An Iron Fistful of Bad Reviews - Warranted?
- by ReuBen DeBord, 21 March 2017
So last week, Marvel released another Netflix original series, Iron Fist, following 2 seasons of Daredevil, and a season of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, respectively. Like its predecessors from Marvel, this one consists of 13 hour long episodes and stars a superhero who will become one of the Defenders, which will be another Netflix series later this year. But while the other Netflix shows have all more or less been met with pretty positive reception (okay, Daredevil Season 2 was pretty weak, but the other seasons were top drawer, son), this one has received mixed reviews at best. I’d go so far as to say this one is the least popular of the four Netflix seasons we’ve gotten from Marvel. Is the hatred or ambivalence deserved, or is the show just fine? Allow me to take you through a brief run on my thoughts on the series. I’ll be keeping this as spoiler free as possible, since it’s not even been a full week since the series hit the ‘net.
I think for me, the level of hype that a movie or a book or a television show gets can effect how much I will enjoy it. The Avengers movie of 2012 got an extraordinary amount of positive fan reaction when it came out. I didn’t get around to seeing the movie until almost a month after it came out. So by that time, my expectations were raised considerably, because everyone was acting like this was not only the best superhero movie ever, but the best movie, period. So for a long time, I disliked the Avengers, just because it didn’t do what was promised by initial fan reaction.
In the case of Iron Fist, it was the opposite. For about a week or two before the series became available to Joe Public, there were obscenely negative reviews of the first few episodes floating around. So I turned my expectations down. But then when the series did become available to the public, I watched the first 4 or 5 episodes on the first day, and I was enjoying it quite a bit. I wasn’t really sure why people were complaining. But as I got further and further into the series, I started to enjoy it less and less. And I’ll freely admit part of this is my fault for trying to watch the whole thing in such a short amount of time. I watched 13 hours in 3 days. Now for some folks, that’d be nothing. I know some people will watch an entire season straight through in one day. I can’t do that. I have go get up and move around. Or even if I sit at my computer all day, I have to take breaks. Watch something else, or just goof off on Facebook for an hour. So even though I was enjoying myself with the first few episodes, I got Iron Fisted out (note to self, edit that last bit so that it doesn’t sound as ewww) when I tried to keep going at that pace. But also I think there are some significant problems with the show that would have been there even if I had paced myself better.
One thing a lot of people had an issue with was Danny Rand, the titular Iron Fist, being a white guy. This was a complaint I saw flying all over the internet before even one episode came out. People are saying that having a white guy using Kung Fu that he learned in a mystical part of Asia is racist, and that it’s emblematic of the “white savior” syndrome. I don’t entirely agree with this assessment, though there are aspects of it that I can see as troubling. For one, I don’t see Danny as a white savior, because, well, he’s not really a savior. The white savior thing hinges on the white guy saving a people of another color. And that’s not what Danny does. If he came to a part of China that wasn’t a mystical city in another dimension and used his magic Kung Fu powers to save the Chinese people, then that’d be a white savior thing. But Danny is mostly saving other white people, or is at least trying to.
The other aspect of “this show is racist” that people are throwing out there is the presence of hidden mystical cities with warrior monks, evil ninja, magic Kung Fu and other things that you would “stereotypically” find in Asian pop culture. I’ve heard people lampoon this by saying that it’d be like if a Chinese person crashed their plane in Texas, and then returned to China with magical cowboy powers to save their city. And when put that way, yes, there’s certainly a level of uncomfortable racism to this premise. Now I don’t actually think that the creators of this character, Roy Thomas or Gil Kane, are or were racist. Roy Thomas is a big fan of the pulp adventure superheroes from yesteryear, which is evident in most of his works. One such character that I suspect Thomas was inspired by when co-creating Iron Fist was the Shadow. The Shadow, according to some variations of his origin, was also a white dude of privilege who studied mystical super powers in Asia and came back home to become a superhero. So I don’t think Thomas or Kane were deliberately being racist when they created the character. I think they were trying to homage characters from their youth that they really loved. And that just happened to come from an era that was considerably more racist than the one in which the character was created or the one in which he became a star of a Netflix series.
But as far as everyone saying that this premise is racist, to that I say that this series is in between a rock and a hard place. They could have played around with the origin and the premise a little bit, but I suspect many people would be complaining that they didn’t stick to how it was done in the comics if they did do that. In short, I don’t think there is any way this series could have played things where everyone would be happy. No matter what path this show took, I think people would have been angry about something.
So that’s something that upset a lot of people, but it didn’t upset me. Let me talk about a few things about this show that I liked before I move on to some of the things that didn’t work for me. I like the acting. I can’t think of a single actor who isn’t turning in a solid performance, here. There may be occasional silly line readings, but that’s not enough to mar an overall excellent performance, as far as I’m concerned. Heck, there may even be some characters here who are exceptionally 1 dimensional or ill conceived, but the actors are still doing their best to bring their A game.
I also like Kung Fu stuff in pop culture. Kung Fu Panda, aspects of Avatar the Last Airbender, a huge chunk of cinema from the 1970s, I’m totally into that scene. And you get a little bit of that here. Admittedly, not as much as I’d like, but some of it is there.
And I was pleasantly surprised to see that this series has got me more interested in reading about Iron Fist in the comics. Even though I think the Jessica Jones and Luke Cage seasons were stronger than this one, I didn’t find myself excited to read more about those characters when I finished watching their shows. I haven’t had a “wow, I need to look into this character’s adventures” reaction like this since Daredevil Season 1. And even then, I was already slowly making my way through all the Daredevil trade paperbacks in chronological order. The Netflix show just helped get me more interested in moving forward. But this show got me really interested in reading more about this guy in the comics and seeing what he’s about. And not just Iron Fist, but Colleen Wing, too, who is a co-star in this series. I’ve always had a passing interest in reading some of the Iron Fist and Luke Cage stories from the 70s and 80s, but I never really had it very high on my list of priorities…until now. I’m not sure what it is, but something about this ignited, or reignited, my interest in seeing more of this guy. And that’s a feeling I will always welcome, since I so rarely get it when I read comics, these days.
So those are the things I liked…unfortunately, the rest of this article will be me talking about things I did not like.
I think my biggest problem with this series is the lack of focus. Both in terms of the direction the series is going, and also from a narrative perspective I feel like this is one of the sloppiest of the Netflix shows. I don’t want to get into spoilery territory, but this season really had a hard time deciding who the big threat was going to be. Compare this season to Season 1 of Daredevil, which is my favorite of the Marvel shows so far, and it’s a night and day contrast. (Gonna spoil Daredevil just slightly, but since that season is 2 years old by now, I think you’ve had plenty of time to watch it, so Spoilers ahoy.)
Daredevil Season 1 had a few minor bad guys throughout the season, but you had a strong inkling that they were all minibosses leading up to Wilson Fisk. It’s like when you fight Bowser’s children in a Mario Game, and it’s all leading to Bowser himself. Continuing with that analogy, this season feels like a Mario Game where you fight a couple of Bowser’s children, but you’re kinda sorta allied with one of them, and then you fight Wario for a little bit, and then you fight Donkey Kong and Bowser. It’s just got way too much going on. Again, trying to avoid spoilers for Iron Fist, but there was one particular character who I thought was going to be the big villain when first introduced, then I had second thoughts for about 2/3s of the series, then the series once again bait and switches on me and reveals that my first intuition was correct. The whole villain angle was, in my humble, cleverly subverted in Jessica Jones, when the real bad guy of the piece was really only the second or third worse bad guy in the season. But then Daredevil Season 2 and Luke Cage both gave you a bad guy and then pulled the rug out from under you with a big ol’ twist. But even those 2 weren’t as bad as this one. It feels like the show thinks that it’s more important to trick you with a “reveal” than to streamline things a little and tell a coherent story. Now that’s not to say that this season isn’t coherent, but it could definitely simplify things a great deal. My creative writing professor in college used to say “keep it simple, stupid.” And I think that really should have been something the writers uttered out loud a few times when plotting out the course this show would take.
Another thing I didn’t really dig was the whole “Danny trying to take his company back” thing. I imagine a lot of people watching this were probably thinking that this show was stealing from Batman or Arrow (which amounts to just stealing from Batman), but that’s totally unfair. Although the comics had Batman going around the world training to become Batman at least since the 1970s, it wasn’t until Batman Begins where Bruce seemingly got all of his batman-training in an undisclosed area somewhere in Asia. So really, Batman Begins was borrowing from the Shadow, which was the predominant influence of Iron Fist, but it unfortunately makes it seem like Iron Fist is borrowing from Batman, which just is not true.
But having said that, I just did not care for anything involving Danny’s company. I wanted to see Danny fighting evil ninja with cool Kung Fu moves. I don’t care about mergers or meetings or CEOs or Boards of Directors or Hostile takeovers or even civil takeovers. None of that stuff is interesting. Notably, when this same basic plot happened in Batman Begins, it was all almost entirely off screen. We didn’t spend sizable chunks of screen time with Bruce arguing with his board of directors about what company policy should be. And why not? Because all of that stuff is incredibly boring.
Now once I got further into the series, I could see why the people behind this show wanted to include Danny’s company in the story in the way that they did. There’s a certain aspect they wanted to get to that is intrinsically tied to another seemingly separate aspect of the show (man, non-spoiler reviews can be frustrating, right?), and so they had to have Danny pursuing his company in the way that they did. But the problem I have with this is that Danny, in many ways, is still a child. He was 10 when he first went to the mystical city of K’un-Lun, and if I had to choose a defining character trait to describe Danny, it’d be “naïve.” His mindset is still that of a child who hasn’t grown up in our world. So it felt really weird to me that Danny even wanted to be part of the company at all. And once he succeeds in getting back into his company, he seems completely uninterested in being part of the company. Once I finished the series, I could see why they did this, but I really wish they had brainstormed on how to get Danny from Point A to Point B without doing all the Company stuff that they did. It can still be in the background, and you can still have the supporting characters who are in the background be there, but don’t drag Danny and the rest of us through so much of that subplot.
Speaking of Danny’s naiveté, the other big problem I have with this series is the overall journey doesn’t really “click” for me. It seems like the big character arc for Danny is that he has to try to decide for himself what his purpose is. Will he listen to the teachings of the monks in K’un-Lun? Will he listen to the counter-teachings of this one faction of the Hand? Colleen Wing and Claire Temple, the character who connects all of these Netflix shows together, both have differing opinions on what Danny should do at many different points in the series. Everyone is pulling Danny in a hundred different directions, and it feels like Danny should try to decide what he’s going to do for himself. But that never really happens. By the end, without spoiling too much, it seems to me that Danny is just as lost as he was at the beginning of the season. Maybe that’s something that will be followed up on in the Defenders season later this year, but if so, that’s also a problem because it means that Iron Fist is not a complete story unto itself, which always bugs me. I think Danny’s character arc probably could have been a little bit more clear and concise if this season had stuck to one or two bad guys instead of jumping all over the place with different bad guys at different times.
Overall, I didn’t hate Iron Fist. I will definitely be watching it again in the future (call me crazy, but I’m considering watching all the Netflix Marvel shows in order to prepare myself for the Defenders). But I do think this is the weakest of the four seasons we’ve had so far. Before writing this article, I wasn’t sure how this season measured up to Daredevil Season 2, which was my least favorite before, but now that I’ve laid all the cards on the table, I can’t say that this is better than Daredevil Season 2.
So that’s how it is. Tried to be spoiler free, while also telling you why you may or may not like it, and why other people already don’t or do like it. Hope this was helpful, and if you guys have some thoughts you’d like to bounce around as a reaction to what I said, throw them in the comments below! In the meantime, keep it trashy, muties!