This review won’t go into too much depth as compared to say my Game of Thrones reviews. Instead, I want to discuss my overall impressions about Iron Fist as well as addressing the criticisms of the show and determining whether they were warranted.
First off, I was quite excited to see Iron Fist. It’s a show that has piqued my interest since we left off with Luke Cage in terms of the Defenders characters. Add Finn Jones as the lead character, Danny Rand, and Jessica Henwick, as Colleen Wing, both Game of Thrones alumni, and you’ve got me going as to see what both people could do with this series. I am not a fan of the comics so watching this series is done through the lens of a casual Marvel Universe fan. Also, I have little notions of the major aspects behind the characters’ backstories so I’m looking at this within the context of what Netflix has done and comparing it alongside the other three series.
Unfortunately, some of my momentum was temporarily halted in reading a few early reviews. There really wasn’t a lot of spoilers in those reviews but the criticisms made me wary of how the show would evolve. As a result, I attempted to watch this show with an open mind and my expectations set exceedingly low (kinda like how I watched the Warcraft movie).
The first episode was….quite forgettable to say the least. Although the show was released earlier on Friday, I managed to wake up around 5am and got to sneak in an episode prior to work. It pretty much brought down my hype level as I felt the critics might, indeed, have had a point for once. Probably, the most memorable yet forgettable part was Danny Rand doing a 360 over a car. It looked horrible. My coworker and I simultaneously used the same words and pace to describe how it looked. Thus, I wasn’t in a big hurry to finish it off.
After work though (as it was St Paddy’s Day and we had a small celebration), I pretty much went home and started my binge watching, once again determined to finish off the series with as much of an open mind as possible. The main thing was that the critics pointed out that the first 6 episodes (which were released to them exclusively) were slow, plodding, humorless and typical in terms of the superhero genre story. Some compared Danny Rand to Arrow, which to me wasn’t a great comparison in terms of motivating me to watch more (I honestly hated Arrow and stopped after a few episodes).
On the other hand, Finn Jones has been on Twitter and attempted to defend the series, saying that it wasn’t made for the critics. I suppose the issue here is determining whom those critics are. Hardcore super hero genre fans? Snobs of high art? You have to realize that you’re going to have a mix of the two schools of thought and neither are going to be happy.
For myself, as a casual fan (the target audience that Finn Jones might be referring to), I felt that the story ended better than it started (yes, I’m moving forward a bit). Once Danny’s character begins to go deeper into the Hand’s complex, you’re more inclined to want to find out more. So in that situation, the story does improve on the pacing part.
What about the characters? To start most people assaulted Finn Jones’ portrayal of Danny Rand as simply bland. My real issue is that while Danny Rand had some sense of motivation for behaving in a super determined manner, it wasn’t conveyed that well. I don’t think that aspect is entirely Finn Jones’ fault here. For a new series coming about where we’re introduced to this new main character, it doesn’t provide enough to really engage the audience in terms of Danny Rand’s backstory. We only know a few things about him: he’s rich, he got into an accident, he went into a monastery and that his parents’ death has been his only motivation for anything.
But all that remains quite flat. In fact, the way Danny Rand’s character behaves is quite contradictory to Buddhist teachings. Buddhist preaches tolerance and abnegation of all material aspects in life. The fact that Danny Rand remains connected to the world makes no sense. He has that conflict of interest for certain but it’s very chaotic in when it shows up. He starts out seeming innocent and more in tune with those teachings. But over the course of the show it quickly diminishes. Sure, some of that is influenced by the Hand but it’s almost as easy as the Emperor coercing Anakin to the Dark Side in Star Wars 3. Shouldn’t the discipline of the monastery and impact of Buddha ensure more mental stability in Danny?
Quite honestly, Danny Rand is worse than naive. Rather than the story being something akin to a Bruce Lee vengeance movie, it becomes one of those Brucesploitation flix where you get some Thai wannabe Bruce Lee actor tied up for half the film because he’s a moron without skills. He’s always getting caught and someone has to go into rescue him. Not very convincing as a super hero type.
Now, more people enjoyed Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. I thought she was a bit generic. I don’t know what her true martial arts skill level is but I wish that they would have brought in someone with actual skill like a Michelle Yeoh type in her prime. Fast camera swaps don’t really convince me to make someone appear more ferocious than they actually are. But if you get someone like a Philip Kwok (who even in later years could still go), Gordon Liu, etc. and remove a huge portion of camera tricks, it makes the visuals far more believable, which is what a series like this truly requires.
The irony of the show is that I ended up liking Ward Meachum the best. Even though he came off as an asshole at first, you really feel like he’s the victim in all of this (and in truth he was). But let’s say you swap the camera focus such that you start with Ward and Joy Meachum just having their typical day conducting business, then this weirdo from the streets manifests out of nowhere, it really changes the tune of how the show operates.
I think the reason why I ended up liking Ward the most is because he’s one of the few people who is honest with themselves in the show. He’s not super pretentious and idealistic like virtually everyone else. He’s just in it for him. Considering how his father has been trying to screw him over through manipulating him, you can see why he’s a prick. But he’s a sympathetic prick if that makes any sense. The poor guy literally sacrifices himself for his father and almost dies for it. I’m glad at the end he ends up with a certain mutual understanding with Danny since Ward is probably the most misunderstood character in the show.
Joy Meachum is another character that I almost ended up liking. She drifts off from the stand off bitch to a more sympathetic character in the middle. She almost seems to have the most sense but lacks the inner sincerity of her brother. She comes off too neurotic to win me over. Also, I just can’t understand why she has virtually no life. There’s just too much missing from these characters.
Harold Meachum pretty much is a confusing character. You get that something isn’t exactly right with him but again there’s a lot missing from his backstory. I’m not a huge fan of the shallow “I backstabbed my best friend to take control of the company” villain, which is what Harold is. The only semi-interesting aspect to his personality is that he can come back from the dead. But outside of his son slaying him once, that characteristic never manifests in a far more meaningful manner, especially once he confronts Danny Rand. He just seems off with little purpose outside of griefing the people around him. Again, not a fantastic villain.
Probably, the only character that has any real personality is the returning Claire Temple. She’s basically Han Solo if Han Solo could transport himself back in time to episodes 2-3 of Star Wars, thereby making those movies somewhat watchable. You can tell she’s becoming the moral center of the Defenders group and ultimately will be the key link. Not to mention the one character who might have the most common sense in the series (as a protagonist that is).
So thus far my overall impression seems to be negative except for the way the story winds down. It’s mostly predictable although Harold Meachum for a brief moment seemed ambivalent when he was positioned against the Hand. That said, I still found the show to be entertaining enough. I mean, in all honesty, none of the Netflix series has been perfect. Luke Cage started off quite strong then (d)evolved into Rocky 5 with the street fight and over-the-top cousin villain. Daredevil s2 was very good with the incredibly frightening Punisher charcter, but ended up in a confusing mess with the extraneous Elektra and plot imploding haphazardly at the end. Jessica Jones meandered a lot with a very interesting character but a villain that slowly became interesting.
With Iron Fist, it’s mostly seeing where the Meachums would end up and whether the Hand would make a final appearance. The Hand did make a final appearance but not in the manner as I had thought. The end fight was pretty anti-climatical but I was happy to see Ward and Danny Rand’s conflict simmer to a close.
Nonetheless, the show was very spotty and seemed to meander way too much in trying to dual wield the plots of the Meachums and the new Hand branch. I still was left wondering if there was more to Danny Rand, which for an introductory series, is not a good spot to be in. We never thoroughly explored what type of child he was like nor his parents’ personalities. Was his father another Bruce Wayne’s father type, someone with solid moral values looking to supposedly right wrongs?
Also, the show itself did not feel like it had its own voice. Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage had some very interesting stylistic mechanisms to give them a certain voice. Daredevil was about justice and questioning one’s moral values. Jessica Jones had the hardboiled detective with cynical woman power touch. Luke Cage had the African American culture of Harlem and music behind it. What did Iron Fist have?
There were seemingly small amounts of touches that may have been tributes to things like the Shaw Brothers movies (e.g. one title mentioned the 8 Diagram similar to 8 Diagram Pole Fighter). But if there was anything that was meant to pay a deeper homage to such an era, it did a poor job conveying it. Heck they could’ve gotten someone like a John Woo or even Tarentino, who are Shaw Brothers buffs, to help out. Use old school flashbacks without the dialogue like the famous training sequences of Unbeatable Dragon, 5 Masters of Death or Shaolin Temple.
And the martial arts/tai chi were not meaningful. Probably, the only real remarkable fight for me was when Danny Rand took on the drunken fighter. But who was this guy? Why put such a situation on without any context beyond certain members of the audience recognizing it? Why have Danny Rand punch to death someone who was the only other person in the show to exhibit any interesting personality characters? It’s stuff like this that made the show horribly inconsistent and frustrating.
Compare Danny Rand/Finn Jones to Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee had a reputation outside of the movie industry as being legitimate. When you watch Bruce Lee’s films, you see the real deal. He has credibility in what he does to the point where he can defeat a Chuck Norris on screen and get away with the scene. Finn Jones is an actor playing a martial arts hero; I don’t know what his real martial arts background is but it’s hard to convince me that he can destroy a supposed drunken kung fu master without a logical reason in the story.
But I suppose we should address the real elephant in the room: white man as playing an Asian type of role. The comic book has Danny Rand as a white guy so the TV series is merely keeping faith with the comic book. However, some feel that the comic is dated and that the references need to be updated. I don’t really agree here. You have to remember that because of people like Bruce Lee, non-Asians have become immersed in the martial arts as well.
As an Asian watching this series, I felt that Finn Jones playing a martial arts role has no relevance to me with regards to the whole supposed white washing of the series. What has relevance to me as a long time kung fu film fan is that the people directing and Finn Jones may not have the necessary background to pull off what was necessary to get this type of show over with the audience. The story itself was for the most part generic and weak so you need that extra stylistic element to draw the audience in. The direction of the story did not provide enough to make you feel in awe of what should be the highlight of the show: martial arts.
When you watched a Lau Kar-leung movie, the centerpiece was always the martial arts. He made kung fu into a true art form, creating issues resolved through the martial arts. And even if there was a slight slant in his movies (like Heroes of the East with anti-Japanese sentiment), you felt you at least learned something. He showed that martial arts was never used for the sake of violence but for self-defense and betterment of the self.
In Iron Fist, the kung fu aspect seemed more like a side thing that was cool to improvise. The eastern traditions are name dropped without meaning similar to how William Gibson name drops brand names and calls his writing fiction these days. Danny Rand doesn’t seem to learn a thing by indirectly killing Harold Meachum. There’s no Buddhist epiphany, nothing linking anything taught from the monastery back to his decision. If anything, it’s Claire Temple and Colleen Wing who help make the choice for him. But shouldn’t he be the one imparting Buddhist wisdom to the world?
But again, these are things that made me question the story. Was the show entertaining? Yes. Did it have boring moments? Of course. How correct were the critics? Some place in the middle. Probably, the best criticism that I’ve read was how the show is merely the homework leading to the Defenders. And that accurately describes how I felt watching this.