Welcome back to a feature I’m doing this summer called “The Road to The Defenders.” The concept is pretty simple. Between now and August (Friday!) I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th. I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view. In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing. For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines. This week we are looking at Iron Fist. If you would like to catch up, scroll through The Defenders tag on the site.
Honestly, I find Iron Fist difficult to speak on anymore. Every time it comes up there is a lot of negativity. Fans who hated it can’t seem to tolerate a single positive thing said about it. Fans who loved it can’t seem to tolerate a single negative thing said about it. The reality (at least as determined by Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or Metacritic or sites of that sort) is that it is a poorly reviewed show and has lower fan approval rates too. MCU fans (I would argue) are used to their properties being praised because Marvel Studios has an incredible track record. Even though Marvel TV hasn’t had as good a record, they still have hit more than they miss. So everyone gets really riled up when something is an obvious miss (again, using critics and audience scores as the form of evaluation). The result: a cesspool or anger and snark whenever Iron Fist comes up.
So how do you proceed in a feature like this? My attempt here will be simple. There is only time for one column on the show. My plan is to try to stay away from well-trod criticisms. I’m aware there are a lot of reasons to like or dislike this show, but rehashing them a twentieth time is not my aim here. I can’t promise all my comments will be fresh, but hopefully, they aren’t super stale. Also, I will just be doing bullet points on the show. So here it goes…
-While the first couple of shows are slow, I think the story with Danny and his homeless friend is actually pretty touching. The way Ward treats Danny is directly in contrast with the way his friend treats him. In a world where financial success is too often equated with general life success, this plot is a counterpoint. Kindness and hospitality are beautiful acts of kindness that can happen regardless of one’s wealth or substance abuse problems etc. It’s an emotionally meaningful part of the early season.
–Jessica Henwick is great in this role. She does well to give her character an obviously heavy past without being too morose about it. Early on she is guarded toward Danny, but never in a way that lacks kindness or warmth. She manages to match Danny’s energy and impulsiveness while also being a bit more street wise.
-The writers tried hard to ask one question: “What would someone who suffered Danny Rand’s ordeal be like?” Throughout the show, they kept coming back to how emotional scarring that sort of tragedy would be. The arrested development would be severe. His taste in music would be stuck in a decade ago. His survivor guilt would be debilitating at times. He would be ill-adapted at navigating corporate America. All of these character attributes, which many found tiring as a viewer, are an attempt to answer that central question. While many folks (myself included) want to kill the next person who calls a Marvel show “grounded,” this is the kind of grounding that is probably underappreciated. The approach is a commitment to the premise and its logical outworking.
-One of the visual peculiarities of the show is the choice to center shots, particular in Harold Meachum’s apartment. Often shot composition will work by the “rule of thirds” but often this show like symmetry on both sides of the shot, with silhouettes or people dead center. Once I saw that tendency I saw it over and over.
-Why does Colleen Wing need money to run the dojo? Are the Hand cheap? Seems like if she is sending young people to them for brain washing, the least they could do is help her with some rent money.
-Many people didn’t like Joy’s turn near the end of the show. So this time through I watched specifically for her development as a character. Often it seems like the writers don’t even know where they want to go or how to get there. Joy just doesn’t have a lot of clarity as a character. Now it is important to note that her ouster from Rand is a major event in her arc. When she loses her place in the company, after a decade of forcing herself into the corporate mold, she loses it. From there on out she is confronted with her father not being dead, trying to navigate his craziness and Ward’s anger, and then Harold’s death. From that moment on there is no peace or time to cope for Joy and she snaps. Given how many fans felt it was a sudden shift on the first watch, it’s fair to say the execution of the plot wasn’t perfect, but it is better when I watched looking for it.
-Much potential exists to better explore eastern philosophy and religion in the show, and how it makes Danny different from others. Better writing would have replaced clueless Danny versus cynical, capable Ward scenes with an opportunity to ask how steeped corporate America is in western enlightenment philosophy and world view, and how someone with more eastern sensibilities could provide a challenging but interesting counter-point. Danny too often isn’t zen, he’s just clueless.
-For about ten minutes Harold Meachum is walking around like a zombie, harassing children in the streets and assaulting hot dog carts. It’s the low point of the show. Surely the show is just testing how bad this can be without getting me to turn it off, right? I like a lot of this show, but that section is just pure drudge. Stupid and boring at the same time.
-I still think that there are major origin changes in store. Part of the reason this version doesn’t jive with comic fans is we are headed for some major plot twists about K’un Lun and Shou-Lao that will make the show much more sensible and probably infuriate many fans.
-When I reviewed episode 12 I gave it pretty high marks because I liked the fight scenes. Didn’t feel that way this time. There are a lot of weird editing decisions that suggest they didn’t like their footage. The Davos and Danny fight is really dark and cuts so frequently with no longer sustained shots. They are trying to create a kinetic feel to a stagnant scene with cuts, I think. Even weirder is the second and a half where we get a split screen of Colleen in the apartment lobby. It’s jarring since it is the only split screen in the entire show, and it goes away so quickly. I can only figure they needed that beat to make the fight make sense and the camera people were in both shots, so they put them together. It’s just a really strange choice. Those who want to defend the show should watch the Davos and Danny fight back to back with the Daredevil hallway fight scene. One is an action scene that is cobbled together, the other allows the choreography to shine. Criticism of Iron Fist often comes down to the fights and these are obvious contrasting scenes.
-I really felt the Meachum family drama. While some fans really didn’t care to see the Meachums, if that plot is judged just as it is without questions about whether they should have done it or not on the show, it is pretty good. At several points the emotions between them really made me feel for them. (Well, made me feel for Joy and Ward. I still hate Harold.) The writing and acting here is realistic to how family dysfunction can be and deserves some credit.
-My biggest takeaway was how self-aware the show is. Many critics of the show complain about it as if the writers were dense. Scott Buck and company simply are too ignorant of Iron Fist to know this show isn’t a proper Iron Fist iteration. I don’t believe that (anymore). Several times Danny is called by another character “the worst Iron Fist.” Davos continually points out how badly Danny is doing. Gao also continually points out how little Rand misunderstands. Even Danny talks about how incomplete his training is and how little he understands the Fist. That’s why he considers getting help from Bakuto. So it seems the writers know that Finn Jones Iron Fist is not up to snuff. They admit it repeatedly in the dialogue. It seems that there is a mythology shift. Danny is selected and receives the Iron Fist in a different way than the comics. He doesn’t deserve it yet. He hasn’t earned it. There are hints that even his showdown with Shou-Lao is not what he expected it to be. Now many will make an argument that this is a bad decision and that the show is less enjoyable than if Danny was a superior martial artist. It is easy to see how the approach is an affront to those who value a certain version of the character. All that said, it seems wrong to see the writers as clueless. There are just too many times they admit the failings of Danny as a character even inside their own dialogue.
-As a follow up to that point, there are two kinds of characters in the show. Those who seem naive enough to buy into Danny and his simplified world view (Danny, Colleen, Harold) and those who can cut through the mumbo-jumbo with a more realistic and cynical edge (Ward, Gao, Claire, Hogarth). So when Danny and Joy trust Harold, Ward will say, “Can’t you see he’s crazy?” When Danny and Colleen are running off to K’un Lun it is Claire who says, “You two need professional psychological help.” If viewers listen to these realistic voices (and assume they represent the writers’ room) the show feels less fumbled. Naivete, foolishness, and impetuousness are not heroic parts of Danny and Colleen, they are flaws that others see and critique. This suggests that down the road there will be a shift in Danny as he matures out of that arrested development stage and deals with his past.
Well, that does it! 65 or so hours later and ten columns in the books, we are through and ready for The Defenders! Thank you to everyone who read some or all of the series and left comments. Hope it has been as fun for you as it has been for me. Generally, I will say that I enjoy all five seasons of these shows more on the second watch. I continue to marvel at Vincent D’Onofrio and have a new appreciation for Elodie Yung. I better felt the genre and tone of Jessica Jones. Luke Cage felt less uneven. And Iron Fist‘s intentions seemed stronger and better thought out. It’ll be a long time before I go back to them again (it’s 65 episodes!) but I’m glad to have gone through again on the road to The Defenders.