Punching down: Netflix’s ‘Iron Fist’ is a rare miss for Marvel

By Jim Sabataso

I was going to try to finish the entire season of “Iron Fist” before writing this review, but after several episodes, I’m unsure when or if I’ll actually make it to the end. The new Netflix series is Marvel Studios’ latest installment in its suite of street-level superhero stories, culminating in the “The Defenders” miniseries to be released later this year.

The series tells the story of Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, a living weapon and kung fu master, whose powerful fists glow with mystical energy. An heir to a vast family fortune, Danny has been presumed dead since he and his parents disappeared in a plane crash in the Himalayas when he was a child.

Fifteen years hence, a bearded, barefoot Danny shows up in New York to discover his family’s company is now in the hands of his childhood friends, whose father was business partners with Danny’s dad. Incredulous, the Meachum siblings are slow to accept that Danny has returned from the dead, and would prefer it if he returned to the grave.

Meanwhile, the Hand, an evil and immortal cabal of ninjas that has been running around New York since the first season of “Daredevil,” continues to put the pieces in place for a yet-to-be-revealed sinister plan, which also involves the Meachums.

“Iron Fist’s” flaws are myriad, but the fault doesn’t fall solely at the feet of showrunner Scott Buck (“Dexter,” “Six Feet Under”). The series is in the unenviable position of arriving right before “The Defenders,” which will be a massive crossover for all the Marvel Netflix characters, including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Elektra, Misty Knight and likely many others. The job of “Iron Fist,” then, is to set the table for that larger story, which results in less time for the series to do its own thing.

In addition, the material itself is problematic. As soon as actor Finn Jones (“Game of Thrones”) was cast as Danny, fans and critics questioned the wisdom of installing yet another white man in the Marvel hero’s pantheon, and rightfully wondered why an Asian-American actor couldn’t have been cast instead.

Yes, in the comics, Danny is white, but the character of Iron Fist has always had an uneasy relationship with Asian culture, similar to Dr. Strange, another white character who travels to the East and masters the mystic arts better than the indigenous people. That film took a similar drubbing last year for whitewashing of Asian characters and uncomfortable orientalist themes.

In 2017, it’s not a good look. So why even bother producing “Iron Fist”? One theory is that as soon as Marvel decided on a “Luke Cage” series, “Iron Fist” was inevitable. In the comics, the two characters are one of Marvel’s most enduring bromances; when one appears, the other is rarely far behind.

But if Marvel was so hellbent on keeping the duo in tact, it wasn’t obligated to keep Danny white — though I’d posit they wanted to avoid any confusion new potential readers might have when they pick up an Iron Fist comic and see a white man instead of an Asian one. While I often attribute a lot of these issues of representation to studio tone-deafness, I also understand that sometimes it’s a matter of business and maintaining the brand — as gross and capitalistic as that sounds.

External issues aside, “Iron Fist” still falls flat as a series in and of itself. The story is slow to the point of monotonous. The characters and their motivations are either ill-defined or rote. The lack of originality is a real problem. Yes, superhero stories are full of tropes and predictable beats. The challenge is to find a way to use those tropes in fresh, interesting ways. However, “Iron Fist” just goes through the motions — much in the way the fight choreography is visually dull and boring, especially compared to the many tight, innovative scenes throughout the two seasons of “Daredevil.”

Over the past decade, audiences endured so, so many superhero films and series. We’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Few actually manage to surprise or delight anymore. The ones that do — “Deadpool,” “Logan” “Guardians of the Galaxy” — are ambitious, innovative, and offer a fresh take on the genre.

Up to this point, Marvel’s Netflix offerings have been mostly strong, showing signs of ambition. Though even the best ones like “Jessica Jones” have suffered from slow, shaggy storytelling. For phase two, the studio should cut episode orders down from 13 to between eight and 10. However, I’m not sure even fewer episodes and a leaner story would have helped “Iron Fist.” From the start, the story feels stale and uninteresting.

Show notes

• Random, hardly groundbreaking observation: The rich white guy turned superhero trope says so much about 20th-century American culture, capitalism and masculinity. Here’s a quick not-at-all-comprehensive inventory: Bruce Wayne (Batman), Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), Roy Palmer (Atom), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Danny Rand (Iron Fist), Marc Spector (Moon Knight), Dr. Strange. Give it a rest, guys.

• We finally get to meet Colleen Wing — played here by Jessica Henwick — who, along Misty Knight, plays the female foil for Luke Cage and Danny Rand. Marvel Netflix phase two series pitch: “Misty Knight & Colleen Wing: Heroines for Hire.” Make it happen, Marvel.

• Rosario Dawson and Carrie Anne Moss reprise their roles as Claire Temple and Jeri Hogarth respectively. They not only serve as the connective tissue for all the Netflix series, they are also consistent bright spots with their, “I don’t have time for this superhero bullshit” attitudes. We hear ya, ladies. (Please put them in the Misty & Colleen series, too.)

“Iron Fist” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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