It’s been a week since Iron Fist, Netflix’s latest Marvel Comics TV series, was released. Early reviews were not kind, which star Finn Jones attributed to our culture’s current dislike of white billionaires like Donald Trump. Absurd defense aside, it seemed fair to point out that critics only saw the first six episodes of the 13-episode season before it premiered on Netflix.
So did the series improve from what was seen in those initial six episodes? Did the subsequent seven episodes address or neutralize any of the criticisms leveled at the series, such as poor writing, badly choreographed action, and a less-than-compelling lead actor?
Those gripes are in addition to one of the major issues fans and critics took with the entire concept of Iron Fist, that the character is a white guy appropriating Asian culture, religion and mythology to become a martial arts master after being trained by Tibetan monks. (Iron Fist’s comic book creator, Roy Thomas, mounted a poor rebuttal to those concerns earlier this week, including an unfortunate use of the word “Oriental.”) But Daniel Rand is a white guy in the comic books, so casting Jones was arguably faithful to the source material, even if it was a somewhat disappointing decision.
Unfortunately, everything wrong with Iron Fist has little to do with the main character’s ethnicity. Perhaps some of those issues would have been solved had an Asian-American been cast in the role, as Lewis Tan (who plays one of Rand’s adversaries late in the series) alluded to in an interview with Vulture while acknowledging that it would have become a much different show. Would it have been any better? We’ll never know, though considering the final product, it’s doubtful.
Casting Jones to play Rand indeed turned out to be problematic. Not because he’s white, but because he’s a poor actor. Perhaps the writing — especially the awful dialogue that plagues this series — did him no favors. But Jones’ default setting for conveying inner turmoil and anger appears to be petulance. Daniel Rand comes off as a brat who knows kung fu, is constantly reminding everyone that he’s a great warrior who earned the mantle of the Iron Fist, and is only agreeable after he’s completed his meditation. If Iron Fist was supposed to be our culture’s first mindful superhero, the attempt failed terribly.
The early reviews had it right. Iron Fist isn’t very good, and is easily the worst of the four Marvel Netflix shows. Maybe the character will be better utilized when he teams up with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in The Defenders, especially now that his origin story and tedious backstory are out of the way. The first six episodes of the series were largely handcuffed by the plotline of Rand reclaiming his family name and fortune. That leads to far too many conference room scenes concerned with legal battles (which at least had Carrie-Anne Moss reprising her role from Jessica Jones as attorney Jeri Hogarth) and boardroom discussions.
The action picks up as the stakes are raised in the subsequent seven episodes, yet for a series whose hero is supposed to be a great warrior and martial arts master, the fight scenes are surprisingly bad. Iron Fist should have hired the stunt team from Daredevil. That show proved you could stage dynamic, coherent action on a TV budget and create something memorable. (Arrow is another superhero TV show that does action well.) So how did Iron Fist get it so wrong? Is it because Jones couldn’t be masked and replaced with a stuntman? Were his skills limited enough to affect the action? The scenes involving Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) seem to indicate otherwise. Or were the action sequences poorly conceived within the story to begin with?
Besides the fundamental issues of poor writing and an unappealing lead actor, Iron Fist‘s biggest problem may be its villain. The series can’t seem to figure out who the real bad guy is. This has become more of a predicament for Marvel’s Netflix series, as storylines need to be stretched out to accommodate 13 episodes. Season one of Daredevil and Jessica Jones both benefited by having a clear adversary for the heroes. Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave were strong, compelling characters who could sustain the story throughout the entire season and set a high bar for the three subsequent Marvel series, including team-up show The Defenders.
Daredevil‘s season two was sidetracked by The Punisher and Elektra, while trying to make The Hand — sort of a faceless ninja order with no leader to focus on — the primary villain of the story. Luke Cage started out strong with Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played by the outstanding Mahershala Ali (now an Academy Award winner), but then apparently decided that the show needed a bigger bad guy who could contest the hero physically. Diamondback was probably the worst villain in any Marvel TV or movie property.
If you’ve watched Iron Fist through its 13th episode, you could certainly argue that the main villain becomes entirely clear and it was set up that way early in the series. But in the meantime, showrunner Scott Buck and his team of writers seem intent on constantly trying to misdirect the audience as to who the primary bad guy is. Is it Rand’s childhood friend Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey), jealous of the golden boy returning to New York to claim his stake in the Rand Enterprises fortune? Is it Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), drug lord of Hell’s Kitchen and presumed leader of The Hand, previously seen in Daredevil? What about Bakudo (Ramon Rodriguez), Colleen Wing’s sensei, who appears late — almost too late — in the series?
Each of those adversaries are interesting in their own way, as their motivations change over the course of 13 episodes. Yet those other characters all seem like a smoke screen intended to obscure who was always intended to be the main villain of the series: Harold Meachum (David Wenham). The trailers do little to hide that Meachum is the one with the most to lose with Rand’s return from the mystical land of K’un L’un. So why does the series work so hard to try and convince the audience otherwise?
Another big problem with the villain is that he’s really no physical match for Iron Fist, which makes their inevitable showdown seem a little bit silly. Is there any doubt that the martial arts master is going to take down the curiously immortal evil corporate executive? For a character whose chief appeal is his fighting skill, the story needed a climactic battle that challenged the hero. (OK, maybe there is one, yet it’s in the second-to-last episode. What about the finale?) Throughout the series, Meachum has tried to weaken Rand psychologically, yet the story still comes down to a physical confrontation. Because it had to. So why not make it more of a fight for Iron Fist? Otherwise, what’s the point?
On their own, a bad lead actor, terrible dialogue (it’s hard not to feel bad for Jones and Henwick as the series progresses) and poor action could each possibly have been overcome. But as a whole, all of those problems pull Iron Fist down. Worst of all, the overall story never really comes together. What was this series really about? A man claiming his birthright and identity? A boy who had his childhood and family taken from him attempting to become an adult on his own? A hero battling corporate and underworld forces? Or was this ultimately just about having one more Marvel superhero show to get to the team-up everyone wants to see in The Defenders?
Iron Fist does have the feel of 13 episodes of set-up. (Season two of Daredevil had a similar problem.) Was this supposed to be going anywhere? The story leaves a few plotlines and character arcs — notably with Rand’s friend, Davos (Sacha Dhawan) — dangling, which does fuel some promise for a possible second season. Or perhaps some of those threads will be picked up in The Defenders.
It’s one thing to look forward to a series continuing. Most of the time, that’s because you enjoyed a show and want to see more. In this case, a second season might help viewers forget how bad the first season was. Iron Fist has left plenty of room for improvement.