Netflix’s “Iron Fist”: Not the Marvel Way

When I was a growing up , Marvel had a book that promised to teach you: How to Draw the Comics the Marvel Way. Yes, I bought it. It was and still is a seminal publication on how to work on your artistic chops if you want to draw for Marvel Comics. Recently, Marvel has established a look and feel for their cinematic universe which is distinctively their own. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has set the bar for what superhero translations to the silver screen should endeavor to do.

When Marvel released their Jessica Jones and Daredevil productions through Netflix, it seemed the MCU way had managed to percolate down to cable television in an acceptable fashion. Luke Cage was a mixed bag but managed to carry the day sufficiently enough to break Netflix’s servers for a day. Marvel’s other network television works struggled a bit with Agents of SHIELD finally finding their footing, while Agent Carter shared its lore and vanished into history.

Hopes were high as Marvel promised to deliver a new Defenders to the MCU but there was one character missing. He was called The Living Weapon: Iron Fist. Given the challenges Iron Fist faced while the series was being created: questions of white-washing, questions of whether it should be updated to deal with the questionable nature of the White Savior Trope, whether Daniel Rand should have been in some fashion modernized with some degree of sensitivity given the character’s origins, all of that became moot once I watched the first episode.

This will be as kind as I can make it. This show just didn’t have what it took. I only needed two episodes to know this. Netflix’s Iron Fist was NOT the worst thing I have ever watched. No. There are still plenty of things worse than this series. All I need to say for the old heads here is: ZARDOZ.  Nuff said. Don’t Google that. Just take my word for it. You were warned.

Netflix’s Iron Fist was not the Marvel Way. Not even close.

This thirteen hour extravaganza of dull has so many things wrong with it, I sum them up thus:

Pacing: Weak – at no point does it ever truly build up a head of steam sufficient to care about it.
Story: Slow – You know what’s happening but the story labors under too many insignificant threads.
Acting: Wooden – A lame script, directed poorly, with lackluster delivery. A perfect storm of meh.
Martial Arts: Atrocious – I have watched better choreographed fights made by Youtube fans.
Theme: Sadly lacking – Was there an underlying theme? The Hero’s Journey perhaps? Whatever.
Structure: Lazy – At no point do I feel as if there was a significant, coordinated structure to this mess.

Thirteen Hours about a Kung Fu Master and yet no Kung Fu

If we look at the canon comic and the story told in the Netflix series, they are essentially the same. Rand’s family is killed on their way to China as part of a hostile takeover bid by a corporate partner. Daniel is saved from exposure by mysterious monks from they mystic city of K’un L’un. He is taken away and trained and becomes the successor to a power reserved for the protector of said city, the power of the Iron Fist.

So far, so good. If you were a fan of the comic, you may want to look away now. In the comics, Daniel Rand is more than a competent martial artist. Skilled in fighting and in stealth, he will eventually take his place as one of the best hand to hand combatants in the Marvel Universe. In the comics, Rand is peaceful, serene and often otherworldly. Given the fact he was filled with the energy of the the Dragon of K’un L’un, it was to be expected. In his early adventures he didn’t know a whole lot about the world but he was, at the very least, a competent and effective martial artist. Yes, he was THIS good:

Rand catches a knife and throws it back at his attacker. Iron Fist #2 (1975)

Netflix’s Iron Fist is none of those things. Finn Jones’ Iron Fist is childlike, immature, and tempestuous as if he were kept in isolation away from anything resembling discipline or structure. He was quick to anger, displayed his emotions far too much and I had a hard time with his lack of personal control and complete lack of martial ability given the underlying premise of the series, based on my own experiences as a former military person and a lifelong martial artist.

I joined the Navy at the age of 17. After the nine weeks of boot camp and another eight weeks of A school, with a corresponding seven years of military service, I was a changed individual. I mean profoundly changed. Hell, just the eight weeks of bootcamp put 45 pounds of hardened muscle, increased stamina, the ability to run five miles in full kit, pushing up for days and nights, situps were just the order of the day.

We learned discipline, we became focused and regimented in only eight weeks. Add seven years of regimented military living and I expect most people leave the military different than when they entered it, if for no other reason than because you have been trained to do whatever’s necessary to win. I can see this transformation in the eyes of anyone who has ever successfully served. To top it off, I was a martial artist for fifteen years studying a variety of arts as my youth, health and interests allowed. It is safe to assume the rigors of a Shaolin temple make the US Navy bootcamp and lifestyle seem like grade school by comparison.

Daniel Rand was supposedly dropped in the most martial of places in the Marvel Universe at the age of nine or ten. I can understand missing your parents. Crazily. Longing for them. Being angry about it. Fighting back against authority. But after a few years of lugging water barrels, climbing temple stairs, doing martial arts every day for hours on end, engaging in mental disciplines and Zen mindfulness, I can’t see the end result being the basket case that is “Danny Rand” arriving in New York after fifteen years of such grueling training looking to reconnect to his family friends.

Finn Jones did not make me believe he had experienced any hardship. Yes, we had that one flashback scene of him being beaten (er … conditioned) but was there any reason we couldn’t have cut out some of the Rand Dynasty drama and get a few K’un L’un training sessions instead?

The Doctor Strange movie showed us more mystic and martial arts training in two hours than Iron Fist did in thirteen! This is inexcusable for a series about a martial artist. Finn Jones did not relay the idea (or even the feeling) he knew anything about discipline. His body was soft, barely muscled, his hands were not the hands of anyone who had ever held martial discipline seriously.

Jones’ form was poor, his technique was weak. It looked as if he had never moved with martial intent in his entire life. If I had to guess I would think he had three months of training at something and was deemed fit for duty. He was not. For me, anything Iron Fist had to offer, died with the failure of Finn Jones to convince me he knew anything about martial arts.

By comparison, I don’t know anything about Charlie Cox (Daredevil) as an actor but he made me believe he could fight. He exuded menace. Was that his just his fight coordinator? Maybe, but Cox delivered it and I could accept it. Cox’s hallway fight scenes were stellar. Cox wasn’t perfect, but Jones’ was meh, at best. Was there no coordination between the two creator teams?

Seriously, the first fight in the lobby of the Rand building. Go back and watch it. The fighting is slow, awkward, uneven, as if they were doing it for the first time. And then decided after shooting the scene, they would just leave it. There was no second take. There was no refining the movement. If there were fight choreographers they did not deliver. There were far too many scenes left poorly done, weakly acted, sloppily shot.There is a fight in a medical record supply room which is terrible in every way. Watch the fights, you will see the haphazard choreography.

If your series is based in martial arts, the absolute minimum it must do is have good martial arts sequences. Watch into the Badlands to see how it should be done. Moving on to the story…

Dynasty with Supernatural Overtones

There was a lot of story but it moved so slowly it felt more like padding than storytelling. Honestly, I could have done without the first two episodes and felt I had lost nothing. The Rand/Meachem issues were integral but I felt there was something uneven about the story, partially because we had already seen some of it in Daredevil, particularly once we got to seeing the Hand on a regular basis.

Speaking of the Hand, what happened to the ninjas? If you are a comic reader you know exactly what I am talking about. The Hand may use flunkies such as the ones we saw in Iron Fist but I was expecting to see the hordes of ninja warriors similar to what happened to Daredevil because… that is the modus operandi of the Hand. They arrive in groups. With ninja weapons. Doing ninja things.

Which did not happen in Iron Fist, though you were told: The guy who spent fifteen years in a mystical land learning martial arts, the guy who was supposed honed and sharpened until his body became a living weapon, the guy who supposedly had fought the dragon Shao Lao and gained the capacity to utilize his chi, focusing it until his body made his fist into a thing of explosive potential, the Iron Fist.

This was the guy who was supposedly going to be the weapon against the Hand, never fights the Hand as we have already seen them portrayed. He fights flunkies. Hand operatives who get activated with a cool bowl and menacing chopsticks. Hand mercenaries, at best.

Rand does not get to engage in the glorious battles Daredevil did. He does not fight against hordes of ninjas in the entire series. He does Daredevil’s early adventures all over again. Only with a whole lot more weird drama going on with the secondary characters lying to each other, backstabbing each other and ultimately even trying to kill each other while “Danny” experiences angst before making a bad decision. Again. Every time Daniel Rand mentioned he was a warrior, he would have a scene where was immediately beaten up afterward. No. Just no. The flashbacks, the weird mood changes, the randomness of his decision making, all of these things lead to “Danny Rand” being the most unremarkable of the upcoming Defenders line-up.

There is a bit of psychological drama, Jessica Stroup (Joy Meachum) and Tom Pelphrey (Ward Meachum) belabor a relationship with their father played by David Wenham as Harold Meachum. The father having faked his death (but really died) has been running the Rand Corporation behind the scenes. Ward and Joy were both masters and prisoners though only one of them knows it.

Ward’s descent into madness as he learns of the Hand, its powers, its reach and capacity were in my mind, one of the high points of the series. Ward’s behavior is the thing that rings true through the entire series. He is selfish, self-centered and willing to look out for his own best interests, first. He loves his sister, as long as it doesn’t require him to put his interests second. He is an honest villain and those are rare. Harold Meachum, the true villain, was played over-the-top but I didn’t have a problem with him, per se. He stayed true to his role, a completely Machiavellian bastard used to doing whatever it took to get what he wanted.

My two favorites were Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Colleen journey was far more interesting than Daniel Rand’s and Claire’s increased interaction has forced her into learning how to fight because she seems destined to attract the attention of street-level heroes in need of medical care. Colleen’s fight scenes weren’t awful. Her battle with her sexy sensei, Bakuto, decently acted by Ramon Rodriguez almost made me wake up.

Wai Ching Ho as Madam Gao reprises her role as the power behind the throne and I suspect she will be the true threat or leading it, when the Defenders face her in the future. She inhabits her role and steals most scenes she takes part in. A bright light in this dark hall of villainy.

What did I want?

This series is exasperating because it could have been so good. I expected to see the Steel Serpent. I expected to see Lei Kung, the Thunderer doing a cool training sequence not just standing there espousing martial wisdom. I would not have been opposed to seeing some of the modern interpretations of the character including the other Immortal Weapons like Fat Cobra.

Davos, the Steel Serpent

I got excited when I saw the serpent symbol associated with K’un L’un’s bad boy, Davos, the Steel Serpent. I spent the rest of the series waiting for him to show up and teach Daniel the error of his lackluster ways. No such luck. His logo? A marketing tool for the Hand. Some guy named Davos shows up, but as a lame and uninteresting ally whose fighting skills were just as unremarkable as Daniel’s. There is a brief confrontation, a sad struggle that is poorly lit, even more sloppily fought and ends with a whimper.

What do I attribute this overall mess to?

It was as if the writers took the coolest parts of every aspect of the comic character which has been around since the seventies and ignored them completely. It felt like a case of too many chefs in the kitchen and no idea of what’s on the menu. There was a different director for EVERY episode. Each felt slightly different, each with a different emphasis. Had anyone even read any Iron Fist comics EVER?

While the writers involved were fewer, I am not certain they had ever written a television script before. Okay, maybe that was mean. But the script sagged in so many places I had to wince every time Rand spoke. There were ten different writers, with Scott Buck, famed comic writers, Gil Kane and Roy Thomas along with Dwain Worrell (who I suspect did the teleplay work of the comic writers) involved in all thirteen episodes.

I am not a critic. I don’t expect everything that appears on television to be ART. I don’t expect to experience existential enlightenment. I don’t expect it to have hidden meanings and metaphor in every scene. None of those things are a requirement for me to enjoy television.

If you can do it, I won’t complain. If you can cater to canon, throw me an Easter egg every now and again, I won’t hate you for it. If you can show me you love and respect the characters, even if there is questionable cultural significance to the character, I can forgive it. (See: The Ancient One controversy in Doctor Strange)

But the cardinal sin of Iron Fist, what takes it over the edge for me can be summed up simply: the single thing every story must have if it lacks cultural relevance, if it lacks significant metaphor, if it fails to include allegory and thematic relevance — lacking all of those things, it damn well better entertain me.

It better be paced so that I am not bored. It needs to include enough surprises, that I am not able to read it like a book, predicting what will happen three episodes in advance. If it’s going to be a superhero story, it better include some superheroics I can get behind. Something that makes it bigger than life, with heroes who are in some way embody heroic themes.

Iron Fist’s greatest sin is — it’s boring.

It does not surprise. It’s predictable. It’s barely heroic. There are a few novel uses of the Iron Fist, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. Danny Rand is whiny, uninteresting, unkempt, martially uninspired, mentally unstable, and socially, just shy of being an unpleasant person. Even the script admits this at one point in the story.

Did the series get better over time? Yes. By the fourth episode I could see it moving toward something. By the sixth episode, I was warming to everyone, and Carrie-Anne Moss as Rand’s attorney was always some of the crispest dialog in the show, by the ninth episode, I was wondering why the story seemed to be slowing down again. The final episode reminded me far too much of the roof scene from one of the Spider-Man movies and it made me wish it had ended two episodes earlier.

Overall, I hate to admit that the only reason I watched it was because I am a person who likes his stories complete and the only way I could watch the Defenders was to have already absorbed the previous appearances of the characters.

Watching Iron Fist, however, does not have to be your fate. Only watch it if you love the character and want to see it on the screen. It won’t be Iron Fist as you know him. It will be a parallel universe version, whinier, less effective in a fight, less introspective, than you remember him from the comics.

If you don’t know Iron Fist, you don’t need this show. You can watch it and cape for the series like so many fans are doing saying: “It’s not that bad.” or  “I like it, I don’t know what people are talking about.” Or you could watch it and come to your own conclusion. From where I stand, as a lifelong collector of comics, as a great fan of what Netflix and Marvel’s collaboration had done thus far, I am comfortable saying: There is nothing to recommend it.

It has no hidden cultural references, no exciting Easter eggs, no incredible fight scenes you will want to watch again on Youtube. It has little dialog worth remembering. It has no social or cultural relevance you will find yourself deconstructing later. Without Colleen Wing and Claire Temple, this show at best, delivers a weak and unpleasant introduction to the fourth member of the Defenders. Honestly, if you aren’t a fan of the comic, you could spend your thirteen hours better somewhere else.

Yes, I know we will see Finn Jones again. The Defenders have just wrapped their filming sessions. All I can hope for is that the Living Weapon has spent some time in the gym and some extended time with a fight coach. I know I am not the only one.

Maybe we can get a Colleen Wing and a Daughters of the Dragon out of this…

 

Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, Daughters of the Dragon

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