Overview: After being orphaned as a child and raised in a mystical Kung Fu monastery, Danny Rand returns home after fifteen years to reclaim his name. But the ancient organization of assassins and world-shapers known as the Hand have their own plans for Danny and the Iron Fist he harnesses. 2015; ABC Studios/Marvel Television; TV-MA; 13 episodes.
False Start: Because it has become central to the conversation surrounding Iron Fist, and because it is impossible to talk about the show without first addressing these concerns, the fact of the matter is this: Marvel missed an opportunity to portray Danny Rand as Asian-American and cast an actor of Asian descent. Language and context matters here, so it should be stated that this isn’t a case of whitewashing, as Danny Rand has always been depicted as a white character. And as popular as it is right now to claim that the character was created as a white answer to Bruce Lee, that isn’t true either. Chuck Norris had just made a mark on cinema prior to Iron Fist’s debut, and Marvel already had its answer to Bruce Lee with the character Shang-Chi. The first time Iron Fist is unmasked, he looks strikingly similar to Norris as he appeared then. This is the context for the character as it was then, pushed by the height of Kung Fu movies and a need to create a distinction between two titles within that sub-genre, as it was then. But in modern context, there is no need for Danny Rand to be white. Forget canon, screw the lie of the best person for the job mentality, there’s nothing about Danny Rand that requires him to be white and there’s no reason why Marvel couldn’t have found an actor of Asian descent for the role. There’s nothing about the vast majority of white comic book characters that requires them to be white.
I can’t speak to the cultural appropriation at play here, but I can speak to a desire to see diversity and inclusion within our media, and specifically within the superhero media that fills so much focus and coverage. Iron Fist’s biggest problem is that it isn’t progressive in the way so many of us desire, in the way so many of us need it to be. And any discussion on Netflix’s new show can and should start there. There is more to be said and more will be said about this topic by voices more licensed than mine. Those voices are and will be worth listening to.
But is there more to be said about Iron Fist outside of that forum?
Something can be problematic and still have value. Occasionally, we become so caught up in our demands for progress within particular media that we tear down the thing at stake, failing to see the progress that was there and leaving it buried underneath rubble. The casting of Iron Fist’s lead didn’t go the way many of us hoped, but it’s also a show that’s populated by diversity, both on-screen and behind the camera. This is a show that has an English Asian woman playing one of the best female characters Marvel has brought to screen, a show where a man of Indian descent redefines the masculinity and purpose of a previously derivative villain, a show featuring the talents of Asian choreographers, and a significant number of female and POC directors. This isn’t to say that these attributes make up for the fact that Marvel missed out on giving Asian Americans a leading hero of their own to identify with, but representation isn’t a zero sum game, and the collective efforts to drag Iron Fist without watching it, or after watching half of it, or fifteen minutes of it, denies the voices of those who worked to bring something to the screen that represents more than a singular casting decision.
Mystic City of…NY: It’s immediately apparent from the first couple episodes that Iron Fist doesn’t have much interest in being a superhero show. To be fair, none of Marvel’s Netflix shows except for Daredevil have displayed much interest in establishing their characters as superheroes in the traditional sense, and this has mostly worked to each of the series’ individual benefits. Despite the title character’s Kung Fu background, the show doesn’t show a prerogative in leaning into those tropes or legacies either. Instead Iron Fist establishes itself as a corporate mystery during the initial half of the season, before delving into a larger conspiracy that relies more on comic book lore, but still takes a grounded approach. The show’s pacing, particularly in these early episodes that defy expectations of what we thought the show would be, is the major barrier in terms of bringing an audience on board. Iron Fist has the slowest and least spectacular opening episodes of any Marvel/Netflix venture thus far, and yet the corporate intrigue and Danny’s fight to reclaim his name after being declared dead is interesting, both due to the performances involved and because it’s so unlike the traditional superhero set-up. It’s interesting that we as audiences can get on board with seasons of shows set in the advertising market or on Wall Street, but when something that we assume will be an action packed superhero show uses the business world to ground itself, we so readily declare it boring. Sure, we’ve seen dozens of wealthy white guys who run ubiquitous companies with vague dealings, but they always seem ancillary—a means for a lifestyle, or gadgets, or brief shakeups. Iron Fist invests itself in the Rand Corporation, its prescription drug empire, in the sibling power-duo Joy and Ward Meachum, and Danny’s desire to actually exist in the company as more than just a brand name. There’s a slow but necessary level of character building that happens within these scenes of boardrooms and offices, and while it’s certainly not how many of us would have established an Iron Fist show, the business of corporations becomes increasingly thematic as the series progresses. Make no mistake, the initial two episodes are on shaky ground. There’s some awkward dialogue, and a use of banal flashbacks that don’t do any favors for initial opinions, but underneath that is this idea of prescribed lives, a psychological war over what’s earned and what’s inherited.
Danny Boy: In the early 2000s, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction utilized Danny’s history and corporate position to explore the notion of privilege, of a man-child given the reins of a company he doesn’t know how to run, but content in the fact that the most important thing in his life, the power of the Iron Fist, was something he earned. It was hinted at during that run, and later came to fruition during Kaare Andrews’s run, that the Iron Fist was also something that wasn’t earned, but given as a means to exploit Danny’s position in the western world. This is the Danny that Iron Fist sets up, a naïve boy ignorant of the ways of the two worlds he calls home. His optimism and childlike sense of good makes him a poor businessman, and his ignorance about his immortal legacy makes him a poor Iron Fist, something that many of the show’s characters take the time to point out. Despite the missed casting opportunity, Finn Jones plays Danny Rand very well. He’s a far cry to the more stoic (and let’s face it, personality-less) Danny Rand of the comic’s inception, but delivers on the charm, optimism, and fool-headedness of modern incarnations. Yes, just as in the comics, it’s hard to rectify those character traits with someone who was raised under the strict discipline of monks, and beaten daily, but it does make for a more interesting character despite being one who is also aloof.
The character’s action scenes fall in line with the character’s personality traits, in that they lack a certain level of awareness. There’s no action sequence in the series that matches the exceptional fight sequences we got in both seasons of Daredevil, and again for a show that has its foundations in Kung Fu, that is disappointing. None of the action scenes are bad, though the quick cuts at times, and the decision to hold back on Danny’s power-set with the Iron Fist, do hamper them. Stunt Coordinator Brett Chan creates fights that are efficient, not splashy, and because Danny’s fights are solely based in the art of Kung Fu, as opposed to the mixed fighting styles of Daredevil, they do have their own unique look when the editing gives them time to shine. Jones isn’t a natural martial artist and it shows, but there’s a clear improvement from the early episodes to the later ones. The action scenes in the latter half of the season become quite a bit more enticing, especially when Colleen Wing (we’ll get to her) becomes involved. It never quite becomes believable that Danny managed to be the best among his peers to earn the title of Iron Fist, but if the comics are an indication, then maybe it wasn’t earned after all. Let’s hope that’s the case, or we’re in for a run of Iron Fist where Danny is surrounded by better martial artists.
Living Weapons: As we meet the supporting characters who populate this world, it becomes clear that each one is being used and manipulated as a weapon by the show’s mysterious and frequently sinister powers. The series takes Iron Fist’s moniker, “the living weapon,” and uses it as a means to set up parallels between characters. The show’s central antagonist, Harold Meachum, the former partner of Danny’s partner and presumed dead magnate, uses his children as corporate weapons to run Rand while he remains imprisoned by The Hand. Harold, delivered with delicious slyness by David Wenham, exists as one of several big bads who use their children, either literal or figurative, as their means to reclaim their lives. Children are the immortal weapons, the means to extend one’s life through a legacy that’s under parental control. As Harold says, “a father’s first responsibility to their kids is to provide a beautiful lie for them to live in.” Harold’s son Ward (Tom Pelphrey) is mentally torn apart by the knowledge of this lie, that everything he has is because of his father, and that every good business decision he’s every made has been directed from the shadows. This collides against his sister Joy’s (Jessica Stroup) belief that they have earned the right to run Rand, that her brother is a figure to look up to. At times the show seems more interested in the Meachums and their family plot than Danny, which again may not work in terms of creating the most interesting Iron Fist show, but it does work in creating a kind of corporate-level Game of Thrones. It seems clear how this storyline will play out, what with Joy being smart and collected former childhood crush of Danny, and Ward popping prescription pills and losing his shit like some play on Michael Wincott playing American Psycho, but Iron Fist doesn’t allow for the characters to be so easily boxed into their comic book roles.
Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, a martial arts instructor bound to the samurai code, and who damn near steals the show, is on her own path as a weapon. She’s drawn to violence, but unlike so many characters with the same affliction, Colleen is charming and instantly likable, largely due to that naturally effervescent quality Henwick has that can be best defined as star power. Colleen’s tough, but she hides her instability well and creates an illusion of control. Like Danny, like the Meachums, her position as martial arts teacher and the dojo she runs was given to her. She must operate under the specific guidelines of her sensei Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez), who is more than he initially appears. While she joins Danny’s quest to defeat the Hand, her role as a weapon to be used inevitably puts them on a path towards confrontation. Danny, the Meachum siblings, and Colleen are faced with the situation of being shaped and molded by their parental figures to be used with exacting specificity, and deciding whether they can use what’s been given to them in order to break those pre-calculated molds and to earn the status of hero or villain on their own terms. The series doesn’t offer a clean resolution to these questions for every character, but it does provide a path through which we can see where the characters are headed, while never denying them the possibility for change.
An Open Path: The show’s pacing may be off, but Iron Fist delivers a better structure than most of Marvel’s shows. While the other series have shown a clear delineation between the first six episodes and the back seven, with certain plot threads being wrapped up and villains killed during the first half, Iron Fist spreads a singular story and thematic arc across the season. The structure may point to the problem of delivering episode-by-episode verdicts, or half-season consensuses on a show meant to encourage binge-watching, because Iron Fist takes its time to reach the pay-off, working novelistically, rather than on episodic (or comic issue based) hooks. The major complaint about Marvel’s Netflix shows is that by the episode 9 or 10 mark, the series begin feeling like they’re filling space. Iron Fist could definitely be shorter, but the show hits its stride around episode 9 and doesn’t let up until the end. In these episodes we get more bombastic action, more Iron Fist powers, glimpses of K’un L’un, and the introduction of a key Iron Fist character, Davos. Davos, portrayed by Sacha Dhawan, defies the typical the uber-masculinity of comic character Steel Serpent. His short stature goes against type (Steel Serpent is traditional depicted as being much larger than Danny), but also makes him a physical foil to Danny. His belief that he should have been the Iron Fist, and his love for Danny in a way that may extend beyond the realms of brotherhood and friendship, establish an interesting, character-based hook for future seasons. While the show doesn’t fully embrace its comic roots, it does the necessary character work to get to that point. Danny Rand doesn’t become a superhero. In fact, he has no concept of them (except presumably for Captain America as a historical war hero) having been gone for fifteen years, so there’s no reason for him to don the costume yet. But he does become a character who would logically go down that road. We’re used to immediate satisfaction when it comes to our superhero properties, and Iron Fist denies that immediacy, sometimes in a disappointing approach, but the parts that make up the whole are interesting enough to deserve a complete watch and expect more from the show’s inevitable future.
Overall: If we’re able to find parallel tracks to run our concerns for diversity and how the show works as a whole, Iron Fist is far from bad. In fact, Iron Fist’s quality isn’t far off from the rest of Marvel’s shows. It’s the weakest of the bunch undoubtedly (Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage, being the top down method for comparison). Yet, it’s still better than the majority of comic-based shows that have begun to take over network TV. Hell, it’s still better than half of Marvel’s movie output. Still, if Scott Buck is going to stay on as show runner then he needs to get riskier, weirder, and flashier with the show. We’ve got the grounded superhero series down, now we want to see what happens when those grounded characterizations are faced with more unexpected and challenging odds. With the epic team-up The Defenders hitting later this year, here’s hoping that Marvel is gearing up for bolder creative decisions. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that two of those decisions should be a Shang-Chi series and a Daughters of the Dragon series featuring Colleen Wing and Luke Cage’s Misty Knight. The audience is there, and if Marvel/Netflix can shift their schedule to include a Punisher series, then they can surely do it again to add some much needed inclusion.
While the Iron Fist will always be saddled by questions of what could have been and it’s certainly not without its creative issues, if we can move past the memes and hyperbole-driven hot takes and look at the show as a whole then there’s a good chance it can be seen as a worthy addition to an MCU that will hopefully start putting greater emphasis on growing in more ways than simply its collection of characters.
Featured Image: Netflix