How can a show ostensibly about a kung fu master with magical powers have so little fighting? How is it that a show based around the personification of an Immortal Weapon plays out with such limp choreography, with a dusting of third-rate visual violence that offers about as much punch as an unmanned rubber glove? After the exhausting, exhilarating action of Daredevil, the perverse villainy and abuse that Jessica Jones faces down and defeats, and the powerful deconstruction of race, family, and what it means to be a hero in Luke Cage, it is a shame that the last Defender is given so limp an introduction as this.
But before I launch into a cavalcade of grievances, I do want to touch on the things I enjoyed about Iron Fist. Jessica Henwick is fantastic. She is confident and assured, she commands attention during her action sequences because she’s clearly more than proficient, and Colleen Wing is a spiky, engaging character before the writing lets her down in the second half of the series. The conflicted yet capable Colleen of the first few episodes, culminating in her savage beating of men twice her size in the underground fighting cages, is a character who truly belongs in this brutal TV universe for which Daredevil set the tone. It’s such a shame that this is quickly squandered in favour of less interesting character profiles such as ‘love interest’ and ‘conspiracy patsy’.
Rosario Dawson is typically brilliant as Claire Temple. She is so often the audience’s representative in these shows – rolling her eyes skyward with frequent abandon, and throwing her hands in the air in exasperation. Even so, she too cannot escape the dreadful scripting in this show, and indeed, her presence is baffling at best, not least in the episode where Danny Rand and chums skip town to go Hand hunting on the other side of the world. Claire feels like a character shoehorned into many of these episodes just to try and give this series some sense of involvement with the wider universe. But that doesn’t make Dawson any less watchable, not at all. Some of her exchanges with Sacha Dhawan’s Davos are laugh-out-loud good.
Speaking of Davos, I can’t help but feel that making the show all about him would have yielded a much better end product.
Back to the positives…erm…Carrie Ann Moss is pretty good! Tom Pelphrey manages to make for a convincing opioid addict, even if that story comes out of nowhere. And Wai Ching Ho is frankly superb as Madame Gao. Despite, again, the script largely wasting her talents, Ho proves quietly riveting in every scene she’s in. To be honest, given the ignorance and idiocy that plagues this incarnation of Danny Rand, I found myself often rooting for the all-knowing Gao.
I was rooting for anything that would make this show better, to be honest.
Before I begin tearing Iron Fist to shreds, I do want to address the elephant in the room. Would Iron Fist be better with an Asian-American in the lead role? The honest answer is, who the hell knows? The casting is an issue, but the problems run much, much deeper. Would have been a great opportunity? Yes, absolutely. But then every show is a great opportunity. In some ways, I can’t help but feel that making a show about a kung-fu master the crux of a discussion about representation is a little reductive. The entertainment industry has a problem with representation, that much is true, but that’s a problem much bigger than Iron Fist. And writing off a show before you’ve even seen it is frankly absurd, even if it does turn out to be absolute dross.
Finn Jones is a problem, though. Whether it’s bad casting, poor directing, awful writing, dreadful acting, or all of the above, he just plain sucks. What can’t be denied is that he turns in a performance that would have looked over-earnest in a high school Nativity play. Half of his lines are delivered in what I’m going to term ‘gravitas whispering’, made all the more ridiculous because nearly everyone else speaks perfectly normally. He is stilted and awkward and stiff and, sorry Finn, pretty unlikeable as Danny Rand. This Danny Rand is every sanctimonious prick who ever took a gap year on daddy’s money and now professes to be an expert in spirituality and vague nonsense. Danny doesn’t do much for the first half of the series except spout fortune cookie homilies, mansplain kung fu to a more competent female fighter, proclaim himself the Iron Fist repeatedly, and look exasperated when asked to explain what exactly that means.
Crucially, for a series titled Iron Fist, the show never really bothers to tells us who or what the Iron Fist is. After fifteen years in K’un-L’un, you might expect Rand to have a better grasp of kung fu, have a tighter grip on his emotions, and actually understand how to use his powers. But it turns out he understands about as much as we do…which is BONKERS! He needs a member of the Hand to explain to him how to recharge the power he’s spent 15 years training to use. How the hell does that make any sense? Instead of giving us fight scenes where we can see the Iron Fist in action for ourselves, we get hints towards lore. And when those fight scenes do finally happen, they are so slow and awkward and bereft of impact or grace that it’s almost insulting to the audience.
It’s also problematic that we never really see Danny’s life in K’un-L’un. We have no points of comparison, no sense of what he’s gone through, and no sympathy for the man. Instead, we get an awful lot of lens flare, and looped video of the plane crash over and over again. What we do get is told more often than shown, and it comes too late in the season. We never bond with Danny on an emotional level, and his intellect is suspect to say the least. The TV Danny Rand is possibly the least intelligent superhero I’ve ever seen, exhibiting a complete lack of self-awareness and common sense that absolutely boggles the mind. When Davos turns up and proclaims Danny to be the Worst Iron Fist Ever, it’s hard not to applaud.
I’ll be honest, at that point in the show, it struck me that the whole thing might have been a glorious postmodern setup. Given how terribly ill-suited this Danny Rand appears to be for anything, I couldn’t help but wonder if watching a rich white dude with zero self-awareness fumble around to laughable effect wasn’t actually some sort of meta commentary on all of the controversy. That all of this painful pantomime might actually have been the point.
But no. It’s just bad.
And it’s not like there isn’t a clear precedent for how to do this well. If it’s possible to make Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, and Oliver Queen sympathetic and badass, you’d think that would be an easy task for someone with an actual superpower and a divine mandate. That’s why Jones’ suggestion that Trump is to blame for the negative backlash is rather absurd. Iron Fist fails for a bunch of very simple, easy to identify reasons:
- The main character is an idiot and a moron.
- His superpower or background is neither shown nor really told until it’s too late.
- He’s a kung fu master who can’t fight.
I don’t think it’s really Finn Jones’ fault. He’s just not the right guy for the job, and the whole series feels rushed and messy. He was great in Game of Thrones, but he’s just not commanding enough or sincere enough to pull this off. Everything feels overwrought to the point of being laughable. And in a series that doesn’t have a Foggy Nelson, or the biting wit of Jessica Jones herself to lighten the mood, Iron Fist’s po-faced seriousness only ever resulted in me laughing at the show, never with it.
It makes me wonder how the hell this guy will fit into the Defenders. How on earth does this Danny Rand end up as best pals with Luke Cage? After this, I’m not even sure I want to see that. But definitely sign me up for the Colleen Wing and Misty Knight partnership. If there’s one thing that Iron Fist did prove, it’s that Jessica Henwick needs her own show, where she can crack skulls as Colleen Wing without needing to transform into a plot device. She’s sure as hell wasted here.