Iron Fist: Far from perfect but better than what you’ve heard

poster
Fun fact, the poster could be a reference to Hindu Devas having many arms as symbolic of their greater ability and nature. Similar to the connotation an angel’s wings have.

I'm going to be very anti-Tai Chi and fight the tide, Iron Fist is a good show with a lot of problems

I find myself in a bit of an odd position. Devoid of anything else, I have some major problems with this show both as a proponent of the MCU experiment and as a fan of the character and comic it adapts. However, this show has been so thoroughly savaged before it even came out that I’m more in the mind to defend it. Please understand, I’m not a contrarian but even despite my problems with the show, I would be lying if I said I didn’t like it and that my issues detracted from my overall enjoyment.

Let’s start with the bad

Yeah this is pretty much all we see of K'un-Lun.

Just to put it all up front and get them out of the way and hopefully to show I’m not the endless praise drone as I was in my youth, I’ll start with my criticisms. Elephant in the room, yeah, I was among those thinking it would be cool if Danny was played by an Asian American actor. Personally, my reasons for it were less rooted in racial politics and more in exploring the character in a new and interesting way. (And I confess, more than a little nationalistic offense that yet another British actor is playing an American superhero.) Nothing else about Danny needed to be changed to justify it, even his name. His ancestors were named “Ren” and that got anglicized to “Rand” when they came to the States. Boom! Never need to think about it again. Or he could have been mixed race and it never comes up because really, why should it? Inter-racial marriages happen, this is America after all and melting pot capital New York at that.

The idea of Danny spending his formative years in K’un-Lun as an outsider who is at once like them but not like them would have been interesting. Especially when he returns to New York and everyone treats him as just a fresh off the boat immigrant rather than viewed with suspicion he has to overcome. Would this damage his feelings for K’un-Lun? Or it could be a character strength, born and spent his childhood in New York, raised and trained in K’un-Lun, Danny could see himself as the child of two worlds and the protector of both of them. None of this potential is realized though as we got saddled with Finn Jones.

Even aside from Danny though, the show lacks the same narrative strength of its peers. The previous shows had a kind of core idea that the plot and characters were built around. For Daredevil, it was addressing the very idea of superheroes as crime fighters when they operate as vigilantes only accountable to themselves, and God, as Matt believes. For Jessica Jones, it was abuse survival, overcoming trauma, and not letting your former abuser control you. For Luke Cage, it was a fight over the soul of Black America and the kind of hero they need. Iron Fist, simply does not have that core and as such, no wonder critics who saw only the first few episodes were underwhelmed. All of the characters just stumble around doing stuff with no perceptible goal, end point, or central reason. Like watching two people who know how chess pieces work but neither knows how to win the game.

Even Danny, the protagonist, tries his damndest to get a seat in Rand Corp. for seemingly no reason other than his name is on the building. At one point, Danny says “it’s my name” which lead me to thinking that his goal was to prove who he was as everyone thought he was dead. Okay, fair enough, the struggle to be recognized, to be acknowledged for who you are. Problem? The fact that I was trying to ascribe a meaning showed that if the creators had a central idea in mind it was not coming through at all.

Then there’s the utter gutting of the Iron Fist mythology. For one thing, we never see the mystical city of K’un Lun outside of a few brief flashbacks to conveniently small rooms or areas that don’t give us a scale of one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven! I was thinking this was going to be television’s answer to the Thor movies. With the hero going back and forth between the magical dimension and mundane Earth, but apparently not. This was probably because they didn’t have the budget to make the kind of sets or CGI to do K’un-Lun justice. Fine, but if that’s the case the characters shouldn’t keep bringing it up! Every time it’s mentioned they talk about it at length and I keep thinking, “wow, this place sounds amazing. Sure, would like to SEE it!”

At one point Danny fights a woman who is obviously supposed to be the Bride of Nine Spiders from the comics. Except the only thing that was kept about her was the spider motif. In the comics, she is one of the Immortal Weapons, of which Danny as the Iron Fist is just one. The Bride gets downgraded from superpowered ally of the hero to one off bad guy who uses hallucinogenic drugs to fight. By far the biggest omission is Shou-Lao the Undying. Once again, people talk about him plenty but we never see him outside of a pair of glowing red eyes straight out of a scene transition from a Disney film after the villain song.

Shou-Lao is the dragon that Danny slays to become the Immortal Iron Fist. Fairly pivotal moment for our main character one would think, but we only see Danny collapsed outside of the dragon’s lair after he’s already won. He might as well have said to his friend who came to his aid, “I fought a dragon and overcame him in a moment that will set me on the path to becoming a superhero. The fight itself was sweet, wish you had seen it.”

Not all bad though

Some of the fight scenes rely a little too heavily on editing but most of them deliver on the old school Kung Fu action.

Okay, with all of that out of the way. Iron Fist does have some stand out moments and is only bad when compared against its sister shows. Of which it is undeniably the weakest, but not the franchise slaying cancer that other reviews credit it as. First of all, as a genre of fiction, the martial arts are deceptively hard to get right. Not because the elements in the genre are hard to pull off but they’re easy to let slide by without the audience noticing. The best martial arts movies, shows, games, or what have you build upon character motivations and relationships. The fight scenes are supposed to serve a purpose in the narrative like establishing character through how that character fights or show a deep inner change by the hero using or refusing to use a dangerous technique.

One of the best moments in the show is when Danny fights Hand guardian and drunken boxer Zhou Cheng. Now in the comics, Zhou Cheng is also a vastly different character but lies on the flipside of the coin that the Bride of Nine Spiders is on. Where she was so loosely adapted yet still obviously recognizable that her overall unimpressive appearance seemed more of a slap in the face to fans than fanservice. Meanwhile Zhou Cheng shares the name and cites the master of an extremely dangerous Iron Fist foe but otherwise is completely unrecognizable and the character they did make him into was still badass in addition to being funny, interesting, and insightful. 

Despite the haggard appearance of a drunk doorman, he gives Danny quite a fight with his swaying and fluid technique. He describes his drinking as taming his inner beast and comes across as calmer and more assured than Danny who is noticeably struggling with repressed anger. Zhou also has a sense of honor, he states his name and allegiance to Danny and even bows to him before they fight. Zhou even gets under Danny’s skin by saying he’s sworn an oath to defend people, just like Danny. Danny’s argument of Zhou protecting murderers kind of falls flat when Danny has not only abandoned his own post at K’un-Lun but is trying to get past Zhou with unspoken but clear intent to kill his masters.

All of that comes across in this one, brief scene. Intimate character motives combining and clashing with high ideals such as duty and honor while being expressed through physical action and brief snippets of dialogue. That’s what the martial arts genre should be and Iron Fist pulls that off in the moments that count. Particularly in regard to the Iron Fist itself, the power that doubles as a badge of office.

First of all, a really cool effect. “Glowing fist” was all that was really needed but the effects department did something special with it. It glows like a fire from the inside of Danny’s hand and arm, showing his veins and giving the fist a kind of metallic sheen. It doesn’t look like he just lit his hand on fire or like the energy is surrounding his fist but like it’s truly coming from inside of him. For a martial arts superhero and not just a superhero who happens to know martial arts, that component of internal power is important.

See, in Kung Fu and related schools, the idea of power refers not just to how much physical force can be delivered with a strike but willpower and self-control. The idea that a seemingly weak man can deliver a strike with more force and less effort than a seemingly strong man of weak will and little self-control. There’s more to it than that, but for the purposes of simplification, that the Iron Fist ability seems to come from within the body of the Iron Fist himself is a very good translation of that martial arts philosophical conceit of “power” into a visually stimulating superhero form of “superpower.”

And it keeps that definition throughout the show. Danny can’t always seem to summon the Iron Fist because it is clearly tied to Danny’s mental and emotional state. It’s not as simple as remaining calm and controlling anger though. Danny clearly is mad at several points but his powers work fine then. The first time he wants to do it but can’t is when he’s in a mental asylum and simply wants to demonstrate it to a doctor who actually wants to help him.

First of all, Danny’s under heavy medication, numbing his senses and body. Second, the doctor keeps trying to convince him that what he’s saying about K’un-Lun was the invention of a lost boy coping with a tragedy and Danny is starting to question if that might be the case. What clouds Danny’s powers is confusion and uncertainty. If he doesn’t know what to think, why he’s fighting, who’s on his side, etc.

The popular image of breaking boards with chops or punches comes to mind. Part of the training to do that is learning not to be afraid of the board, to truly commit yourself to the punch and not pull back in fear of pain. The Iron Fist is that same power of conviction and when that conviction is lost, Danny can’t punch through walls anymore. Again, it’s actually kind of interestingly tied to a martial arts principal. Even if that wasn’t intended, that it can be applicable is to be applauded.

Of course, talking about the Iron Fist power inevitably leads to talking about Iron Fist, the man. Critics made much at how Danny came across as a loser who back packed his way through Asia and convinced himself that he had found Enlightenment and was bringing it back to the decadent West. They weren’t wrong to some extent, when he first gets back to New York and quotes fortune cookie-isms, yes, he gets annoying at times.

Here’s the thing though, by halfway through the season he’s dropped that entirely. He talks to people naturally without stilted bits of wisdom. It also comes across in the way he talks about the Hand. At first, he gives these grand declarations at how it’s his mission to destroy the Hand. He talks about them the same way a child talks about his Boogeyman equivalent. By the end though he’s still fighting them and still believes them to be in the wrong but he’s dropped the simplistic, black and white absolutism and is willing to consider that individual members of the Hand believe what they’re doing is right or aren’t privy to what they’ve signed on for.

Danny was a pretentious dolt when he first came back to New York because he’d spent his formative years recovering from the worst thing that could happen to a child in an isolated bubble where nothing bad happened. He buried his pain and built a zen identity for himself. But through his experience actually fighting and living in an uncontrolled environment, he grows and matures.

Now all of this is even more subjective than the usual standards of art interpretation but I do honestly think that people have convinced themselves of the show’s quality to a degree they won’t admit if they like it if they do. By no means do I suggest you need to like the show though. As I hope I made clear, I’ve got my problems with it too. I would however urge everyone to not ride the wave of negativity. That goes for any movie, show, or game. See for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

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Professional Paladin, Paragon till death, writer of tales where evil gets its teeth kicked in, I play games where there are wrongs to be righted and bad guys to be fought.
Gamer Since: 1998
Favorite Genre: RPG
Top 3 Favorite Games:Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance , Mass Effect 2, Alan Wake
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