Warning: spoilers ahead
It’s been slightly over a week since the series aired and after much thought, I’ve decided that it was definitely the weakest of the four Netflix character series that will go on to form the Defenders. Unlike with Daredevil, Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, I felt no pressing need to binge watch the series in order to get to the end but rather put on the episodes whenever I had time to spare. I guess something was bound to go wrong somewhere, given that the Marvel and Netflix collaboration has been wildly successful thus far.
The series was largely punctuated with corporate drama that fell flat alongside the slightly (and I do mean slightly) more dramatic plot plot of the Hand versus Danny Rand. It was as if there were two separate shows that were unfortunately fused together under one single weak theme of Danny Rand. It did not help that Iron Fist had been pummelled with controversies ever since the announcement of its main lead, Finn Jones. Recently, a resurgence of news articles have also highlighted a lost potential Asian-American lead in Lewis Tan, who was later cast to play the Hand’s own defender, Zhou Cheng, in episode 8. Would we have gotten a better show with an Asian-American lead, nobody knows, but it certainly would have kickstarted conversations about the representations of Asian culture in a predominantly white society. I found myself waiting for the side characters – characters like Claire Temple, Colleen Wing, even Ward Meachum, whom I found infinitely more interesting than Danny – to appear rather than focusing on the main characters.
Iron Fist might have functioned better if it was a standalone series, untied to any overarching narrative or expectations. But as it is, its predecessors set the standards high and Iron Fist fell way short of that. Let me try and break it down further.
Someone on Tumblr commented that they had gone through my entire ‘Danny Rand’ tag and still could not figure out if I liked the character or not. I had to sit down and think to myself, Wow, I didn’t know either. His characterisation did him no favours and Danny apparently, does not realise how crazy he sounds when he runs around New York, breaking into houses and spinning tales about K’un-Lun, portals and the Iron Fist to everybody he meets. Let’s be real, anybody’s rational reaction would be to commit him into a mental hospital, as did Ward and Joy Meachum. Claire described him as having a ‘sweet innocence’, which I felt borderlined on naivety and culminated in Danny running straight back into the arms of the people who were responsible for his predicament in the first place.
Joy Meachum had problematic character development as well. I could never tell whose side she was on. On one hand, she offered Danny a settlement to leave the company alone but then went behind her brother’s back to help Danny and Jeri Hogarth prove his identity in order to take a share of the company. Which was the real Joy? We never found out. Which makes her ending scene so frustrating because she was so grateful when Danny arrived to save Harold and her from getting killed by Bakuto, but does a complete 180 and conspires with Davos to destroy Danny in the end. What are her motivations? How did this hate develop? There are many questions unanswered and the audience is left hanging at the end.
The other side characters such as Colleen, Claire and Ward were wasted, in my opinion. Colleen was a standout character from the beginning, an independent woman training young kids to keep them off the streets and teaching Claire to defend herself. Unfortunately, like Claire and Ward, as the story progressed, she was reduced to a character whose purpose was to aid Danny in discovering himself. The truths about his past eventually emerged and so did allies who would support him in the culmination of the series climax. Deeper character motivations for Ward and Harold Meachum were explored and then discarded rapidly in the face of Danny’s meltdowns. Zhou Cheng was arguably one of the more riveting personalities in the series but his short stint in the show offered us no insights into his background as the Hand’s defender.
The simple answer was that the show used all the other characters, including Davos as our insight into K’un-Lun life, in order to further Danny’s weak play for both corporate and mystical power and then we were robbed of any extra time or exposition with them.
Action scenes: Real or fake?
I grew up watching Jackie Chan action movies before he even broke into Hollywood. He has spoken out before on the difference between Chinese and American films, in that Chinese stuntmen performed all their stunts for real. They broke toes, bones, ligaments, fingers, anything you could think of because they actually fell off buildings, crashed into doors etc. in order to get that realistic looking shot instead of having it CGI-ed in. That sense of reality was missing in Danny’s action-filled scenes. His movements were stilted and it was hard to believe that his fist was really connecting with someone else’s face. In a series that is meant to be focused on the martial arts, this was a glaring concern that never got better as I continued watching.
Jessica Henwick and Lewis Tan on the other hand, delivered respectable action sequences that left me yelling for more. Each punch, each kick, each movement, carried a grace and silent power that Jones had tried to convey but came off as contrived instead. Even Rosario Dawson’s short action sequences imbibed more heart and raw talent. The choreographers tried too hard to make Jones’ action sequences seem effortless in order for him to appear highly skilled but it just appeared false instead.
The Mysticalities of Asian Culture
This brings me to the show’s treatment of the Asian culture that was so crucial to the plot. Let’s begin with the mystical arts that Danny brings back from K’un-Lun. His mastery and control over his body’s chi (life force) and Iron First abilities are never really explained. We first see the manifestation of the Iron Fist after Danny is hit in the face by a few patients of the psychiatric facility. So does he have to feel anger in order to muster up the energy to summon it? Because he certainly could not do it before. Similarly, he magically is able to restore his chi long enough to use the Iron Fist and break free of the handcuffs Bakuto had placed on him but not long enough to use it in a fight. He himself is unable to explain why this happens while Bakuto, the show’s hidden antagonist, seems to know more than he does. In fact, the audience never gets an explanation and are expected to accept it as an ambiguous truth about his powers.
Danny’s inexplicable need to speak Mandarin to the Asian characters sprinkled throughout the series, while done with a better accent than Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk, is reflective of a larger issue that seems to lump all Asians together under one culture. The scene where Danny uses Mandarin to cosy up to Colleen but falls flat as she only understands English and Japanese was highlighted by the stars as an example depicting their take on the issue and drawing attention to the different intricacies between the Asian races. However, we see that Danny does not learn his lesson and repeats his mistake with Zhou Cheng, who replies his awkward Chinese with English tinged with a British accent. Another scene that stood out to Danny trying to use Colleen’s katana with his Chinese fighting style. It reflected Danny’s constant attempts to express his knowledge of Asian culture while actually only understanding one aspect of it and trying to apply it to every other Asian culture he encounters.
We see this often nowadays, with Hollywood treating Asian actors as interchangeable, for example, Fresh Off The Boat‘s Taiwanese-American male lead is played by Randall Park, a Korean-American. I cannot fault him for taking the job, what with the lack of major roles of Asians in Hollywood and maybe all these issues stand out to me more as an Asian, but it’s reflective of a larger problem at hand in our society today that we must address.
Some final thoughts. Iron Fist is a moderately enjoyable show at best. I would not recommend it for someone new to the Marvel-Netflix collaboration and I certainly would not be eager to revisit it, would it not be for the peripheral characters that were infinitely more interesting than the main character or the plot. It does feed into the Defenders (scheduled for mid-2017 as of now). Now that the Defenders are complete, we will get to see them actually interact with each other instead of being content with little Easter Egg references. Unfortunately, my excitement rests in the knowledge that the other three Defenders will finally team up in battle. Danny Rand presents as a child, fighting to get into a battle that he cannot even begin to understand and that is fundamentally uninteresting to me.
Things to consider/Unanswered questions
- Assuming that every time you come back, you lose a little bit of yourself, as evidenced by Harold going cuckoo bananas, what the eff is going to happen to Elektra when they bring her back?
- So did anybody ever figure out what happened to Kyle? I’m sure he has a family somewhere waiting for him.
- Did Harold Meachum really die? Falling off a building does not necessarily constitute the same end as removing his head from his body. We never see his body as it is cremated and we all know what that could possibly mean.
- How come we haven’t heard of the different factions of the Hand before this?
- We are living in times of uncertainty and serious airport security. How did Colleen get her katana past TSA? Netflix, please explain.
- Was it just me, or did anybody else get a sense that there might be something more Cersei/Jaime going on between Ward and Joy? Ward seems awfully protective of her. Although Joy did mention going on dates and all, Ward’s life seems to revolve around two things, Rand and Joy. Curiouser and curiouser.
Favourite scene: Colleen’s cage fight with the two meatheads that she systematically destroyed and Zhou Cheng’s entire sequence of outrageously handsome and awesome fighting skills.
What I had wanted to see: Actual portrayals of Asian culture rather than just caricatures. Even saying Asian cultures as a blanket terms makes my stomach uneasy.
Random fact: Both Jessica Henwick and Lewis Tan have roots in Singapore, one of the smallest countries in the world located in South-East Asia. Henwick has a Singaporean mother while Tan has a Singaporean father. Cool.