As the great Buddha once said, “Marvel’s Iron Fist is pretty mediocre.”
Don’t take that the wrong way. I know you’ve seen the absurd critical reaction to this show, and I want you to know that I’m not here to declare Iron Fist some kind of racist travesty like a lot of other critics have. But I hope you don’t expect me to shower it with praise, because that’s not happening either. It’s okay. Just okay. Maybe, on balance, a little bit more enjoyable than Luke Cage, about on par with the weaker half of Daredevil’s second season, and nowhere near the same calibre as Jessica Jones, the first season of Daredevil, or anything involving The Punisher. If that’s all you wanted to know, there you have it. Review’s over.
As tempted as I am to really just leave it there, it’s worth looking at Iron Fist in a little more depth, purely because of how fascinating it is as another slice of Marvel’s multimedia money-pie. All the ways in which it works are, generally, the same ways that Marvel’s other Netflix shows have worked, but it’s many failures are almost all creative decisions that are not only bizarre but were also completely avoidable. But, before we get into that, let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we?
Is Iron Fist racist?
Perhaps that question, in and of itself, isn’t entirely fair. It’s the kind of question that invites all kinds of extreme responses from both ends of the spectrum; those who insist it is, and that it’s disgusting and should be boycotted, and those who insist it isn’t, and that anyone who says otherwise should be killed. I’m not even joking. The level of online discourse right now is so catastrophically low that nobody can weigh up both sides of an argument before forming an opinion, and everyone but me seemed to have picked their teams a long time ago. Even so, I’m going to try and approach this from a neutral perspective. That’ll probably piss off both camps, but whatever. Let’s rephrase the question.
Is Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist racist?
I’d argue no, but it’s important to cast an eye backwards to where some of this criticism is emanating from. I’m no comic-book aficionado, and so I can’t say for certain whether or not this is true, but some of the criticism I’ve seen directed at Iron Fist has been focused much more on the idea of it rather than this specific version. The implication isn’t that casting a white guy as Danny Rand was racist, but that Iron Fist historically being white is in itself racist – a flagrant “white saviour” narrative dreamed up in the 70s, when such things (and many other imports from Asian culture) were rife across all media. Again, I don’t know enough about the Iron Fist books specifically to say one way or the other, but I can say without hesitation that there’s a big difference between a critique of that, and a critique of Marvel’s choice to remain faithful to the source material here. There’s a good chance that Iron Fist, as a concept, is racist. But to reiterate: No, I don’t think this version of it is.
You’ve probably heard the term “confirmation bias”. The left hate it and insist it isn’t a real thing, and the right throw it like a spear at anyone with an even moderately dissenting opinion. For the blissfully unaware, it’s the tendency to search for things which confirm one’s pre-existing beliefs. For the record, I think it absolutely exists, on both sides of the political divide, and rarely have I seen better examples of it than in the criticism surrounding Iron Fist. By way of example, let’s take this quote from Polygon:
“Sure, this is a show where a white male character explains how to punch to an Asian-American, female head of her own dojo, in her own dojo — wait, let me be painfully specific. A white male character explains his martial art — which was made up by white men in the 1970s as a nonspecifically Asian but definitionally more powerful technique than those invented by actual Asian cultures — to an Asian-American, female expert in actual martial arts developed by actual Asian cultures.”
This is nonsense. It’s a blatant misrepresentation of the scene, a willing distortion of the character, and a profound misunderstanding of martial arts. Let’s briefly break it down.
Firstly, the key defining characteristic of Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is that he’s an unparalleled martial arts master. The implication is that his skills could even surpass those of his own masters, but it would be logical to assume that they would at least exceed those of martial arts practitioners in New York, Asian or otherwise. To have Danny easily best a would-be expert on their own turf is basic, fundamental characterisation. It’s the show saying, “Look, he’s so good at fighting that he makes experts at fighting look like amateurs.” This is nothing to do with him being white, or a man. It’s really simple stuff that has been seen countless times in countless forms. Not to mention that comparing the merits of one martial style over another is absolutely central to martial arts, and was the sole driving force behind the formation of modern mixed martial arts (MMA). People wanted to know whether a boxer could beat a wrestler, or a karateka could beat a judoka. It’s the same thing. Because the important context that was left out of the above quote is that Danny and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), the Asian-American woman with whom he shares the scene, do not practice the same martial art. She’s a swordswoman, and he’s an expert in kung fu. Was that true in the comics? I have no idea. But in this show, Danny explicitly practices kung fu. You probably don’t need me to tell you that kung fu was not a martial art invented by white men in the 70s.
Worse is the implication that a Caucasian cannot possibly learn an Asian martial art to the same proficiency as a person of Asian descent, which is utterly absurd and easily disproved by tuning into any competitive combat sport. The UFC, which is the world’s premier MMA organisation, currently has ten world champions across ten weight divisions, all of whom are proficient in at least one (likely several) Asian martial arts, and none of whom are of Asian descent. It’s a ludicrous, baseless claim made to serve a nonsensical point.
I could say the same about a lot of the race-related criticism of Iron Fist. Just today, I saw a tweet (which I can no longer find) in which someone declared that they stopped watching because they were offended that a white man (Danny) confused a Chinese woman (Colleen) by speaking mandarin. You’d think that would be a reasonable stance, but the reason Colleen was confused is because she’s Japanese.
See what I mean? People see whatever they want to see. And while I’m not implying that there’s some kind of grand conspiracy against Iron Fist, it’s worth pointing out that true impartiality in criticism is impossible, and that many critics were already angry before they even started watching the show. It’s inevitably going to colour some of the response, in much the same way that Luke Cage’s positive representations of African-American culture led to many critics lavishing it with praise despite it not being very good.
If Iron Fist was better, these outlandish criticisms could be easily dismissed, but the uncomfortable truth is that they’re nestled within a lot of perfectly legitimate grievances that people have with what is, if we’re being honest, a painfully average show. And you can’t discredit people’s issues with the pacing, storytelling, characterisation, performances or fight choreography just because you don’t agree with their point about Asian-American representation. I know I’ve gone on a bit here, but the tone surrounding Iron Fist just feels so incendiary that I wanted to clarify my position and give both oppositional viewpoints a bit of credence.
There was absolutely a way to make Iron Fist work with a white lead in a way that would satisfy the vast majority of detractors, but this was not it. Iron Fist has a lot of problems, but it’s most egregious is Danny Rand. And not because he’s white – because he’s a dick.
You can tell from the minute he arrives back in New York after being presumed dead for 15 years. You can tell by his tousled hair and scraggly beard. You can tell by his smug tone in the lobby of the billion-dollar Rand corporation, his late father’s company, and you can tell by the way he ducks and weaves through the inept security guards who try to escort him out of the building. This guy is distinctly unlikeable.
Sometimes, you get the sense the show recognises this. He’s frequently situated opposite people who are more nakedly detestable, like Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), who have been running Rand in Danny’s absence and don’t like the idea of his majority shares. But more often you feel like they have no idea. You could lay a lot of blame at the feet of Finn Jones, who only seems interested in playing the extremes of Danny’s character and nothing in the middle, but it’s mostly a writing problem. Danny speaks almost entirely in hokey Chinese aphorisms or bold declarations of his own brilliance. He dresses and acts like a student who went to China on his gap year and got a tattoo. This is a guy who was raised by ascetic Buddhist monks in a mythical kingdom of heaven, trained extensively in martial arts and destined to be the only man who can defeat the Hand (the ninja-cult we met and disliked in both seasons of Daredevil). He’s a living weapon. Yet the scariest thing about him is that he looks like at any moment he might pull out an acoustic guitar.
You can warm to Danny, empathise with him maybe, but he’s innately an irritant, and that never really goes away. Luckily, the supporting cast fare much better, including a stand-out performance from Jessica Henwick as Colleen, a local sensei who finds herself embroiled in Danny’s affairs, and returning MVPs like Rosario Dawson, Wai Ching Ho and Carrie-Anne Moss. Elsewhere, David Wenham has plenty to do as the patriarch of the Meachums, and there are decent turns from Ramon Rodriguez and Sacha Dhawan, too. This isn’t a bad cast and these aren’t bad characters; they’re just meandering in a story that doesn’t know how to make proper use of them.
And when I say meandering, I mean it. All of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far could have done with being several episodes shorter, and Iron Fist is no different, but it’s the first to dump all of its saggy subplots in the first few episodes. Netflix’s direct-to-binge distribution model makes this less of a problem than it might otherwise have been, but there’s no denying that the opening episodes of Iron Fist are a plodding, confusing few hours. You can feel the characters settling into their roles and the show itself awkwardly deciding what it wants to be about, which is sometimes the corporate dealings of Rand, as Danny tries to wrest control of the board back from the Meachums, and sometimes a destined battle between fabled zen masters and heroin-dealing ninjas. The show mimics Danny’s lack of clear motivation. It has no immediate threat or compelling stakes, but then again Danny can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be the heir to a billion-dollar fortune or homeless.
Things get better, I promise. The turning point, I think, is episode six, “Immortal Emerges From Cave”, which was directed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, and is where Iron Fist finds its feet in a martial arts tournament that invites some wacky themed villains to the soiree, including a venomous spider-loving woman and a karaoke enthusiast. This is the first time Iron Fist develops a distinct visual identity (it was made on the cheap, and mostly looks like it) and starts to revel in the weirdness of Danny’s world. The following episodes don’t necessarily maintain that level of mysticism, but they at least embrace the idea that people in this story need to centre their chi. The various disparate plot threads start to coalesce into a clear dramatic conflict, and despite another bait-and-switch with the villain, the latter half of the season has such an assuredness and rapidity to it that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a different show.
That isn’t to say that Iron Fist reaches any particularly aspirational heights, but it remains solid enough that I was eager to reach the denouement to find out what happened, not because I wanted it to be over. And there’s something to be said for that after the first half of the show seemed so directionless. It undeniably helps to have fight scenes that are actual fight scenes, and not just super-strong heroes tossing dudes across rooms. Iron Fist doesn’t share the gritty brutality of Daredevil (in fact, it’s more violent scenes feel weirdly incongruous), but contrary to popular belief it does have decent choreography, and it often shines a favourable light on supporting characters who get their own moments of badassery. Danny Rand might be the only guy in the story with an Iron Fist, but he’s not the only guy who can fight, and some of the best scraps don’t involve him at all.
Come to think of it, all of the best fights involve Colleen Wing. It seems to be a trend in Marvel’s TV offerings that charismatic love-interests overshadow the stoic (or, in this case, dopey) heroes. In Luke Cage, Misty Knight was significantly more interesting that Luke, and here, everything that Danny does, Colleen does better. Jessica Henwick is a remarkably compelling screen presence (she’s also very beautiful, which helps), but the show treats her character fairly. She has a clear arc, solid motivations, and personal agency. She matters. And in a show that has garnered a reputation for having a “white saviour” narrative, that’s important.
This is obviously the problem when you start using reductionist tropes to classify and understand everything. Throwing the “mighty whitey” accusation at the 1970s Iron Fist is one thing, but to level it at this version feels misguided. Danny Rand doesn’t travel to China to save the Chinese from problems they can’t solve; he travels to New York, with Chinese knowledge, and saves New Yorkers. And whatever people might think (I’m a straight, white dude) I get it. I get that Asians are frequently short-changed in film and TV, that there are painfully few parts written specifically for them, that the ones that are often end up being whitewashed, that various aspects of their culture have been hijacked by the West and exploited to print money. But I don’t know what directing all your ire at a show that demonstrably doesn’t conform to the trope you’re accusing it of conforming to ultimately accomplishes. Iron Fist has plenty of things wrong with it. To me, it’s much more valuable to critique those.
Ultimately, though, here we are. Does Iron Fist deserve the critical pounding it has received over the last week? No. Is it some kind of death knell for Marvel and Netflix’s Defenders project? I doubt it. But the show doesn’t do nearly enough to distinguish itself. It’s not nearly as complex as Jessica Jones, as exciting as Daredevil, or even as culturally-aware as Luke Cage. It’s fine. It’s okay. But in such an oversaturated genre, that hardly seems like enough.
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