Marvel and Netflix have had a good thing going with the street-level, Defenders characters. I won’t claim to have been much of a fan of season two of Daredevil, and I know amongst the Geeks here that I am somewhat alone in enjoying Luke Cage, but by and large Netflix and Marvel have done a good job working together.
Now the last of the four Defenders is streaming, and it’s Iron Fist.
And, well, I wasn’t the biggest fan.
Iron Fist had some problems. However, to the show’s credit, it may have been the first Marvel Netflix show to get the 13 episode pacing right, mostly by sticking the slow, draggy episodes first instead of near the end when it can derail a good thing.
That doesn’t mask a bigger problem for Iron Fist, namely trying to decide what the point of the show is. I realize Danny Rand may be the least interesting of the four Defenders, and that’s something there. Daredevil has about a half a century’s worth of stories and characters to go through, as well as some outright classic runs including the epic one by Frank Miller. Jessica Jones is the most recent but also a fairly deep character with a messed-up backstory that leaves quite the imprint. Luke Cage was successfully rehabilitated from a blaxploitation character to one of Marvel’s go-to street-level heroes. But Iron Fist was a product of the kung fu craze of the 70s, and most of his best-known work is when he and Luke teamed up as the Heroes for Hire. As such, Iron Fist the show may have had the biggest challenge ahead of itself to make an imprint on the audience.
For me, the show never quite got it, and I mostly blame a poor story. Showrunner Scott Buck was in charge of the last few seasons of Dexter, and some of Dexter‘s weaknesses are inherent in Iron Fist, like subplots involving other characters that aren’t really as interesting as whatever’s happening to the main character. I’m also not sure the series ever really defined who or what Danny Rand was meant to be. Finn Jones, late of Game of Thrones, plays Danny as a somewhat naive, mostly benevolent man who speaks calmly (most of the time) as a standard martial artist stock type should, but there doesn’t seem to be much there. I’m generally slow to blame an actor if the script isn’t working for me, so I’m going to withhold judgement on Jones until after I see how he handles the same character on The Defenders. A stronger actor can make a weak script work better, and there are a couple actors stronger than Jones in the cast.
That’s one of Iron Fist‘s strengths actually. Jessica Henwick, another Game of Thrones alumni (though she and Jones never shared screentime on that series), brings a lot of charisma to Colleen Wing, and quite frankly, I thought her plot line and conflict worked much better than whatever was happening to Danny. I think I would have preferred a Colleen Wing show to an Iron Fist show. Likewise, David Wenham (Faramir from Lord of the Rings) has a good deal of screen charisma in a role I’d rather not describe too much lest it spoil it for people. Factor in returning actors Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth, and at least there’s some good talent in front of the camera.
But I think the biggest problem is the martial arts and a lack of a clear villain until the very end of the first season. In episode four, Danny gets into a brawl with what could be the Axe Gang from Kung Fu Hustle, and the direction and fight choreography just goes nuts with a split screen showing multiple angles of the same fight. Aside from one really epic throw-down in a much later episode, many of the martial arts scenes look rather ordinary. I think, for a show like this to work, what’s really needed is more crazy martial arts. Go full pulp. Try pulling off something like the Bride’s duel with the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, Volume 1. A TV budget may not allow for something exactly like that, but if we’re going to be having a bunch of crazy martial artists jumping all over the place, why not show it? More of that, a better focus on who the bad guy exactly is, and less of the corporate boardroom stuff that isn’t as interesting, and I suspect Iron Fist would be a much better show. Bringing the Hand back worked better here than it did in Daredevil, seeing as how the strength of the Netflix series has been giving villains a lot more breathing room to grow and be evil, but Iron Fist battling a ninja cult makes more sense especially as Iron Fist gave faces and personalities to the Hand’s various leaders. Matt Murdock was mostly plowing through faceless, nameless thugs; Danny Rand learns their names and a bit of what they’re all about.
Seven out of ten Madame Gao smug looks.
By the way, there could be an interesting drinking game for any time someone suggests calling the police or threatening a ninja death cult leader with jail time.