what makes the character a good fit for comics. His reply was reputedly, “What, are you kidding me? Kung fu billionaire.”
I don't know how you make that boring, but Netflix and showunner Scott Buck? They managed to find a way.
There are hints of a family struggle as Danny Rand (Finn Jones), returning to New York after being presumed dead for 15 years, tries to reclaim the birthright of his father’s corporation from the son and daughter of dad’s former business partner. The fact that he is also the legendary Iron Fist barely comes into play the first few episodes.
Obviously I can only speak for myself, but I did not actually tune into a show about a kung fu billionaire in order to watch protracted scenes of boardroom machinations and familial skullduggery. But for a while, that's what you get.
The family drama is not uninteresting, but takes far too much time to unspool, and worst of all, I found myself not caring too much about any of the characters, including Danny. There are a few unexpected moments that perk things up from time to time, but on the whole, things just take too long to happen, something not altogether uncommon for Netflix’s Marvel shows, sadly.
The biggest problem though, is Finn Jones himself. His Danny Rand goes from Zen-like grace and compassion to a man needing anger management with very little in the way of rhyme or reason (although that may be a factor of multiple writers over the season). He is not a particularly expressive thespian, and spends way too much time sulking pensively.
And, worst of all, he isn't a very good fighter.
Don't get me wrong, dude is fit and all, and some of the blame needs to go to the directors, and I appreciate you sometimes have to spend a little from the Laurence Olivier stack in order to bump up the Jackie Chan pile, but the kung fu is lacking in both quality and quantity. In fact, I think there are some episodes where you get more hands being thrown in the animated opening credit sequence than in the rest of the episode. Seriously.
Now, Jones is an actor, not a fighter, and soft, circular forms like kung fu are much harder to pick up than hard linear forms like karate, but ask anyone who has seen both shows who would win in a fight between Daredevil and Iron Fist, and no one is going to say ‘Danny Rand with a k.o.', I assure you.
There are a few other things that burned me up: inconsistent powers for a major villain, a cell phone plot hole near the end, the lack of comic book influence beyond the title character, and so on.
So why watch it? I mean, besides being a glutton for punishment like me, I mean? Well...
- Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick (a former Sand Snake from Game of Thrones) is absolutely awesome: beautiful, tough, compassionate, complex, and good at kicking ass barehanded or slinging around a katana.
- Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) aka Netflix’s Agent Coulson returns. She is not only great in her role (as usual) but also gives Iron Fist a chance to pass the Bechdel Test, surprisingly. (Hey, here’s an idea: team up Colleen with Misty Knight from Luke Cage like they do in the comics (as The Daughters of the Dragon), add Claire to the mix and give them their own show. I would watch the hell out of that!)
- The first time Danny summons the Iron Fist, it is actually pretty cool.
- Complex motivations - Danny’s childhood friends, Joy and Ward Meachum, alternate between being his rivals and his allies in his return to Rand Corporation, and are far more than just villainous cutouts or potential love interests. Their relationship with their own father takes a number of twists and turns over the course of the series.
- The episode directed by Wu Tang Clan's RZA, "Immortal Emerges From Cave", is not bad at all, with intriguing opponents, some imaginative production design and set dressing, and a couple of visual nods to Fraction's "Immortal Iron Fist" run.
- About ten seconds of smuggled b&w footage taken by the Chinese military in the 1940s that tease what might yet come.
- They do build a larger story leading up to The Defenders, aka Netflix’s Avengers. Fingers crossed?
I'm not giving up on Iron Fist yet, I have too much invested in the character and there is sooooo much good stuff to be wrung out of the comics: the legends and legacies of the many Iron Fists that preceded Danny! The Steel Serpent! The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven! The Immortal Weapons Tournament! Fat Cobra!
Whoever is running The Defenders gets another stab at the character before any decisions get made about a second season, and hopefully that sets Iron Fist back on course a little bit. If a second season dos get greenlit here are my suggestions for having the Living Weapon of K’un L’un get his mojo back:
- New showrunner- sorry Scott Buck, I just don't think you get it. Is Steven DeKnight free? Could RZA run a show if Jeph Loeb reined him in a bit?
- Yeah, you guessed it - MORE KUNG FU
- And better kung fu, for that matter. Get Yuen Woo-Ping and his wire wizards from The Matrix on the case. Use slow mo creatively, strive for longer takes, get some wild angles in there.
- Improved Iron Fist f/x: and I'm quoting here: “until that hand begins to smoulder, to glow, and to harden...until it becomes...LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON”. Make the glow bigger, make it hotter, give it a sound effect, make it a bigger deal.
- The Costume: use it, man, use it. Let comic shows look like comics for pity's sake.
- And this goes for the rest of the Netflix Marvel crew as well: try to smile just once in a while, huh? Surely there is some joy to be had in being a super-powered so-and-so? I mean sure, Daredevil has his guilt, and Jessica Jones has her PTSD, but Danny Rand? Kung fu billionaire? Can we make him just a smidgen more fun to be around?