The first season of Marvel’s new show Iron Fist was released in full on Netflix (March 17).
But before the show was even cast, fans engaged in heated discourse in the #AAIronFist hashtag – on whether or not Iron Fist’s main character “Danny Rand” should be Asian American.
While I personally don’t think Rand “can’t” be white, I agree with many critics that in relation to the comics, the Iron Fist being white was just generally a bad idea to begin with, so translating him to a loved and believable character was a tightrope walk. Comics have made huge strides in terms of diverse representation since the character was created in the ‘70s. An Asian American Iron Fist (many rooted for actor Lewis Tan, who is ironically in the Netflix series) would have taken work to balance authenticity and avoid stereotypes. However, I ultimately think an Asian American Iron Fist would have been a more compelling character, and provided Marvel with a giant leap in diverse representation.
That being said, reviews of Iron Fist were very poor out the gate, as critics received screeners of the first seven episodes. My initial reservation was that Finn Jones was a really, really, really bad casting choice. And that’s no critique of Jones personally, I just thought he was a clearly bad fit for the role (LL Cool J would be a terrible fit for Black Panther, but that doesn’t mean I personally don’t like LL Cool J). But upon watching the show, my opinion of Iron Fist has evolved, or devolved, with a more nuanced view on why it just is not a good show.
(WARNING: Spoilers below this point)
There’s so much to unpack, but my biggest critique of Iron Fist is that it is full with unforced errors:
- The fight choreography was slow and lacked fluidity. At times, it felt like if you could read Jones’ thoughts, you’d see “JAB! BLOCK! DUCK! UPPERCUT” flashing loudly.
- Danny’s gratuitous use of Zen and Buddhist maxims. We get it, he was taught by monks. This fact is reiterated over and over and over and over.
- They tried to depict Danny as ambivalent; an internal conflict caught between peace and violence. But to me, there was no kind of natural transition between emotions, and the ones he did exhibit were often overly dramatized (Example: why does a flashback make Danny look like he’s about turn Super Saiyan?). Jones very much seemed like an actor playing a part rather than “being” the Iron Fist.
- Ironically, except for with Colleen Wing’s character, Danny moves from betrayal to reconciliation way too quickly. Ward and Joy Meachum do awful things to him, but Danny never really makes Ward and Joy work to regain his trust. People are good then evil then good, friends then enemies then friends, with few reasonable transitions in between conflict. There were just frank acceptance of current states. ““Did we just become enemies? Yep! Did we just become best friends? Yep!”
- Minor things could have been avoided with more careful thought. For example, Danny befriends a homeless man in the park. The man dies from a drug overdose in the first episode (about 30 mins after he was introduced). This is actually a smart premonition to the heroine cartel that we see later. However, killing him off that quickly doesn’t allow the audience to care. He’s less of a person we should have empathy for, and more a prop to convey Danny’s struggle. It would’ve been great if the homeless man was someone Danny checked in on from time to time, maybe gave him some money to for food, and then the man overdoses near the middle of the series.
But this one scene highlights all my issues with Iron Fist:
Danny leaves Colleen’s dojo and spots Ward’s guards (they are trying to kill him). He identifies them as Ward’s guards, subdues one, then runs away when others pull out guns. He loses most of them by running into a crowd at an East Asian festival, then puts on a mask. One spots him, but Danny beats him up, and then asks “Who sent you?”
- The audience obviously knows who they are, but so does Danny. We know he knows who they are because he’s seen all of them before (I think this is the fourth time he’s seen them), and he actually identifies one (“You’re the security guard from Rand”). So why would he ask “who sent you?”?
- Danny is a white man wearing ragged oversized clothes in a crowd of Asian people dressed regularly. How would they not know what Danny looks like just because he’s wearing a mask?
- One guard is BEHIND Danny, so he can’t see the mask anyway.
- Why would Danny think stopping to put on a mask would help him get away? Why not just move keep moving through the crowd of people?
- The above scene had major, awkward errors, but there are quite of few missteps and mistakes in the plot, script, setting, and other technical aspects of the show: Danny woke up outside of the plane after a plane crash in a snowstorm. We know the monks saved him, but we know they didn’t come right away. How he survived this requires too much suspension of disbelief; Danny calms a guard dog (Rottweiler) by… kneeling in a zen stance…Huh?; Ward calls his father to tell him that they have a serious situation they need to handle, then says we can handle it in the morning (lol why call him then? Why not just go there in the morning?); Near the end, Bakubo is stabbed in the gut, and I’m pretty sure I saw the outline of the blood packet under his shirt; Regardless of the plausible working vernacular of mystical warrior monk may have, a random white guy coming into a dojo and telling a room full of students (many of whom are people of color) that they “chatter like monkeys” is not a good look, aside from being lazy writing; Madame Gao can repel Danny (the strongest person in the show up to that point) with chi, but allows herself to be taken from China to Brooklyn. Let’s skip why she would do that (since at this point, she is now the strongest person in the show). I give the other characters a pass, but why would Danny not smell something fishy?; Whether he has the Iron Fist or not, Danny is an extremely skilled fighter. When he was brought to a mental ward, why didn’t he just behave, wait til the drugs wore off, then beat the crap out of everyone in the hospital and leave? He didn’t have a problem beating up security guards just doing their job in the first 10 mins of the show; Ward pushes Danny off a skyscraper at the end of an episode, and we have no idea how he survived; There’s no moral ambivalence about how the monks trained Danny, no type of “the violent means justified the noble ends” paradoxes shown. Nope, let’s beat the shit out of a child we just found, then Danny can tell y’all about a prophecy later.
- The show’s plot makes too many attempts at tie-ins, twists, and turns. While I won’t elaborate on them here, but the other Defenders series each have only one or two “major twists”. By my count, Iron Fist has at least 4, but even then, I can’t exactly qualify them as twists per se, more so “this shocking new info will change everything!…Wait, nevermind.” The show is full of huge set-ups with meager pay-offs.
Iron Fist is an allegory of why show creators need to stop offhandedly dismissing criticism of people of color as whining or “political correctness.” I think not listening to POC fans’ concerns creates a certain posture of “Just ignore the ‘outrage culture’ guys. We know what we are doing”, which also inspires a level of carelessness.
But even away from any of its problematic racial representations and the popular discourse surrounding it, Iron Fist is full of avoidable missteps. And out of the four “Defenders” series, I can’t see how the average fan wouldn’t rate Iron Fist a far dead last. I also feel like the job of interplaying all four shows together in a Defenders series is now much more difficult based on this rendering of Iron Fist.
A small, but important example: people defending Finn Jones keep mentioning “canon”. Well, in the comics Danny Rand and Misty Stone are lovers. Raise your hand if you buy that Simone Missick’s “Misty Stone” falls in love with Finn Jones’ “Danny Rand”… And now they have to figure out how Rand and Wing break up, or if they continue with this story line. Obviously these things can be worked out, but it will be harder to figure out how to keep the overall continuity.
I liked the subtle allusions to other Defenders characters (one scene, Joy mentions she hired a private investigator to get dirt on her fellow board members, and says the investigator was good “when she’s not drunk”). Lewis Tan was the martial arts highlight of the show, and I’m excited to see what opportunity his appearance in the show affords him next. Colleen Wing was dope, and I never ever need a reason to watch Rosario Dawson. Lastly, Danny’s Falcon Punch to the floor was visually stunning.
But it just is not a good show.