Pop quiz, readers: Marvel’s Iron Fist is:
1. The name of the intellectual property law firm that Marvel has on retainer;
2. What gets brought down on the heads of filmmakers who get too artsy while directing Marvel movies;
3. Cosplay porn;
4. A 13-hour Netflix series.
The answer is, of course, 4. And I’ll admit upfront that my verdict is speculative. I’ve only seen six hours of Marvel’s Iron Fist, the Netflix series created by Scott Buck. The first four are so unremarkable that there should be a message at the bottom of the screen warning viewers not to drive or operate heavy equipment after viewing. The next two episodes are slightly better, mainly because the direction, which had been tediously prosaic till then, becomes more crisp, and there are guest appearances by well-liked characters from other Marvel Netflix shows. But the jump in quality isn’t so drastic that you think, wow, I need seven more hours of this.
I should back up and tell you a bit about the character, who is not, to put it mildly, one of Marvel’s superstars. Iron Fist, a.k.a. Danny Rand (Finn Jones), is a scruffy blond New Yorker with a slight surf-dude accent. He’s spent the last 15 years studying kung fu with monks in the Himalayas, where he survived a plane crash that killed his billionaire parents. Danny was presumed dead and ceremonially buried in an empty coffin; now he has returned to the city to reclaim his name as well as his family’s company and townhouse, both of which were taken over by the Meachum family, which was once run by Harold Meachum (David Wenham of Lion), former business partner of Danny’s dad. Danny grew up around Harold’s two children, Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward (Tom Pelphrey). Now they’re running the business and are unhappy to see him; in fact, they refuse to accept that he’s Danny.
Now copy the last sentence of the above paragraph and paste it about 30 times. That’s storytelling on Iron Fist.
Danny talks to Joy, who has a great meanface but is really a softie. She’s like: No way, you can’t be Danny, Danny died, but there’s something in her face that says, Hey — but what if he really is Danny? Then Danny talks to Ward, who was once a bratty, bullying kid and is now a bratty, bullying adult, and he’s like, No way, you can’t be Danny, Danny died, but there’s something in his face that says, Hey — but what if he really is Danny? And then Danny talks to some other character, and at first they’re all like, No way! and Danny is like, Way! and they’re like, No way … but … what if? Then there are scenes where members of the Meachum family talk about Danny when Danny’s not around. At first they’re like, No way, that guy can’t be Danny, Danny is dead, but then they’re like, Way? and finally the truth sinks in and they’re like, Way! We should send somebody to beat him up or destroy evidence that he’s really Danny or maybe kill him, who knows.
There are also scenes between Danny and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who runs a dojo. First Danny tries to get a job at Colleen’s dojo and she refuses. Then he stops by the dojo and tries again, and Colleen still says no. Then comes a scene where Colleen says yes, and then we see Danny working as a trainer at Colleen’s dojo. Colleen’s dojo becomes embroiled in the cage-fighting underworld. Danny gets a different job where he doesn’t get to say “dojo” all the time, which is sad because dojo is fun to say, and then the show brings in a plot about drug smuggling, which leads to the mandatory action scene down on the docks at night and a tonally strange interlude involving organ donation, and …
Anyway: Sprinkled among the scenes of Danny working and people arguing over whether he’s really Danny, we get scenes of Danny and/or Colleen fighting goons who’ve been hired to beat, frame, or murder them. To call these fight scenes disappointing would do a disservice to disappointment because disappointment is an emotional response. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling anything during any of the fight scenes in Iron Fist, because they are both narratively obligatory (henchmen gotta hench) and aesthetically unremarkable (indifferently composed shots of people punching and kicking, diced into a Bourne-style blur).
You’ve probably also heard that Iron Fist is a big bag of Orientalist clichés. This is true. It’s far from the worst of its kind, but coming on the heels of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, both of which took greater risks with both style/mood and cultural point of view, the show feels like a regression. Jones is likable enough that you can’t despise his character, but Danny is still a young white guy’s fantasy about the mystical awesomeness of Asian religion and martial arts.
And the character’s casually entitled attitude makes his posturing more irritating. Picture Bruce Wayne without the cowl and gadgets, or Doctor Strange without the spells, then add an indestructible fist and the demeanor and accent of a trust-fund bro who went to Pepperdine: That’s Danny. He explains and demonstrates “Eastern” practices with the puppy-dog eagerness of guy who spent a week in Thailand and wants everyone to know it totally changed his life. He tells a homeless man in a park “Buddha says your purpose in life is to find your purpose,” chastises one of Michelle’s students by yelling, “The dojo is a place of respect!”, and charms Joy by sitting lotus-style on her doorstep surrounded by flower petals and oranges (“… a Buddhist tradition meant to remind you of our world”). Danny can’t sleep in beds because they’re too soft; he prefers the floor. He never wears shoes. If you are reading this, there is an excellent chance that you either dated this guy or he owes you money. Maybe both.
Those Himalayan monks sure taught him a thing or two, though. Danny can tame a guard dog with an intense stare, backflip over a moving car, grab guns from peoples’ hands, parkour-jump over walls, and shimmy up skyscrapers like Spider-Man. He suffers from a particular form of post-traumatic stress disorder in which you have recurring dreams that look like movie flashbacks, and that keep restating the same exposition over and over without adding anything new.
There are many moments where it seems as if the actors and filmmakers have no idea that the script is trying to be funny. When a domineering jerk of a boss tells an employee, “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off,” and the employee replies, “It’s nearly midnight, sir,” it’s hard to tell from the tone of the actors’ performances if the employee is reacting to the boss’ incorrect use of the word “day” or if he has Stockholm Syndrome and would rather just soldier on till morning.
No lie: This show is a bummer, especially after the innovations of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and the minor miracle of Logan, the first Marvel movie filled with everyday people, some of whom happen to have superpowers. The streaming service’s format and brand loyalty encourage superhero stories in a Logan vein, where the stakes are intimate and personal — not How can I stop this lizard man with an English accent from destroying the universe, but Is this man who made my life hell going to get away with it? or Can I prevent these crooked real-estate developers from ruining my neighborhood? And now the Marvel Netflix universes are converging in a subtler way than on the big screens where Disney’s Marvel spectaculars play out, with performers like Rosario Dawson and Carrie-Anne Moss showing up across productions and carrying on like hard-boiled character actors in a 1940s Warner Bros. crime film (Dawson in particular is a treat; she always seems as if she’s on the verge of raising her eyebrow and smirking), and the directors going for more of a film noir or pre-war crime thriller vibe that treats New York City as the best special effect of all. Unfortunately, despite the presence of energetic filmmakers like John Dahl (Rounders) and RZA (who directed episode six), Iron Fist doesn’t really feel like it’s an organic part of either approach to the Marvel universe. It feels like an afterthought, one that will require more than half a day to dismiss.