Essay – Salvaging Iron Fist

I wrote this in late march, then forgot about it between starting a new job and starting a blog.  It’s not as polished as I’d like, and I’m not sure it adds anything new to the discussion, but if I don’t post it before the Defenders comes on, I may as well never post it. 

Salvaging Netflix’s Iron Fist

Fixing Danny Rand by acknowledging he is broken

Introduction

Netflix’s Iron Fist is a mess.  

The critical consensus has been savage,1 and the post show pile on has continued.  However Netflix will be pushing forward with the Defenders, and possibly with further Iron Fist seasons.  Rather than lament the Iron Fist we could have had, let’s look at what can be done to salvage the character, using what we have on the screen.

I’m going to caveat this with the fact that I’m not an Iron Fist expert, and pretty much the whole essay is a spoiler.

The good

Colleen Wing and the woman of the Marvel Netflix Universe (MNU).

Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing is the centre of the show.  She has a clear arc as the honorable samurai who comes to realise she serves a corrupt master, and believable character motivations in the competition between her code of honor, her loyalty to the Hand and students, and her desire to actually use her fighting skills.  In contrast to Finn Jones’ Iron Fist, she looks believable in her fight scenes, and she even manages to sell the plot mandated romance in spite of the limitations of the hero, while still calling out his faults.

Indeed, a number of critics and fans have suggested that the show would have been better focused on Colleen Wing’s character, and it is hard to disagree.  The easiest fix to the show would be to kill Danny Rand and have Colleen Wing take his place, and the most damning thing that can be said is that if Jessica Henwick and Finn Jones had swapped roles, and every other piece of the show was the same, it would still be a better show.

On top of Colleen Wing, we have Claire Temple, Jerri Hogarth, and Madame Gao who have all quite literally walked in as better characters from better shows.  In particular, Claire Temple is now the clear centre of the MNU: she has a personal relationship with each of the four defenders, and one of the smartest things this show does is give her an arc showing her learning to fight.  This makes her a proactive participant in the superhero world, and gives future writers no excuse to make her a damsel in distress.  Claire also makes a hugely important contribution to Iron Fist by acting as the voice of exasperated reason, pointing out that both Danny and Colleen’s actions are reckless and stupid.

If nothing else is learned from Iron Fist, it should be that the support cast of the MNU is its real strength.  If you add Karen Page and Misty Knight to Colleen Wing and Claire Temple, you have a foursome that is more heroic than the official Defenders lineup, and it will be a missed opportunity if they are not showcased as such.

What Went Wrong

Everything?!

It’s not quite that bad, but no element is good enough to hide the flaws of the next.  Apart from Danny Rand, three elements derail Iron Fist:

  • poor pacing,
  • lack of a compelling point of view,
  • and boring action sequences.

All the Netflix shows have had pacing problems in the middle, where wheels are spun to stretch out a season: Iron Fist has problems from the beginning.  Have you ever watched an action movie, were carried along for the ride, and then afterwards released there were massive plot holes and problems, but you didn’t notice at the time because you were entertained?

Iron Fist is the opposite of that.

For example, the first quarter of the season is spent on Danny Rand trying to establish his identity and take back his place at the family company.  It hits the same beats over and over again regarding Danny’s identity:2

“Now they’re running the business and are unhappy to see him; in fact, they refuse to accept that he’s Danny.  Now copy the last sentence of the above paragraph and paste it about 30 times. That’s storytelling on Iron Fist.”

before resolving it at the beginning of the fourth episode with a plot contrivance untethered to Danny’s efforts.  Most of the plot of those three and a bit episodes could have been crammed into one episode without losing anything; a friend of mine was so bored he became obsessed with what was happening with Danny Rand’s bag.3

The lulls in the plotting would be bearable if the characters were better, or Iron Fist had something interesting to say.  While the other netflix shows had well realised worlds, and grappled with bigger issues like faith, consent, race, or gentrification.  Iron Fist is set in generic big city, and it’s core message is that corporations are greedy and heroin is bad.4  Indeed, Abigail Nussbaum points out that the interaction of these two ideas can lead to a more sinister interpretation:5

“…Iron Fist is a story about an innocent corporation escaping from the clutches of an evil Communist plot.“

While I would be more charitable, the lack of thought that went into both messages is appalling.  The corporate machinations are silly, first the fight over keeping Danny off the board, then firing him and the Meachems from the board, even though Danny owns 51% of the company, and presumably the Meachems control a significant proportion of the other stock.  What happens to the board at the next shareholders meeting?

At the same time, we have a chemical plant making people sick, and the company defending its actions by saying it acted within government guidelines.  Danny magically fixes the problem by promising to fix it, the logistics of which are never fully dealt with, but what is the point here?  The show almost seems to be absolving the company of moral guilt, by saying they did everything right, and Danny’s contribution is simply to be more generous.

Similarly, portraying illegal drugs and addiction as bad should be an easy sell, and when dealing with the production of the drugs it does OK.  However, over the course of the show, Ward Meachem starts off on pain killers, graduates to Heroin, tries to score drugs from a clinic by injuring himself, kills his father, has a mental breakdown, is absolved by his father coming back to life, tries to go to rehab, is kept out, then gets better after killing his father again in a situation where his father was clearly the villain.  Moral: addiction is bad, but if you are rich enough to avoid the consequences, you can get over it.

In spite all of these problems, Iron Fist could probably have skated by if the superhero show about the world’s most powerful martial artist had incredible fight scenes.  Instead, most of the fights are turgid affairs, particularly in the early parts of the season.  The only slightly dynamic fights are Colleen Wing’s cage fights and the ensemble fights later in the season, and the only attempt at doing anything interesting with the format is a small comic like framing in the lobby fight of the penultimate episode.

 

(Seriously, this is the peak of visual flair in Iron Fist)

This is particularly egregious given some of the fight choreography from the other Netflix shows, and seems like the most solvable problem on the show.  A number of people have suggested that part of the problem is that Finn Jones is not a martial artist, and it is difficult to stunt double him.  Again, there is actually video in the show of an Iron Fist costume with a head cover, so hopefully we can get Daredevil quality fight sequences in later iterations.

Danny Rand in Iron Fist

“This is a character without understanding, humility, or depth.”6

Before getting on to the character portrayal in show, it is necessary to look at the casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist, and the fight over appropriation/whitewashing vs authenticity to the comic source material.  This is a fight that comes from there being too few diverse superheroes on screen (though the Defenders is not terrible in that regard), and if there were a whole ream of asian, and asian-american superheroes on tv, having a white martial artist would be less of a problem.  There are a number of excellent articles on this issue,7 to which I would only add a couple of points.

The most important is that most of these criticisms would have been silenced if the show had approached issues of culture and casting with awareness and deftness.  If not capable of doing that, they should have considered other options, as adaptations are supposed to capture the essence of the story, and when updating for modern audiences should not feel straightjacketed by decisions made over 40 years ago.8  If they really wanted to push the east meets west culture clash in the character, they still could have avoided the default casting of a white guy.

As with the issue above, many of the faults of the show might have been ignored if Danny Rand had been a really great character.  Unfortunately, Danny rand is an angry and violent, rude and irresponsible, and grossly entitled and terrifyingly naive.

The first thing we see Danny do is barge into the Meachems to demand his birthright, despite being presumed dead for over a decade and providing no evidence.  He then breaks into his old house, knowing it’s occupied by someone else, is surprised when Colleen doesn’t immediately hire him as a kung fu instructor, then proceeds to stalk the Meachems again.  It doesn’t even occur to him to go to a lawyer or try to do anything constructive for three episodes.

This sense of entitlement infects even his closest relationships on the show.  When Colleen lets him sleep at the dojo, he overstays his welcome and pushes her until he is thrown out.  While driving round with Davos, he says Davos can’t drive and he can without a license because he has money.9

Tied into his entitlement is his insincerity and tactlessness.  One of the few people who helps Danny at the beginning is a homeless man, and instead of helping him or thanking him, Danny belittles him.

“I’m guessing people think we’re pretty much alike”

Even worse are the nods towards Buddhism/Eastern culture.  Finn never manages to convey any emotion other than going through the motions when performing rites, and is only animated when talking about the undying.

At the same time, there is almost no character who does not pull one over on Danny Rand in the series.  The Meachems (all of them), Colleen, Madame Gao, Bakuto and a random sad mother all manipulate him.  It’s farcical that the Iron Fist, destroyer of the hand, is shocked when the hand turns out to be dishonorable at a tournament.

Danny is also extremely impulsive and prone to use violence where it is not required.  In the opening of the first episode he fights his way past guards to get to the lifts.  We learn later that he can slip past security in the Rand building, so the first scene of the show is literally our hero beating up a group of security guards for no reason.  From there he beats a student, charges into a tournament, and gets bored watching a warehouse in China and goes to set it on fire, without considering other options.

This goes hand in hand with his irresponsibility.  The Iron Fist has one job – defend the path to Kunlun, and Danny abandons it with seemingly catastrophic results.  Similarly, he comes back to New York with the intention of restoring his name, but is too feckless to actually put any work into learning about the company or protecting his role.

The biggest problem with Iron Fist however is that the show seems to think Danny Rand is a winning character.  He acts like a petulant child who means well,but is framed as flawed but charming hero who defeats the villains and gets the girl.

Breaking Iron Fist to fix him

“You are the worst Iron Fist.”

The best character scene for Danny Rand in the entire show is his panic attack in the plane.  Claire has to talk him through his PTSD over his parents death, and he is completely paralyzed by fear.  This scene gives us the character to salvage, a scared little boy turned into a nearly emotionless warrior.

Danny is broken.  Throughout the show, Danny comes back to three traumatic memories unbidden: the plane crash, his beating by Monks, and his challenge to become Iron Fist.  This tryptic can be used to justify Danny’s flaws, and provide a roadmap to fixing them.

Danny Rand is the child of rich industrialists who was home schooled and likely only interacted with a selection of staff and children of other industrialists.  After watching his parents die in a plane crash, he is taken in by monks who teach him to suppress his emotions, beat him, and shape him into a living weapon to defend their city against an ancient, ruthless enemy.  After excelling at martial arts, he is chosen to be the next Iron Fist, and is sent to challenge an undying dragon for the role.

The Danny Rand we see most of the time in the show is a facade.   We know that Danny and Davos got up to pranks around the monastery and around the local village, and he certainly seems to be acquainted with sex, but by and large he has lived a life of limited social interactions.  He is tactless and naive because he has spent his entire life divorced from normal society. It’s a miracle that a rich white boy raised on hip hop and in isolation doesn’t make more gaffes than he does.

When he interacts with his old life, it is like he is a child again: breaking in to see his friends and bossing people around.  He keeps hassling the Meachems because it only occurs to him to go to his family.  Similarly, he seeks out Jerry Hogarth, an old employee of the company to help him, rather than finding any other friends.  In contrast, when he receives the tournament challenge he is a product of the monastery; all business and no emotion.  He understands the rules and rituals that govern it, and he only deviates from the script when Madame Gao does.

Danny is angry and violent because he has spent his life suppressing emotions while bathing in violence.  Davos tells Claire about how they were taught to avoid emotion, while Danny talks about how being hit centers him, and in the second episode the only way he can summon his Iron Fist while being drugged is when he is beaten.

Imagine a boy who lost his parents, entering an environment where the only place he can deal with his emotion is in combat.  The only way he can center his chi is if he can deal with his emotions, and initially, the only way he can deal with his emotions is through violence.  If Kunlun were meant to be more sinister, Danny Rand would be a traumatised former child soldier

This also suggests that he is irresponsible and insincere because he is conflicted about the important figures in his life and the paths they have laid down.  A Danny who struggles with his religion because, while he believes in it, he has mixed emotions about an environment that literally beat him into a weapon, is much better than a douche bro Buddhist.  Similarly, he doesn’t invest in the corporate structure because he has become the Iron Fist, and the company is just a proxy for his connection to his parents.

In this interpretation his middle path, fighting the hand in his own way, becomes a way of asserting his own identity instead of the ones he has inherited, and if he is terrible at it, it’s part of him learning to be Danny Rand.

Negatives as positives.

“Defeat has no place in my mind”

Danny’s strength through his ordeals is literally his entitlement.  He never thinks that he might lose or that he might fail, and this pulls him through his childhood and anything he might encounter.  It also means he sticks to his own path of not killing, even when his training and circumstances might lead him to do otherwise.  His naivety reflects that most of the people he knew well, his parents and the monks, were honest people.  Danny assumes the best of people, even his enemies, and tries to do good, even if he is using violence to do so.

These two traits, assuming the best of people, and never giving up, are a strong basis for a hero.  Danny Rand wants to do good, and is capable of doing good, he is just hamstrung by his traumatic past. One of the few things Iron Fist gets right however is that Danny does manage to learn from the characters around him.  Danny at the beginning of the series ignores Colleen’s rules and brings extravagant meals, Danny at the end supplies pizza and asks Colleen to come with him to Kunlun.

Going forward

At the end of Iron Fist, Danny listens to Claire, and doesn’t let his guilt and anger over his mother’s death drive him to kill Harold Meechem.  This is a cathartic moment, as it strikes at one of his three driving traumas, his parents death.  This provides an opportunity for the show to move on from Danny reclaiming his name, and to replace his memories of the crash with happy memories that enable him to deal with his emotions.

This provides a template for future seasons.  With Kunlun missing, the next season could be about Danny dealing with his conflicted feelings about the place, symbolised by his memory of being beaten with sticks as a child.  This would give the show an opportunity to try to make amends for it’s poor handling of race and culture, by treating Danny’s conflict with nuance, and opening up a broader cast of heroes and villains.    From there, Iron Fist could build to a third season focused on Danny actually living up to his potential, becoming the Iron Fist he should have been.  This would be a good time to address the worst part of the finale, the meeting between Davos and Joy with Gao listening in, as Danny would be in a position to confront both halves of his past, and act as the destroyer of the hand.

Or they could not fix Danny, and just show the Iron Fist having a cool fight with a dragon.

  1. See for example:

  2. Netflix’s ‘Iron Fist’ Review – Matt Zoller Seitz
  3.  Seriously, that bag is like magic, there when you need it then gone.
  4. It seems to be weirdly like an 80’s PSA in that regard.
  5. Five Comments on Iron FistAbigail Nussbaum
  6. Ally Brinken twitter
  7. The outrage over Marvel’s Iron Fist casting, explained – Alex Abad-Santos, Colleen Wing: 15 Reasons why she should have been Netflix’s next Iron Fist – Jason Wilkins, Why An Asian-American Iron Fist Would Have Genuinely Made For A Better Show – Katharine Trendacosta.
  8. Iron Fist first appeared in 1974, a time noted for it’s nuanced treatment of race.
  9. Which in another context might have been trenchant social criticism, but this show gets no benefit of the doubt.

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