Thursday, May 11, 2017

Exploring the Marvel Netflix Shows: Part Five Redux (Iron Fist)

This is a continuation of my exploration of the Marvel Netflix shows (part onetwo, three, and four).  I'm a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and out of all its current expressions the Netflix shows are my favourite--the ultimate highlight of the format.  The fan service surrounding these shows lack collated, contextualized, and expository material, so what follows addresses those elements.


Iron Fist (March 17, 2017)

The most recent Netflix venture has had a rough ride from the critics, but before we get into that let's start with the basics.  The show aired after the MCU's Doctor Strange as the final installment before The Defenders team-up.  Iron Fist was created to take advantage of the 70s martial arts craze (in 1974 by Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, and Bill Everett).  Originally scheduled to be the third character to debut on Netflix, he was swapped for Luke Cage to take advantage of Mike Colter's popularity after Jessica Jones aired (it also made a lot more sense leading into The Defenders).  Any normal reception of the show became impossible with the issue-focused reviews it received and it will be years before we get level-headed analysis.

Showrunner Scott Buck's version of the character borrows a great deal from the original origin story in the comics (with light borrowings from from the much later Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, and Duane Swierczynski's Immortal Iron Fist).  The very simplistic Rand-Meachum dynamic of that original tale is expanded considerably, but mixed with an occasionally confusing plot involving The Hand that was required as a set-up to The Defenders (one wonders how much that obligation handicapped choices made in the show).  Buck's pacing, and the show in general, is most similar to Luke Cage, but unlike that show an origin story for Danny was necessary (Luke had already debuted in Jessica Jones so there was no need to rush into his backstory).

Credited Writers (episodes in parenthesis; selected past credits noted)

Scott Buck (1, 2, 13) - Dexter, Six Feet Under; he's the showrunner for the upcoming Inhumans
Quinton Peeples (3, 10) - 11.22.63, Unforgettable
Scott Reynolds (4, 12) - Jessica Jones, Dexter; he's the first writer to be borrowed from another Marvel Netflix show
Cristine Chambers (5) - Boardwalk Empire
Dwain Worrell (6) - The Walking Dead
Ian Stokes (7, 11) - Teen Wolf, Warehouse 13
Tamara Becher-Wilkinson (8, 13) - Shades of Blue, Covert Affairs, Buffy
Pat Charles (9, 13) - Resurrection, Bones

Notable Easter Eggs

[I've noted in brackets which episodes these occur in--so (1) refers to episode one]

Needing to set-up The Defenders there's a fair number of easter eggs (13): the unexplained Order of the Crane Mother is mentioned (2); the staple Avengers "incident" reference occurs (2); The New York Bulletin (Ben Urich's and Karen Page's newspaper) appears (3); Daredevil gets mentioned by name (3, 7); the Hulk (6) is referred to; Luke Cage (7) is mentioned by name; the ubiquitous Dogs of Hell are mentioned (7); Karen Page (7) is mentioned by name; Jessica Jones (8) is referenced (not by name--this is the most rewarding/entertaining easter egg in my opinion); Claire reads a letter from Luke Cage (8), which is a roundabout way of referencing his incarceration in Seagate prison (which debuted in Iron Man 2); Stark Industries (9) is mentioned; as is the Roxxon Corporation (11); finally, the blood-draining planned for Colleen (12) mirrors what the Hand does in Daredevil season two.

Iron Fist leads into The Defenders and has to do a great deal of work to set-up that show; Bakuto's boss (presumably Sigourney Weaver's character) remains unknown (with Bakuto himself likely to be resurrected); Gao remains free, as does (presumably) her faction of the Hand.  As has been long suspected, the Hand itself will be the opposition for the quartet of heroes, although it could simply be a faction of the group.

Select Character Notes

Personal history: I'd never heard of Iron Fist until I started paying attention to the Netflix shows (he'd been killed off before I started reading comics (1986) and returned just as I was leaving (1992)).
  • Danny Rand/Iron Fist: debuted in Marvel Premiere 15; this version stays close to that original story, but with a greater emphasis on Danny's naivety (his battles with Rand Corps' policies has echoes of the first Iron Man); while in the comic he learns of the past from the monks of K'un Lun and rushes out for vengeance, here he seeks answers to his past that gradually reaches a desire for vengeance.  Given the expectations for who Danny will be in The Defenders, Buck had little choice but to keep Danny fairly naive throughout the show; I liked Finn Jones performance, despite the limitations imposed on the character
  • Colleen Wing: the martial artist is Danny's long-time ally and was an early addition to the Iron Fist comics (Marvel Premiere 19); her origin was changed considerably (The Hand, which has little to no place in Iron Fist--they are Daredevil villains in the comics--had no precedent in her past), nor do she and Danny have a romantic entanglement (normally Danny is with Misty Knight; writer Tamara Becher-Wilkinson noted that the romance was created largely because otherwise there would be no romance in the show); Jessica Henwick does a fine job in the role, although her involvement with Bakuto's faction creates some confusion (echoing, in a way, Danny's own naivete)
  • Harold Meachum: the business partner of Danny's father dies very early in Iron Fist's run (Marvel Premiere 18) and Buck makes him a vastly more interesting in the show; I've seen complaints about the character, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and it's clearly meant to give us a taste of how The Hand's resurrection will impact Elektra; in the realm of Netflix villains he doesn't reach the heights of the best (Kilgrave, Kingpin, or Cottonmouth), but he's far better than Diamondback, Nobu, etc and he's much more integral to the development of secondary characters (his children) than any previous villain
  • Joy Meachum: the innocent Meachum in the comics, Jessica Stroup's version is used as character development and motivation for those around her (with a tease for greater things in a second season, echoing an arc from the early Iron Fist comics); Stroup does a solid job with the limited material she's given, but they could have done more with her
  • Ward Meachum: vastly improved from his cartoony comic book basis (he has been dead for quite some time (Namor the Sub-Mariner 18, in 1991)); in the show he is the son (instead of brother) of Harold; this is, to my mind, the best performance in the entire show (great work by Tom Pelphrey--it's a slow burn with a maganificent payoff)--Ward goes through a truly incredible journey and has arguably the most interesting character arc in the show
  • Madame Gao: reprising her role from both seasons of Daredevil, I'd been convinced for a long time that she was Crane Mother, but that now seems unlikely; I thought she was a much more interesting villain than Bakuto who supplants her, but at least she survives to potentially cause trouble later; Wai Ching Ho is finally given room to work here and gives a fantastic performance as the character
  • Claire Temple: she's long since stopped representing her comic book basis and here enjoys her largest role to date--learning to fight (and indeed does fight) in the show; among other things she serves as a way to spoonfeed the various mystical elements of the show to the audience; she also remains the one character who has appeared in all the Defenders shows; it's another strong performance by Rosario Dawson
  • Bakuto: a short-lived character borrowed from Daredevil (I haven't been able to read the three issues he appears in, so I can't directly compare); he's the leader of another faction of The Hand (clearly hinted at as being the one we expect Sigourney Weaver to lead in The Defenders), but his goals aren't entirely clear; like every Netflix venture that's introduced a villain halfway through (Luke Cage, Daredevil season two), he's not that effective and, indeed, his plotline is difficult to follow--he needed a couple of more episodes, but then why have a second villain at all if that's the case?
  • Davos: another early character from the comics (Iron Fist 1 from 1975), the antagonist is well-established, but without a ton of appearances (perhaps because he's largely a one-note villain); the major tweak from his comic book origin is that instead of failing to become the Iron Fist, here he was denied that chance (far better motivation in my opinion); he's been hinted at in the Netflix universe since the beginning (Daredevil season one); Sacha Dhawan and the show do a good job of encapsulating who he is in limited time (and the show happily foreshadows him before he appears); there's lot's of potential here and he's the only K'un Lun element that's evocative (albeit, it's difficult to imagine Dhawan as the son of Hoon Lee--not that anyone has made that complaint)
  • Jeri Hogarth: she's primarily an Iron Fist character in the comics (she's the lawyer for Rand Corps, as she remains here), but coming from a pivotal role in Jessica Jones she's used sparingly (just 3 episodes)--there's lot's of potential to make more use of her here if they wish, although given that she's meant to help Danny in this season there's no opportunity for the usual interplay of good-hearted Danny vs cold-hearted Hogarth; there's also a failed opportunity to acknowledge some of the trauma she went through in Jessica Jones (a failing shared by Luke Cage in Luke Cage)
  • Lei Kung the Thunderer: an original character in the comic who died recently (2014); here he's used to represent the K'un Lun part of Danny's psyche as well as serve as motivation for Davos; Hoon Lee has an amazing voice and I hope there's more of him in the show if it gets a second season
  • Zhou Cheng: a short-lived and newer Iron Fist antagonist (appearing in Immortal Iron Fist 17-20), his desire to destroy the Iron Fist remains the same, but in the show he serves as champion of Gao's faction of the Hand (he's definitely less manic than he is in the comics); Zhou does a great job with the character and I'd love to see him again in the role
  • Bride of Nine Spiders: in the comics she's the champion for the Kingdom of Spiders, but here she's simply an exotic fighter for Gao's faction of the Hand; the show doesn't do anything interesting with her--she's visually compelling and distinct from other fighters, but we don't get any substance with her so it's hard to assess Jane Kim's performance (she has a martial arts background, but writer Dwain Worrell decided to focus away from that and make her more of a seductress/trickster--something not grounded in her comic book inspiration)
  • Scythe: the villain from the very first Iron Fist comic (his only appearance), but other than the name bears little resemblance to him; he has one of the better choreographed fights with Danny in the show
  • Hai-Qing Yang: created for the show to lead a group of triads, I bring him up as the worst performance in the series
  • Thembi Wallace: reprises her role as a reporter from Luke Cage
  • Daryll: no comic book basis, but appeared in Luke Cage previously (episode 10)
  • Shirley Benson: reprises her role as Claire's boss from Daredevil
Comic Book Influences

Like the other Netflix shows we get a mix of adaptation with original material.  I was surprised Buck kept Danny's origin of getting his powers from Shou-Lao the dragon, given that there was no budget to really pay that off.  This fit Buck's general trend of trying to be faithful to the early comics (much like Luke Cage). Danny's arrival at K'un Lun is changed slightly, as his mother does not survive the crash only to be eaten by wolves, nor does Danny learn that Harold Meachum plotted the crash while training in the city and then leave K'un Lun seeking revenge (the revenge element is preserved for the final sequence of the show).  The Meachums are much improved from their cartoony comic originals (Ward and Harold in particular have much more depth).  All the material involving The Hand was invented for the show, with various Danny antagonists stuffed into that envelope for the sake of simplicity (eg Zhou Cheng, the Bride of Nine Spiders, etc)--I'm sympathetic to this because the mystical factions are confusing enough as it is--no non-fan is ever going to be able to untangle it all if they'd simply followed the comics.  The romance with Colleen is (as far as I can tell) without precedence; Misty Knight, who is Danny's most frequent partner, does not seem likely to enter the picture (seemingly reserved for Luke Cage).

Critical Reception

Previously I've referenced the critical score for the show I'm reviewing, but in this case it's so absurd I'll simply give the caveat I've given in every other case: take critical scores with a grain of salt (Agents of SHIELD somehow has 100% each of its last two seasons--however much you like that show that's simply ridiculous).  Part of the problem is just how few TV critics there are--a movie will receive over 200 reviews (sometimes over 300), while TV shows are lucky to hit 40, which vastly slants percentages.


I'll dig into the reviews below, since the criticism is affected by the casting of the show, not its substance.  For me Iron Fist is about mid-range among the Netflix ventures--it doesn't approach the heights of Jessica Jones or Daredevil season one, but it isn't as disjointed as Daredevil season two and or as glacial as Luke Cage (the former has better heights, so Iron Fist ranks at #4 out of the five Netflix seasons for me).  The show has two intertwining threads: the Meachums (and thus Rand Corporation) and the Hand.  While Buck is able to make the Hand less ridiculous than it is in Daredevil, it's still the weak link of the two elements (all the calls I see for more mysticism seem impractical to me--as expensive as Netflix shows are, there's simply no way for them to go down the road of The Immortal Iron Fist).  The show struggles to explain what's going on with the Hand--why are there factions and what do they want? It's never made clear (MCU Exchange tries to explain--futilely I think).  I would have much rather seen a Meachum focused season with just a light frosting of Danny's mystical/ninja elements--Daredevil has already spent plenty of time with The Hand, but no other Defender can deal with the corporate angle the way Danny can.  Danny himself is a difficult character to adapt (part of the reason he works so well when paired with Luke Cage is there's less dependency on their fairly limited range as characters).  The show kept his impulsive, headstrong nature, but we don't see the jokester he becomes in the comics.  Unfortunately Buck continued the trend of introducing a second villain for the second act who pales to the one they replaced--whether Marvel recognizes this as a flaw remains to be seen. There are pacing issues with the show as it occasionally gets bogged down in mystical exposition (which is, again, why I would have downplayed that element). There are also choreography problems in the first 5-6 episodes when it comes to Danny's martial arts--these disappear in the second half of the run, but those early directors (John Dahl, Tom Shankland, Miguel Sapochnik, Uta Briesewitz, and to a lesser degree RZA) struggle in how they cut the sequences together (there's no question that Finn Jones is new to martial arts, but that's far less apparent in the latter episodes, indicating it could have been disguised better throughout).  I have mixed feelings about the choice to use visual effects to show Danny's anger (not a choice I'd make).  I'm not a fan of the various flashback sequences to things that happened in the show--it's something that functions in weekly television, but not in the Netflix binge format.  The effects are a mixed bag (Danny's flip in the first episode is terrible, as is the CGI bird we see occasionally, but the Iron Fist effects are fantastic).  The performances are mostly good, with Tom Pelphrey as the standout (a bit like Mahershala Ali in Luke Cage); Henry Yuk is the most cringe-worthy.  I think it's a fair point that Ward probably shouldn't be the standout, but given all the restraints on character growth for those appearing in The Defenders I can live with it.  I'm not a hiphop fan so that music element didn't work for me, but I did like the incidental music of the show.


What a shit-show this has been as reviewers crammed themselves into an echo chamber and came out with issues-journalism--Iron Fist became the Rubicon that Doctor Strange was supposed to be (I have to wonder, given how muted things were when the casting occurred, if the uproar was in reaction to the failure to hurt Doctor Strange with similar complaints).  There's so much to unpack about the reviews here, but let's preface a few things: 1) the reviewer pool for television is small and shown a tendency to put politics over criticism (the scores for Luke Cage are an easy comparison to make), 2) none of the reviewers have bad intentions--there's no conspiracy or axe to grind against Marvel, Netflix, Scott Buck, or Finn Jones, 3) there could be an interesting discussion about the casting for the show, but that's not what anyone is engaging in, 4) it's unclear what impact the reviews will ultimately have on the show (the audience scores are roughly in the mid-70s% with clear signs of vote-brigading (there's significantly more votes on the show than any other Marvel Netflix venture)--how much of the voting is a Streisand Effect isn't clear, 5) it's absolutely acceptable for you, as a viewer, to be outraged by the show (or simply dislike it).

With all of that aside, let's deal with the obvious issue: there's no white-washing in the casting of Danny Rand.  The character was created white and remains so in the comics (43 years later).  There are different ethnic (and gendered) versions of the Iron Fist (it's a title, not a name), but none of them are Danny Rand.  The argument (which isn't presented as an argument) is more about cultural appropriation--simplistically, martial arts comes out of Asia, ergo as one of the first martial arts characters in Marvel television, that person should be Asian (Elektra was the first--Marvel did make an ethnicity change for her, eliminating the original Greek character in favour of an Asian (Thai) actress).  This is a very complicated issue and none of the nuance associated with that debate is occurring here (instead it's very nanny state, with the reviewers playing the role of knowing what's best for you; it's also a little insulting to all the Asian stars who made martial arts mainstream in the 70s).  I don't agree with the appropriation argument, but it's not being made maliciously (excluding, of course, the people bullying Finn Jones on social media).  One thing I will point out, just for logical consistency, is if you're going to have an issue with Jones' casting, then you also need to take issue with Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing (her comic book character is Japanese, whereas the actress is Chinese), Jane Kim (the character is Chinese, the actress is Korean), Rosario Dawson (her character is African-American, the actress is Puerto Rican/Cuban), and Sacha Dhawan as Davos (he's Indian, the character is Chinese).  There's a reason why these choices are not criticised (there's a sophisticated one and a simplistic one), but I won't go down that rabbit hole.  You can take this to all sorts of extremes (most of the critics are white, so why not step aside and let someone impacted by the choice write the review?), but whatever your opinion is, it's tainted any discussion of the show.  If I thought a show was being racist or sexist etc, that's going to colour my opinion of it and make me struggle to deal with anyone who disagreed--it's a natural reaction.

There are other criticisms of the show.  Much of it is idiosyncratic, based on the expectations of the person giving it (eg CNet complaining the show is too serious, or those who wanted a 13-episode martial arts-fest, or those who wanted it mostly mystical).  In talking to people the main complaint I hear is about pacing, and it is a slow show, although I don't think it's particularly slow in the context of its sister-shows (Caleb Borchers makes the obvious point that Daredevil season one is slow as well).  The martial arts are another complaint I see--the fight sequences are mostly good (keeping in mind the aforementioned issues above), but the show was more interested in hiring actors as opposed to martial artists, which impacts what you can do. Finally, for those looking for the internal complexity of a Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones, that's not who Danny Rand is (or Luke Cage for that matter)--complexity comes from the supporting cast--Iron Fist in particularly has never been a particularly tortured character.

Second Season?

This is the first Netflix offering where we truly have to wonder if we'll get a second season.  All three other Defenders already have a second (or third) season confirmed, with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage filming now. Clearly the plans before release are to have another season as there are plenty of conflicts to explore (Davos, Joy, and Gao), but has the critical drubbing caused enough damage to put the brakes on?  I don't think we'll know for months--I'd guess any announcement will occur after The Defenders (so August at the earliest).  On the positive side, Iron Fist was the most binged-watched Netflix premiere yet (despite the negative reviews hitting before the show aired), but as I cautioned with Luke Cage, early viewing is not necessary an indicator of long-term interest.  If I were to guess I think we'll get that second season (everyone is signed and it's all integrated--the MCU survived Ed Norton's Hulk and Thor: The Dark World, so why not this?), but time will tell.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

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