Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but even the biggest DC fanboy can’t deny that the movies and TV shows have always maintained a constant level of quality. Even Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World (which are generally considered the worst movies in the MCU) have some redeeming elements and can be enjoyed with a beer and popcorn at least for me. That was until Iron Fist came along. This was the first real misstep for Marvel’s multi-billion dollar franchise and the first series I can confidently say shouldn’t have been made and I seriously have no idea how a second season got green-lit. This is the stain on the MCU we all want to forget and here I’m gonna explain why it failed.
You may also be saying “Well Cameron, at least its not as bad as Inhumans!” Well dear reader you’re right, it isn’t. But then again I haven’t seen that show because the minute I saw Medusa’s CGI hair I resolved never to touch that dumpster-fire with a ten-foot pole. At least that show takes place on the moon and hopefully we can all just forget it exists (maybe they’ll even retcon it out of the canon one day). However Iron Fist does exist, I have seen it and unfortunately he’s joined the Defenders, so theres no getting rid of him.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way lets charge up our chi and get straight into this! For this post I’m not really going to touch on the clear white-washing of the protagonist or the abysmal fight choreography as those I think are very surface-level problems. In my opinion the faults of Iron Fist run far deeper into the very core of the show itself. I think the reason the show failed was because the writing was unforgivably poor on almost every level. I’m going to spend this post discussing why this is and its gonna get brutal. However I don’t want to just be purely negative, anyone can tear down a work but it takes time and thought to consider how it might’ve been better. So in next week’s post I’m gonna do just that, I’m gonna consider a world were Iron Fist was good and challenge myself to imagine what that show might look like. Lets get started and obviously this is going to include heavy spoilers for the Iron Fist and The Defenders TV series’ on Netflix.
Danny Rand is a terrible protagonist and hero
The first and most obvious reason is also arguably the most damaging and something the show can never really recover from, its that Danny Rand himself is a terrible character and hero. He fails on every level to be compelling, sympathetic or likeable. Instead of the centred badass we would expect from the Immortal Iron Fist, Danny is petulant, ungrateful, ill-tempered, stupid, incompetent and completely undeserving of the power he wields.
Lets backtrack a little so we can discover the biggest reason why Danny sucks. Danny Rand was the son of a billionaire who was flying with his parents on their private jet before it crashed in the Himalayan mountains. His parents died but monks from the mystical realm of K’un-Lun (which I’ll get too later) saved him by bringing him back to their home. Danny couldn’t leave because the passage there only opens up once every fifteen years hence he spent that time training and turning himself into a warrior. Eventually he passes some test and earns the power of the Iron Fist, which allows him to hit things really hard (kinda like Bucky’s robot arm but way less cool). The job of the Iron Fist is to protect K’un-Lun from it’s sworn enemy; the Hand. Danny is the first line of defence this paradise has against outside invaders, which doesn’t make sense because why would a place that opens up once every decade and a half need defending? But I digress. So Danny, being the selfless and duty-bound person he is, abandons K’un-Lun because he got bored. Yes, you read that right, he leaves just because he wanted to.
These people saved him, sheltered him, trained him for years and trusted him with their most sacred power. They put their lives in his hands and when given the first opportunity he leaves. Because of this by the end of the first season when Danny takes his new girlfriend back to K’un-Lun the little twat is shocked to discover that the Hand slaughtered everyone there and all of it is his fault. Never mind the fact that he is incredibly arrogant (constantly reminding everyone how badass he is and that he alone is the Iron Fist), incompetent (as halfway through the season the secret leader of the Hand had to teach him how to recharge his Chi which is the main source of his power), petulant (constantly shouting and throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way) and stupid (intentionally costing his company billions of dollars and acting surprised when they turn on him), this is Danny’s biggest flaw and its not one that makes him interesting or relatable. His biggest flaw is that he doesn’t deserve his power and the show is trying to make us think that he does.
Lets compare him to a similar hero for a moment, consider Heimdall from the Thor movies. He may not have much of a character arc but he is far more admirable than Danny Rand. His sole purpose is to defend Asgard and its people from all threats in the cosmos. For the majority of his screen time he stands there in the Bifrost watching for anything that might harm his people. Imagine how bored he would get, standing there for thousands of years as his people enjoy their lives behind him. To Heimdall none of this matters, those people trusted him and rely on him. If he abandoned them he would never be able to live with himself, he would likely commit suicide. Even in Thor: Ragnarok when he’s banished by Loki he still returns home to escort his people to safety when they need him. He didn’t have to, he doesn’t owe Asgard anything after all his years of service, he did it because he swore an oath and it was the right thing to do.
This is in my opinion is why I can never admire Danny Rand. I can tolerate the temper tantrums and the grandstanding, those are things that can be phased out in season 2. What I can’t forgive is the fact that he is a deserter, a failure and a thief. He stole the most sacred gift K’un-Lun could give, swore an oath to protect them and abandoned them to the slaughter. The writers would likely excuse this by saying that “It was to flesh out his character arc! He still had personal issues he needed to deal with!” and I say; “So?” You don’t think Heimdall had a life before swearing to defend Asgard? Danny made a vow of service and he broke it. Theres a lesson most people learn early on in life; that a man’s word is his bond. The reason I can’t admire Danny Rand is because his word means nothing and unless he can bring all those people he let die in K’un-Lun back to life I never will admire him. But enough about Danny, lets touch on the rest of the story.
The Story has no theme
Something I really appreciate about the Netflix Marvel shows is that they have the courage to explore difficult themes and questions that the movies can at best only dance around. On one level I understand this as addressing touchy subjects can narrow the broad scope of a movie and the kids in the audience won’t understand or comprehend what the film is trying to say. But on another level I’d be grateful if Marvel took a chance on asking big questions about our society more often like they do in Black Panther, Winter Soldier and Civil War. We all know how awesome of a movie The Dark Knight was because of it. However these questions are front and centre in Marvel’s Netflix shows as they’re targeted towards an adult audience and they have the time to flesh out the conflict and use the character’s backstories to touch on some controversial topics. For example, Jessica Jones (being a rape victim herself) explores themes of sexual agency, sexual assault, victim blaming and guilt. Luke Cage takes a look at inner-city life for African-Americans and celebrates black culture while acknowledging the problems it needs to overcome (personified by his battle with Cottonmouth).
However Iron Fist drops the ball by touching on absolutely nothing. It says nothing, it teaches nothing and it doesn’t even try. And no, having Danny be all like “Making profits off of life-saving drugs is bad and we shouldn’t do it” once in the entire season is not a compelling exploration of the role of corporations in our society or the failings of capitalism. Everyone knows that, ask anybody on the street if thats a moral thing to do and they’ll all tell you “No freaking way!” You’re preaching to the pulpit here Danny. Even so that question has nothing to do with Danny’s arc, the antagonist or the plot. For a story to effectively explore a theme it needs to have its tendrils deep into every aspect of the plot and characters.
For example, Luke Cage the show is about what black culture can be in opposition to what it shouldn’t be and this ties into every facet of the story, characters and what they’re trying to do. Black Panther touches on the divide between African culture proper and the African diaspora so it makes sense that the protagonist is a symbol of that culture and the antagonist is a tragic figure who lost his heritage and wants vengeance for past injustices. In Winter Soldier the theme is government control and how much of it is acceptable, Captain America represents an ideal of freedom and morality while the main antagonist believes the government should be able to kill with impunity as people don’t really deserve freedom.
Iron Fist however doesn’t explore anything like this because the characters and the plot don’t either. Bakuto (a major antagonist) might claim he hates corporations at one point but does this impact the plot? Does he seek to overthrow corporations and install a revolutionary new system of economics? Does Danny need to consider these things himself like Luke Cage, Daredevil and Black Panther do before finding an answer that reveals the shows message. The answer is no, the show is a step down from its Netflix brethren because it doesn’t say anything, it explores nothing and its more focused on Danny trying to prove his identity and watching him punch things than actually pondering an interesting question about the society we live in.
It focuses on all the wrong things
If you’re going into a show called Iron Fist about someone who trained for fifteen years straight to be a martial arts master and returned to fight an evil ninja clan called the Hand. Consider for a moment what you’re expecting to see. If you imagined a fast-paced action show about a charismatic badass kicking name and taking ass (if you’re a true Marvel fan you’ll understand what I mean) with some cheesy dialogue, ninjas, likeable characters and clear homages to Bruce Lee movies, you would be dead wrong because Iron Fist is none of that. The first three episodes of this show are devoted to nothing more than Danny Rand trying to prove to everyone else that he is in fact; Danny Rand. Because its been fifteen years and there is somehow no available DNA or next of kin to confirm his identity. After that Danny’s greatest adversaries are corporate boardroom meetings and not being ousted from a position he is clearly not remotely qualified for.
Did you expect a flashback sequence were the majority of the CGI budget would likely be spent where we got to see the magical paradise of K’un-Lun before Danny left it to be destroyed? Did you expect the show to take a moment to leave the urban sprawl of New York and focus on the quiet beauty of this mysterious realm in the mountains? Did you want to see how Danny was trained and how he actually got the power of the Iron Fist as well as the fight he allegedly had against a dragon to earn it? Well you’re gonna be really disappointed because this is all you’re gonna see of K’un-Lun in the entire show.
The reason I’m pointing all this out is because after finishing the first season of Iron Fist I felt cheated, like I wasted my time. When you call yourself Iron Fist and your show is about a martial arts master taking on evil ninjas that exactly what I want to see, and one of the many reasons why Daredevil for example is a superior show. I mean say what you will about the Ninja Assassin movie but at least it gives you what you came for and it knows what it is! P.S. if you want some badass, violent ninja action but nothing else thats a solid movie to watch.
It can’t decide what it wants to be
Something ironic I noticed about the show as it went on is that for a show about martial arts, it lacks focus and discipline. The show simply can’t decide where its going and who the antagonist is. Nowhere is this more apparent in Harold Meachum, the long thought dead secret leader of Rand Enterprises (no disrespect to the actor by the way, its the writing that failed here). When we first meet Harold he’s a cold, confident businessman who controls his son Ward like a puppet from an apartment he can never leave, he’s the Lex Luthor I wish we had the DCEU. That is until he meets Danny again and he becomes a warm, earnest father figure who gives Danny the position of CEO and legitimately helps him fight the Hand. Then he abuses his son Ward before his son murders him in a fit of rage. Wow, a twist! Is Ward the real antagonist here, nope Harold is revived by plot magic. Will Harold seek revenge and murder his son, nope he forgives him and the story pretends it never happened. Then Harold helps his son, then Danny, then betrays his son, and betrays Danny. He says he hates Ward then he accepts Ward. Round and round it goes until he finally just dies for good in the worst end-of-season fight ever.
The reason I’m going on about this is because Harold like so many other characters here lack consistency. Its okay and even necessary for a character to grow but it needs to feel natural and gradual. Harold’s character doesn’t grow, it goes up and down and sideways until the show decides it needs an end-fight and he betrays Danny for no reason. If he intended on betraying him why give him the position of CEO alongside Ward in the first place? Why not just work with the Hand to have him killed or discredited? Don’t tell me its because he needs Danny to get rid of the Hand for him because the guy’s a billionaire, there are only a thousand and one ways he could have the Hand and Danny taken out.
Theres also Joy who is Harold’s daughter and Ward’s sister. She goes from believing Danny is who he says he is, to wanting him out of the company. Then she accepts Danny, then she doesn’t. Then she reunites and accepts her dad, then she doesn’t before she does again. When she finds out Harold betrayed Danny at the end of the season she is clearly concerned with his safety and sees her father for the monster he really is, before her final scene where she’s plotting to murder Danny. The problem so many characters in this show have is that the writers simply can’t decide on an arc for any of them except for one (which I’ll get to in a minute) and it feels like they just made it up as they went along. Hence emotional scenes don’t have weight because likely the story will have the characters undo the impact of the whole thing in the next episode, like Ward trying to murder Harold and the two just forgetting about it afterwards.
“But was it all bad?”
So now here we are at the conclusion. Boy this was a rough one. If you’ve gotten this far I’ve gotta say thank you. This is a lot of complaining even for me but the title of the website is what it is for a reason. You may be thinking; “Boy Cameron must really hate this show, he’s got nothing good to say about it.” Well thats actually not true. I don’t want any readers to think I don’t give credit where credit is due. There are a few things Iron Fist does well and that I remember fondly.
I actually think Ward has a lot of potential as a character, I like how he’s essentially Danny Rand except he never went to K’un-Lun. He’s constantly trying to impress his father while pretending to not care. I can’t begin to understand how terrible it would be to have to your father treat you like that and the issues he would have being raised by a man like Harold. The actor does a good job of portraying how broken of a person Ward really is. Its why I thought he should’ve been the real villain of the show after permanently murdering Harold early on. He would be a person so attached to the material world and succeeding in the corporate realm that it teaches Danny that maybe he was lucky to find K’un-Lun as without it he would become like Ward, a corporate sociopath whose only goal is the attainment of wealth. Alas they didn’t do that but I think the option for that is still there going forward and hopefully in season 2 we Ward come into his own.
Theres also Davos, Danny’s training buddy from K’un-Lun turned rival. After Danny abandons his post Davos is sent to bring him back and I gotta say I actually liked how he was portrayed. For me he was the voice of the audience, he scolds Danny for leaving and eventually turns on him for being a terrible hero. I thought the actor did a good job with the action and portraying that character’s perspective. Its fascinating that the show portrays him as a villain because everything he says is true, Danny is a terrible Iron Fist and Davos is unarguably better suited for the position. Davos was everything Danny should’ve been; completely devoted to K’un-Lun and driven to protect it.
Now I’ve been saving the best for last because holy shit do I love Colleen. On the surface this badass was Danny’s love interest but by god is she so much more than that. Colleen is a sword-master who trains disadvantaged kids in martial arts before its revealed she’s sending them to complete their training at another faction of the Hand. The actress Jessica Henwick is great, her action scenes are awesome and her emotional moments are touching. She does an excellent job of portraying someone who on the surface appears to be cold and distant but in reality cares deeply about helping people improve themselves and doing the right thing. One minute she’s being a firm big sister to her students and the next she’s fighting two grown men in a cage fight for rent money. Seriously Colleen is amazing and its almost worth watching the show just for her, almost.
Colleen also has something that Danny doesn’t; a compelling character arc. She learns that her master Bakuto is actually a manipulative monster and she’s been sending children into a glorified cult. She turns against the Hand and beats Bakuto before choosing to be better than him and spare his life (at least until The Defenders where Bakuto forces her to kill him). What I love about her though is the raw honesty of the aftermath of this. After beating Bakuto she doesn’t immediately feel triumph or happiness. He was like a father to her. Colleen lost her whole family as a child and the Hand took her in and gave her a new one. In a rare moment of complete vulnerability in The Defenders she yearns for something stable and in a sense misses what the Hand and Bakuto gave her. I think I could make a whole post on why I love Colleen so much but just know that she is undoubtably the real star of the show here.
Oh and you may be thinking; “Cameron, why do you like Colleen when she betrayed the Hand but you spent so much time roasting Danny for betraying K’un-Lun?” Well my child, the difference here is that the Hand is an evil cult and K’un-Lun is basically heaven. Its that simple. Colleen only left because she realised that the Hand was manipulating her and the organisation is rotten to the core. Danny left the peaceful monks who saved his life because he felt like it, hell I wouldn’t even mind him going back to his life so long as he told them well-beforehand and left Davos to be the Iron Fist so K’un-Lun would remain safe. The Hand is also full of warriors just like Colleen who can defend it so nobody is losing their life because she left the order. Even so I’m not gonna roast her for seeing the light and betraying the bad guys.
Well I guess thats it, its been a real long one and I sincerely thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this. If you’re looking for a concrete rating for Iron Fist know that I give it a 5/10 just for the few reasons I mentioned above. If it weren’t for Ward, Davos or Colleen this would easily be a 2/10 show. If you have any thoughts, reactions and opinions please feel free to comment below as I’m still new at this and I’ll definitely respond. Next week I’m going to get purely hypothetical and imagine a world where Iron Fist was actually awesome and after that I’m going to take a look at everyones least favourite MCU villain Malekith and ask what we can do to turn him into a compelling villain. Thank you and see you next time!