Marvel took the movie world by storm with The Avengers, a little film one or two of you may have seen. One of the most important aspects of The Avengers was the fact it wasn’t the first movie to features its protagonists, all of whom had appeared in the preceding movies Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, either as the leads or as co-stars.
A staple of the comic book world, the crossover was something that had never really been tried in the movie world before and audiences loved it.
With a few reservations. The most notable of these was that there wasn’t a huge amount of diversity in that superheroic line up: lots of straight white men as leads and usually as the villains, too, but women, people of colour et al were either in the supporting cast or completely absent. And while the movies have slowly added black characters such as Falcon and Black Panther and bumped up the role of supporting superheroine Black Widow to the point where Captain America: Winter Soldier was as much about her as about Captain America, solo movies with black or female superheroic leads are still a little way off.
So, when Netflix and Marvel announced they would produce a series of comic book TV shows together, three things were almost compulsory. The first was lower budgets. That meant having none of the movie universe characters in any of the shows, which meant having to pick completely new characters. The second was that there would be crossovers, which in turn would lead to one great big TV series featuring all the new heroes. The third was diversity would be key.
And thus we have a new group of superheroes: ‘The Defenders’. Not to be confused with ‘The Avengers’, obviously. The Defenders is also the name of the ultimate TV show at the end of the list.
The sequence started with Daredevil, a really superb opening featuring probably the one character many people would have heard of, thanks in part to the Ben Affleck adaptation over a decade ago. Daredevil’s also blind and a lawyer who does pro bono work defending the poor and helpless from big business.
That was quickly followed up with the suprisingly excellent feminist deconstruction of the entire genre, Jessica Jones, and then Luke Cage, an affair almost plotless because rather than being a superhero show, it largely was more interested in discussing black culture, history and what is the true and correct course of action for the modern black man of honour. A quick second season of Daredevil proved less satisfying, as it ditched gritty reality to pit our hero against a bunch of immortal ninja called ‘The Hand’.
All the same, for all their pros and cons, diversity – globs of it everywhere.
Which makes Marvel’s Iron Fist something of an odd choice. Because although it fits well with Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of diversity, it’s almost a slap in the face to the other shows’ efforts.
Young Danny Rand, the white male son of white corporate mogul billionaries, is on their private jet to China when it crash lands in the mountains of Tibet. Coincidentally, that’s just as the mystical city of K’un-L’un appeared from heaven on its 15-year regular cycle, journeying between planes of existence. Taken in by the warrior monks who guard K’un-L’un, the orphaned boy is trained in their ways and eventually succeeds all trials to become ‘the Iron Fist’, K’un-L’un’s ‘living weapon’ who uses the power of the heart of the Shou-Lao the Undying dragon, to defend the city from the Hand, whenever it appears on Earth.
However, when K’un-L’un returns to the Earthly plane again 15 years later, Danny abandons his post and heads to New York where he discovers the Hand are already in residence at his parents’ company, Rand Enterprises. Soon, he must prove who he really is, take back his company from the bad people who now run it, and stop The Hand.
Yep, that’s right: Iron Fist wants you to care about boardroom politics and a spoilt, immature billionaire who wants to clear his family name.
Bad decision by Marvel and Netflix? Well, actually, despite some very odd decisions, a very shaky start, and a very long list of flaws, Marvel’s Iron Fist turned out to be really, really enjoyable stuff – due in part surprisingly because it features Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced, 24, The Tractate Middoth, Line of Duty, An Adventure in Time and Space) as a sarcastic warrior monk named after a Swiss ski resort.
Big spoilers after the jump…
Is it any good?
Lots of problems, lots of fun, though.
Let’s start off by admitting I’m primed to like this kind of thing anyway, because I’m a big fan of The Champions, which traces its roots back to a lot of the same things as the Marvel comics (eg stories of Shangri La). Maybe, therefore, I’m a bit biased.
But to me, as a season, Iron Fist works pretty well. If you’ve watched Daredevil, I’d say it feels like a mash-up of the first and second seasons: tonally, it has the slightly dispassionate, colder, lighter feel of season one, with its focus on characters having long conversations. But in terms of plot, it’s the second season – but done right and done right enough that season two of Daredevil looks retrospectively better.
I italicised ‘as a season’, because I appreciate that most reviews of the show have been terrible; I also appreciate that Netflix only gives previewers the first six episodes of any show to watch, and that it takes the show about three episodes to find its feet and while it improves after that, it’s only really in the second half of the season that it finds its mojo.
In the first half of the season, then, Danny returns to New York where he meets childhood friends Jessica Stroup (The Following, 90210) and Tom Pelphrey (Banshee) who now run his parents’ company. He tries to persuade them he’s Danny Rand and for his troubles, they stick him in a mental hospital.
And that’s basically the first couple of episodes. There’s not much Iron Fisting, fighting or anything else. Just Danny basically telling everyone his back story to anyone who’ll listen and everyone thinking he’s crazy.
Things get a bit weirder thanks to the fact that Stroup and Pelphrey’s dad, David Wenham (The Code, Top of the Lake), is dead. Except he’s not. Not any more anyway, because The Hand have brought him back to life and now he can’t die. He’s been having to pretend otherwise while secretly living in a penthouse for 13 years. Pelphrey knows. Kyle his assistant knows. Stroup doesn’t.
However, when Wenham hears that ‘the Iron Fist’ is the sworn enemy of The Hand and the only one with the skills to stop them, he engineers Rand’s return to Rand Enterprises in order to ferret out The Hand, who have taken it over in order to use it for their heroin smuggling operation and to make lots of money.
At this point the show becomes a slightly interesting musing on corporate social responsibility. Rand Enterprises makes drugs that can cure a disease: it costs $5 to make the drugs, but it plans to sell at a huge mark-up, which upsets the Zen Buddhist Iron Fist, who demands it be sold at cost instead. But the show does a reasonable job of pointing out that that’s naive, since it ignores the huge $200 million R&D bill needed to make the drug in the first place, and if the company goes bankrupt or loses money, who’ll make the drug or create the next drug? And that’s just the beginning of the issues.
Whereas Daredevil presented The Hand as evil, sadistic ninja cannon fodder, Iron Fist is a lot smarter. Through various characters, it presents the different factions of The Hand, from Madame Gao – the omnipresent spider in the web of the previous Defenders series – through to others with far more insidious methods of recruitment and who blur the boundaries of black and white.
Indeed, hardly anyone is purely black or white. Pelphrey may have bullied Danny as a child and quickly sets people to beat up Danny, but how much of that is due to Wenham’s influence? How much is he trying to ensure Rand Enterprises is a viable company? Stroup also oscillates as her character experiences revelations, set-backs and achievements of various kinds. Wenham’s a protective father as well as an arch manipulator. Even hatchet-throwing Chinese Triads can be both allies and enemies, depending on the situation.
The show is really about that kind of personal journey and trying to work out what you want in life: to be good or bad, to serve others or serve yourself, to help others or help yourself. Does Danny really want to be the Iron Fist? If so, why? And what does that even mean? As the Iron Fist, he’s the sworn enemy of The Hand, who are in New York, but he’s also sworn to defend the route to K’un-L’un from The Hand.
So what should he do, particularly since he left before his training was complete and so only learns about some of his abilities as the story progresses.
But he’s not alone. Pelphrey, Wenham and Stroup have their own journeys, as does Rosario Dawson, who’s now managed to be in every single ‘Defenders’ season so far and here is the voice of reason for much of the season. Seeing her character finally get to do more than bandage everyone up is a welcome sight. Carrie-Anne Moss reprises her Jessica Jones role, too, and her humourless hard-case attorney also gets to evolve.
However, the show is as much about Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones, Silk), the owner of a local karate dojo who harbours some secrets of her own, as it is about Danny Rand, since her blossoming relationship with him is crucial to the story, particularly when those secrets are revealed.
On top of that, there’s Dhawan’s character, Davos, Rand’s best friend in K’un-L’un and a former potential Iron Fist himself who comes to take him back. He has a personal journey of his own, but to tell you how that works out would spoil everything. But he’s both funny and threatening.
It’s these personal journeys that are really why a six-episode review isn’t enough. Danny is an annoying git, a spoilt, immature boy at heart who despite the hardships of his training, hasn’t really matured much since he was orphaned. It’s only by the end, when he learns the secret of why he, rather than Davos, became the Iron Fist that Danny becomes more tolerable, in preparation no doubt for The Defenders. It’s only once you see Pelphrey and co’s ultimate destinies and how they got there that those layers make them properly interesting, too.
You can’t, of course, watch Iron Fist without thinking to yourself: “Why isn’t this about an Asian guy?” Indeed, that was the group hope for diversity before the producers cast blonde-haired, blue-eyed Brit Finn Jones (Game of Thrones, Hollyoaks) as Danny Rand. To a certain extent, that’s the nature of the material – the show is really about an insider becoming an outsider, being offered the chance to become an insider again, only to discover he’s really an outsider at heart. US society being what it is, particularly among the 1%, it’s hard to reconcile that storyline with Rand being Asian.
But… the show does make it very hard for itself, since much like the comics of the 70s, which were inspired by a love of martial arts movies rather than Asian culture itself, Iron Fist takes what it wants, from where it wants, but usually doesn’t remember where it got it from.
When Jones meets Henwick, he tries to speak to her in Mandarin. Except Rand’s plane crashed in Tibet, where almost no one speaks Mandarin, certainly not in mysterious Buddhist cities that only appear every 15 years. Of course, given that the supposedly K’un-L’un born Dhawan (an Indian-British actor) only utters one line of dialogue in Mandarin and speaks English with a Stockport accent the rest of the time, one wonders how Rand became fluent in Mandarin anyway, since even his visions of his master speak in English.
Things are also messy when it comes to martial arts. Henwick is supposedly a proud exponent of Japanese martial arts and the Samurai code of bushido, while Rand and Dhawan are masters of ‘kung fu’. Henwick even rebukes Jones for holding her Japanese katana incorrectly and doing ‘wuxia bullshit’.
Yet there’s a huge gulf between that writing and the actual stuntwork. Karate? What karate? Henwick seems to be teaching Dawson Muay Thai (from Thailand), while Jones critiques her hard ‘tiger’ style (Chinese). Jones obviously only has Chinese/Tibetan knowledge to fall back on, so it could have worked as an opening to a discussion about the differences between Chinese chi and Japanese ki, but the show doesn’t go there, instead giving us a white guy seemingly instructing an Asian sifu/sensei in the very basics of hard v soft arts, which certainly doesn’t look good.
Worse still, not only does Henwick use a wing chun mook yan jong to practise her non-existent karate, mere seconds after her rebuke to Jones, Henwick is demonstrating the ‘correct’ method of using her katana by whirling it around one-handed. Shudders.
Yet, although there is cultural appropriation aplenty, it does actually serve the show well. Jones’ Buddhist prayers and beliefs are a useful cultural counterpart to the all-American boardroom activities. It’s quite lovely when he turns up on Stroup’s doorstep, having covered it in petals and blossoms in the Buddhist way. The show’s full and complete acceptance of mysticism also sets the show apart from the drier, duller science and experiments that give the US Defenders their abilities. And I almost cheered when Jones went strict and traditional with Henwick’s larking karateka.
And while it would be wrong to classify the show as having a Buddhist theme – Doctor Strange has a far more valid claim through its co-opting of saṃsāra – Jones’ increasing self-doubt as he wanders away from Buddhist teachings can almost literally be measured, rather than guessed at, through the glow of the chi in his Iron Fist.
Of course, it’s all about the fights, really. If not its USP, that’s certainly where Iron Fist‘s heart is and the show manages to maintain a constant number of frequently good fights per episodes. Knowing its potential audience reasonably well, refreshingly, the directors actually try to show what’s going on, rather than go for the Bourne-esque shakeycam close-ups that so infuriate martial arts fans.
However, that’s sometimes the fights’ Achilles’ Heel, because the angles often reveal the fact that no actual impact is taking place or that everyone’s about four feet too far away from each other to make contact. And I mostly watched this on an iPad and iPhone, so if I can spot the problem on those, I’ve no idea how badly off the mark they look on a great big TV screen. Some judicious re-editing might be in order.
Directorially, there’s never really the equivalent of Daredevil‘s first season ‘single-take’ fight scene, but equally the group fights are many, many times better than those Daredevil‘s second season. Usually, the fights are about what looks cool and acrobatic, rather than really about what’s practical. But that’s no problem and sometimes they can be very cool indeed. The Iron Fist is used sparingly, which is a little disappointing but in keeping with the story, and where it is used, it’s usually used well.
But sometimes there’s a scene that’s in there purely for afficianados, such as when The Iron Fist comes up against a practitioner of Drunken Master kung fu.
As a season, Iron Fist is more consistent than many of its predecessors and after those slightly tepid first few episodes, I binge-watched the rest as fast as I could. The show’s frequently surprising in its dramatic choices and while you can guess about 50% of what transpires, the rest of it comes out of nowhere. It also manages to unite all the previous shows and set up the foundations for The Defenders very well.
However, it has many flaws. Bar the lead actresses who are universally very good, the acting’s almost universally ‘wobbly’, the dialogue’s frequently as bad as that in a 1970s martial arts movie and everything’s being achieved on a Marvel TV budget. That’s going to put a lot of people off, even more so than that fact now is not an especially good time to have a show with a spoilt billionaire for a hero anyway.
I’d happily watch it again, but this is very much a Marmite show that you’ll either love or hate. But if you’re going to try it, be prepared to put the work in.