Erin Graham ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Editor
Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Netflix series ‘Iron Fist’.
Marvel’s Iron Fist, which arrived on Netflix March 17th, is a superhero flick dragged out over thirteen episodes, splitting fight scenes into thirty-second portions throughout thirteen hours and repeating the same scenes with different faces, a floundering failure of a project subduing an otherwise gripping narrative. With a remarkable 7.6 out of 10 stars on IMDB and an 86% positive audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s a wonder that the show release was dead on arrival. But with critics on Rotten Tomatoes granting the show only 14% approval ratings, it becomes more clear that, while the show nails some of the classic Marvel superhero elements, the narrative elements dissipate, leaving this body of work more as a skeleton, culminating in a bony and crumbling clenched fist instead of one as strong as iron.
The show begins clumsily, as pilots often do, introducing Danny Rand (Finn Jones), the 20-something heir of Rand Enterprises stumbling back into Hell’s Kitchen from K’un-Lun, China, where his family’s plane crashed and he was the sole survivor, raised by monk warriors. In New York once again, he brings back not just his expertise of mastering one’s chi and channeling it into a fighting technique, but also his special power: he is bestowed with the Iron Fist which, when channeled through the chi, makes the fist all-powerful, and invincible, and maybe capable of healing, had the show bothered to flesh out its powers and limits.
Danny discovers that life-long friends and siblings Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) are now running Danny’s deceased father’s corporation. At first, no one believes it’s actually him; little Danny had died years ago with his parents in a plane crash. Enlisting Hell’s Kitchen’s favorite lawyer, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), she and Joy use an old clay bowl imprinted by both Danny’s fingers and his name to prove that the rattily-dressed man that claims to be Danny Rand is telling the truth. Danny is welcomed back and given a place on the board.
Meanwhile, he’s befriended Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), sensei of the Chikara Dojo, and the flow and tone finally start to sit in around the end of episode four, showing the grit and crime-ridden New York Marvel fans have become so familiar with. Colleen gets involved with cage fighting while Danny combats the corruption at his company. He barges into meetings and insists at selling pharmaceuticals at their face value, rather than profiting off of sick people. A complete throw-away attempt at making Danny endearing, the decision rattles his reborn reputation at Rand Enterprises and drives a wall between Danny and his psuedo-brother, Ward, who doesn’t like this new assertion of power. He’s the only one aware of the fact that his father, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), was granted immortality by the vile drug cartel The Hand, and is very much alive with plans to regain Rand Enterprises from corruption by exploiting Ward.
Episodes five, six, and seven slubber along with forced character development: Danny and Colleen’s relationship undergo a series of appallingly cringe-worthy scenes. Claire (Rosario Dawson), the superhero fixer-upper of Hell’s Kitchen, strides into the narrative, but rather than just saving our hero–and the script–her lines are contrived and awkward, the character fans have grown to love flattened. This also happens to Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the figurehead of the vile drug cartel The Hand, who had enigmatic poise in the other shows, and now has a transparent apathy and nonplussed stares. Her threatening demeanor is gone. She is merely a device for maintaining a facade of character development by asking characters annoyingly mysterious questions and allowing them to respond with emotionally charged monologues.
Episode ten sees the massive bombshell of a plot twist that Colleen is in fact in The Hand, the very organization that Danny was raised to kill. It barely lands as a plot twist at all between the stale acting and weird pacing. With Gao nothing more than a boring captive, we meet Colleen’s old sensei and Villain #2, Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez), in episode eleven, just as the plot begins to steady itself again. Machinations roil as Ward becomes addicted to Gao’s drugs that are poisoning the people of Hell’s Kitchen, while his ungrateful father continues to abuse Ward and Danny to expel The Hand’s influence. Harold eventually reveals himself to Joy, and with Ward in the hospital, the two work to bring down Bakuto, who is the new leader of The Hand.
Bakuto’s men capture Joy, Harold, and Ward and demand that Danny turn himself in. When Danny runs in to save the Meachums, Bakuto flees. Colleen, Claire, and Danny chase Bakuto and fight him in New York while arguing whether or not to kill him and sever the head of The Hand. In the end, Danny’s K’un-Lun childhood friend, Davos (Sacha Dhawan) plunges a knife into Bakuto’s chest and swears vengeance on Danny for ditching the monastery without warning before running off. Danny and Colleen have an angsty conversation and by the time they turn around, “dead” Bakuto is gone.
The series culminates in betrayals left and right, as Joy cannot figure out whether to trust her brother or her father. Harold rakes Danny’s name through the mud and frames him as the one who’s been distributing the poisonous drug. Hogarth and Claire search for Harold’s tablet, which holds information that could free Danny and Colleen as fugitives. Gao informs Danny that it wasn’t The Hand that killed his family…it was Villain #3, Harold. Danny and Colleen storm Rand Enterprises to take out Harold. On the rooftop, Danny debates whether or not to kill him. In the end, Ward shoots his father off of the roof and gives Danny the tablet to clear Danny’s name. Just before the curtain falls, Danny and Colleen head to K’un-Lun so Danny can properly finish his training because, like the writers, he doesn’t know the full limits of his fist. Upon arrival, the monastery is gone.
It would take essays to describe why the show manages to hit on certain superhero cliches and deliver on important Marvel tropes yet poorly execute so many fundamental narrative aspects, but quite simply it fails because Danny Rand is an awful man. A common motif of the show is Danny forcing himself into spaces; while this works in conjuction with the idea of him fighting to get his name back from where it was taken from him, it fails to make him a good man. We constantly see him kick down doors, strut into meetings, intrude in on Colleen’s dojo, yell and remind everyone at every step that he is a billionaire. How do we love and root for a character who doesn’t fit into his own narrative and pushes his stale, square character through circular holes?
The fight scenes have interesting dynamics: sensei versus student, Bakuto fighting for his life against someone he has orders not to kill, the sacrosanctity of life forcing characters not to murder. Yet they last mere seconds, like the choreographers have no idea what martial arts are. The dialogue is muddy, repetitive, predictable, the acting stale and awkward. The most exciting Marvel moments were implicit references to the other Defenders.
It’d be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding the show, and rightfully so: the white male learning martial arts from a monastery and returning to America, speaking like he is the master. The way he speaks to a stranger in Mandarin when she is Japanese. The way he forces a date upon her and the writers think they justify it by having Colleen’s eyes beg for help as Claire rescues her. How he speaks about saving the poor and the sick from his leather couch in his mansion while constantly reminding everyone that he is a billionaire. How he explains martial arts to a literal sensei, like she wouldn’t know. How Joy is one of the smartest people on the show and yet is unjustifiably always one step behind her male counterparts. Danny is the ominous spectre of a lack of diversity in TV, always drifting through walls and doors closed to him for spaces that aren’t for him.
This doesn’t bode well for The Defenders, the show involving the four superheros of Hell’s Kitchen: Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and the Iron Fist. They are all the rebels, all the castaways, all powerful. What is the tone? Will their fighting styles be differentiated? How will they make space for one another? It’s shaping up to be a group of strong individuals refusing to get along or follow a certain creed, and the predictability of that is disappointing.
Let’s hope Danny Rand ends up defending something far more interesting than his own failure of a show.
Series Grade: C-