A Confusing Lack of Action: First Impressions of Iron Fist

Three episodes into Netflix’s Iron Fist, and several things are evident:

One is that Finn Jones has a certain relaxed charm. He’s charming and engaging in the role, for the most part. Another is that you do not mess with Colleen Wing. She will own your ass. The third, sadly, is that for the first time we have a season of a Netflix MCU show that is not gripping in its early going. (The two most flawed of the previous four, Luke Cage season 1 and Daredevil season 2, had their issues later in the season.)

I will have a more detailed review of the entire season once I’ve viewed all thirteen episodes, but here are my impressions of the first three episodes from three different perspectives: as a fan of the Iron Fist comics character, as a martial artist, and as a regular ol’ TV watcher.

SPOILERS FOR IRON FIST SEASON 1 EPISODES 1-3.

 

From Page to Screen

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In the comics, K’un L’un exists in another dimension and only interacts with our world once very ten years. In the MCU, that’s adjusted to fifteen years, but in both instances, Danny Rand lost his parents in the Himalayas, got rescued by the people of K’un L’un while it was intersecting with our world, then came back to New York the next time the city came into our world again.

The similarities end there, however. The four-color version of the Rand family went to the Himalayas on purpose, with Wendell Rand specifically seeking out K’un L’un, and dragging his wife Heather and kid Danny with him, his business partner Harold Meachum tagging along. Meachum then killed Wendell, declaring his love for Heather. Heather was so impressed that she drove him off with rocks, then was later killed herself. Danny is taken in by K’un L’un, trained to become the living weapon, and then when Earth is accessible again, he goes home to track down Harold Meachum and exact revenge.

None of those motivations are present in the television adaptation, and they sadly have yet to be replaced with anything of use or interest three episodes in. The Rands appeared to have been flying over the Himalayas on their way somewhere, and crashing near K’un L’un seems to have been a coincidence. (Wendell not only was specifically looking for the city in the comics, but he also had a history there.) It also appears to have been an accident, but even if Harold Meachum turns out to have been responsible for the plane’s going down (which seems likely, given what we see of Meachum), Danny doesn’t know that. And where comic-book Meachum spends ten years as a paraplegic (thanks to frostbite) living in fear of Danny’s return (thanks to legends of K’un L’un he heard while recovering), TV Meachum is utterly gobsmacked by Danny’s return.

So if he isn’t coming to New York to enact revenge, why did he come home? After three episodes, it’s totally unclear.

Colleen Wing interacts with Danny in the comics because her father also knows of K’un L’un. She interacts with Danny in the TV show because they happen to bump into each other on the street. I do like that she uses “Daughter of the Dragon” as her arena nickname in her underground MMA fighting—she and Misty Knight go by the name “Daughters of the Dragon” in the comics.

Ward and Joy Meachum taking over the company (called Rand-Meachum in the comics, inexplicably still called simply Rand in the TV series, even though the entire Rand family is believed dead) and Ward’s role as the bigger asshole of the two remains the same as from the comics, though Ward and Joy are uncle and niece in the comics rather than siblings. Carrie-Anne Moss’s Jeri Hogarth (introduced in Jessica Jones and also seen in Daredevil season 2) is based on Jeryn Hogarth, who started out life as an Iron Fist character. Here we see Hogarth return to the character’s comics roots as the Rand family legal counsel.

 

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight Times

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For a show that’s supposed to be about a living weapon who’s a martial arts bad-ass—indeed whose very existence is owed entirely to the kung-fu craze of the early 1970s spearheaded by Bruce Lee—and for a show that is being produced by the same subsection of the MCU that gave us Daredevil and its magnificent fight choreography, there is surprisingly little martial-arts action here.

Things look promising in the first episode when Danny tries to enter the Rand Building, and only after he is stymied multiple times does he resort to physical violence. And even then, Finn Jones moves with a compact grace and simplicity. He doesn’t waste any energy, doesn’t waste any moves to look fancy, he just gets the security guys out of the way as efficiently as possible. It reminded me of some of the best competition fighters I’ve seen, who barely seem to move a muscle, and suddenly their opponent is on the floor…

We also see him fighting the security guards again in episode 1, then he spends basically all of episode 2 in a mental hospital, and almost all of episode 3 sitting in rooms talking to people, with the only fight being against the one guy who torches his old medical records, a fight that has none of the elegance of either of his fights with Rand security in episode 1. And it’s only one guy, and mostly you wonder why Iron Fist is having so much trouble with one dude sent to set a fire.

And then we have Colleen’s dojo.

First of all, let me say that Jessica Henwick is magnificent. She imbues Colleen with a weary strength that is very compelling. She knows exactly what kind of world she’s living in, and she’s doing what she can to protect the people she cares about from being destroyed by it. Henwick trained in wushu in preparation for her role in the 2010 British show Spirit Warriors, and that training pays off here, as she is utterly convincing in her teaching, in her sparring with Danny, and in her MMA cage match. I particularly like that her style is indeed more high-energy than what Danny does, as Danny himself points out when they spar, and it is less efficient than his fighting style. (Well, except when he’s fighting dudes in hospital records rooms.)

Having said that, the Chikara Dojo that she runs allegedly teaches karate, kimpo, jujitsu, and kanjutsu. We see Colleen teaching kanjutsu, and her assistant teaches karate, but a dojo that small isn’t likely to be teaching so many disparate styles.

At one point, Danny says to Colleen that she should have a kung fu class. Her response is, “I don’t need the hassle.” While that’s a smart line on the face of it—lots of people get into martial arts because they want to kick ass, and they would take one look at a 5’6″ female instructor and immediately try to take over the class. (In fact, Danny does that very thing in episode 3.) But a more true response would be, “We don’t do Chinese martial arts here.” While mixed martial arts is obviously a thing, if you’re doing a dojo with different colored belts to denote rank, you’re very unlikely to mix a Japanese form (which all four listed on the dojo’s billboard are) with a Chinese one.

It’s not impossible, mind you, and I’m probably focusing way too much on a single sign that probably wasn’t even put together by anyone writing for the show but rather a set designer who looked up four styles on Wikipedia. Still, it feels off.

I’m also surprised that Colleen doesn’t have classes with little kids in them. That’s where the money is in martial arts training, and that’s where you often find some of your best practitioners—start them when they’re four or five or six. You certainly get bigger classes and more tuition money…

Still and all, the first three episodes have shown only a cursory knowledge of martial arts, which is kind of unfortunate for a series about a martial artist.

 

Bingeing the Living Weapon

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So leaving aside the two separate loads of baggage that I myself carry coming into this as a comics fan and as a black belt: is the show any good?

Not so far. Several of the problems I mentioned earlier are issues regardless of their connections to the worlds of four-color comics and martial arts. Danny’s lack of motive for returning to New York City remains frustrating. It doesn’t help that the show has been parsimonious with details regarding Danny’s life prior to returning home, which wouldn’t be so bad, except they keep showing us the plane going down over and over and over again and not much else.

Danny spends the entire first episode coming across as a crazed stalker, which isn’t a great way to introduce our theoretical hero. It doesn’t help that his attempts to convince Ward and Joy that he’s who he says he is are just idiotic. In episode 2 we find out that Danny and Joy used to avoid the brown M&Ms. In episode 3 we find out that Danny broke his arm as a little kid and Ward took him to the hospital, and only the two of them knew about that. Which raises the question of why the hell Danny didn’t mention either of these things in episode 1.

(By the way, when Joy shared with Ward that she sent Danny a package of M&Ms and he sent them back with the brown ones removed, I kept waiting for Ward to dismiss her claim that that was proof by saying, “Maybe he’s a Van Halen fan…”)

Colleen’s portion of the story is frustrating on several levels, mostly because she feels like she wandered in from a different show. Her connection to Danny is tenuous at best, as she only knows Danny because they happened to bump into each other on the street. It’s also frustrating because the show she wandered in from is way better than this one.

On top of all that, after Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, David Tennant’s Kilgrave, Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth, and Alfre Woodard’s Mariah, the pitiful duo of Ward and Harold Meachum, played with tiresome snottiness by Tom Pelphrey and David Wenham, is a major letdown. Wai Ching Ho’s Madame Gao appears briefly in one scene in darkness, and she’s got more menace in that cameo than Wenham can scrape together in three episodes.

There’s time for the show to improve, but the first impression it leaves is not a good one.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of several bits of prose based on Marvel’s heroes, including two Spider-Man novels, short stories starring Spidey, the X-Men, the Hulk, and the Silver Surfer, and the recent “Tales of Asgard” trilogy: Thor: Dueling with Giants, Sif: Even Dragons Have Their Endings, and the forthcoming Warriors Three: Godhood’s End. His latest project is Mermaid Precinct, the fifth novel in his acclaimed fantasy police procedural series, currently looking for support on Kickstarter. Since 2004, he has trained in Kenshikai Karate, an Okinawan karate style based in New York City, achieving his first-degree black belt in 2009 and his second degree in 2013. He has been writing for Tor.com on various bits of pop culture, including twice-weekly rewatches of classic TV series, since 2011.

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