Netflix’s Marvel’s Iron Fist, based on the kung-fu super-hero I’ve followed off and on since childhood, is the first time I’ve watched a TV series and wondered to myself if it might’ve worked better as a mid-’90s Pauly Shore vehicle.
Follow along, if you opted out of it: American orphan kid is raised for fifteen years out-of-country by strange men with stranger ways. Orphan returns to America as a grown-up with no knowledge of anything that’s happened since the invention of the iPod and stumbles through an unbelievable chain of circumstances that turn him into the majority shareholder and head honcho of a Big Pharma corporation even though he has no degree, no diploma, no job history beyond “defender of sacred mystic hidey-hole”, no experience with any operating system since Windows XP, and no working knowledge of any drugs beyond aspirin and maybe Children’s Robitussin. Adult orphan makes EvilCo look stupid by mandating they sell one (1) new product at-cost, then makes it worse by being nice and candid with someone who’s suing them. Wacky evil characters do evil things that make orphan-man sad. Our Hero saves the day by tapping into his innate awesome excellence and beating up everyone except the two evil execs he likes best, but it’s implied with minimal redeeming acts that henceforth they shall only run EvilCo as a force for good. Our Hero and his new girlfriend celebrate victory with an exotic vacation that hints at a sequel.
Is that timely fish-out-of-water tale not the sweetest direct-to-video pitch Pauly Shore never got? Call it Pharm Boy and get some former child star to direct. Toss in an Aerosmith B-side over the end credits. Have Brendan Fraser cameo as himself doing a TV commercial for some EvilCo product and reading off a long, scary side-effects list. Cut it down to ninety minutes instead of dragging it out to thirteen hours. That could’ve been quickie Blockbuster gold.
Unfortunately, our actual star Finn Jones is no Pauly Shore. Jones lacks Shore’s effortless stoner-surfer confidence, can’t irritate white-collar foils quite like Shore could in what passed for his “prime”, and, worst of all, approaches this soap-opera malarkey with all the gravity and earnestness of a grass-roots PAC trying super-hard to direct you to change.org so you’ll sign their Petition to Make Businessmen Illegal. Danny Rand knows as much about pharmaceuticals as President Trump knows about international diplomacy, he tries playing at it with about the same level of bravado, and the results are nearly as head-shaking.
The worst part is, from the comic fan’s perspective, Iron Fist isn’t even supposed to be a drama about the evil one-percenters do. It’s supposed to be about the martial arts. That’s why we’re here. That, and because we’re under marching orders to watch every show that leads up to The Defenders so that we can grasp every nuance and appreciate all its callbacks and congratulate each other for being unconditional Marvel Netflix completists. I’m worried now that The Defenders won’t be a super-team show but will instead be a reboot of the old EG Marshall/Robert Reed version of The Defenders, so it’ll be thirteen hours of courtroom drama and board meetings with exactly zero minutes of Jessica Jones and her dudes punching out ninja armies.
Sadly, the martial arts don’t quite save Iron Fist. I had problems when the early episodes fell back on the en vogue method of letting the editor create each fight scene by editing six hundred lousy takes into one thirty-second, 300-cut sequence. That’s as opposed to, say, choreographing and directing a complete, continuous, fluid, non-fakey-looking fight scene from start to finish. I’ve hated that method ever since I first picked up on it in Batman Begins and XXX: State of the Union (yep, I was the one guy who saw it in theaters) and it’s tough to respect such shoddy patchwork after watching much better sequences from The Raid and its sequel, or the long, single-take hallway fight from Oldboy, a.k.a. the one scene these Marvel Netflix shows won’t stop copying.
My opinion worsened when my equally disappointed son pointed me to that Finn Jones interview in which he admits his training and the fight scenes were rushed to such a ridiculous degree that they couldn’t have hoped to rise to the level of, say, Agents of SHIELD. To their credit, the melees improve a bit in the later episodes, but those first few set the tone and lowered the bar, and they’re bookended by a season-finale anticlimax in which the final boss battle comes down to Our Hero versus one dude with a pistol.
Let it not be said that Iron Fist is wholly irredeemable. Part of my fun in watching productions like this is deconstructing them to admire the inner gears that work well despite the defective machinery surrounding them. If a more serious editor went to town on this season with a butcher knife, the good-parts version would absolutely include the best showdown, from episode 8 in which Danny faces actor/stuntman Lewis Tan (who auditioned for the lead role first) as essentially an homage to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. Tan is a rare opponent with any style or personality beyond Tackle Dummy, and deserved more than one appearance. It’s probably no coincidence the episode was directed by Kevin Tancharoen, who’s helmed episodes of many a super-hero show (SHIELD, the DC/CW ‘verse) and apparently knows what to bring to the party.
Honorable mention, villain category, goes to episode 6 for the Bride of Nine Spiders, brought to life straight out of the comics by actress Jane Kim and our special guest director, RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan (Man with the Iron Fists), who takes an otherwise pointless Mortal Kombat tournament and injects the most visual flair of the season. I had hopes for Ramon Rodriguez (Omar’s sidekick Renaldo from The Wire) as the mysterious Bakuto, a figure who throws a wrench into the works when he tells everyone Everything You Know Is Wrong, but his extended ambiguity irritated me after a while. Among the other fighters, Jessica Henwick (one of the X-Wing pilots from The Force Awakens) more than holds her own as Colleen Wing, who in the comics eventually partners with Misty Knight from Luke Cage, but I’m not sure how well that’ll work in this universe.
Late in the game, Danny gets a helping hand from his childhood friend Davos (Sacha Dhawan, last seen as Mary’s ex-teammate Ajay from Sherlock‘s “The Six Thatchers”), stepping into the ring with his own distinctive poses, though his script-mandated rage-aholism threatens to overshadow his nuances. For what it’s worth, most of his anger can be summed up in the question, “Why does a white guy get to be Iron Fist and not a qualified nonwhite candidate like me?” so in a sense he’s representing on behalf of the parts of the internet that disapproved of the show sight unseen and on casting decisions alone. By season’s end, his question is left dangling, either to be answered in a future season, or on the expectation that merely asking the question was answer enough. Or something.
The mostly human characters I could take or leave. David Wenham, a.k.a. kid bro Faramir from The Lord of the Rings, alternates between Harold Meachum the doting father figure and Harold Meachum the scheming Big Pharma overseer, but seemed a bit too hammy to balance both sides convincingly for me. At first I hated, hated, HATED Tom Pelphrey as his son/proxy Ward, who came off as Fred Armisen playing Donald Trump Jr. for a Portlandia sketch, but as his character begins to dabble in drugs and wave farewell to pieces of his sanity, Pelphrey seemed readier than anyone else to shrug off the stiffness and embrace full-tilt looniness in a comic-book setting crying out for some.
Tellingly, Iron Fist‘s best features are characters who drop by from the other Marvel Netflix shows to say hi and share what they’ve learned. Carrie-Anne Moss returns as Jeri Hogarth when extensive lawyering is needed. Wai Ching Ho, as the elusive Madame Gao, finally steps to the foreground and makes Danny look foolish at every turn in every way. In my book, Best of Show belongs to Rosario Dawson as the returning Claire Temple, once again playing doctor every time someone else gets mangled in action. Not merely content to supply bandages and ointments, Claire has HAD IT with the wannabe crime-fighters using up all her antibiotics and ignoring their own shows’ major plot holes and idiot plots. She seems to have been inserted by one writer just to mock everyone else in the writers’ room, thus making her the closest thing we have to a viewer’s advocate. I hope she’s here to stay in perpetuity, because let’s face it: Dawson is so indispensable to the Marvel Netflix universe, at least three of its four super-heroes would be dead if not for her. The Defenders would just be Jessica Jones and whoever’s buying drinks at the bar that night.
None of that is impressive enough to fully compensate for the show’s saddest disappointments. No one wants to root for evil corporations, but the underpinnings of Danny’s company seem to lack fundamental understandings and come off as tired caricature, especially in that whole impetuous “at-cost” kerfuffle. Business has to have profit to stay in business. They don’t have to overcharge on a Martin Shkreli level of fiendishness, but they can’t sell all their products at-cost, either. Should the show and Rand Enterprises continue, I expect a bankruptcy subplot midway into season 3 at the latest or else they’re fooling themselves.
Iron Fist’s worst sin: wasting the Iron Fist itself. In the comics, Danny Rand could break anyone or anything by summoning a sort of temporary, impenetrable energy field around his hand that made it, in his immortal catchphrase, “LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON!” It’s his ultimate weapon, like Voltron’s sword or Popeye’s spinach. Danny still summons his Iron Fist, but 95% of the time he’s using it as a universal door opener. Sometimes a wall comes down with them, or becomes a doorway. There’s one painful moment in which he uses it to bust a pair of brass knuckles instead of smashing their wielder’s face. In the finale (and shown off in the trailer) he uses it to create a massive shockwave in a high-rise office by punching the floor superhumanly hard, which you’d think wouldn’t cause waves but would in fact smash through the floor. But mostly it’s all about the doors. Call him the Human Skeleton Key. And he never says his hokey catchphrase. Not once.
Instead of Actual Iron Fist, we get a hero-wannabe who has much learning to do but wants to run before he can walk, crawl, or tell which body parts are his feet. Instead of focusing on his super-heroing, he spends over half the series in a cautionary tale called “What if Eli Lilly were run by Michael Scott from The Office?” And in case you were hoping that perhaps the portrayal of a Zen Buddhist superhero might somehow be enlightening, you might want to ignore the recurring theme of repressed anger that haunts both Danny and Davos, who each have to endure lectures from other characters about how they’re not working through their issues and implying that their belief system is dumb and not helping them at all. Maybe they can spend season 2 sharing their feelings and attending therapy sessions, or, like, hey, maybe they can just take a lesson in chilling out from Pauly Shore.