If what follows sounds like I am teeing off with particular aggression on Iron Fist it’s because I am big fan of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration. More than that, I’m a lapsed comic book fan from back in the day and further, I happen to love storytelling in general. I believe that it’s magical, that it has a transformative quality, and that it can be, not always but sometimes, a sacred thing. I think not everyone deserves to be a storyteller on a large stage and if you are a shitty one, you should stop getting jobs telling stories. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Dexter but the final seasons of that show, along with the idiotic finale, were remarkably stupid and I was able to deduce, decidedly, that Scott Buck is an absolutely shitty storyteller. In fact, I’m not going to use that word to describe him anymore. The point is, someone at Netflix and/or Marvel saw those critically maligned and audience hated seasons of Dexter and said, “Hire that guy to run Iron Fist.” And the result is exactly what one would expect. Iron Fist is abysmally bad. It’s stupid. It’s badly written. It’s glacially slow and uninteresting. It has no sense of itself or understanding of who or what its main character is or why. It’s not just bad for a Netflix series, it’s objectively terrible and would not last three episodes on network television without being cancelled. And the world would be a better place if that were its fate.
Where to start. I recently encountered the term “idiot plot” coined by the late great Roger Ebert to describe a story whose resolution would be easily accomplished if the main characters were not idiots. This applies immediately to the first conflict present in Iron Fist: no one believes he is really Danny Rand, who supposedly died in a plane crash with his parents 15 years earlier. Danny is at first unable to convince his two childhood friends of his identity, even when sharing fun memories of playing soccer with them as children (Actual Dialogue: “…you don’t remember? I played the goalie.” You were the goalie or you played goalie, you fucking moron), but they are unconvinced so they drug him and send him to a psychiatric hospital where he is held against his will because that’s something you can do to people if you don’t believe they are who they say they are. This is resolved two episodes in when Danny sends his former bestie a package of M&Ms from the hospital with the brown ones taken out and she’s like, “It’s really him!” Because he couldn’t just fucking say “You don’t like brown M&Ms” on the multiple occasions they’ve interacted. Flash forward two episodes and Danny convinces Trinity (lawyer Hogarth) within thirty seconds of meeting her by immediately sharing intimate details of their past. Which now he apparently knows how to do.
Finn Jones is a perfectly capable actor but in response to the negative reception Iron Fist is receiving he theorized that the current pop culture mindset is inherently anti-billionaire, and that people just don’t like the character of Danny Rand because of it which is stupid. Danny Rand is a prick but not because he’s a billionaire heir, he’s a prick because he’s a prick. When he decides to turn down a fortune in order to fight for majority ownership in his parents company his faux sister/bestie, who made the original offer, asserts, “My brother and I have been working our asses off for years to build this company up while you have been off living in a monastery.” It’s a perfectly fair goddamn point. But for someone who has no need for possessions or shoes, Danny sure is interested in taking back ownership of his billion dollar company and buying an Aston Martin as soon as possible.
When the reviews started coming in for Iron Fist I was initially skeptical, as Marvel and Netflix haven’t missed a beat so far. Daredevil might be the best one-two punch introduction of a conflicted superhero struggling with his identity and purpose on a largely grounded scale. He fights for Hell’s Kitchen both as a vigilante and a lawyer and as a Catholic which informs his sense of responsibility and guilt and the fight scenes are jaw dropping at times. Jessica Jones is a snarky know-it-all with a neo-noir sensibility and one of the most compelling and terrifying villains in the Marvel canon. Luke Cage is a modernist blaxploitation masterpiece that embraces black culture and music like no other comic book adaptation ever has. But to play the devil’s advocate, the Electra story line is pretty boring and Daredevil does get lost in this drama with The Hand, which at a certain point just become a series of faceless goons for Matt to beat up. And Jessica Jones suffers the most from that third quarter slump that all these shows have suffered from, that period of filler episodes that seemingly have no bearing on the rest of the plot before it ramps up again for the final act, an act that absolutely ruins that same fantastic villain who largely carried the show. And the energy and focus that Luke Cage starts is ejected right along with Cottonmouth out that window, with the second half of the series suffering a lack of direction or purpose. And although these shows get more right than they get wrong, by and large, the writing was on the wall. There are flaws in Marvel/Netflix formula. Because if any of these showrunners had failed to at least get the core of the character right and embrace that as much as possible, all of these shows are going to be middling at best. And Iron Fist is just such a failure.
How difficult would it have been to sit down with some classic Kung Fu films from the 7os and just indulge in the campy joy, to saturate the writers with some of the culture and art that inspired the original character and find a way to modernize it within what was fun about that genre. To take the subject seriously without the showrunner and writers taking themselves too seriously, that’s a recipe for success that other fringe characters were able to exploit, from Ant-Man to Guardians of the Galaxy, there needs to be at least some affection for the source material and a degree of effort made. Iron Fist has none of those things. No love, no effort, no thought, no logic. What it does succeed in is a few things:
- It proves that both Marvel and Netflix are fallible. This isn’t exactly revelatory but it shows that the two otherwise strong brands can not just be off the mark, they can miss the target completely in a full 13 episode series. My understanding of Netflix is that they are a showrunner’s dream to work with, they are hands-off, they encourage pushing boundaries, and don’t add pressure to appeal to a larger audience. This is great, but it also leads to things like The OA which, from an artistic standpoint, is incredibly bold but also desperately needed someone somewhere to shout “…interpretive dance…are you fucking kidding me?!” from a place of power.
- Being the worst Marvel property to date by a huge margin, on par with some of the worst comic book adaptations of all time, along with Catwoman, Steel, and pretty much all of the Fantastic Four films. Congratulations.
- It demonstrates the sad fact that Marvel is now a fully mainstream force in the entertainment industry in the sense that Scott Buck, who should not be allowed near so much as a typewriter, will follow the age old Hollywood tradition of successfully failing upwards by heading up the Inhumans franchise later this year.
Here’s hoping The Defenders really do save the day, if not from The Hand and Sigourney Weaver, than at least from the likes of the asshole who brought us this storytelling magic.