It’s been a week now since Netflix released Marvel’s Iron Fist. I realise that some of you have been putting it off. I understand. You heard all the negative reviews and want to wait until he hype dies down and see it or yourself. You may also be wary of the controversy regarding the lead role being a Caucasian man in a mythology greatly inspired by Chinese culture and philosophy. I can tell you that you need not worry about that aspect. Why? Because no matter who was cast in the lead Iron Fist would still have been the most achingly dull series on Netflix and by far the worst of their Defenders franchise. It doesn’t just have problems, it fails on every conceivable level.
After surviving the plane crash in the Himalayas which killed his parents, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) was rescued and raised by warrior monks from the mystical kingdom of K’un Lun. Along with amazing martial arts skills, he learned to focus his chi and unleash the ultimate power of the Iron Fist. Now 15 years later he’s back in New York to claim his rightful place as head of Rand Enterprises, a billion dollar pharmaceutical company, and begin a quest to destroy the evil clandestine organisation called The Hand. With a concept like that, Iron Fist has no right to be this boring.
The majority of the first five episodes deals with Danny trying to get back to work as a businessman. Seriously there is more boardroom meetings and discussions about severance packages than there are fights (because who wants to see any kung-fu in a series about Marvel’s most famous kung-fu warrior). His childhood friends Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meechum (Tom Pelphrey) run the company but secretly, their supposedly dead father Harold (David Wenham) really calls the shots and helped The Hand infiltrate Rand Enterprises to aid in their nefarious criminal activities. Ward knows about his father and is struggling to control the business as well as his drug addiction and personal grievances and oh my god who the hell cares? We are expected to spend 13 hours with Joy’s perpetual complaining and Ward’s bog standard daddy issues. Harold himself, the show’s main villain, is even worse than Luke Cage’s Diamondback. (Don’t you get tired of these cold and ruthless killer types who brutally murder people and straighten their tie afterwards? It used to be shocking but now it’s just unpleasant) Far too much time is devoted to these dreadful entities and their business ventures. I know a show is supposed to build up tension but these comes a time when pacing stops and padding begins. Iron Fist is a textbook example of doing in two hours what can be achieved in one. The fact that we have awful characters makes it even worse but none more so than the hero.
Danny Rand is a chore to watch. An action movie star needs a certain kind of charisma to hook the audience. An electrifying screen presence which can generate excitement with a simple flick of the nose or raise of an eyebrow. Finn Jones has no such charm. He seems totally unconvinced of the material and delivers his freshly learned eastern philosophy with no sincerity whatsoever. But, in his defense, I will acknowledge the fact that Danny Rand is not a character one can warm to anyway. A privileged hipster dressing like a hobo and spouting half-baked nuggests of wisdom are the ingredients for an arrogant tosser, not a hero. That aside he’s supposed to be the Iron Fist and it’s his duty to defend K’un Lun, the mystical land where he learned his art. He repeats this ad nauseam. Then why the hell is he in New York? Everyone keeps asking him why he came back and for ten whole episodes he never once explains anything. Not one single decent reason as to why he left his post. Isn’t it his job to guard K’un Lun? Don’t bother asking Danny Rand that. He just flies off in a rage and throws all his toys out of the pram whenever anyone does. All those Asian teachings seem to have been wasted too as he spends more time throwing temper tantrums than mediating. He’s constantly breaking things or screaming at people like a child trying to get his own way. This would be fine if it were Jessica Jones in a drunken stupor but when it’s from someone who was supposedly raised by Himalayan monks you’d think he’d be well able to exercise patience. But at least he can fight, right? Well, no. Jones clearly has no knowledge of martial arts beyond the steps his choreographer gave him. This is a very big problem. We’re supposed to believe he’s one of the greatest fighters on Earth yet he plods his way through the brief moments of conflict with nary a shred of verisimilitude. That’s our hero. An unlikeable, unconvincing pampered brat who is really, really bad at his job as the Iron Fist.
This brings me to the show’s biggest crime. Not the boredom or poor characters. It’s the martial arts; or lack thereof. It’s taken me a while to get to this point but, hey, might as well keep the spirit of the show itself. Iron Fist should be first and foremost an action adventure series. Martial Arts should play a major part in the characters and situations. Instead it treats martial arts as a simple means to an end at best and an afterthought at worst. The fights end as quickly as they begin. A few flashy moves and hokey gestures pureed through Final Cut Pro are not what makes a good combat scene. What we do see is Finn Jones and his clunky kung-fu masked by poorly lit backflip kicks and quick edits after every weightless punch. Whatever about not hiring an Asian actor, hiring someone without a martial arts background is even worse. None of the production crew treat the techniques with consideration or care. What does one take from the martial arts after watching Iron Fist? Very little. Nothing is shown of the culture, philosophy or history which, in a series that is meant to deal primarily with martial arts, is unacceptable. I don’t expect an instructional video, just a little acknowledgement. Done right it can be both respectful and entertaining. After watching Ong Bak everyone knew what Muay Thai was.
Sammo Hung directed Prodigal Son using Wing Chun just to prove it could work on-screen. For God’s sake even the lame Hollywood film The One at least made an effort to show the hero and villain using two distinctly different styles to reflect their personality. Don’t they get it? The very nature of this format is a golden opportunity to unleash a visual feast of kung-fu with each episode. Unhindered by commercial breaks or network censorship we could have been given a mini Shaw Bros movie one episode, a love letter to Jackie Chan’s comedic touch the next and a bloodbath a la The Raid after that. Plus with the supernatural element to the story they could have gone all out fantasy like Big Trouble in Little China. Iron Fist could have been the most exciting Marvel series of them all, incorporating lots of fighting, a little weirdness and good old-fashioned hokum. I expected more from the company which gave us those excellent fight sequences in Daredevil.
What makes all this especially disappointing is that we occasionally get a glance of what the show could have been. There’s a great encounter where Danny does battle with a practitioner of Drunken Boxing (Lewis Tan, a real martial arts actor who actually auditioned for Danny Rand) and for one glorious moment it feels like we are, strange as it sounds, actually watching a martial arts movie. Would it be too much to ask for a fight like this but with a different style per episode? Another glimmer comes from Episode 6 where Danny fights in a 3 level tournament with a venomous spider woman, two Russian butchers and a karaoke obsessed swordsman. It was directed by The RZA who along with being a huge fan of kung fu cinema is also a massive nerd. Throughout his music career he’s name checked everyone from Moon Knight to Guyver and even got Bill Sienkiewicz to illustrate the cover of his first album. In one hour he livens the pace and atmosphere of the entire series. The absurdity of it all is the most entertaining thing in the entire series. Yet the stakes seem real because it’s engaging. The fight scenes are impressive with just the right amount of gimmickry and ironically, the only moment in the series which did need to be utilised in more than one episode. It’s a great pity that RZA or someone with similar sensibilities were not in charge from the get go.
There are some interesting supporting characters too. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) is a no-nonsense New Yorker but also sensitive enough to at least try to connect with Rand. That and the fact she can wield a katana with proficiency make her far more worthy of her own series than Danny Rand. Carrie Ann Moss and Rosario Dawson reprise their roles from previous Marvel/Netflix shows. Moss as Jeri Hogarth helps Rand reclaim his place in a couple of the more interesting business meeting scenes. Claire Temple (Dawson) is always good but I can’t help but feel she would have been better off as a one episode cameo. Best of all is Wai Ching as Madame Gao. Having last seen her in Season 1 of Daredevil, she brings a much-needed air of danger and mystery to the plot. She has connections to the Triads, the Hand and exhibits some supernatural powers. These of course are never explored as she is not the main villain, another massive failing in the show. Having Gao as the chief antagonist could have opened up so many opportunities to embrace the show’s largely ignored Asian influence as well as incredible fight scenes with her many minions. Alas, the story that show runner Scott Buck wanted to tell has little room for such things.
If you like NBC’s Suits but think it would be better with some hasty combat from a bog standard Agents of SHIELD episode then Iron Fist is for you. What could have been a brilliant mix of magic and martial arts is an utterly dull slog through exposition, boring dialogue, mostly uninteresting characters and sloppy, infrequent fights. A few fleeting moments of excitement only highlight the myriad of flaws. It’s the kind of show where you hear about Danny Rand fighting a real live dragon instead of seeing it. Iron Fist is a show you can afford to put off watching for a good while longer.