Iron Fisting, pt 1

So I’m currently watching Marvel’s IRON FIST, and I haz the thoughts.

I write this review while I’m watching Episode 4 (spoilers for that far), having seen the previous three. I will watch more. Read on to find out why.

Iron Fist: Marvel’s participation in the kung-fu craze of the 70s, translated into today’s world

Let me preface this by citing my own biases: I’m a pretty big comics fan. Within the fandom, I’m probably only considered minor, but I’ve read a lot of comics and know a lot about Marvel’s principal gravy trains. I’ve seen all the Marvel movies, most of them several times each, and more importantly I’ve caught the majority of the references and know what’s going on. I know very little about Iron Fist, however. I’m pretty neutral as regards the character, much like Luke Cage (if I go back and do a review series about that show as well). Haven’t read many of his books or thought much of his crossover appearances. So I’m not coming into this with any particular biases for or against the character, nor do I know much about his supporting cast and rogue’s gallery. This allows me to watch the show without preconceived notions.

I’d also like to acknowledge the review work that has already been done here. There are a lot of critics out there who have disparaged this show for a lot of reasons.[1] There is an important conversation to be had about the problematic ways this show deals with race, orientalism, and the white savior trope, all of which arise from the subject matter and are carried over into the show to some extent. This review entry will not address those in detail, as I haven’t watched enough of the show to present a full opinion on those subjects. In the meantime, there’s lots of reading out there to be done regarding cultural appropriation and the racial politics inherent in IRON FIST.

I’ll get into all that later. For now, I want to talk about the characters and structure of the show, trying to table those major issues for the moment. I have made an effort to watch the show without all of that in my head and just judge it on its own merits.

The result? Kind of a mediocre show that’s just kinda there.

It follows the Marvel Netflix structure pretty well. It follows multiple characters, it uses brief flashbacks that only make sense as you watch the show, it explores multiple themes, it could use more lighting, etc. But for some reason it’s less compelling than other Marvel Netflix shows. It’s ok, and you might really like it, but it’s just not up to the same level as the other Marvel Netflix shows.


I’ll watch more of the show, but so far, I’m not particularly impressed. The writing is not great–it lacks the sparkle of previous Netflix Marvel shows. The acting is mediocre and some of the scenes could use better direction. The fight scenes are just ok. They do look more like the unglamorous but efficient reality of martial arts–more about holds and leverage and knowing how to move than brute strength. But this is TV, and *superhero* TV at that, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it taken up a notch. I mean, the DAREDEVIL fights were brutal and realistic and great. Compared to those, IRON FIST’s fight scenes are just kinda meh. Think of the DAREDEVIL corridor fight in season 1, episode 2 and the stairwell fight near the beginning of season 2, compared to the fight scene in IF episode 4. It doesn’t feel as epic or immediate or powerful.

As a fantasy writer, I wouldn’t mind it all being a little more fantastic.

But my main problem is, there’s just nothing to latch onto.

In DAREDEVIL, we had Matt’s pathos and drive to punish the wicked, assuaging his own guilt (survivor’s guilt, catholic guilt, lying-to-my-friends guilt, all the guilt). In JESSICA JONES, it was all about trauma and the fallout of sexual assault (something TV/movies almost never deal with). In LUKE CAGE, it was the racial tensions of his situation and the struggles of being black in America.

What do we have in IRON FIST? A clueless white boy who wanders around hoping things will work out for him, and they generally do, because why wouldn’t they? He’s a good-looking white boy, even if he’s an example of a monk character with a low charisma. He’s rich, or at least should be, which he ostensibly doesn’t care about but hires Jeri Hogarth (yay!) to fix for him. What’s he fighting for? What’s his purpose? He says he’s the sworn enemy of the Hand and the dedicated protector of K’un-Lun, but we know almost nothing about that city or that story. When is this show gonna throw us a bone?

This is like reading a book that you think *might* get good, but is just a tedious slog for the first hundred pages or so.

About the Characters:

Finn Jones as Danny Rand is ok, but the material he’s working with is pretty generic. He isn’t Arrow (and that’s good, because he lacks Amell’s charisma or physicality)–his character is much less driven, less in control of himself or his surroundings, etc. I understand that’s part of where he’s coming from (Zen? Buddhism? Some sort of eastern philosophy, the show can’t seem to decide.), but he wanders around the set like he’s some Calvin Klein model on rumspringa. When he interacts with Joy and Steve[1] Meachum, he’s clueless, graceless, and just expects everything to be fine. Yes, maybe that’s the philosophy he comes from, but as pasty and handsome as Jones is, this just comes off as rich white boy entitlement. (And I’ll bet Marvel never addresses this.)

Finn Jones as Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, aka white boy *really* into tai chi

And it’s really weird that Rand would be an entitled white boy, because he didn’t grow up that way. Jones doesn’t have the sense of calm and presence that he needs to come off as believably steeped in eastern mysticism or Buddhism. I don’t want him to be some sort of stereotype, but I want him to bear the mark of his experiences, not look like he spent the last weekend at a yoga retreat + tai chi in the mornings.

And then, when he interacts with the amazing Henwick as Colleen Wing, where he just starts talking to her in Mandarin (which to my untrained ear sounds like they at least made an attempt) or all the bowing or questions her martial arts skills… It’s unclear if he’s really trying to be respectful or if he’s making fun of her. And she knows it, too–you can see it in her face.

(Is this what racial minorities deal with all the time from well-meaning but clueless white people? Spoiler alert: it kinda is.)

I think this is a writing mistake. I think the writers did not consider any of these issues when they crafted this character. Because there are so many ways they could be addressing this, but they aren’t doing that.

Maybe it’s the hair. The messy mass of gold curls has got to go.

Or maybe it’s his tendency to talk down to everyone and ignore their “no thank yous” or just plain “no.” He doesn’t respect anyone’s consent, iron fists his way right through boundaries, he’s somehow above everyone in his own mind, and pretends it’s all him being kind and/or respectful. Rather than coming off as respectful or humble, he comes off as an entitled jerk.

I do appreciate that Jones seems human and disoriented. He’s obviously suffering from severe culture shock, though I’d like to see them play that up more. Have him go into a department store, look around, and just go “why?” Why so much excess? How do people live like this? Marvel could really play this up. We’ll see if they do.

We get a healthy dose of “cruel mental hospital” in episode 2, and it does make us start to wonder whether Danny is really Danny, just like everyone else wonders. You know, after “the Incident,” I’d expect people in the MCU to be a little more credulous when it comes to super powers and mysterious backstories. But I guess it’s reasonable.

Colleen Wing is my favorite character thus far. Not surprising, since the Daughters of the Dragon are great in the comics. Can’t wait until she catches up with Misty Knight.

She’s beautiful, obviously, but she’s also tough, independent, and has more of a moral compass than most of the other characters. She’s way more grounded than Danny with his hippie zen white boy act. And she’s gonna be a great martial presence in the show, assuming Marvel doesn’t frat-boy out and make Danny her savior at every turn. Also, the little nods to her white costume from the comics are pretty great. (The more that happens, the better as far as I’m concerned–episode 4 is very rewarding in that respect.) She’s also not exoticized but allowed to be the cool American young woman she is whilst maintaining her very specific philosophies.

Her arc is thus far about remaining true to herself. Adhering to a code of conduct and behavior based on Bushido vs. the needs of the living in the real world, like money to run her business, etc. We see this when Chris[2] Meachum tries to bribe her to lie on a form to get Danny committed, and then again when she goes to an underground UFC fight, despite telling her students that fighting for money is dishonorable. I’m interested to see where this goes.

Colleen Wing aka the Daughter of the Dragon, scrappy martial arts instructor, and basically the person carrying this whole show

It’s unclear what ethnic heritage Colleen is supposed to have in the show. In the comics, Colleen is a red-haired Japanese-American, having a white father and a native Japanese mother. Henwick is from Singapore, so at least she’s East Asian, but it’s unclear how the show is intending to present her. Danny started speaking to her in mandarin as soon as they met, suggesting he read her as Chinese, but she corrected him pretty quickly and asked him to “speak English or Japanese–I haven’t spoken Mandarin since I was a little girl.” Which suggests she’s fluent in Japanese, which is also the source of the martial arts that she teaches at the dojo (near as I can tell–their exclamations were Japanese, and their prayers in episode 4 are Japanese). And–and here’s the big one–she is all about Bushido, which is the code of honor followed by samurai, who are distinctly *Japanese*, not Chinese.

A Chinese-American fluent in Japanese and only passable in Chinese, who holds herself to the code of Bushido (a Japanese philosophy)? Sure. That’s possible. But I also know TV and films have a tendency to look for “Asian” in their actors, and not be a lot more specific than that.

The part in episode 3 where Colleen spars with Danny is interesting, but probably not in the way Marvel intended. Yes, he’s kind of mansplaining/whitesplaining martial arts to her, but it could be that he’s just talking about a different style than her own, and he’s teaching her. The optics of that aren’t great (white dude better at martial arts than Asian lady! Yay!), and he’s being hugely presumptuous. Which kinda fits in with his “I grew up in a monastery for 15 years and have no social skills of any kind.” But that’s no more an excuse here than it is on Twitter. If a guy is disrespectful to a woman, “he’s awkward” isn’t an acceptable excuse. And Wing did indeed call him out on it, albeit indirectly–she showed him the door–though he managed to weasel his way into her good graces for plot reasons. Obviously, she is fully within her rights to forgive him for being a clueless dick, but I’d like to see Danny come to terms with how inappropriate his behavior often is, and make efforts to make amends. The chances of that seem low, but it’s always possible.

If anything is going to keep me watching this show, it is gong to be Colleen Wing.

On the Meachums:

These are pretty interesting villains. Joy is caught in the middle of it all, though I’m expecting a heel-turn at some point. She reminds me of Laurel from Arrow, mostly because of the hair (I don’t know what it is about haircuts in this show) and because Danny is constantly mooning over her the way Oliver does Laurel. I’m not sure if Joy’s going to be a love interest, but he’s really committed to her. And she twists him around her finger like it’s no big thing.

(Note: See footnote 2, but I’m apologizing in advance for any confusion raised in using multiple names for Ward. The show also confused me, and I’m making a point here.)

Her brother Chet[2] is a cartoonish bully type, but at least we’re seeing some of the reasons for his behavior and outlook. Barron Meachum boasts one of the most punch-able faces in all of these Netflix Marvel shows, and I am very much looking forward to Danny punching him right in the kisser. Or maybe Colleen Wing, which would be even better.

Their father Harold Meachum is intriguing as a behind-the-scenes Kingpin type, and I’m wondering about his moral dimension as well.

Ward and Joy Meachum–spoiler alert, they’re the bad guys

Mostly the value of these characters, as I see it so far, is the discussion of bullying and the ongoing cycle of violence. Trent bullies Danny, Grant is bullied by his father Harold, who was in turn bullied by his father, and probably his before him. It’s the whole fratboy mentality: violence is learned and passed on to the next generation. When will the cycle end, one is led to wonder? Are bullies redeemable? I mean, I’m not invested in Chaz being redeemed–that guy is a major asshole–but they’re setting this up as a useful side story.

Also, yay for Jeri Hogarth and Madame Gao!

Well, I’ll keep watching. You might like it as well.


[1] A friend of mine recently said that Iron Fist is worse than any superhero movie or show he’s ever seen, including Green Lantern, which is fighting words. 🙂

[2] I know his name is Ward, but he’s such a generic white rich corporate frat boy bully villain that I was initially confused about what his name was supposed to be, even when they’d just said it thirty seconds before. There is nothing that stands out about this character. He’s just “mean entitled white boy.” And so I find myself giving him a succession of such names. See also: Donald, George, Mike, and Dick.

Further reading:

Don’t miss my “Iron Fist is an Entitled White Boy Jerk” series:
That makes it sound like I hate this show, which isn’t the case, but there are things that grate on me. Final review to be written once I finish it.