Iron Fist Lacks Punch
Iron Fist may sound like the name of the boxing gym a few blocks down from the uptown campus, or a kitchen utensil your mother asked you to use on a piece of meat over Pesach break. Instead, it’s Netflix’s latest Marvel superhero show, destined from its inception to follow in its older siblings’ footsteps to become a wild success. Or not.
Our hero is Danny Rand, whose billionaire parents die (mysteriously?) in a plane crash, leaving young Danny to be raised by warrior monks in the Chinese mountains. At the start of the season, Rand returns (mysteriously?) with newfound kung fu skills, claiming ownership of the company. But this is a crime-fighting show, not a new version of Suits or a glammed up take on The Office, so before long, the plot includes drugs, assassins, criminal conspiracies, and secret identities. It’s a story we’re all vaguely familiar with, so while it’s hard to make Iron Fist seem new and exciting, it’s also hard to mess it up. And yet, they do. The show manages to fall somewhere between boring and painful.
Superhero shows are not famous for their logical plots and realistic storylines, but Iron Fist takes this problem to a whole new level. It’s not just that the show seems to forget how Rand’s, aka the Iron Fist (as he calls himself every ten minutes or so), powers work from episode to episode. Sequences appear to be placed out of order, characters act as if preceding scenes had not occurred, and logic flaws abound. There is, of course, a vague construct of a plot; there's plenty of blood and masked ninjas and jump-cut riddled fight scenes. But aside from not making much sense, at the end of Iron Fist’s 13+ hours, the show lands right back where it started. Characters are brought back from the dead and killed again; vengeance is sought, meted out, regretted, and then revived; guilt is felt, dealt with, and then forced back upon the same characters. Nothing. Changes.
It’s not just the series of interchangeable fight scenes that lose the flow of logic. When we first meet Rand, he’s just returned to NYC from his monastery hideaway for unknown reasons. And slight spoiler alert, these reasons stay unknown until the last episode. And when we do learn Rand’s “true motivations”, it feels like the writers pushed off figuring them out because they couldn’t come up with a decent answer. Aside from making the show boring, it feels like the writers didn’t even try.
Rand himself is not a particularly likeable character. And not in an anti-hero, morally ambiguous, they-just-committed-murder-and-hid-the-body-but-I-love-them-anyway way. Danny Rand is just boring. Rand is a supposedly well-trained monk who should be in control of his anger and emotions. Instead, he has two states of being: gullible puppy-like innocence and enraged fighting machine. When in the first mode, he blunders his way through corporate Manhattan, occasionally spouting moralistic speeches on the evils of pharmaceutical companies and righteousness of class-action lawsuits that sound as though the writers are using Rand as a mouthpiece for their rants. It is the latter mode, however, that dominates the show, and it is arguably worse. For a person who is supposed to be the master of his emotions, especially anger, Rand has a remarkably short fuse. Most of the show is spent watching other characters run around, cleaning up the messes that result from Danny’s mercurial nature that he and the writers call righteous anger.
The show and its protagonist seem to suffer from the same flaw: they rush to fight, without taking the time to plan, or even think about who it is they’re fighting and why. Eager for something to prove and quick to violence, they cast frantically about every so often for someone new to call a villain. Claire Temple, the character who appears in all the Netflix superhero shows as a tie-in, is the only voice of reason, constantly begging Rand to, “just think about this for a second.” But she is consistently ignored, and instead, she and the viewer are swept up in yet another fight with ambiguous purposes. The show leaves no breathing room, no space for the viewer to think about why the characters are fighting. By the end of the season, it’s not even clear why “our hero” deserves that title.
Above all, Danny Rand, corporate hero, kung-fu master, and occasional moral preacher, is uninteresting. Earlier Netflix Marvel shows had heroes who were as diverse as the city they protect, and showed how they related to being a superhero. How does the religious vigilante approach violence? How are the more violent actions of a black crime-fighter perceived? How does the female hero use her sexuality, and how is it used against her? How are these neighborhood guardians accepted by their neighbors? When they showed us superhumans, they placed the emphasis on human.
People want to look at superheroes and see themselves within them. Any religious person, Catholic or not, could understand Daredevil’s moral struggle. People with disabilities watched as Daredevil turned his disability into a superpower. Most women can empathize with Jessica Jones’s fears, even worry about them on a daily basis, and saw her triumph despite them. Luke Cage turns a hoodie into nothing less than a supersuit and badge of honor.
Danny Rand is a person, but he's not a human. He's not the person we're friends with, the person we see in ourselves, the person we wish we could be. He’s no neighborhood hero - he has no community. His peers are at worst Daredevil's villains, and at best, not people we want to spend time with. Rand and his plot are watered-down versions of the tropes we’ve seen time and again. The hero mysteriously disappears for years before returning as a martial arts master (Arrow, minus the supporting team). The tension between fighting crime and running his father’s company (Iron Man, without the robots). A crime fighting billionaire who lives in NYC (Batman, sorely missing a batcave). These are stories that have been rehashed so many times that we could tell them in our sleep. There’s nothing new or aspirational there. All that’s left is a bunch of ninjas.
If you’re hoping to watch The Defenders, Netflix’s superhero team-up show coming this summer, and think that you need to watch Iron Fist to be able to follow the plot, I get it. It’s why I watched the show in the first place. But I can only hope that the other heroes look at Danny Rand with the same disdain that I now do and let him sit most of that series out. Towards the end of the season, one of Rand’s enemies confides in another, “Everything in your life was better before Danny showed up. He ruined everything”. I cannot help but agree.
Rating: PG-13, for (fake looking) violence, limb dismemberment, decapitation, and the occasional curse word.