Monday, April 10, 2017

Iron Fist: A Postmortem

Danny, showing off his skinny jeans at Colleen's dojo.

Well, now. Marvel's Iron Fist on Netflix certainly was a major disappointment, wasn't it?

I'm a fan of the Danny Rand character and the mystical martial arts world he inhabits in Marvel Comics, which includes strong supporting cast members like Colleen Wing. I've read a lot of Iron Fist comics, so I was possibly more invested in this series than most people I know. So when the early buzz was terrible, my expectations started to plummet. It's wise to be wary of pre-release reviews, of course, especially in this case when they only screened the first six episodes of a thirteen episode series. Yet, in this instance, those early reviews were accurate. The show is a mess, and not an entertaining, b-movie style mess, but instead a convoluted and boring mess.

The first few episodes were so interminably dull that I seriously contemplating quitting after the second. Things picked up a little after that, with some decent middle episodes. Then it slumped again, then found decent footing for the final few episodes before stumbling across the finish line in a ludicrously stupid finale. For a show about a master of Kung Fu, there wasn't nearly enough Kung Fu! The fight scenes they did include were also pretty underwhelming, with a few exceptions. The now standard hallway fight scene was good, but even that paled in comparison to similar scenes from Daredevil. The rest of the fighting often felt rushed and unimaginatively choreographed and filmed. The long warehouse battle with a series of Madame Gao's Hand operatives was particularly bad. The Bride of Nine Spiders, who worked beautifully in the comics, was laughably awful here. In her Frederick's of Hollywood meets cheap Halloween costume, and spouting cringe-worthy dialogue, she would have been right at home in an episode of Silk Stalkings.

Finn Jones really struggled to make Danny interesting. He seemed more assured in the relaxed, more lighthearted scenes, but seemed directionless or to be trying too hard when he was called on to emote or be badass. I kept telling my wife he reminded me of a puppy: he was cute and it was hard for me to dislike him, but he seemed way out of his depth here. I don't blame him for all of this though; the writers saddled him with atrocious dialogue and inconsistent motivations. Finn was trying, that was clear, but he rarely pulled it off. That's a big problem; when your Iron Fist isn't very interesting, how good can your Iron Fist series be?

Jessica Henwick was a bright spot, kicking all sorts of butt as Colleen Wing.

A few of the actors did well with what little they were given to work with. Jessica Henwick as Colleen was equal parts strong, sardonic, and smooth. She was great in the action scenes, really selling Colleen's swordplay skills, and also handled the quieter scenes well. She didn't have a lot of good writing to work with, and was saddled with some stupid lines and character development, but she made the best of it. In other words, she was nearly everything Finn as Danny was not. Throughout, I kept daydreaming of a spinoff show about the Daughters of the Dragon, costarring the equally good Simone Missick from Luke Cage as Misty Knight. I'm sure we'll get a Colleen and Misty teamup within the upcoming Defenders series, but I'd much rather see an entire show devoted to just them at this point.

As the nefarious Harold Meachum, David Wenham was acting in his own alternative universe. The only actor who really embraced the silliness of it all, Wenham hammed it up throughout. He was downright hilarious at times, but over the course of the series his performance started to grate on me a bit. Still, he kept me hanging in there at times when the rest of the show was sagging badly.

Ward Meachum was one of the only characters with a clearly delineated and interesting character arc. Tom Pelphrey played the material straight, and really elevated his performance so far above this mess that it's a shame he wasted it on this. Ward went from stereotypical smarmy and selfish businessman to struggling abuse victim and drug addict to, finally, practically the hero of the piece. Whether he was reacting with subtle incredulity at Harold's insane scheming, or painfully opening up to his sister Joy, or just giving an eavesdropping dear ole dad the most hilariously emphatic double-bird salute I've seen in ages, Pelphrey was terrific. His constantly bemused  "WTF" expressions made Ward into an effective audience surrogate.

It certainly didn't help Iron Fist that it came on the heels of the powerful and heartbreaking Logan and also ran concurrently with FX's mind-blowing head-trip of a show, Legion. Both of those Marvel properties (from studios other than Marvel) were outstanding because they had strong narratives, characters we could care about, and experimented with the superhero genre in ways we hadn't seen in film or television before. Comparatively, Iron Fist didn't know what it wanted to be. Was it an over-the-top martial arts romp, reminiscent of the kind Quentin Tarantino loves? Or was it the overly serious exploration of identity and loss that it kept aiming to be? It was only ever either of these things halfheartedly, and in limited quantities. Otherwise it was just a slog to get through.

Finally, people far more qualified than me have addressed the problem with casting a white actor as Danny. Yes, Danny is white in the comics, but there's so much more to it than that. Do a little searching online and you'll find some cogent essays on the issues at play, and why Marvel missed a golden opportunity. All I'll add to the conversation is that Marvel had a chance to correct the character's troubling 1970s white savior origins. Instead, they cast Finn Jones. 'Nuff said.

When it comes to Iron Fist, I think Ward speaks for all of us here.

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