Last weekend, Marvel premiered Iron Fist, its latest live-action Netflix show. To the disappointment of many fans, the series isn’t very good. Fortunately, there’s a solution if Iron Fist’s dull plot, poor characters, and Finn Jones’ single confused facial expression left you with a craving for some serious martial arts mayhem: AMC’s Into the Badlands. While it may have gotten lost in the hype surrounding Marvel’s new series, Badlands, which returned for its second season last weekend, delivers on the core promise that Iron Fist fails to live up to.
While there are several problems with Iron Fist, one of the biggest is that the show seems almost ashamed of the fact that its main character is supposed to be the world’s greatest martial artist who can literally level walls with a magical glowing punch. I’ve been slogging my way through the series for a few days, and it takes almost two full hours before Iron Fist actually wields the damn Iron Fist. (To put that in perspective, that’s longer than the entire run time of Thor: The Dark World, which, while not one of Marvel’s best films, is still far better than Iron Fist.)
Into the Badlands has no such compunctions. Now, it isn’t the greatest show: it’s campy, the politics can be dull, and the acting is often stilted and awkward. But the action is consistently incredible. The story follows Sunny (Daniel Wu), a “Clipper” — the show’s term for the samurai-like soldiers — who fights to defend his Baron from the warriors roaming the show’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. And the fights themselves are stunning. Unlike Finn Jones, whose limited martial arts ability was a liability that the Iron Fist creative team had to overcome, Wu — who also serves as executive producer for the show — is a trained martial artist with many years of experience. That means that Wu can perform lots of his own stunts and fights, and, equally as important, lets the camera take a wider approach to actually allow viewers to see the action instead of trying to hide stuntmen stand-ins through close camera work and rapid cuts.
World-building is another area where Badlands excels. Instead of yet another take on the played-out “white billionaire playboy superhero” trope, Badlands is set in a weird post-apocalyptic future, mixing styles from the Antebellum South, feudal Japan, and a Mad Max-style wasteland. Added to that mix is an order of mysterious magical warriors, including a new character this season (who coincidentally wields overpowered punches and healing powers through a glowing fist) who are played by a diverse collection of actors and fighters.
Is Into the Badlands the perfect alternative to Marvel’s prestige projects? No. But it’s not pretending to be. And most importantly, where it excels, it blows the competition out of the water. The second season already wastes zero time in throwing Sunny into a fantastic and brutal fight scene that feels like a cross between the stylistic violence of Kill Bill and the creative stuntwork of Jackie Chan. And there are still plenty of ways in which it’s improving episode to episode. If Iron Fist left you with an itch for a proper martial arts action show, it exists. And it’s on Netflix, too.