**SPOILERS…because I watched this so you don’t have to.**
Marvel’s cinematic universe has always had a diversity problem. From inexplicably refusing to set up a Black Widow movie, to failing to correct the weird Orientalism of the 1970’s comics, to the tone deaf statement from Marvel’s vice president of sales David Gabriel blaming increased diversity for falling sales. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones were beautiful corrections. But when Marvel announced that Danny Rand would be played by Finn Jones we knew that they had gone back to opting for safety in whiteness.
Danny Rand isn’t well known to most people, Iron Fist is a pretty small title in the Marvel comic universe. His origin is derivative, and his powers are boring. Luke Cage is at least bulletproof! They could have cast a lot of interesting people, and they had a great opportunity that they totally whiffed.
These casting choices are dangerous, they present a double-edged sword. When you try to adapt stories like Iron Fist, you risk perpetuating a stereotype if you cast an Asian man. Doctor Strange ran into this problem when they cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. If they had cast an old, Asian man for the role it would have been terrible, in a different way. The narrative would have been, “Asians can only get roles in these terrible old stereotypical roles.” I was personally fond of the way Doctor Strange worked in this no-win situation. If you’re going to recast a role like the Ancient One, and you can get Tilda Swinton, you should get Tilda motherfucking Swinton. She’s not a money-printing machine like ScarJo (seriously, why no Black Widow movie?), but she’s a fantastic actress. She will bring a level of gravitas and otherworldliness to any character she might play, which is just what the Ancient One needed. Marvel cast Chiwetal Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as sorcerers, so they had a diverse cast even though they still had a white male lead. That cast was amazing. Doctor Strange was still legitimately criticized for its whitewashing, but it was still making at least a nod towards better representation. A shuffling, bumbling step forward, but it made me think they were learning.
Iron Fist could have done something like that, even with Finn Jones. Danny Rand is a white character in the comics, so it’s really just disappointing that they didn’t do anything interesting with him. It wasn’t totally necessary to recast him. But because of that, this had to be an amazing show, it had to be phenomenal. But then the rest of the cast turned out to be super white, except all the bad guys…who were almost all Asian. Iron Fist did not turn out to be amazing, instead it did nearly everything wrong.
Doctor Strange succeeded because of a quality, if unoriginal, script, fantastic performances, a true comic-book ending, and mind-blowing special effects. Iron Fist failed on all those measures (though nobody needed it to have crazy special effects, just a glowey hand really), plus it failed in the way no show about kung-fu ever should, in its fight scenes. Daredevil has had fantastic fight scenes; brutal , drag out, painful, exhausting fight scenes. If you say, “hallway fight” to a Marvel fan they immediately melt into a puddle of love for that long-take scene in the first season of Daredevil. They might not even like that particular show, but the scene is beloved.
“This is going to hurt.”
What you need in a good fight scene is three elements. You need consequences (everybody can’t walk away just feeling a little miffed), you need the fight to push the story forward (why are we fighting?), and you need a fantastic fight choreographer so it looks “real.” To make a fight scene feel real you need to see the hit, you need to see exhaustion and pain. You might have noticed that a lot of directors edit their fights so you never see an actual hit, they cut to a reaction shot just as a hit would have landed, and then walk away from a knockout blow. It makes the hit look harder, it’s handy for untrained fighters, like actors.
Fight choreography is rarely like a real fight, but in scenes like the ones in DD, we see exhaustion, pain, even a little humor (I laugh at that microwave flying into the hallway every time). In Iron Fist, the fighters look like they’re moving at half speed. A lot of commenters have suggested it’s a lack of training on Finn Jones’ part, he had to do a lot of the action himself because they decided not to give him his mask yet, so no stuntman for many shots. Lack of training certainly played a part. But I wonder if the intent was to speed up the fights in post, and afterwards they realized it would look terrible. Because those fights are SLOW, even when it’s clearly not Jones in a shadowy scene. Hell, they even use the cutaway trick when Danny hits things, usually doors, with the Iron Fist (man the Iron Fist hates doors).
If they had given Danny his costume at any point, they could have hid the stunt guys more effectively. Besides, how wonderful is this costume? It’s easily the best part of the character.
Probably not as comfortable as the “homeless hipster” look Danny was rocking for most of the show though.
But, the fights are all dull. Except for the one that made me mad, the fight with the drunken boxer. I think it was supposed to be an homage to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Boxer, but it just turned out insulting (also friends, don’t drink liquor out of broken bottles, only Jackie Chan gets to do this). Not to insult Lewis Tan, a phenomenal stunt fighter, but his fight partner just ruined this scene.
So we know Marvel’s Netflix shows *can* do fight scenes. Better than the movies of the MCU too (I’m looking at you Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy, both movies that I love). Why they didn’t call on the fight coordinators of DD or even Luke Cage? The fight scenes on The Flash are better, and those mostly consist of CGI lines. This was supposed to be a story about a master of Kung Fu, these fight scenes should have been top-fucking-notch.
Iron Fist also suffers greatly from breaking the biggest rule in movies and television, “Show, Don’t Tell.” The show is exposition heavy, it sets up extremely stupid situations that are never fully resolved, characters are constantly making ridiculous decisions (usually after somebody says something like, “that’s a terrible plan,” Danny immediately stares into the middle distance and angrily doubles down on said terrible plan).
The show decided to depict Danny as an anger-ridden man child, sometimes flirting with his naivete about how the modern world works, but mostly focusing on how ANGRY he is all the time, and therefore must run directly into every situation headlong. I don’t mean to tell you how to do your jobs, K’un L’un monks, but your ultimate warrior needs some work. And probably therapy.
At one point, there was a dramatic reveal of the first villain in the show, somebody who had been lurking in the shadows since the first episode, and it was…MADAME GAO. Zero people should have been surprised by this. She’s been around since Daredevil, unless there was another old Asian lady running the drug selling arm of the Hand (pun totally intended), which would be weird. Why was this a dramatic reveal? Did they just get a camera cart in that day?
“Good lord this kid is a moron.”
*aside* The camera work needs an upgrade too. There were few interesting shots. In one of the few interesting set pieces, I thought they had finally found an interesting place to have a fight…so they made it rain. Because they hadn’t checked off the “fight scene in the rain” box yet, apparently. *end aside*
Madame Gao is a formidable foe. She’s clearly a fragile older woman, so the fact that she runs an empire of drug dealing super ninjas in New York City and has taken on the Daredevil and Wilson Fisk should make her particularly terrifying. This show, taking the wrong lesson from Luke Cage, sidelines this interesting character as quickly as possible to opt for a soft-spoken, boring, clearly-a-bad-guy, Bakuto. Bakuto runs the lesser known part of the Hand full of petulant, casually-trained teenagers. The Hand is supposed to be a terrifying swarm of super ninjas. What the hell is this nonsense?
And then there’s the Meachums. Joy was at least interesting, flexible, and multi-faceted, though eventually they ground her down into dull reaction shots or deciding to stay with her terrifying zombie-dad rather than go with her brother, Ward, whom she’d been saying she was incredibly close to whenever she got the chance. Ward unfortunately fell into the category of “inconsistent.” He clearly never liked Danny, but sometimes he helped him, sometimes he hurt him, and it was never clear why. And of course, he had a boring drug addiction subplot that was magically cleared up by the end of the series (thanks Madame Gao!). But of course it was dear old Dad, Harold, who had *actually* had Danny’s parents killed (I’m with Madame Gao, Danny Rand is a moron), duh. He was in deep with the Hand, who had resurrected him and was using Rand Corp as a front for moving drugs. You know, that old chestnut.
There were a few bright spots in Iron Fist that I should mention. Namely, the ladies. Jeri Hogarth makes a welcome appearance as Danny’s family’s lawyer. Danny ruins her reappearance by calling her J-Money, which was apparently his pet name for her when he was a child pre-K’un L’un. With a sigh from her and the audience, she luckily continues to be a great force for good acting in the show. Claire shows up, mostly to tell Danny his plans are terrible so he can ignore them. Poor Rosario Dawson looked horrified by 75% of her dialogue. And of course, the Iron Fist MVP, Colleen Wing. She would have been an great choice to play the Iron Fist. They unfortunately watered down her otherwise interesting story, I liked her struggling-dojo-owner-who-tried-to-get-kids-off-the-street-but-sometimes-enjoyed-a-good-cage-fight personality. She was complicated, even if she seemed to go along too easily with way too many of Danny’s terrible plans. I guess somebody had to save him.
Iron Fist was mostly a huge disappointment, particularly after Marvel’s other Netflix shows have been terrific. It brought the worst aspects and weaknesses of the superhero genre right to the forefront and shone a bright spotlight on them. Danny Rand is sticking around at least for The Defenders (dropping August 18 on Netflix!). I’m still excited to see what that show has to offer, as well as the next seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. But I’ll definitely be hesitant to invest another 13 hours of my life into Iron Fist.