Thursday, March 23, 2017

Iron Fist – The Last Defender Finally Arrives

By Jerry Chandler

Marvel’s batting average on Netflix has been pretty good so far. Daredevil had many people changing their tune about how Marvel was unable to get its act together on the small screen; Jessica Jones was tremendously well received by fans and critics alike; Luke Cage brought things to a whole new level even if the series fell off a bit in the last few episodes. All that was needed to properly ready fans for The Defenders was the premier of the series featuring the last of the four of them. So last weekend Netflix dropped Iron Fist for binge hungry superhero fans everywhere. Iron Fist was to square off against an adversary that none of the others had to fight though.

The show faced a social controversy over the casting of the lead character long before the first scene was ever shot. When it became clear that the powers that be were not going to change the course of their casting choices, there seemed to be a growing chorus of people who wanted the show to fail no matter what. This was above and beyond the now expected gaggle of critics who these days simply cheers on the idea of “Marvel’s first big bomb” before every new Marvel release. When the flood of negative reviews- some even referencing the casting issue -came in during the week before its release, it created a bit of an issue. Where the reviews completely legitimate or were some of them negative because they wanted to be negative no matter what? Sure, every franchise has to make an inevitable misstep, but was the show truly as bad on so many levels as they were saying or was this in part the tail trying to wag the dog? That was at least one of the things on my mind when I sat down to start watching Iron Fist last Friday.

My impression of Iron Fist? It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as some critics were making it out to be. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t bad at all.

Iron Fist starts out with a wide-eyed but barefoot Danny Rand (Finn Jones) walking around New York looking like a kid on his first trip to Disneyland. We’re quickly introduced to one of Danny’s primary goals for the series- proving he’s alive, reclaiming his name, and reclaiming the company his family built. We’re also introduced to Joy and Ward Meachum (Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey), the childhood friends of Danny who now run the company. To say that they’re less than welcoming to a man claiming to be their long dead friend returned from the grave is an understatement, but the two of them each have their own reasons for this.

These reasons will ultimately be some of the things that strongly lead the arcs in the overall story. While the series does introduce an adversary in the minor supervillain mold as well as expanding the Hand’s role in the Marvel Netflix Universe, much of the struggles Danny Rand has to overcome in this series are more personal in nature.

Danny Rand is a man seeking to get his identity back in a world that believes he died years earlier. He’s also searching for his place in a world that’s nothing like it was when he last lived in it as a child. One aspect of this story arc seems to be very important to who Danny Rand will be both as the Iron Fist and as a member of the Defenders. It’s also something that seems to be causing one of the problems that some people have with this series.

Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are all characters with greater or lesser degrees of darkness and anger in them as core aspects of driving who they have become. They are dark and sometimes damaged characters who sometimes seem more than willing to embrace that darkness rather than fight it. While Danny Rand has his moments of anger to work through in the series, he is not an angry, truly damaged, or dark character. While the series dances on the edges of entering the dark and gritty territory the previous three Marvel Netflix shows happily dived into, neither it nor its lead character ever actually go there. This is a good thing. Iron Fist as a character should be the balance to the darker heroes in The Defenders just as Danny Rand was often trying to be the balance to the greed or predatory business instincts in the company his family built.

One thing Danny Rand must also overcome is his apparently incomplete training as the Iron Fist. He has less control over the power than one would expect him to have, and he encounters others, such as Wai Ching Ho's returning Madame Gao and Ramon Rodriguez's Bakuto, who know more about controlling and using his power than he does. It’s a story arc that is never actually finished in the first series, and it results in our not seeing one thing that everyone likely expected to see by the lest episode. We do not see Danny Rand in the Iron Fist outfit. Word is that we won’t see the outfit until the second series of the show.

Danny Rand is also having trouble adjusting to a world that doesn’t view some things in the same way he does after having spent over a decade growing up in the strict society he experienced in K'un-Lun. This is most noticeably put on display when he first meets Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and the students in her dojo. It also comes out in his interactions with the people who his family’s business may have hurt in the years he’s been gone.

All of these things and more play as big a role in shaping the struggle the lead character faces in the overall story’s arcs. Iron Fist is probably the most personal struggle driven of the four shows so far; and that’s saying a lot considering the issues between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave.

We also get treated to other characters besides just Madame Gao that were first seen in the previous shows making themselves at home in Danny Rand’s world. I think everyone fully expects to see Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple making more than a cameo in any Marvel Netflix series by now, but Iron Fist also gives Carrie-Anne Moss's Jeri Hogarth from Jessica Jones more than just a passing moment on screen here and there. It’s also made clear that Jeri Hogarth is well known both professionally and personally to several main characters in Iron Fist, so this show more than any of the others seems to be building itself up as the connective tissue that will tie them all together.

All of this is handled very well. The story moves slowly in the early going, but it’s done well and it’s putting into place a number of things that end up getting payed off on in the last part of the series. The characters are well written, and the actors are almost all perfectly cast.  There are some issues with Finn Jones as Danny Rand, but some of this may be more due to expectations of what the character should be rather than his portrayal of the character. It will be interesting to see if his portrayal of the character comes off better or worse in subsequent viewings.

One early criticism of the series based on reviewers seeing only the first two or three episodes has been that the fights are poorly done. Having seen the entire series, I don’t know that this is completely valid. There are two reasons for this.

In the early going, all the fights were normal people vs normal people or normal people vs Rand not going full Iron Fist power. Well, not everyone walking down the street is going to be Bruce Lee. Not everyone is a high level martial artist capable of doing insane fights.

I’m not picking Lee as a random example here either.  Lee once had to bang heads with a director in Hong Kong over his fight scenes in a movie. The director wanted Lee's character having huge fights- big back and forth battles that were epic struggles -with the big boss’s henchmen in the early going of the film. Lee insisted that he shouldn't have lengthy, hard-fought, complicated fights with the underlings because you had to have a place to go from there. You had to have smaller fights with the henchmen or you looked like a weak hero.  Also, he felt that you needed to build up to the big battle by making henchmen and fights progressively better. 

The same thing applies here.  You can't have fights that look like Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris from episode #1 when you’re only dealing with common people or low level underlings. It doesn't all have to be stylized ultra-fights from the word go. Sometimes having a more human looking fight scene when dealing with humans is actually a smart play. The relatively quick and easy fights in the beginning did in fact give way to better, more stylized fights in the later episodes as the opponents improved.

Also, not every fighter is trying to be brutal. Many people have cited the fights in Daredevil when criticizing the fights in Iron Fist. I’m not sure this is valid as the two fighters are supposed to be very stylistically different. Daredevil can take a serious beating and willingly does so in order to win a fight. He doesn’t have the ability to simply and quickly knock out many of his opponents in a fist fight, so his goal is to get in, take hits, and do as much damage to the other guy(s) as possible because he knows he can take it longer than they can. Iron Fist is more into redirecting his attackers’ energy and striking when and where it counts the most. It’s meant to be in a way a more elegant style of fighting versus Daredevil’s more brawling style.

Does it have some weak points? Yes, it does occasionally suffer from not having the lead character in a mask so that a stunt double can work more of the fights as opposed to an actor who is still learning his fight game. Is it as bad as many made it out to be? No.

That’s probably the best description for the show as well. Is Iron Fist the best of the Marvel Netflix offerings? No, that title still goes to (for me) Daredevil. Is it the worst of the Marvel Netflix offerings? That probably depends on how Jessica Jones worked for you or how badly the final villain confrontation in Luke Cage dropped its overall score for you. But is it anywhere near as bad as some critics seemed determined to see it as? Not hardly.

Iron Fist is a solid offering that goes a long way towards building the world of The Defenders. It also goes a long way towards building a character that will work to pull that group away from always choosing the darker paths it could otherwise go. It’s not as dark as Jessica Jones, it’s not as gritty as Daredevil, it’s not as streetwise as Luke Cage, and that’s a good thing. It delivers to the Marvel Netflix Universe a character that’s much wanted in a form that will be and is much needed.

It’s also well worth taking the time to watch.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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