The Highs and Lows of ‘Iron Fist,’ Marvel’s Great Kung-Fu Failure

The positives and negatives of 'Iron Fist,' an occasionally inspired, mostly monotonous lesson in how not to tell a comic book story.

Finn Jones as Danny Rand. Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

How do solve a problem like Netflix (NFLX)’s Iron Fist? The massive, money-making machine that is Marvel has encountered many a hiccup on the road to world domination–casting Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, losing Edgar Wright as Ant-Man director, deciding a laser-whip-wielding Mickey Rourke was the best choice for Iron Man 2‘s villain–but Iron Fist seems like a completely different beast. Overseen by Scott Buck, the guy who ended 7 years of Dexter with the lumberjack beard heard ’round the world, Iron Fist is the first Marvel project to be met with a resounding, “nah.” Because even with the discussion of cultural appropriation surrounding it, Iron Fist‘s greatest sin is being boring in a world already cluttered with caped crusaders, and life is too short for an uninteresting comic book. We were promised a kung-fu epic, and got corporate litigation drama. We were promised mystical cities, and got boardrooms. We were promised a Living Weapon, and got 56-cut fight scenes to hide the fact Finn Jones can’t actually do a back-flip.

But still, if it’s one thing I did learn from Iron Fist, it’s how to balance my chi. We’re going to focus on both the negative and the positive, the highs and lows of this strange, occasionally-inspired, mostly monotonous lesson in how not to tell a comic book story.  Starting with:

LOW: Episode 2. All of it.

I’ve watched most of Iron Fist all the way through twice, and I still cannot believe “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight” stuck Danny Rand in a psych-ward in the series’ second episode. I cannot believe they went to the “is he crazy or not” well after three other Netflix Marvel shows proved superpowers exist. I cannot believe anyone thought it was a good idea to blast right out of the gates by strapping the kung-fu master badass to a bed and feeding him pills.

I’ve always been a staunch believer that Marvel’s Netflix series would benefit from cutting back from 13 to 8 episodes, to avoid the now-customary mid-season water-treading exercises. There’s only so many times I can watch Luke Cage decide, actually, he doesn’t want to be Harlem’s hero. Only so many benders I can watch Jessica Jones go on. Only so many times I can listen to Matt Murdock lie to his friends about something he definitely doesn’t need to lie about. But Iron Fist hits its mid-season lag after one episode. That’s like sticking a brick wall two feet in front of a horse’s starting gate at Belmont. That is Iron Fist‘s problem, boiled down. It has roughly five hours of interesting story to tell, and thirteen hours to tell it.

HIGH: Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing

Through the first half of Iron Fist, the way Jessica Henwick (Sand Snake no more) plays Colleen Wing across from Finn Jones’ Danny Rand is pitch-perfect. While Danny is mumble-mouthing his way through explanations of K’un-Lun and Lei-Kung the Thunderer, Colleen is here for exactly zero of that nonsense. As she threatens to whack Danny with a practice sword or turns down his Christian Grey-like attempts to pay her rent, Iron Fist‘s writers are accidentally building Colleen as the street-level, New Yorker martial arts expert they want Danny to be. Yes, the eventual nonexistent romantic chemistry and reveal that Colleen’s been in The Hand the whole time (we’ll get to that) diminishes the character somewhat. But just in the way Colleen moves, talks and fights, it’s clear that, straight up, she’s just more of a badass than Danny Rand, no matter what the writers try to tell us over and over again.

Basically, if we could skip ahead to the spinoff where Colleen and Luke Cage‘s Misty Knight solve crimes together, that’d be dope.

LOW: Finn Jones as Danny Rand

Finn Jones has been, on occasion, a capable-to-great actor (and a pretty nice guy!). He was excellent as a beaten, broken Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones‘ sixth season until Cersei Lannister wildfire-d him from one franchise to the other. But the actor makes some truly odd choices as billionaire-turned-weapon Danny Rand. Or, uh, choice, singular, because Jones plays the role throughout 13 episodes of Iron Fist with one, dour note. Can he not pull off an American accent louder than a tortured grumble? Is Danny Rand the first Marvel superhero incapable of humor? Logan was one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and even that got in some yucks. Jones, however, delivers a classic comic-book line in episode 7–“I can’t…it drains my chi”–with the seriousness required of reading your best friend’s eulogy. Iron Fist’s sole superpower involves a glowing fist, and the dude still doesn’t lighten up for a second.

None of this is helped by the fact that 95 percent of Iron Fist‘s fight scenes are dimly lit and cut to pieces because, without a mask, a capable stuntman can’t stand in for an actor that throws punches like he’s ten feet underwater. Actually, speaking of…

LOW: Iron Fist‘s fight scenes

On one hand, I understand what fight coordinator Brett Chan wanted to do with Iron Fist, the idea that Danny Rand is such a superior ass-kicker, he doesn’t have to try very hard to kick ass. But watching someone not try very hard is…super uninteresting. Think back to Daredevil‘s two long-shot fight scenes–both coordinated by Philip J. Silvera–that both saw Matt Murdock beaten half-to-death by the end. Those became the Netflix Marvel Universe staple, ushered in a gritty reality not offered by the movies.

Iron Fist–which, more than its three Defender counterparts should sell itself on its fighting–somehow managed to make a hallway filled with machete-wielding thugs look uninteresting.

HIGH: Iron Fist‘s swordfight scenes

Every single time Iron Fist opted for steel over fists and feet, it was both gorgeously shot and visually exciting. Could this be, you ask, because not one of these scenes involved Danny Rand? I daren’t speculate.

No, that’s totally the reason.

LOW: “You have more Youtube views than that incredible green guy.”

The single most absurd notion that Iron Fist tried to push on me with a completely straight face is that a Youtube clip of a corporate shareholder getting himself into legal trouble would have more views than the Incredible Hulk. You could catch Mark Zuckerberg on camera admitting Facebook runs mostly on the blood of corgi puppies and it’d still have fewer views than a giant green monster smashing its way through midtown New York.

LOW: The Meachum Family

Dear, sweet, comic-book gods I cannot put into human words the amount I did not care for the exploits of Joy, Ward and Harold Meachum. By episode two, each member of the Meachum family had transformed into a black hole for my attention span, forcing me to open another tab until the sound of a corporate salary meeting finally faded away. Ward is simply a bully trope, the bargain bin Tyrell Wellick, until he’s…not. Dude became addicted to super-heroin and stabbed his own father to death and I was like “lol okay.” Joy isn’t even a character through most of the series. She’s a stock photo on a company website that bounces between whoever most recently said, “hey, trust me.” Together, the Meachum siblings are an amalgam of Iron Fist‘s dullest moments, and by the end have less impact on the story than Danny Rand’s baby-punches.

At least David Wenham, bless him, tries his damndest to pull another dimension out of Harold Meachum. Like, literally crawls through a mudhole to make Harold interesting. But you can’t keep a character locked in the same room for 3/4 of a season and keep him intriguing. Of course, he actually killed Danny’s parents, albeit in the most roundabout way humanly possible. By the time he himself comes back to life, Harold has ping-ponged between so many alliances, motivations and just straight character traits that Wenham seemed to be playing 5 villains at once, all of which canceled each other out. 

Also, why’d Harold have to kill Kyle? I haven’t seen a less-earned brutal death since that babysitter from Jurassic World. I declare Kyle the new Barb. #JusticeForKyle.

HIGH: Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple

I am, and always will be here for Rosario Dawson dropping into Marvel shows to point out these costumed superhumans are also, at their core, huge drama queens. And Iron Fist, in typical Iron Fist fashion, nearly ruins everything. Claire’s first appearance, in “Under Leaf Pluck Lotus,” sees Dawson understandably sleep-walking through exposition she’s explained in at least two other shows, while still somehow managing to not mention another vigilante by name.

But, BUT, Claire Temple will always be the Netflix Marvel Universe’s constant, the Penny to its Desmond. She keeps this thing together, be it through the letters she receives from a locked-up Luke Cage or by explaining the benefits of Joe’s Pizza to a warrior-monk from another astral plane.

HIGH: Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth

Ever since the first Matrix, Carrie-Anne Moss has excelled at dealing with dumb surfer dudes who just happen to be good at kung-fu. I would become Iron Fist‘s #1 fan if it spun-off into a series that was 100 percent Hogarth’s face reactions to some dumb shit Danny Rand just said.

HIGH: Lewis Tan as Zhou Cheng

Lewis Tan, the man who could and probably should have been Iron Fist, steals the entire series anyway with his brief, bottle-swilling appearance in episode 8, “The Blessing of Many Fractures.” It’s the series single intriguing fight scene, which comes down to the fact Tan is, frankly, everything Jones is not. He’s charismatic as much through movement as voice, and moves with a fluidity that, well, you’d expect from a character everyone else keeps calling a Living Weapon. Danny Rand is not a Living Weapon. Danny Rand was kicked out of The OA auditions for being too stiff.

Of course, Danny Rand does soundly kick Zhou Cheng’s ass, condemning us to dream of a hypothetical world where the Immortal Iron Fist is actually cool.

LOW: Marvel’s villain problem

Since her first appearance in Daredevil season one, Wai Ching Ho has struck an enigmatic presence as The Hand’s Madame Gao, this shadowy figure that wields the influence of a secret ninja cult, a frail old woman with a cane that can still knock Daredevil on his ass. So, of course, Iron Fist locks her in a room and forgets about her for the last five episodes, replacing Gao with the infinitely less appealing Bakuto. Bakuto is a blank-slate. He wants the most general of villain goals: “power.” Just, you know, “power.”

It’s the same exact move pulled by Luke Cage. The third Defender series had Oscar-winner/smoothest man alive Mahershala Ali, whose Cottonmouth was a magnetic character even in Luke Cage’s dullest moments. That is, before he was tossed through a window in Luke Cage‘s seventh episode, and replaced him with (say it with me now) the infinitely less intriguing Diamondback.

What’s worse, Bakuto’s entrance hurt The Hand as a whole. Up to this point, The Hand was an abstract idea, this all-encompassing shadow society that was more virus than organization. Well, it was, until Bakuto reveals it’s more like a cross between sleepaway camp and the Manson family. I swear they had a jungle gym at that compound. The only thing worse than the reveal is the explanation. Madam Gao’s Hand = evil, Bakuto’s Hand = not so bad, we have arts and crafts. The one, single time I related to Danny Rand is when he yelled at Colleen, “That’s your story?! She’s the Bad Hand, and you’re the Good Hand?!” Is…that Iron Fist‘s story? Remember the Alien principle: the more you drag something into the light, the lamer it looks.

So, once The Hand nopes back to WhereverTheHeck because they were never actually a central threat anyway, the Big Bad for the finale, “Dragon Plays with Fire,” is Harold Meachum. Meachum, as we all know, wants…something. The climactic battle, between Danny and Harold, is over…something. Well, Harold did murder Danny’s parents, in his pursuit to obtain…something. I guess, “power.”

HIGH: Literally just these 10 seconds of the finale

Sue me. This was cool. I like cool things. It’s just a shame it happened after the previous 12 hours of tedium, corporate strategizing and weak knee kicks sucked the interest from my body.

Give it a rewatch, you say? I can’t…

The Highs and Lows of ‘Iron Fist,’ Marvel’s Great Kung-Fu Failure