Iron Fist’s Identity Crisis is NOT What You Think

For those who are new to this blog, the basic pattern I have is to alternate between writing fiction and general commentary on writing and stories. Now that The Face of the Clockworker is complete we’re switching gears into something a little different. Hope you enjoy!

Netflix original shows are stirring a lot of hype these days, none more so than those connected to Marvel. I recently picked up Netflix and decided to give the latest series, Iron Fist, a watch to see what all the noise was about.

That was a mistake.

Iron Fist is not particularly good TV, an opinion most people who have watched the show seem to agree with. The reasons for that are pretty straightforward, yet it’s a trap a lot of writers, myself included, tend to fall into and that makes it worth looking at.

Let me start by mentioning two things people are blaming that are not the reason Iron Fist is lackluster. First and foremost, the problem is not Finn Jones, be it as an actor, a martial artist or a white dude. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t find his performance in Iron Fist particularly memorable. But he does give the role a bit of nuance, handling nostalgia, discontent, joy and anger pretty well. He’s not going to win awards for his performance and that won’t be an oversight – he didn’t do anything that would stand out. But his performance is worthy of any number of CSI/Law and Order franchise shows and plenty of people like them.

It is true that Finn Jones was basically an amateur martial artist but, through intense training and what was most likely good use of stunt doubles they were able to make him pass as a competent fighter. Maybe not a great one, which he is admittedly supposed to be, but it’s really hard to tell. Danny Rand does so little fighting in the series, especially in the first half, it’s hard to get a grasp on how good or bad he is at it. Iron Fist has some really great fight scenes in it, especially in the later episodes. Not all of them are works of beauty and they lean a little too much towards being over choreographed ballet than the frantic, semirealistic action of a John Wick. But it’s supposed to be a martial arts series, not a typical run-and-gun action series so I can forgive that. The genre tends much more towards that kind of hyper stylized action and I generally like it. I generally liked the action in Iron Fist, too. In short, I don’t think Jones’ experience – or lack thereof – in the wushu department was the problem – or even a problem.

Finally, I don’t think the fact that Finn Jones was white was a problem. I could go on and on about the European martial arts traditions and how they developed differently from the Asian martial arts, and why, but that would waste space. Firstly because the point of it all would be to say that the basics of unarmed combat exist in every culture, the cultures just put their own spin on them. The only thing particularly unique about the Asian traditions is the strong emphasis on spiritual awareness they tend to include in their teachings. Second because that’s not the real problem people have when they make the point.

For some reason a small cadre of people hate the notion of an outsider coming in, learning a skill from a given culture and mastering it better than his teachers. The fact that a white person does it somehow makes this the same as colonization, apparently. The whole notion is ridiculous. Ignoring the fact that outsiders as protagonists makes exposition much easier for the author, the point is it happens all the time. In fact, it can lead to radically advancing the art form. Consider the Suzuki school of music. Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese man, created one of the most widespread and successful methods of early music education even though all the instruments taught with that method are European.

Besides, Iron Fist isn’t even a story about a man learning and mastering a skill from a foreign culture. It’s about a man who has already done that and comes home to use the new wisdom and power he gained from the lessons of others to help those he left behind. Danny Rand frequently seems to miss the world he left behind far more than he values the one he returned to. What’s really being praised in that case, American culture or Eastern culture? And why should it make a difference either way?

The second thing that is not the problem is the show’s production schedule. I hear it was somewhat rushed, in particular leading to Jones not getting as much training in stunts and martial arts as the stunt directors might have wished. Maybe this all is true, but I couldn’t see many signs of it in the way the show was shot or the way the action scenes unfolded.

In truth, this show could have had any lead actor and all the filming time in the world and, if the script and structure of the story wasn’t touched, I would still find it mediocre.

The real problem with Iron Fist is that, while it features a protagonist who’s supposed to be a master of martial arts and uses that mastery to defend the little guy there isn’t a whole lot of martial arts or defending of little guys going on at first. And even when the series picks up in the second half, Iron Fist remains weirdly obsessed with corporate intrigues, boardroom politics and the owners of the Rand Corporation, the business Danny’s parents owned before they all flew off and died in a plane crash along with Danny. Compared to the kung fu action we are promissed by the show’s premise it’s all pretty boring.

Worse, the show treats this corporate conflict as the core conflict rather than the sideshow. The mastermind of the process is the villain taken down in the final episode even though he hasn’t really been an obstacle to Danny for the rest of the series. The Hand, the villainous Triad-ninja hybrid crime gang that Danny spends most of the series fighting gets plenty of screen time but doesn’t really seem to do much for the story. In fact, except for a tacked on and nonsensical attempt to have the climactic episode of the show tie in to Danny fighting a dragon and gaining his powers during his training, the whole corporate intrigue side of the show doesn’t tie into Danny’s character arc at all.

While the Meechums and other corporate characters are kind of interesting, and might have made for a good story on their own, when tied to the story of Iron Fist they just take up running time that could have been spent developing characters like Colleen Wing or Claire Temple more, characters who brought much more to the central thrust of Danny’s story than the Meechums. Not to mention we might have gotten to see Danny doing more cool martial arts stuff like, I don’t know, fighting a dragon?

This is a common problem for a lot of writers and Iron Fist is a great example of why cramming too many conflicts, characters and themes into a single story hurts. The people who wrote Iron Fist tried to chase two rabbits and caught neither, leaving the audience hungry and feeling like their time was wasted. The show is a mess because no one knew what kind of story was being told. Sad, but not entirely unexpected. Better luck with The Defenders Marvel.

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