Review: Iron Fist by Jerry Whitworth
Announced back in 2013, the final solo series in Netflix’s first wave of Defenders interconnected streaming shows would premier March 17th in Iron Fist. Following Daredevil (which has run two seasons thus far), Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage and set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Fist tells the story of Danny Rand, a young boy orphaned in a plane crash and adopted by monks. After fifteen years trapped in the mystical land of K’un L’un, Rand comes back to New York City to return to his former life wielding the powerful Iron Fist technique earned following years of training in kung fu. In the comics, Rand was the son of Wendell Rand, a long time resident of K’un L’un who moved to New York City and became a millionaire. Leading an expedition back to K’un L’un through the Himalayas with his wife Heather, a nine-year old Danny, and Wendell’s business partner Harold Meachum, Wendell would be killed by Meachum in order to take over their business and claim Heather for his own. Heather would rebuke Meachum and run off with Danny only to be eaten by wolves. Danny would have shared the same fate if not for Nu-An, the leader (or Yu-Ti, the August Personage of Jade) of the Dragon-Kings who preside over K’un L’un and Wendell’s bitter adopted brother, who permitted the death of the mother but spared her son. When Danny voiced a desire for revenge for the deaths of his parents, Yu-Ti ordered the boy be tutored in the martial arts under Lei-Kung the Thunderer (Wendell’s teacher and father to Wendell’s rival Davos). Danny would prove to be an exceptional student (like his father before him) and, in time, earned the right to challenge the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. By vanquishing the dragon, Danny had earned the power of the Iron Fist, a technique of immense power and possibilities. This new ability in hand, Danny returned to New York City after ten years in order to seek vengeance against Meachum. On this journey, he would gain enemies like Master Khan (a wizard of K’un L’un), Ward Meachum (Harold’s brother), Steel Serpent (Davos), and Crane Mother (ruler of K’un-Zi) and allies like Wendell’s close friend/lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, NYPD police officer Misty Knight, modern-day samurai Colleen Wing, and Hero-for-Hire Luke Cage, Power Man. What follows will contain SPOILERS pertaining to the first season of Iron Fist.
The story of Netflix’s Iron Fist departs in many ways from the source material (arguably more so than any of the Defenders series up to this point). For the Netflix series, the wielder of the Iron Fist (which is both the name of the power and the mantle of those that bear it) is the guardian of the passage into K’un L’un, champion of the Order of the Crane Mother, and sworn enemy of the Hand. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) betrays his adopted home in order to return to New York City seeking his former life rather than to seek revenge against Harold Meachum (David Wenham) as he is unaware of the part he played in the deaths of his parents and views him instead as a surrogate father. There, Iron Fist encounters two factions of the Hand as it is revealed the Hand from the first two seasons of Daredevil are the Japanese faction (with ninja warriors), Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) from Daredevil is the leader of the Chinese faction (with kung fu fighters), and a new leader in Bakuto (Ramón Rodríguez) operates an American faction (with new age, hipster youths). Further, Rand enters into a power struggle for his father’s company with Meachum’s son Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and daughter Joy (Jessica Stroup). Harold, who is believed dead, was given the gift of immortality by the Chinese Hand such that they can distribute heroin via his company and who employed Hand poison to orchestrate the deaths of the Rand family. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who secretly operates a dojo in New York to recruit for the hipster Hand, ends up falling in love with Danny and becomes his ally. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) acts as Danny’s lawyer where she was an admirer to Wendell Rand rather than his close friend and confidant. Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who acted as an ally to Luke Cage in his first season, does not make an appearance as Wing seemingly takes her role as Danny’s ongoing romantic interest but Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) emerges again to act as a nurse and ally to New York’s vigilantes. Davos (Sacha Dhawan), rather than being Wendell’s rival, is instead Danny’s best friend in K’un L’un who tries to bring him home to resume his duties as the land’s guardian.
When Iron Fist was announced, many expected the series to be an action extravaganza wrought with incredible kung fu battles. However, much of the series is instead devoted to the feud between Danny Rand and the Meachum family which include institutionalizing Rand, destroying all of Rand’s legal and medical records, and framing Rand for the Chinese Hand’s heroin trade (not to mention the internal politics of business when Rand joins his father’s company with drug pricing, lawsuits, corporate takeovers, and blackmail). A large chunk of the series chronicles the decline of Ward Meachum who spirals deeper into drug addiction, loses his grip on reality, and succumbs to anxiety under the thumb of his father. The fourth episode, “Eight Diagram Dragon Palm,” would finally offer some semblance of action when the Triad attempt to kidnap Joy Meachum from Rand’s apartment featuring a hallway fight sequence (at this point a tradition for the Defenders’ series as Daredevil had two across two seasons, Punisher in his season of Daredevil, and Luke Cage in his series) with Chinese gangsters armed with axes (a popular trope in kung fu cinema featured in Legend of Drunken Master and Kung Fu Hustle). However, while the hallway sequences seem to one-up each other every Defenders season, Iron Fist‘s was decidedly more low-key and simplistic than any that came before it (even the sublime nature of the first such sequence in Daredevil season one was better paced and blocked for optimal effect). “Immortal Emerges from Cave,” Iron Fist‘s sixth episode, offered a watered-down version of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death (1972) but rather than a three-tiered pagoda, viewers were offered three rooms of a warehouse including a likely nod to the immortal weapon Bride of Nine Spiders from the comics and a psycho killer in the vein of Masao Kakihara from Ichi the Killer. The eighth episode, “The Blessing of Many Fractures,” offered a drunken master in the fashion of Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-hung but who wasn’t nearly as comparable in ability. Episode ten, “Black Tiger Steals Heart,” sees Davos emerge in time for him to join Rand against the combined forces of the hipster Hand. “Bar the Big Boss,” the twelfth and second-to-final episode of the season has Rand, Davos, and Colleen Wing battle a handful of hipster Hand before Rand and Davos throw down against each other. To say the combat in Iron Fist is disappointing is an understatement. While Daredevil offered intense combat akin to what viewers get in the Marvel films, Iron Fist offers a weaker version of this style. What’s worse is when you consider a series like AMC’s Into the Badlands which is just remarkable for a television program and it really appears the makers of Iron Fist didn’t even really try to make something on that level. Many have complained it appears with Iron Fist, the makers simply ran out of money (especially since K’un L’un largely never appears in the series save terrible CGI scenes of Rand sitting atop a snowy mountain watching an eagle and Shou-Lao’s appearance was reduced to two red glowing lights in darkness). However, the quality is not only low in its action, sets, and effects but also its story.
When it was revealed the Iron Fist was the enemy of the Hand, I couldn’t help but groan. We already had two seasons of Daredevil dealing with the Hand (a little in the first, but most of the second). Matt Murdock was trained by the Chaste, sworn enemy of the Hand, since childhood as a weapon in their war. For Iron Fist, Danny Rand was trained by the Order of the Crane Mother, sworn enemy of the Hand, since childhood as a weapon in their war (though, apparently, while Murdock was taught to use chi to heal from rather severe internal injuries, Rand couldn’t use it to help with a simple knife wound). In past reviews of the various Defenders series, I’ve mentioned how there’s a seeming formula being repeated ad nauseum (hero works their way up the ladder against foes in increasing levels of danger to reach the overarching villain while a secondary character is introduced as an almost backdoor pilot). With Iron Fist, it seems like they created a variation of Daredevil but had no real foes for him to face. While the series introduced the concept of factions in the Hand (which forced another groan), it seems as though the Chinese and hipster Hand factions offered little challenge for the Iron Fist outside of their leaders (and even then, Gao only seems able to do her Force push once before running out of chi). In fact, before learning from Bakuto there were factions, I was left wondering if the threat posed by Daredevil and Elektra seemingly didn’t warrant Gao having to employ her four warehouse-pagoda assassins and drunken master (not to mention, if Gao was Hand, why was Nobu needed and would that mean Elektra was going to appear and combat Rand?). While I anticipated Iron Fist facing perhaps Ward Meachum, Steel Serpent, or Crane Mother in his first season, it appears instead Joy Meachum, Steel Serpent, and Crane Mother (considering she’s seemingly been swapped from K’un-Zi to K’un L’un now) maybe the foes of a possible second season (as Rand is likely viewed as a traitor to his adopted land now). And while Colleen Wing didn’t chew up as much scenes as the likes of Luke Cage in Jessica Jones, Punisher in Daredevil, or Misty Knight in Luke Cage, Ward Meachum made up for it and ate up a lot of material in Iron Fist in a similar manner as Karen Page in Daredevil, Trish Walker in Jessica Jones, and Mariah Dillard in Luke Cage. Perhaps the worst aspect of the story is the convoluted deaths of the Rands. The pilots for the Rands’ private jet were poisoned with the Hand’s unique formula leading Danny to believe Gao was at fault only for a final ‘a-ha’ in the final episode that it was Harold. Why? What purpose does that serve the story save a small twist? Danny already had to take down Harold because he pinned Gao’s heroin on him, was it so Danny would be tempted to kill him to add extra drama (or really warrant a thirteenth episode)? Even beyond that, why not just put a bomb on the plane? Or use a more common poison? Was Harold afraid the Rands would survive and he wanted to frame Gao (even though it’s unlikely anyone would know it was unique Hand poison)? Apparently Gao didn’t fear this because she gave it to him.
In a world where Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage don’t exist, Iron Fist maybe an adequate series. It’s essentially a lesser version of Arrow with early CW-budget martial arts (before the DC Television Universe took off). But in not only a world where those other three Defenders series exist (or the DCTVU for that matter) but where Iron Fist is the fourth among those series, the show fails. While noted Ward Meachum eats up as much screen time as other characters in other series, he’s simply unlikable. In fact, in general, the cast of Iron Fist is unlikable. Danny Rand is very much a man-child. Ward Meachum is a mean, self-loathing yes-man that desperately wants people to believe he’s actually powerful. Joy Meachum plays the part of a heroine only to repeatedly be influenced into acting as a villain. Colleen Wing acts like a strong, independent woman until she falls in love with Danny and then becomes his faithful puppy dog. Claire Temple loves to lecture people only to allow herself to get dragged into their stupid decisions anyway. Harold Meachum is the only character of any interest, and much like Cottonmouth in Luke Cage and Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, they kill him. Jeri Hogarth was arguably the most disliked character in Jessica Jones and yet she’s easily one of the more likable characters in Iron Fist because of the cast that surrounds her. And then there’s Davos, likely the main villain of a possible second season, and I likely sympathize more with him than anyone else on the cast. If Danny abandoning his post did in fact lead to K’un L’un being invaded by the Hand, Davos has every right to kill him. Danny knew the Iron Fist guards the path and there could be only one at a time and still he plotted for years to return to New York and left after acquiring the power as soon as he became aware the doorway was open (without so much as a word to his fellow warriors beforehand to prepare for his departure).
The first season of Daredevil was operatic in its storytelling as its second season performed a similar service for the Punisher when it wasn’t telling the tragedy of the life of Elektra. Jessica Jones related a tale of oppression, manipulation, addiction, depression, and recovery with its antagonist treated as some ever present monster before becoming a complex, twisted man. Luke Cage displayed the powerful message of a bulletproof black man in America awash in moody background colors and a decades ranging array of music speaking to the heart of the viewer. Iron Fist featured an unstoppable white man guided by his rage to become a billionaire out of spite and seek answers to a childhood trauma while abandoning his adopted family to the greatest threat it has ever known. What should have been a series showcasing a rich history of kung fu and a man coming to terms with his past loss became a tale of privilege, both for Danny Rand and the Meachum family. The series would have been better suited focusing on Colleen Wing, stuck between her faith in the Hand, her struggle to survive in poverty while trying to raise up a forgotten generation of children, and her growing sense of responsibility to employ her gifts to aid those less fortunate (not to mention the dark temptation toward violence’s power). However, not only was her journey downplayed (to the point where it seemed her sleeping with Rand ended her journey as a unique, interesting character save her Hand revelation) than the other deuteragonists of the various Defenders series, it was seemingly sacrificed so we could get more of the Meachum’s soap opera. Iron Fist was tame, cheap, forgettable, mind-numbing, mediocre, and a significant decline in quality from its fellow Defenders shows. It’s not the worse comic book series of all time, but it’s no where near one of the better ones either.