3 v. 3: IRON FIST
Iron Fist is finally here! The last of the pre-Defenders shows has received lukewarm reception from critics. However, you should know critics were only given the first 6 episodes of the show before release. Most of their criticism also had nothing to do with the show itself, rather on Iron Fist as a “whitewashed” character. We don’t buy into this argument. The character is of an American trained in martial arts in a fabled city to harness the mystical power of the Iron Fist. Maybe that old origin story is tired, but that has been the character from the beginning. It makes "whitewashing" a little bit of a stretch.
The show itself is good. It isn’t excellent and doesn’t break much new ground, rather adds another character to the marvel Netflix roster expanding the MCU. If this was the first character of the Marvel Netflix Defenders story to be released, we think it would be much more critically acclaimed. However, the universe has already seen Daredevil in one good season and one great. Jessica Jones changed the game with her psychological drama, and Luke Cage gave us an entirely different scene and flavor of Marvel show. Iron Fist stands out in small flashes while the other entries by Marvel & Netflix have consistently expanded on our expectations. It’s hard to do that now. The Defenders was always the next big thing. Iron Fist is more of the same winning formula of darker, deeper character and narrative exposition though with some key misses.
Let’s get in our stance. Center your chi. Get ready to dive deep into Iron Fist. It’s 3 v. 3 time! 3 Good spar with 3 Bad from the show and you decide which comes out the victorious champion. Your opinion is the one that matters.
**BEWARE SPOILERS from ALL Marvel Netflix Original Shows and the MCU in General**
Character Driven, Street Level Drama
The bread and butter of the Marvel's Netflix Originals is clear. The shows are character driven, street level dramas. They work best without straying too far from this core. With that focus at the heart of their shows, they will continue to be good while some will breakout and be great. Because of this center, Iron Fist is solid.
Iron Fist doesn’t expand on the depth or variance of character heavily, but it is a distinct enough entry to keep us interested. The show does a better job of focusing on one narrative journey where Luke Cage jumped from villain to villain segmenting the plot a little bit. Cottonmouth and Diamondback gave way to each other but each served basically the same role. Daredevil season 2 was split between Daredevil and the Punisher. Iron Fist has numerous villains but they all serve the same enemy, the Hand. It is an exploration that takes us deeper into the overarching villain of the series where other conflicts have been more personal to the characters. This both differentiates Iron Fist but also makes the conflict a little more drawn out with a little slower of a burn.
Danny Rand, a Different Kind of Hero
It took us a few episodes to get a hold on Danny Rand. His personality is a little odd. He enters the series like a child thrust into the adult world. It was odd at first why he kept acting childish. He is a child in our world. He reminds us of Tom Hanks in BIG. He doesn’t know how to operate or what to expect from the business world around Rand. He has done no research and blindly just stumbles up to the front desk of the corporation expecting to be greeted as if he never left. It made it a little difficult for us to become invested in such foolish behavior until we were able to place him.
Danny Rand is a bit of a dufus. He's a wide-eyed 12 year old kid trapped in the body of a man coming to grips with amazing power. He’s Thor without the bravado. Everything he does is the work of a confused child in a powerful body. Iron Fist is both a coming of age story and a fish out of water adventure. Where Tony Stark and Stephen Strange were rich, brilliant, super-egos, Danny Rand was raised on a mystical "farm". He's a country boy returning to life in the big city from his stay at K’un Lun, a monastery from myth. Danny Rand has a hard time finding his place. This made him less accessible but also gave us a fresh type of personality for a hero. It made for a little bit of a disconnect but in the larger MCU and Marvel Netflix universe, Danny Rand will be an asset on a team like the Defenders.
The Iron Fist had to be a different kind of character on screen if he is going to fit into the Defenders and not be just another Daredevil. Danny Rand will fit right in, cuz he's a little goofy. You can see him as a character foil for the straight and to the point idealist, Luke Cage. He’s the wide eyed optimist to Daredevil’s brutally cold and calculating methods. He’s the hopeless romantic to the bitter and sharp edginess of Jessica Jones. Danny Rand is in many ways the most powerful Defender, and the group’s biggest kid.
Action and Special Effects
Coming into Iron Fist, we squarely placed much of the success of the show on differentiating itself from the action and special effects of other shows. Iron Fist did enough for us to be happy with it. We still aren’t blown away by the effects and action as it is getting a little redundant. It’s difficult on a TV series budget to really compete on a larger scale if you make comparisons to the big screen MCU. That isn't really fair, but we keep hoping there will be some bridging of the gap.
The special effects were an improvement. Luke Cage had nearly zero impressive effects and only a few action moments that stood out. But as we move into more powerful characters and a little further away from street level martial arts and brute strength, Iron Fist had to give us something. The lighting special effects as he charged his chi and used it to power his martial arts were solid. They didn’t really expand heavily on what they showed us in the previews. Yet, they did have a standout visual moment in the final confrontation when the Iron Fist uses his power on a bit larger of a scale.
The action and choreography were good. There were moments that came off a little weak, and the overall delivery of the martial arts didn’t do much at all to differentiate itself from Daredevil. The best scenes in our opinion were when the Iron Fist is working through mini-boss henchman to get to Madame Gao. The drunken boxer was pretty cool, but they failed to connect him with his comic counterpart in the show. The bosses were reminiscent of the "levels" found in older martial arts films were cool. Yet, each of these lacked a strong enough identity to power the show into new territory. If these were iconic characters from the comics or at least a little bit more "comic" like, they would have been a lot of fun. Instead, these are just martial arts masters failing to really stand out or push Iron Fist.
Still, it broke some small difference from Daredevil's brutal style. The Iron Fist provided more finesse and form which can work well when they are side by side. The moves were very similar though. The settings were also near mirrors. The best sequences are still when they move through a tight space like a hallway as the camera follows. Daredevil did this best, yet each series seems to add its own entry into the hallway action sequence.
Overall, Iron Fist’s positives were solid though none of them really broke new ground or made us stand up and take notice.
Origin Story Fatigue
Yet another rich, entitled hero re-enters the fray after a family tragedy leads him down the path to becoming a powerful hero. Tony Stark. In some ways, Thor. Doctor Strange. The story is a little bit stale at this point. Danny Rand offers a little twist with his wide eyed optimistic romanticism on the Tony Stark, Doctor Strange rich hero trope. Yet in the end, it stands behind a long line of similar origin stories.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to connect with these types of characters. Doctor Strange succeeded largely by packaging this story in a visually expressive way. Iron Fist has a hard time doing that on a TV budget so they try to do it on the street level by playing in the character space of Danny Rand. It works in some ways but ultimately comes off as weak.
There were two primary villains in the show. The Meachum's and the Hand provided most of the opposition in the plot. All three Meachum's and every member of the Hand was ultimately too chaotic and fluid. They each went from bad to good and back bad again. Some of the transformed one last time to return to good. The constant flux dulled the plot significantly. Kingpin. Kilgrave. Frank Castle. Cottonmouth. Black Mariah. These were the best villains of the Marvel Netflix Originals. Harold Meachum, Madame Gao, Bakuto, Ward Meachum, Joy Meachum were all too erratic and confused to really provide good opposition to Danny Rand.
Weakest Secondary Characters
The Iron Fist and Danny Rand form the most interesting dilemma for the show. It’s an origin story and coming of age for the naive hero from the mystical Himalayan village of K’un Lun. Outside of Danny’s struggle, his allies aren’t especially strong characters.
Matt Murdoch has some interesting friends working with him piecing together the puzzle that was the Kingpin who was pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The conflict unravelled slowly, but wasn't confused. In his second season, Frank Castle was an amazing opposition and eventual ally. Jessica Jones showed us Luke Cage as well as Hellcat and Nuke though they never dawn their alter-ego costumes. Luke Cage introduced a few powerful villains from the comics, Copperhead and Diamondback, Shades, and a solid ally Misty Temple.
Iron Fist introduces us to Colleen Wing, the daughter of the dragon, and Davos, the Steel Serpent. Each fall a little flat in the end. Colleen Wing’s character arch is as confused as the rest of the characters in the series. We really liked her until they tried to turn her into the Hand. She was a powerful character, but her narrative journey was weak. This twist not only blunted the evil of the Hand, but it blunted the quality of Colleen Wing enough for us to lose a little interest in her. We lose connection with her as she teaches her students the Bushido code she follows. Yet, she disregards that code for some quick cash and cheap thrills in some cage fights. This foreshadows her arch. We further become disconnected from her as she is revealed to be a part of the Hand, though believing she is still on the right side. By the time she comes back onto the heroic side, we don’t feel connected to her or impressed by her anymore. Davos is the same but in reverse. While he maintains that he is Danny Rand’s best friend, he harbors real hate for the character stealing his destiny on his ultimate path to villainy.
Neither character really serve to support Iron Fist or truly become an opposition to him. Every relationship that Iron Fist has on the show is friend one minute and foe the next and then back (or some combination). The only characters consistently on his side are Claire Temple and Hogarth, whom he pays. In other Marvel Netflix series, Foggy, Misty, and Luke Cage all provide stronger support to the hero without getting in the way. Take Foggy and Misty. Each character is at odds with the hero at some point. However, none are on the villains side at any point and each have clear motives and a character center. It’s the hero’s struggle that pushes them away and brings them back - not a confusion of their own loyalty. Danny Rand feels horribly on his own as he lack a single anchor. He is betrayed at some point by quite literally every significant character.
Overall, Iron Fist is good but not particularly strong in any significant way. The plot and characters are confused. The conflict is inaccessible. The narrative is blunted with so many characters switching sides and operating in "gray" space. The story is a little weak and the pace leaves the show slowly meandering towards a predictable conclusion. The show starts off well, and has some areas where it could have shined with more impressive nods to the martial arts genre. Yet, it’s the weakest of the Netflix Marvel Original series, but we think that is still a cut above any other superhero TV show out today. Even when a character focused drama falls a little flat, it still stands above any story that doesn't value character and story above all else.
BONUS: The Future
The most compelling thing that Iron Fist accomplishes is to introduce martial arts mysticism and a larger world into the Netflix Marvel universe. The mystical powers of the Iron Fist elevate the show from a purely street level focus. This brings up some interesting possibilities for the future of these shows, and their place in the MCU. The disappearance of K’un Lun is icing on the cake and a fine way to lead into the Defenders. Iron Fist bring us out of the world of fist fights on the street and into a universe with not only a larger threat, but also a larger scale of conflict. This is super exciting! The bigger the universe gets, the more potential the shows will have for not only raising their own stakes but also perhaps touching the larger MCU in some meaningful way. The trick will be to stay street-level while advancing the shows scale and universe. If they can some how work up to a Game of Thrones type budget for their team-up events like The Defenders, they could cement their corner of the MCU as the best of any comic or superhero entertainment today.
We’ve laid out our thoughts on the show. What do you think?
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