Iron Fist: It’s Complicated

Iron Fist, the latest entry in the interconnected Marvel/Netflix complex of shows, has not exactly earned critical adoration. Indeed, many opinions on the show seem fairly virulently negative.

While Iron Fist is flawed, and arguably the least successful of the Netflix shows from a creative standpoint, the drubbing it’s taking in some quarters may be overdone. It’s far from unwatchable. It features thrilling action scenes and solid fight choreography. There are some excellent performances, especially from breakout star Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. Franchise favorites add some spice, like the indispensable Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and the mesmerizing Wai Ching Ho as the nefarious Madame Gao. The show looks great, with slick cinematography and dynamic camera work. And the scripts have managed a couple of decent twists.

But it is flawed. The pacing and story logic often are off, especially things like the show’s timeline and relative ages of characters. The “inner strength” philosophizing can feel shallow. And the performance of Finn Jones as central character Danny Rand (a/k/a Iron Fist) has been problematic.

Some viewers have asked “Why him?” That particular conundrum manifests in two ways.

First, why Jones? He’s certainly not terrible and is more than equal to the demanding physical aspects of the role. But Danny often seems like the least interesting person in a given scene and Jones hasn’t really been up to the task of bringing more to the character than is on the written page. That’s a marked contrast from Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, each of which benefitted from a strong lead performance to center the action.

Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter brought so much complexity and so many layers to their portrayals of Jessica and Luke that they changed a lot of minds about the depth possible in a comic book adaptation. On Daredevil, Charlie Cox radiated such innate likability that fans were able to root for Matt Murdoch, even in the moments when they might have been okay with someone punching him in the throat. Jones hasn’t really brought anything of that sort to Danny Rand. He sometimes feels like an excuse for the show instead of the reason for it.

The “why him?” question manifests also in fans wondering what Iron Fist has in common with the other heroes in the Defenders project. On the surface, a “reborn” billionaire hanging out in a gleaming downtown office tower with his name on it doesn’t seem to relate to three hardscrabble heroes defending the downtrodden in some of New York’s roughest neighborhoods.

That’s a case where fans who come to Iron Fist with no familiarity with the source material are at a disadvantage. In the comic book world, Danny Rand has deep, longstanding ties with many of the characters in the franchise, especially Luke, Jessica and Misty Knight. For the part of the audience aware of that history, Iron Fist makes perfect sense as part of this group.

But that’s not obvious to fans coming to the show with no prior knowledge. Danny seems like an outlier, and while the show has used Claire, Gao and lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Anne Moss) to create ties with the earlier entries, Iron Fist’s place in this street level cosmology feels uncertain.

That reliance on fans’ prior knowledge of Danny’s story manifested early on, too. While Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage provided viewers with the basics they needed to be able to follow the stories of their lead characters almost from the jump, Danny’s tale took a more leisurely approach. If you knew his comic book journey, it made perfect sense. But if you didn’t, you’d find yourself wondering what the hell was going on.

That’s a flaw in conception or execution of Iron Fist. While it’s necessary to give the dedicated fans enough to make them happy, a mass media adaptation can’t be insular, it can’t demand that viewers come to it knowing the backstories of the main characters. They need to equip every viewer, both those thoroughly steeped in a character’s comic book past and absolute newcomers, with the same info so that everyone can be on the same page. So fans with a track record with the comic book iteration of Danny Rand probably enjoyed the show more than those without that background, who understandably found a lot of this confusing.

Possibly the biggest problem for Iron Fist was how the writers and producers failed to adequately address the issue of cultural appropriation. Indeed, in many ways, the creators aggravated that issue unnecessarily.

Iron Fist, like Luke Cage, emerged from the early ’70s milieu of “exploitation” entertainment, mining a particular culture or sub-culture and repackaging it for mainstream audiences in a way that emphasized the most exotic or lurid elements to the detriment of nuance or any kind of in-depth treatment of the subjects. “White western man immerses himself in Asian culture and emerges enlightened” was a popular trope of the period.

Iron Fist has been one of the more enduring characters to emerge from that scene and the comic book version has evolved a lot since. But there’s no escaping the character’s roots as an example of cultural appropriation. For some fans, that is quite understandably a problem that’s hard to get past.

Early on, Marvel tried to appease that section of the potential audience by insisting that they were considering casting an actor of Asian descent in the lead role. Which made it all the worse for those fans when the show cast Jones, a white, blond man who resembled the comic book Danny Rand.

And let’s be real. While Marvel movies and television shows have shown some willingness to be open-minded about casting supporting characters in a way that enhances diversity, they tend not to go that route with lead characters. Marvel, especially since it became a part of the Disney empire, has become a cross-media brand. It was always highly unlikely they were going to cast an actor in the television iteration of Iron Fist who didn’t align with the representation of the character in the comic books and graphic novels the company is pushing.

That doesn’t mean that the show couldn’t have handled that issue more effectively. Instead, scripts leaned into some of the worst aspects of the cultural appropriation problem, positioning Danny Rand as a kind of smug “enlightened one” who lectured all around him. Some episodes made feints at addressing the issue. Madame Gao’s well-flung barbs at Danny carried a sting of truth, but in context were dismissed as villainous taunting. A couple of characters pointed out the significant gaps in Danny’s knowledge of the power he’d inherited, suggesting a westerner embracing the surface elements of another culture without truly understanding it, but that wasn’t developed. And Danny’s friend Davos expressed a bit more of that angle, noting that Danny was an outsider who essentially stole a sacred part of his society’s religion.

Those were useful adornments, but none of them really went far enough in addressing the cultural appropriation issue. Which feels like a missed opportunity. Especially since the show features Colleen, a strong Asian woman with an extensive background in the martial arts. Colleen would have been an ideal catalyst to address that issue, but instead the show allowed Danny to lecture her condescendingly, before tossing them into a romance.

If Iron Fist gets a second solo season, the show really needs to face that issue head-on. Because with all the other flaws of the show, it’s easy to see why many people have been tepid or outright hostile to it. Those of us who have read the character’s comic book adventures for years might have gotten better mileage out of these episodes, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.

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