After months of anticipation, Iron Fist, finally made its debut. In the advance screenings of the first six episodes, the reviews were admonishing to put it lightly. After the full release, there have been more diverse opinions, but it’s difficult to take accurate stock of wide opinion so early. What I can do is give my own opinions based on a close analysis of both the good and the bad.
Danny Rand is the Iron Fist, a man with immense Martial Arts abilities as instilled by the masters of the mystical, extra-dimensional city of K’un L’un. He has abilities granted by the chi of the dragon Shou-Lao that give him enhanced strength a litany of other abilities he’s yet to discover (in the series). As we all know, a major point of impasse concerning the character is the fact that his origins and the culture surrounding him is Asian and he’s a white man. I will elaborate on the issues with this before I dive too deeply into the show itself.
The original Iron Fist series released in 1974, two years after Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury, one of the greatest Martial Arts movies of all time. I don’t think this was a coincidence. That film and culture, was taken and adopted to the Marvel story, featuring a white man joining the Asian-rooted society of K’un L’un and becoming its champion. This, of course, was the 70s and this sort of cultural appropriation was largely par for the course. The character grew, and gained fans, especially in his stories with Luke Cage (Power Man and Iron Fist) which steered the focus away from his Asian cultured roots. As the stories continued on, the issues with this problematic origin of Asian erasure was addressed in his (very few) solo series, creating some very eye opening and respectful stories.
The canon would dictate that Iron Fist be a white. However, the canon is based on origin stories that dismiss Asian hero representation in the comic books, and is inherently culturally insensitive and racist. While the character himself isn’t of an insensitive mind, the implications behind his creation are. This is why there was such a strong push by fans who understand this problematic origin, to call for the Iron Fist to be Asian-American. By keeping him white, as he is in the comic books, we use the canon as an excuse for continuing to perpetuate this appropriation. Changing him to an Asian-American, raised in the states, who learns and was trained in the ways of his culture would have been both interesting, and a nice point of entry for Marvel’s first front-running Asian character on screen. Instead the showrunners casted Finn Jones.
I didn't like the idea of Finn Jones at first, but as I watched episode one I realized he isn’t a horrible actor, and initially, I didn’t find him to be a major problem of the show, other than what was discussed above. At the same token he isn’t particularly interesting either. He doesn’t really remind me of Danny in the comics. I don't write him off completely though. Luke Cage isn’t quite like he is from the comics either, and his character, as played in the show, is very well done. Still, as the this series continued on, I found that Danny is prone to child-like temper tantrums and immature ideologies that cause him to make stupid mistakes. He’s incredibly naïve. The only thing that is similar to the Danny we love from the comics are his decisions with him company, The Rand Corporation. By the end of the series, he’d left a bad taste in my mouth, though I do think that’s more due to his writing, than his acting.
To make matters worse, most of the other characters aren’t very compelling either. We meet Ward and Joy Meachum and initially their characters seem well defined. Then, a few episodes in, we are confused about whether or not they are protagonists or antagonists. Danny is trying for a full two episodes to prove who he is, and Joy seems to be for believing him, but when they do finally have good confirmation, she seems to turn on him in favor of her brother’s ideology, which makes for really unclear character progression. Then at the same time, Ward who seemed like the obvious villain at first (and had just pushed Danny out of a window) turns around starts to warn Danny against his father, Harold Meachum who turns out to be the main antagonist. Then Danny warms up to him in a superfluous act of naiveté. Harold is his own box of sloppy, cliché development that never fully comes together.
The most interesting and well-handled character by far is Colleen Wing, a Japanese American fighter who struggles with her devotion to the honor of martial arts and her commitments. She runs a dojo and trains younger students, helping them to achieve something brighter in their future. In ways, not unlike Misty Knight from Luke Cage, she comes into her being throughout the series both physically and emotionally. Other than Agent May and Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., she is the most front running example of Asian hero representation in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. I can’t wait to see more of her in the future. Hopefully she and Misty Knight can star in a Daughters of the Dragon series featuring the two of them.
Aside from that, Madame Gao plays her role as another major antagonist, and like in Daredevil, she is quite compelling, but her writing seems to be missing something. The same goes for Bakuto, who shows up in the last half of the series. Something the other Marvel Netflix series were able to accomplish were the introduction of powerful villains that easily ran the show. Iron Fist seems to be lacking immensely in this aspect, and we several times find ourselves wondering exactly who the real enemy is. When this is finally revealed we find that they aren’t nearly as interesting as any of those in the other 3 series, and it’s quite disappointing.
When it comes to plot Iron Fist seems to be unsure of itself. The first two episodes move very slow, and deal with Danny trying to prove who he is. It's attention grabbing at first, but then it seems to drag. When he finally is able to prove himself it takes a while to figure out where the plot is headed, and once we know that it has something to do with Gao, it takes even longer to get there. Along the way, nothing much happens in between except for what feels like filler with the Meachums.
The Meachums are mindboggling boring. Ward is incredibly bland and Joy’s character doesn’t seem like it knows what it wants to do. Harold started off interesting and then became cliché and unimaginable, like a thrift store Norman Osborn from Spider-Man. The plot puts way too much time into these characters and they just aren’t very interesting. I constantly find myself asking for them to get back to Danny, Colleen and Claire. Harold’s story takes a predictable turn that in my opinion was cringe-worthy to watch him act out. I don’t feel it’s his fault either. I think that can only be attributed to bad writing.
Most of the show, Danny and Colleen are fighting a bunch of no-name members of The Hand in the pursuit of Madame Gao. Danny doesn’t ever really face a real challenge (rxcept for Lewis Tan's character) and we never get the sense that any enemies are a real threat. Then the plot shifts, and takes a slow rise to the new enemy (Kabuto) at an unbearable pace... then it shifts again. There is no plot cohesion and it makes it hard to keep a real interest in it.
Fans were waiting for Lewis Tan’s character Zhou Cheng. When he finally does show up, that fight is so short that it undersells the value of both Lewis Tan and the character he’s playing, immensely. While the scene is one of the best in the show, due to Tan's perfomance, he should have been so much more. With proper direction he could have been a great primary villain. This was a major misstep in the writing.
In one of the more problematic scenes Danny expressed to be far superior to Colleen Wing, a master combatant woman of color, at her own art. This is further exasperated by the fact that it is implied that he taught her techniques she needed to win a fight. These were brief moments but speaks volumes to the erasure all the same. Colleen should be a major obstacle for Danny to overcome, and insinuating that a white man is that much better than a woman of color at her own cultural art is simply wrong.
The Brass Tax
At the end of the day, this show lacks the basic elements that drive story. The hero had no lowest point, and the conflicts were too intangible. The characters are boring and we don’t really feel for them. It’s hard to tell if its due to acting or bad writing. The plot is slow, tedious and has an “as you go" feel. And the villains are shifting, lacking in the threat department, and largely forgettable.
I can say that Iron Fist is easily the least compelling of all the Marvel Netflix series’ and unlike the others, I have not even a remote desire to watch it again. When you combine cultural appropriation with dull characters and unsure writing, you end up with Marvel’s first real MCU blunder. The best thing coming from this series is Colleen Wing and the future knowledge of seeing Luke Cage and Iron Fist together on screen. Aside from that, I’d only recommend Colleen’s scenes, the Episode 6 tournament, and the fight with Lewis Tan.