So, I bit the bullet, took one for the team, and watched Iron Fist.
Superhero shows are fun, aren’t they? Check your brain at the door for a little while, put your pressing engagements and moral quandaries aside and let yourself be a kid again. I’ll watch anything with caped crusaders in it at least once. I’d almost go so far as to call myself an aficionado of the genre. And compared to the other superhero shows I’ve seen, Iron Fist is not that bad. It’s just not. It fits right in with the pack. It’s middle of the road. Average. Run of the mill. Maybe not as quite good as the other Netflix/Marvel shows, but otherwise it seems kinda…normal. If I wouldn’tve known going in that I was supposed to hate it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, I doubt I’d even have noticed that it was inferior. I might’ve shrugged and thought, “hm this doesn’t seem quite as good as the other ones” but I wouldn’t have turned it off.
Iron Fist starts off a wee bit rough, it’s true. The writing is choppy, the pace plods. But thinking back on it, I realized that was true of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, too. It took me a couple episodes to get into both those shows and I ended up loving them. I didn’t hold their slow starts against them, because everyone had told me they were good. I just waited it out and allowed myself to get swept up into the universe. All four Netflix/Marvel shows had their slow parts. In addition to its leisurely beginning, Daredevil had an additional down period in the second season. (remember that snoozeworthy plotline where Elektra was investigating Roxxon Industries?? Neither do I.) And of course, Luke Cage started strong – the best of the four – but lulled badly towards the end. The end of Luke Cage was at least as bad as Iron Fist was at the start.
And Iron Fist is a little sudsy too, I guess, especially at first. People who look way too young and hawt for the job running a megamillion dollar corporation, making silly business deals that seem to be nothing but then turn out to be of critical importance to the plot somehow even though you can’t quite remember why. But I think that was what they were going for. The other Netflix/Marvel shows all have a similar cross-genre vibe to them – Daredevil was a lawyer show, Jessica Jones a detective noir, Luke Cage a homage to blaxploitation films. Iron Fist feels like a decision was made to toss a nighttime soap and a kung fu movie into a blender. It’s not a terrible idea on the face of it, and if the writing had been better those first couple episodes it really could have been quite fun. Maybe they quite didn’t pull it off, but so what? I prefer a show that tries for something unexpected and falls a little short, than yet another dull, robotic, slightly different variation of the same damn theme. I certainly don’t think it would have been any better had they stuck slavishly to the superhero formula.
Yeah, ok, some of the casting is admittedly not what I’d have done if I was doing it. I would not have gone with Finn Jones as Danny Rand regardless of his ethnic heritage, for starters. He’s ok, but not spectacular. But I didn’t like Charlie Cox or Krysten Ritter as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, respectively – Cox’s barely-squelched accent annoyed me, and as for Krysten Ritter, I’ve seen her in too many other things and she cannot throw a believable punch to save her life. It’s a shame too, because as anyone who’s ever watched Agents of SHIELD knows, great acting really can turn crap into cream. Agents of SHIELD is at least as terrible as Iron Fist (regardless of inexplicably great reviews, Agents of SHIELD is Not Good, especially at the beginning) but the acting swoops in to save the day again and again. Whoever casts that show may be an actual superhero.
The bad casting in Iron Fist was not limited to the leads, either. I also disliked Tom Pelphrey as Danny Rand’s frenemy Ward – he seemed like a soap opera actor doing a bad Keanu impersonation. As I found out when researching for this article, he actually is, or was, a soap opera actor, and boy howdy, it showed. I wish they would’ve just sprung for the real James Franco, he would have killed it. But I didn’t care for Elden Henson as Foggy at first (he grew on me), and Wil Traval as Simpson the Cop in Jessica Jones did not grow on me at all and was actually painful for me to watch sometimes. At the least, unlike Traval who I cannot for the life of me understand why he was cast, I get why they went with Finn Jones. He’s got the Game of Thrones cachet working for him, and he looks like a combo of the 50 Shades of Gray Dude mixed with Arrow, with maybe a hint of Chris Pratt thrown in. He’s a hot commodity due to GoT and he just kinda LOOKS like he ought to be a popular actor right now.
Convoluted, confusing plots too heavily reliant on coincidence – definitely present, but again, 3 of the 4 Netflix/Marvel shows were guilty of that and Agents of SHIELD excels at it. This is actually why I think Jessica Jones is by far the best of the Marvel shows, because the plot hangs together best. Daredevil and Luke Cage are guilty of the exact same sins as Iron Fist. Can anyone explain the reason why Mrs. Cardenas’ building was so important to Wilson Fisk’s plans? Or what the connection is between the Hand and Madame Gao? Does anyone know how Willis Stryker and Shades somehow ended up deeply enmeshed in the politics of Harlem when only a few years prior they had been involved in whatever was going on in Georgia’s Seagate Prison? I couldn’t tell ya any of these things and I’ve watched Daredevil and Luke Cage twice. It doesn’t matter. You don’t watch superhero shows for their carefully crafted plots.
When I watched the show with that mindset, Iron Fist seems to fit right in with the crowd. Yeah, it’s the weakest of the four Netflix/Marvel shows, but one of them had to be the worst one. Yeah, the writing is Lucas-level bad at times. Yeah, you can tell it was a rush job – Finn Jones only had 2 weeks to learn martial arts and claims he was given only 15 minutes to learn some of the choreography (honestly, this is the one thing I find totally inexcusable). Yeah, it relies too much on the “superhero with PTSD” trope. Yeah, the plots are confusing as hell. But it’s still Justice Leagues better than the first season of Legends of Tomorrow. I’d put it up against the first half-season of Agents of SHIELD easily. Both those shows got a lot better, and I suspect Iron Fist will too.
There is actually a lot to like about Iron Fist. It continues and builds upon the rather convoluted plotlines already set up in the other 3 Netflix/Marvel shows (mostly Daredevil) pretty well. It has the awesome Wai Ching Ho playing the villain Madame Gao in a much larger role. David Wenham, previously known for playing dour Faromir in Lord of the Rings appears to be having the time of his life chewing all the scenery he can get his teeth on. Jessica Henwick is simply fantastic as Colleen Wing – who turns out to be just as much the star of the show, if not more so, as Danny Rand. If anything, Danny Rand exists mostly to set up and set off Colleen’s character, which felt to me like a breath of fresh air given the history of comic books and their adaptations to be mostly about men.
The SJW have their feathers ruffled over the whitewashing angle. Maybe it’s justified. But to be fair, Netflix and Marvel really had an impossible task set before them – no matter what they did with Iron Fist, some group of viewers would have passionately hated it. Whether they bowed to political correctness or stuck with the character as envisioned to placate the comic book’s original fan base, people would have complained. Maybe the show would have been better with an Asian lead, but that isn’t what they did. Finn Jones is the Iron Fist we got, and for all we know the SJW set may not have liked it even if an Asian had been cast. After all, Netflix’s recently cancelled Marco Polo had nearly all Asian stars, fantastic acting, and an intriguing premise, and they didn’t like that either, because stereotypes or something. Some people, there is just no pleasing ’em and most fans understand that.
So why the hate, really? At the end of the day, I think it’s fundamentally an issue of herd mentality. Bandwagoning. Critics, who were very likely were looking for ANY reason to pan the show after the PC controversy, were given only the first 6 episodes of Iron Fist to review. These were the worst episodes, and of course they lambasted them. Rightfully, perhaps, because the show was definitely at its weakest early on, but like I said, it took me a few episodes to get into both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and the first episode of Iron Fist was no worse than the first episode of Agents of SHIELD or Legends of Tomorrow. The quality of Iron Fist is about what I’d expected going in to Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. They were pleasant surprises, better than I expected. But just because they were great, doesn’t mean that Iron Fist is unwatchably TERRIBLE. The Netflix/Marvel shows have been the crème de la crème…best superhero tv ever made, most would agree. Is it really fair to hold up ALL superhero shows to that standard from now till forever? Probably not.
Then everyone else, who heard from the critics that the show was subpar, went into it thinking “this show sucks”. There’s a funny quirk of the human brain that scientists call social default. When you don’t have a strong opinion about something, you tend to follow the lead of those who speak up before you. People saw a sucky show at least in part because they expected to see a sucky show. I saw a guy posting on Twitter who shut off the show only a few minutes into the first episode. This is actually very similar to what happened to Netflix’s Marco Polo as well – the critics were only given the first episode, wrote scathing reviews of that first episode, and then people made up their minds based on that buzz – some didn’t watch it at all, others watched it with the mindset that “this is gonna suck” going in and so that’s what they saw; their preconceptions were confirmed.
Many of the reviews of Marco Polo written on Rotten Tomatoes by professional critics were based on just that ONE episode! That’s why the critical reviews on RT came in so much lower than the audience score: 24% vs. 92% Fresh. Iron Fist is headed the same direction – 18% for the professional critics, 84% for the audience. I use Rotten Tomatoes ratings a lot when deciding what to watch, and actually passed up on Marco Polo for quite a while because of its poor reviews. Now I know better, but too late, as Marco Polo – a show which I liked 10 times better better than any of the Netflix/Marvel superhero shows – has been cancelled.
Netflix probably ought to stop giving critics a handful of episodes to judge. Shows that are made to be bingewatched have the luxury of moving at a slower pace, taking sweet time to develop characters and set events in motion. As a fan, I tend to enjoy a leisurely beginning that builds into a great climax much more than a show that starts off with frenetically paced explosions and boobage and has nowhere to go but downhill. If a show is designed to be bingewatched, if it is meant to move a little more slowly, don’t give only one or two or six episodes to critics…especially critics that are salivating in advance to hatewatch your show.
And critics – you may just be doing your job and all that, but a critic is supposed to judge on merits, not on political correctness. Iron Fist wasn’t spectacular, but it was far from the worst thing I’ve ever seen. As a critic, you’re supposed to be able to divorce yourself from the zeitgeist in order to give a reasonably fair and balanced opinion. It seems many of the critics who watched Iron Fist were unwilling to give the show the slightest benefit of the doubt at all, unwilling to be THAT guy or gal who sticks up for something that has been preordained by the culture vultures as bad. But the job of a critic is not to see which way the wind is blowing and use that as your yardstick as to whether a show should be reviewed positively. It’s to give an accurate representation as to whether an audience will like a show. And critical reviews coming in at 65% lower than the audience’s opinion makes me wonder how many critics were really giving Iron Fist a chance before pasting it.
And as for us, the audience, are we simply impossible to please? Are we too quick to give up on a show when it doesn’t meet our expectations in precisely the way that we perceive they ought to be met, at precisely the pace we are used to? Are we too much like the critics, ready to write it all off after only seeing 6 episodes? Not for SJW reasons, but just because we like things the way we like them, and we don’t want anything to deviate from that expectation?
One of the complaints against Finn Jones’ portrayal of Danny Rand is that he’s too dorky to be a superhero. He’s a doof, there’s no way to sugar coat it. The boy ain’t quite right. He’s weird, bordering on abnormal at times. To me, that was actually one of the best parts of the whole thing. The plot entailed a guy who had grown up isolated from the modern world, exiled in a mystical, medieval land where the rules were completely different. In flashbacks it looked as if he may have even been abused there. And he still carried the trauma of his parents’ death. Of course he was socially maladjusted and awkward. That made sense with the character’s backstory. Hollywood tries this approach in other shows sometimes, but they never really stick with it. They chicken out and settle for just giving the character a couple of adorable quirks while maintaining their normalcy in all other ways. But Iron Fist stayed true to the characterization. They don’t pull their punches on that. Danny Rand really IS strange, almost creepy sometimes, in that way that overeager, socially inexperienced young men have of being almost creepy sometimes.
As I watched Iron Fist it dawned on me that I’m kinda tired of stereotypically superhero-y people being cast as superheroes. By superhero-y I mean blisteringly cool all the time. Wisecracking, dispassionate, cynical. Even quintessential nerd Peter Parker suffers from a terminal case of the coolz. A lot of our superheroes are so cool that they’re basically anti-heroes. It was kind of refreshing to see an earnest, well-meaning, innocent weenie as a superhero. Danny Rand wasn’t selling weapons to 3rd world countries like Tony Stark, he didn’t have a drinking or substance abuse problem, he wasn’t a womanizer – in fact, although they glossed over this a bit he seemed to possibly be a virgin (!). He wasn’t always taking things way too far like Deadpool and the Punisher do. He seemed to view his abilities as a heavy-but-welcome responsibility; a gift to be used justly and correctly, instead of something fun to take for a ride now and then. And while he wasn’t perfect and did occasionally have a hotheaded moment, it felt in character. When Danny screwed up, it was mostly due to lack of knowledge and experience, not because of selfish intentions. He would get angry like a child gets angry, when they don’t understand something, when something feels unfair and they are powerless to change it. His innocence was actually played as a believable character flaw because he couldn’t even imagine that the people in his life might be trying to screw him over.
Danny seemed to legitimately want to help people because it was right – not because of some dark, uncontrollable compulsion to do it like Matt Murdock or Batman, not for money like Deadpool or revenge like John Wick (c’mon, he’s kinda superhero-y), but just because he was following his personal sense of morality. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are reluctant heroes. Danny Rand isn’t. Most superheroes are compelled into it by personal demons or dragged into derring-do practically kicking and screaming. But Danny wanted to become the Iron Fist. He fought hard for the job. He chose it – he wasn’t doused in barrels of goo or bitten by a radioactive spider or involved in an experiment gone awry or born that way. He CHOSE to be a hero. It almost felt like a trope twister, in a way. The characterization of Danny felt fresher to me than yet another torn and troubled heroic curmudgeon. Iron Fist may not be a perfect show or even close to one, but at least it didn’t hand us yet another world-weary, self-loathing, self-destructive supercool superhero who only helps others when they’re sucked into it against their will.
People like that though, that’s the thing. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. That’s what they’ve grown to expect from a superhero show. There are no good guys. Only cool guys. Superman and Cyclops have a lot of “meh” directed their way while psychopaths like Deadpool are beloved. (The levels Marvel will sink to try to turn Cyke into an antihero are utterly ridiculous.) If everyone is used to the borderline antisocial superhero, and a softserve vanilla I-just-really-wanna-help-people superhero like Danny Rand shows up, I think many fans are so accustomed to the familiar that at least some will have a knee-jerk, uncontrollably negative reaction until they get used to it. People balk at things that feel strange and new. I wonder if we’re simply spoiled by choice. I feel that many of us (myself included at times) are unwilling to take a chance on something even a little bit different. Unfortunately, by the time people get used to a TV show that goes for something even slightly unexpected, it’s typically been panned at best or cancelled at worst. Shows like Freaks and Geeks, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, Firefly – all unusual-premised shows cancelled very quickly that went onto attain epic cult status over time and are now revered. If only they’d had a chance.
When Futurama first came on the air, I didn’t like it. I didn’t get what they were going for at all. Amy, Zoidberg, Hermes? Those heads in jars? What kinds of characters were those? I’d never seen anything like them before. I didn’t get it because it didn’t fulfill my expectations. Only over the course of time did I realize that Futurama seemed off to me because it’s an actual TV show with unique characters and an original world, and not a parody of other space shows. That’s what I had been expecting, a parody, a ripoff show with a dumb guy and a professor and a funny robot doing The Simpsons in space, and Futurama wasn’t like that at all. After I realized that I could appreciate what they were doing and ended up liking the show. But it had to be cancelled and resurrected before that happened!
Now, I’m putting Iron Fist in some pretty heady company there. Company it certainly doesn’t deserve. It’s not that good. But it’s not that bad, either. If you have a weekend to bingewatch something, give Iron Fist a whirl. It’s better than people are saying.
Image by andertoons