All images courtesy of Netflix
Marvel’s IRON FIST has finally punched its way into Netflix and, well, it isn’t exactly a knockout hit. The latest installment in the streaming giant’s lineup of Marvel superheroes isn’t getting the positive ovation as the shows before it. Even though there is a small (very small) minority of fans on Twitter that are praising the show, the critics have spoken and they aren’t holding back. For the most part, they have been dragging it through the mud. Vox called it “ill-conceived” and “poorly written, while IGN went as far to say that “Iron Fist is the worst part of Marvel’s Iron Fist.” Ouch. You know it’s a problem when the biggest screw-up is the main character. And with a 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the superhero series isn’t exactly a slam dunk.
But even before Iron Fist dropped its first 13 episodes to continue the Marvel saga of street heroes, the show was getting scrutinized for using a white actor to play the lead role — but in the Marvel comic created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, he was white. So what is the problem here?
Well, for one, the titular character played by Finn Jones is surrounded by Asian lore and mysticism — which marks the first problem. There have been too many times when a white character has swooped in and adopted the practices of Asian martial arts or things of the like (hello Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai) to come out on top as the hero. Stories like this end up making the Asian culture a cool fad and almost a prop to make the white man look like he or she is super-woke and down with the Asian culture. Unfortunately, it does the exact opposite. And with the current landscape of Asian characters being given to white actors in Hollywood, there is going to be plenty of shade thrown. We saw it with Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange and the glorious fail that was Matt Damon in The Great Wall. And let’s not forget the upcoming whitewash fest that will be Scarlett Johansson in the adaptation of the popular Magna Ghost in the Shell. But with Iron Fist it’s a slightly different story. This is not a case of whitewashing as many people claim it to be. In order for Iron Fist to be whitewashed, the character has to be originally conceived as a specific race. Danny Rand (a.k.a. Iron Fist) was not. He was written as a white boy. That said, this is a good ol’ fashioned case of appropriation and white savior-ism. If anything, this was a missed opportunity for Marvel to make up for casting Swinton as the Ancient One or for Hollywood’s tone deafness when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
You would think that the Iron Fist cast and crew would be properly media trained to handle this controversy, but their reactions have been —how should I put this — a colossal mess. Jones got into a Twitter debate with Geeks of Color writer Asyiqin Haron about Danny being Asian which ended with him deleting his account. In an interview with Inverse, Iron Fist co-creator said in regards to the controversy: “Yeah, someone made me vaguely aware of that. I try not to think about it too much. I have so little patience for some of the feelings that some people have. I mean, I understand where it’s coming from. You know, cultural appropriation, my god. It’s just an adventure story. Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.”
Nice to see that he is trying to bring the term, “oriental” back. Not sure if that will help defuse this already tense conversation, but more power to him for trying.
But the story behind casting the lead in Iron Fist isn’t completely a bust. They considered casting Asian American actor Lewis Tan in the role before Jones nabbed the role. There was an opportunity to give a spin on Iron Fist’s story about an Asian-American reconnecting to his roots, but instead, they decided to go with the dated white-man-with-an-obsession-with-Asian-things narrative. Not all was lost with Tan. He managed to get on the show as a one-off villain in episode eight of the series. So it was nice that he was considered, right? RIGHT?!
But the reason why Iron Fist is not earning the rave reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage is not because of the whitewash/appropriation/white savior issue. It’s because it’s just a bad show.
I’m not too sure if Iron Fist would have been more successful with an Asian lead and/or had an Asian showrunner. The presentation and vision may have been handled differently and the cringe-worthy writing would have gotten a vast makeover. Whether or not it would have saved the show’s awfulness is up in the air, but it definitely would have made it a different kind of show.
The dialogue, story, and handling of the characters was painful to endure for the 13 episodes with Danny being the worst of the bunch. That presents a problem, obviously. I’m sure somewhere in Jones is a great actor, but in Game of Thrones he barely left an impression and that goes double for Iron Fist. Jones is not a leading man. With his curly hair, hippy strut, and his boyish good looks, there is nothing about him that screams badass. He’s not a convincing superhero and hearing him constantly say “I need to restore my chi” throughout the entire run of the show is the most obnoxious thing ever. I felt that every time he said it, an Asian person vomited. Things get even worse, when he tries to explain martial arts to his peer/love-interest Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). Every time he talks about his time of training in the interdimensional land of K’un-Lun, you can hear a collective eye roll from Asians, women, and anyone who has been victim to mansplaining.
As hard as he tries — and he tries really hard — Jones does not have a commanding screen presence to sell the show. His performance is labored and fight scenes are robotic forced and it just becomes too painful to watch. More than that, the show does not have the commanding presence to sell itself. To me, all it’s nothing but the final installment of the Netflix Marvel quartet to lead to the highly anticipated Defenders which unites Mr. Glowing Fist with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage for a super-awesome Avengers-like team-up. I’m sure it will be phenomenal, but curly-haired Danny has little to do with it. Iron Fist like that silica gel packet that you randomly find in packaged products. It’s necessary, but you can throw it out once you open the package.
Iron Fist is supposed to center on the origin story of Danny and how he was in a plane crash with his parents. They died and he ended up stranded on a snowy mountain where he was saved by a group of monks from an unknown Shangri-la-la land where he is trained him to become a “weapon” and ultimately the Iron Fist, a title that earns you a super powerful glowing fist. It’s a Batman-adjacent story that we have heard too many times before. The narrative is dated and mirrors that of old ’80s action movies where handsome white boys or Chuck Norris become experts in martial arts through a montage of clips scored by an inspirational fight anthem sung by a one-hit wonder like Joe Esposito (a la the seminal “You’re The Best Around” from 1984’s Karate Kid). Iron Fist reminds me of the American Ninja movies from the ’80s, the only difference is that those movies know exactly what they are where as Iron Fist has no clue as to what its identity is.
Daredevil was an action series which folded in the law and city corruption and Jessica Jones was very much psychological and in line with classic noir-esque private investigator series. Like Daredevil, Luke Cage dealt with neighborhood corruption and relationships, but honed in on the African American community of Harlem, providing a narrative cut from the same cloth as The Wire. Then there is Iron Fist — a story about the heir to a billionaire corporation who, after 15 years returns to show everyone that he can do stuff with his fist and that he is “down” with Asian stuff.
This all goes back to when Cort Lane, Senior Vice President of Animation & Family Entertainment at Marvel, talked about the core attributes of the characters in the Marvel Universe during a panel at last year’s Austin Film Festival. The core attributes are things we like about the characters. If the audience can connect with the core attributes of the character they can connect with the TV show and/or film. There is nothing about Danny that connects with the audience and the things that are supposed to connect (i.e. the death of his parents, his “outsider” status), are poorly executed and shoved to the side. Since the audience can barely connect with Danny, they reject his character and therefore the entire show.
Danny is that guy from an affluent family who goes away to Asia for a month and comes back claiming to be more “cultured” than when he left. At any moment he gets, he will make sure you know about everything he learned from backpacking abroad. Everything that comes out of his mouth starts with, “In my time in Asia, I learned…” or “Well, in K’un-Lun, we did it this way…” It reminds me of the time when I went to Paris and came back to the States and was complaining about the coffee here and rolling my own cigarettes. It’s obnoxious, pretentious, and is peak levels of douchebaggery.
But Danny isn’t bad. He’s just misguided and not interesting at all, which is a reflection on the entire show and the characters (with the exception of Colleen — who was the best part of Iron Fist). Compared to his other Defender pals, his story is the most privileged. Don’t get me wrong — it’s sad that his parents have died and that he was missing for 15 years. Other than that, he comes back to a billion dollar corporation. He had temporary problems which are not ongoing struggles. Daredevil is blind, Jessica Jones is a rape victim, and Luke Cage is a member of one of the most marginalized communities in history. Danny’s lack of conflict with society makes for boring television and he ends up being a”White People Problems” meme personified.
Iron Fist is a necessary bridge to The Defenders, but a very rickety one. The appropriation was one of many problems for this TV show. It lacked vision and could have been something special. If you watch it hard enough you can tell that the show was trying to be an homage to classic martial arts films — specifically the works of Bruce Lee. This is very evident in the episode where Danny is challenged to fight unique villains one-on-one in various rooms of a warehouse — just like Lee did in The Game of Death. But the homage is half-baked and weak. If the show fully committed to that tone and style, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.
We could sit here and wax poetic on what would have made Iron Fist a strong addition to the Netflix family of Marvel superheroes. Instead, I’m having a hell of a time picking it apart and throwing shade at it. It was a poorly executed TV show which was a missed opportunity to do something progressive and fresh with its fantastical source material. Iron Fist is essentially Marvel’s Green Lantern, an embarrassing failure — but with its multi-billion dollar net worth, I’m sure Marvel will be fine.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer