Change of Scenery: Marvel’s Iron Fist

“Change of Scenery” is a series in which Nathan and Jordan watch something that neither of them has seen before, and write their reactions to it. This week’s subject is Marvel’s Iron Fist.

**Spoilers for Season 1 of Marvel’s Iron Fist follow**

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NS: First off, I’m just going to leave this here. If you play it in the background as you read, maybe this review will be a little less frightening (or more, depending on your feelings on disco, I guess).

That’s right. Jordan and I are (finally) back, and this week, to make sure we’re not rusty, we’re putting our skills to the test by sharing our collective thoughts about the newest Marvel/Netflix show, Iron Fist. No doubt you’ve already heard opinions about this show from all over, most of them saying this is the first real critical failure of the line-up, following the success of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. Nevertheless, for the sake of honor, tradition, and geeky TV shows, Jordan and I want to throw our shared hat in the ring and take a few swings at this show ourselves. We probably won’t achieve enlightenment, but maybe a few insights from us will help give you the clarity to decide whether you should watch the show for yourself, young grasshopper.

This time around, to make the lesson more interactive, we decided to make it into a Q&A session between us.

Enjoy!

JB: So, Nathan, to kick things off, can you tell us what you thought about the story itself?

NS: I’d say the story is pretty enjoyable and entertaining. It’s just not the most compelling, especially since it relies on such a well-worn premise without really adding anything new. It’s basically Arrow: a presumed-dead billionaire (Finn Jones’ Danny Rand), changed by the death of his family and the hellish life he endured, returns after a long absence to uphold the legacy of his father’s business.

Despite the familiar premise, there are a couple of well-placed twisted and turns, but, after we discussed its many plot holes and pitfalls together after the fact, it’s safe to say we both began to realize just how much we still needed to turn off our brains in order to fully enjoy the plot. There are some things the show just doesn’t fully explain or justify to the audience, like when it spends an inordinate amount of time on subplots that ultimately go nowhere or when its characters make leaps in logic and act like they make perfect sense.

Overall, Iron Fist’s pacing seems to be both its greatest strength and weakness. Like how martial artists are disciplined to restrain themselves until absolutely necessary, Iron Fist doesn’t rush into its story, holding back much until later on. It doesn’t even fully delve into the martial arts story, its main selling point, until the second half of the season, spending the first half as a business drama with kung-fu lightly sprinkled on top. On the plus side, this means that Iron Fist doesn’t play all its cards too early, leaving us wanting more and setting up expectations over time. On the negative side, the show leaves us in the dark on essential bits of information and action for so long that it’s hard to care when we finally do get what we want. For instance, Iron Fist takes an inordinately long time to clearly reveal what Danny’s intentions and goals are, which makes it harder to emphasize with him as a hero.

As the stalwart stone diverts the stream, I redirect the flow of the question back to you, master Jordan. What do you think of the story?

JB: I agree with you, the pacing was uneven, the motivations were opaque, and the premise arrived well-worn. And yet, I did enjoy watching this show. I think the creators actually had the bones of a solid, engaging storyline in there. The idea of a man out of touch with the world, coming back to his hometown and trying to get his life back together, while also battling a secret cult (or two?) of mystical ninjas alongside friends new and old could be cool and fun and interesting.

My issues are more with the execution. Many character decisions and plot developments felt like they came out of nowhere. Danny expects everyone to welcome him back with open arms without providing a shred of real proof that he’s really Danny Rand? Ward’s suddenly super addicted to painkillers? Colleen has no idea about the secrets of The Hand, but her students do? Joy can’t see that something is off about Harold? Harold is actually a threat for the Iron Fist in a physical fight? Some of the story logic was just incredibly thin, and justified by a line of dialogue or a single scene rather than actual character work or detailed plot development.

One thing that I appreciated about Iron Fist over some of the other Defenders shows was that the opposition and the stakes were very clear. Madame Gao is a compelling villain, and her synthetic heroin ring (complete with pharma-girl reps selling it door to door) was a very tangible, negative thing for Danny and co. to battle. Compared to some of the more, shall we say, inscrutable machinations of the bad guys in Daredevil, I appreciated that a lot.

Overall, the story built up well, though it was slow in the beginning, and I mostly liked the way it ended. If it sounds like I’m kind of ambivalent about this show, that’s because I really am. It was a little too fun to be completely dismissed, and a little too stupid to be thoroughly enjoyed, kind of like its main character.

Nathan, speaking of characters, what are your thoughts on the people of Iron Fist?

NS: Actually, I don’t think there’s character I dont like. Despite my complaints about its overall story, Iron Fist does a pretty good job of fleshing out each of its characters, gradually making them much more complex than the one-dimensional roles they seemingly started out as. Ward Meachum starts out looking like a slimy-looking businessman who cares about money more than his own friends and family, but he became so much more complex over time (maybe even too complex?).

Iron Fist only really stumbles with its characters when it comes to exploring their motivations and goals, often resorting to telling over showing. Danny tells everyone that he wants to run Rand Enterprises because his father always told him it was a good business capable of doing great things, but we never really get to see that for ourselves, like in an emotional flashback scene.

The characters can also get frustrating at times when they’re not given room to breathe or grow. The titular character is easily the weakest link on Iron Fist, but that’s mostly because he’s constantly written to make the same angst-fueled decisions over and over again, as if he’s perpetually twelve years old. When he’s allowed to be, during lulls in the plot, Danny can actually be a fun, dorky/charming guy, making you want to side with him, but those moments are few and far between.

My only other complaint is that some characters, such as the whole Meachum family, seem wildly out of place in a story about a martial artist who can punch things really, really hard, but it still says something about the characters that I’d still like to see their story unfold, even if it is a little out of place.

Ah, but truly the surest way to learn of a person is to first observe how they interact with others. Sensei Jordan, what do you think about the dynamics between Iron Fist’s characters?

JB: This is something I actually think Iron Fist did really well. There were a lot of solid relationships on this show, from Joy and Ward’s intense sibling bond to Claire and Colleen’s budding friendship. One of the biggest strengths of this show is its cast, and their chemistry lifts several scenes that could have been awkwardly clunky to being actually enjoyable.

My absolute favorite scene in the show is Danny’s attempted date with Colleen, which attracts an uninvited third wheel in Claire Temple, aka the MVP of the Defenders universe. Rosario Dawson’s comic timing has never been put to better use in any of these Marvel/Netflix shows, and it’s a joy to watch her throw side-eyes and try to contain her laughter while she watches Danny and Colleen awkwardly flirt with each other.

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Joy and Ward Meachum are a great sibling duo. Their relationship is close but not creepy, and when they are given flashes of playfulness, their characters pop into life in a way that they struggle to do in other contexts. Their relationships with their father are suitably complex, especially Ward’s. Ward and Harold actually have one of the most interesting relationships on the show, fraught with barely concealed anger, insecurity, disappointment, pride, love, and hatred. Father and son, whether working together, subtly manipulating each other, or outright trying to kill each other, work fantastically well together.

Danny and Colleen’s romantic relationship is sometimes clunky, but I enjoyed they way they built their relationship slowly, based on common interests and experiences, rather than just falling in love because they’re both attractive. They also fight well together, and it was a thrill every time they suited up for a showdown together.

Nathan, what did you think of the fight scenes themselves?

NS: Iron Fist’s action is serviceable, which is probably what makes it the show’s most disappointing aspect. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some great fight scenes with choreography that’s fun to watch, but there’s a slight blandness to some of its fights that I think left a bad taste in the mouths of those expecting more, myself included. Bear in mind, this show is coming from the same company that brought us Daredevil, which had mind-blowing fight scenes that ranged from having beautiful finesse to gritty brutality. People still talk about its fight scenes and how much punishment Daredevil receives and delivers in the name of personal faith and Justice.

On the flip side, Iron Fist’s most memorable fight scene is when Danny goes up against a drunken kung-fu master, which I remember more for the loving send-up to an iconic Jackie Chan film rather than anything Danny says, does, or believes. What’s more, the show’s most satisfyingly thrilling fight doesn’t even feature Danny. Rather, it features one of the female leads (Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing) in a climatic battle with someone from her past. It’s telling that the most interesting fights on this show hardly even hinge upon the main character’s skills and tactics. He’s just sorta there. I think it’s only fair to expect more memorable, iconic action from a show about a master martial artist who can wield a glowing fist that can punch through walls, even if he doesn’t use it half the time due to budget, plot convenience, all around incompetence, etc. (take your pick, really).

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In regards to the comparison to Daredevil, wise ancient guru Jordan, what do think of Iron Fist’s role in the grand scheme of the MCU, or at least the Netflix corner of it? Does it achieve its purpose well?

JB: As many problems as Iron Fist had, I think it did work well as a setup for The Defenders. It effectually (if not gracefully) introduced Danny Rand to the street-level hero world, and gave him some complex motivations, allies, and enemies for future exploration. The Hand emerged more as a concrete antagonist, rather than just the nebulous presence it felt like in previous shows. We also got some more character building and fight training for Claire, got an ally with inside info about the Hand in Colleen Wing, connected Jeri Hogarth to another one of the Defenders, and learned more about what the Hand is capable of (raising the dead, cooking synthetic heroin, buying penthouses, running corporations, etc).

I think if this was the show Marvel had led with, it would have gotten kinder reviews. It’s silly, slow, illogical, but overall pretty fun without sacrificing the grittiness of the street-level world. The fact that it had to follow Daredevil, Luke Cage, and my personal favorite, Jessica Jones, makes it look a lot weaker than it is. As it is, it’s less polished and impressive than its predecessors, but it’s still functional as a comic-book adaptation. I guess what I’m saying is, for all its faults, Iron Fist did manage to introduce new characters and plots that I’m excited to see in The Defenders. I guess on that front, you could call it a success.

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Speed round:

Favorite character?

NS: Colleen Wing or Claire Temple

JB: Original character, gotta be Colleen or Ward Meachum. Overall? Claire.

Favorite villain?

NS: Madame Gao

JB: Madame Gao

Favorite scene?

NS: Danny Rand vs Zhou (the drunk master)

JB: Danny bringing lunch to the dojo for Colleen, with special guest Claire Temple

Least favorite element?

NS: The 1st episode or Danny’s final showdown with Harold.

JB: I really disliked Bakuto.

Most surprising moment?

NS: Harold coming back to life

JB: When Ward stabbed Harold

Dumbest character?

NS: Danny

JB: DANNY DANNY DANNY

How many lines did you finish before the characters did?

NS: 10

JB: 8

Best guest actor?

NS: Lewis Tan as Zhou Cheng

JB: Carrie-Anne Moss as Hogarth

How many times did you laugh when the show did not want you to be laughing?

NS: More than you’d hope, less than you’d think (…maybe).

JB: Lots. So many.

Who else from the cast would have made a better Iron Fist?

NS: Colleen

JB: Claire Temple

What was the creepiest thing Danny Rand did?

NS: Breaking into Joy’s house, because it used to be his fifteen years ago

JB: Buying Colleen’s building.

After battling through a gauntlet of fierce questions, we’ve finally made it to one last question worth answering, the big boss itself: is Iron Fist worth watching?

NS: If you’re looking for something groundbreaking, then no Iron Fist is not really worth watching. If you’re looking for something goofy or mindless to watch with good friends while eating pizza, or something, then yeah, it could be a fun experience. There’s still plenty of good among the bad, especially if you’re someone that enjoys character-driven narrative. When you stack it up against the other gritty Marvel shows on Netflix, however, there’s just no real comparison. It’s not to say that Iron Fist is an all around bad show, far from it, but Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are all shows with unique, powerful narratives that strive to say something about the distinct struggles and failings within our world, making the stories bigger than the heroes who star in them. Unless things change in season 2, Iron Fist simply isn’t as ambitiously broad in its themes and storytelling. It’s the most extreme example of mindless comic book fun to date in the Marvel/Netflix line-up, but there’s still a place for that.
JB: Honestly, probably not. Unless you’re incredibly committed to the Marvel/Netflix Defenders universe, I think you’ll have a hard time slogging through it. And even if you are, I highly recommend you bring some friends along on your binge to laugh at the incredibly ridiculous parts (there are many) and cheer at the really awesome parts (there are…not as many). I would definitely rate it last in the Defenders canon, based on dialogue, originality, plot, title sequence, etc. But I will say, I think Iron Fist wins the ‘Best Use of Claire Temple’ award, and for that, we should all be grateful.

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