With the debut of Netflix’s Iron Fist now imminent, Marvel is on the defensive. The studio is in an uncomfortable position: its three earlier streaming series, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, all received plenty of buzzy reception ahead of their respective launches. But Iron Fist was met with scrutiny and criticism before it even went into production. That criticism centers mainly on the optics of a white man starring in a series rooted in Orientalist stereotypes, which collides directly with the ongoing conversation about the diversity in Marvel’s superhero properties. Given the company’s self-appointed position as a champion for inclusion in comic book storytelling, Marvel has had no choice but to meet the backlash head-on.
“There needs to be more diversity in television and film, especially for Asian actors,” series star Finn Jones told BuzzFeed last month. “With this instance in particular, what I struggle with and what frustrates me is that people are commenting on the headline without understanding the full picture, without understanding the full story.”
‘Iron Fist’ had the chance to be current and relevant
Fair enough, Mr. Jones. With any property that touches on the politics of the day, there really is a rush to judge its merits before it comes out, when patience might better serve the would-be critics. After all, Marvel has earned enough goodwill since Daredevil premiered in 2015 to hope that wrestling with its inherently problematic source material might give its latest series a charge, and make it current and relevant. The sad truth, however, is that Iron Fist is the weakest of Marvel’s Netflix series to date. As far as diversity, representation, and appropriation go, the series fails in a number of ways. But, over the course of its first six episodes, it also manages to fall short on basic levels like storytelling. Its creative laziness bankrupts the entire show. Marvel’s new series is a disappointing case study in studios needing to try harder to tell difficult stories well.
Iron Fist, created by Dexter writer Scott Buck, follows Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a Buddhist monk and martial arts master who vanished in a plane crash when he was a boy. Fifteen years later, he returns to New York City to reclaim his family’s legacy and its billion-dollar enterprise. Soon, he must face the Hand, the shadowy ninja organization first introduced in Daredevil — and the same threat he trained his entire life to defeat. The series is Arrow redux: a wealthy superhero caught in a web of corporate intrigue and dark forces must take down enemies linked to his past and newfound purpose. However, the show is unique among Marvel properties thanks to its focus on Danny as the titular Iron Fist, a supernatural kung-fu warrior and the mystical protector of the ancient, Eastern society known as K’un-Lun.
Danny Rand is the series’s chief failing
Comparisons to other comics-based TV series aside, the story sounds compelling on paper. But Danny Rand is the series’s chief failing. Much has already been written about Danny’s status as a white savior. The title of Iron Fist doesn’t just make him a superhero; he’s the latest in a long line of protector warriors for his stereotypical Orientalist culture. That’s true to the character’s comics origin, as told during comics’ so-called Kung-Fu Craze of the mid-1970s. But the story doesn’t fly in 2017, so the show took some steps to correct that past, by making K’un-Lun at least nominally diverse. (Or so we’ve been promised. The episodes Netflix released don’t include any expository sequences in K’un-Lun.) However, the show never interrogates Danny’s questionable position. He’s still a privileged white member of the 1 percent drawing power from a fictionalized Asian culture, destined to save his corner of New York from evil. Given that he’s still the one person capable of taking up the Iron Fist mantle, it’s hard to decouple his whiteness from his elevated position.
But the show’s race problems are intertwined with other nagging issues. Jones, whose blandness in the role might be read as Zen-like in another, better series, is miscast as Danny Rand. We learn over the course of the season that he’s wrestling with his identity and the fear that he’s unworthy of his title. But Jones’ performance is lacking, and he can’t believably project the character’s inner turmoil. He fails to make Danny’s reality resonate. Daredevil’s Charlie Cox, while never exactly one of Marvel’s finest leading men, conveys an almost palpable Catholic guilt in his turn as Matt Murdock. Jones, by comparison, seems flat, lacking that crucial gravitas.
Worse, he paints an unconvincing portrait of a martial arts expert, which is the basic draw for a superhero show about martial arts. Yet again, Marvel devotes a whole hallway fight scene to its new hero, but instead of the bruising chaos that came with past Netflix series, Iron Fist gets a stiff sequence, complete with hatchet-wielding Yakuza fighters, where it feels like no one is in any real danger. To be clear: Iron Fist is a hero whose main power is punching people really hard. Buck and company have done a decent job of making Jones’ hand glow in the dark and punch through walls. But more often than not, Danny comes across as a college student come home from studying abroad, perplexed as to why no one gets his newfound love of yoga.
The show is hampered by faulty logic and bad storytelling
Jones certainly can’t be blamed for the show’s faulty internal logic, though, which has Danny, a born-and-bred New Yorker, walking into the midtown Manhattan office building he ostensibly owns dressed like a vagrant, then wondering why he’s treated poorly. The flaws are foundational. Danny has devoted his life to training hard enough to become the Iron Fist, which involved plunging his fists into the molten heart of an immortal dragon. And yet somehow he still has room in his life for self-doubt? Multiple scenes show Danny grappling with the hardship and trauma that came with living in K’un-Lun, as the show is ultimately about how he forges his own path. But the show tries to portray him as exceptional, while also exploring the theme of unworthiness, and the concepts never mesh meaningfully.
The rest of the core cast isn’t immune to the incongruity. Danny’s childhood friends Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup, respectively) are the current head executives at Rand Enterprises. They’re disturbed when their long-dead friend returns to life (understandable, even in a city filled with superheroes). But Ward has Danny followed and attacked in the street, and Joy has him drugged and institutionalized, which the show insists isn’t a poorly justified overreaction. The Hand, represented by Daredevil transplant Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), is a compelling story element, since it represents a larger-than-life power in New York. That much shows in its influence over the always over-the-top Harold Meachum (300’s David Wenham), the former Rand head who lurks in the background with his own agenda. But any viewer investment in the group is lifted mainly from Daredevil, instead of being rooted in Iron Fist’s narrative. That isn’t inherently bad — the shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are linked, giving Iron Fist a chance to build on the Hand’s established mythology and explore how it works. But since we already know the organization’s true endgame is being saved for The Defenders, its importance to Danny’s solo series feels stunted, especially since his bid to win back control of his family’s company makes for a boring throughline for the series as a whole.
And then there’s half-Chinese, half-Japanese badass Colleen Wing (Game of Thrones’ Jessica Henwick), fellow martial-arts expert and Danny’s would-be partner in his fight against the Hand. Colleen is tough and intelligent, and Henwick gives her a grit that makes Colleen more watchable than her bland counterpart. But the series repeatedly undermines her in the name of establishing Danny as special. In the first episode, Danny breaks into unsubtitled Mandarin upon learning she’s a martial artist, apparently assuming Asian women he casually meets on the street are happy to speak Mandarin with a white stranger. Two episodes later, he mansplains kung-fu to her, all to better illustrate how she needs his protection. At no point does Colleen call him out for this. Instead, she reacts with little more than gentle bemusement toward his better handle on language and his skills as a fighter, when she ought to be kicking him to the curb.
‘Iron Fist’ is a boring, confused, and offensive mess of a series
Recently, Finn Jones quit Twitter after getting into a heated debate about representation in general, and Iron Fist specifically. He returned yesterday to release a statement: “We have gone to great lengths to represent a diverse cast with an intelligent, socially progressive storyline.” In truth, whatever he, Scott Buck, and Marvel attempted in getting this series right doesn’t go far enough. The end result is more often a boring, confused, and offensive mess of a series, one that’s as bad at diversity as it is telling a story that superhero fans will enjoy. It lacks the impact it so desperately needed after the successes of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. And that’s a shame. Fans feared the worst when the series was announced, and all their fears came true.
Iron Fist premieres on March 17th.