Generally speaking, I only like to review shows, movies, or games that I like, because my enjoyment of those things compels me to dissect, understand, and share what I believe led me, and usually other people, to enjoy them.
This review is an exception to that. I did not like Iron Fist. I thought it was bad. And I, in fact, thought it was such an underwhelming and at times frustrating show that I felt the need to articulate why I think I and so many other people were deeply dissatisfied with it.
As a preemptive to this review, I will be giving full spoilers. If you still want to watch the show, don’t read on. I also am writing this acknowledging that I am of Asian American descent, but will not in any way be allowing that or the choices of the script with regard to its portrayal of Asian culture or possible appropriation thereof to influence my review of this show. I’ve also never read a single Iron Fist comic in my life, so please don’t tell me that if you segregate the show from the comic, it works. The review will be based solely on what I view to be the merits of its scripting and storytelling alone.
Also, this is going to be long. Just a heads up. I’m going to be rambling a lot, because that’s how I write. I’m sure about two of you will actually read all of this, but this is just catharsis for me so that’s fine.
That being said: on with the review.
I’m going to start with what I think is the most damning flaw of this program, or at least the thing that frustrated me the most and it’s the protagonist, Danny Rand. Danny is not a good main character, and here’s why. The show opens up with him returning after being presumably dead for fifteen years. He immediately expects that he can just waltz into his family’s company, meet with the man in charge, and immediately reclaim everything that he had left behind.
This could’ve just been an affectation of the character. Maybe he’s just dumb and quirky like that, as a contrast to the other Marvel heroes. But it’s not just that. It’s an indication of a pattern that permeates the rest of Danny’s character arc. He repeatedly makes stupid decisions, does not seriously acknowledge or assume his responsibilities, and allows his emotions and poor judgment to lead things awry.
The first two episodes of the show are painful, not simply because it’s slow, but because so much of what goes on is a result of Danny just being incompetent and rash. He forces his way into Rand, makes very threatening and disconcerting gestures throughout his interactions with his “friends” (whether it’s your intention or not, breaking into people’s homes, holding them at gunpoint, stalking them, spewing unbelievable nonsense at them and almost killing them does not help your sanity case or your trust case). It is drama perpetuated by poor character writing, which is some of the worst kind. When Danny’s put into the psyche ward and the Doctor finally believes that he is who he says he is, he follows up by saying the most inane crap that no one in their right mind would believe, thus ensuring his further captivity there. WHO. WROTE. THIS.
Danny continues to get in over his head throughout the show, taking on opponents or threats he can’t beat, setting himself up for idiotic, black and white moral dilemmas, and basically putting everyone near him in danger because he’s incapable of assessing his situation thoroughly, seeing from other people’s perspectives, and resolving any issues by punching first and asking questions later.
Danny constantly allows his emotions and first instincts to rule his judgments, and while it may all work out in the end, it causes a lot of unneeded strife and regret in his life. How many times did you count him royally fucking up and then saying “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry” Tenth Doctor style throughout the show? Even two is too, too many. Not when you want to craft a character for me to believe in, sympathize with, and stand behind. There’s a scene in the eighth episode where he’s telling Claire and Colleen that he plans to go to China, and they’re like “are you sure you know what you’re doing?” And what’s his response? “WHAT, DON’T YOU TRUST ME?” And they’re like, of course.
Danny has done nothing but fuck up, be a hypocrite, and be totally irresponsible since you met him. He actively screws up reuniting with his friends, getting out of the psyche ward, proving his identity, getting his company back, getting evidence of Gao’s drug operation, interrogating Gao, keeping his friends safe, rescuing hostages, not just blindly following whatever anyone tells him to do, and he even screws up at summoning the iron fist—the one thing he’s supposedly good for. None of those things would’ve worked out had some outside force made it so for him.
Other Marvel Netflix protagonists screwed up, but they proved their competence in different ways. Daredevil was still a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom as well as in a fight. Jessica Jones was a stellar deceiver and investigator, as well as brawler. Luke Cage knew how to gain the trust and support of the people, and how to stick to his guns.
Iron Fist sometimes knew how to do some things but usually he would screw it up and someone would have to bail him out. And you can argue to me that this is just part of his character. He’s emotional and rash but that’s what he struggles with and it’s how he develops. But, I’m sorry, it goes too far. It makes the writing seem almost insulting of the audience’s intelligence that it seems to think we’re meant to buy into this drama caused by and frequently followed up with Danny’s idiocy. And the major lack of redeeming actions and qualities just make him unlikable (to me).
But it’s not just that Danny is a screw up. He also is irresponsible. He becomes the majority shareholder of Rand and seems to have some genuine interest in the welfare and integrity of the company, but he does JACK SHIT. All he does is attend one meeting, tell them “No, don’t do that. Do this” and then he walks away. And then he pulls the same thing later with the chemical plant. Does he do this with good intentions, and does it show that he has moral fiber? Yes, sure, and that’s good. But he doesn’t deal with any of the consequences. He basically holds people to a level of responsibility that he does not hold himself to. He tells people to do things a certain way because it’s what he believes is right, but then he expects them to deal with the ramifications that come with such stark decision-making, because he’s too busy chasing down evil Kung Fu ninjas. And yet he’s constantly talking about how disciplined and morally fibrous he is and tries to give people advice about values and family and blah blah blah SHUT UP YOU HYPOCRITE.
Danny has this frustrating tendency to expect things to go a certain way, do things he wants to do, and then not take responsibility for any of it. Got the Iron Fist? Shirk your responsibilities and run away. Got friends? Fuck them, run off and do superhero shit. There’s a company? Fuck the people who built and maintained it, it’s YOUR company. Now bitch until you get it and then don’t actually spend any effort in running it.
And, okay, that could work if it became an integral facet of the plot that his inability to cope with being both the Iron Fist and an eminent figure at his company created conflict and drama and led to story and character development. But it doesn’t. Danny basically never deals with any of the consequences of his total shirking of responsibility at Rand, just like he scarcely deals with the consequences of any of his other terrible decisions and rash behavior. Because eventually everything just happens to work out for him as a convenience of the plot or a side effect of his vigilantism. It’s. Not. Good. Writing.
And perhaps I could have forgiven all of this—all of it—if I just felt like I had a firm grasp of Danny as a fleshed out, likable character. But I feel like I never got that opportunity. Either Danny is always going into a fit of rage or he’s ashamed of his own inability to live up to the person that he believed himself to be. We get so little of anything else out of him. There are a couple scenes in the first and seventh episodes where we are allowed to observe the quirkier and funnier sides of his character, but that’s it. Most of the show, he just feels like a hormonally imbalanced teenage stereotype, lashing out at people, rushing headfirst into crap he can’t handle, and then apologizing afterward (or not apologizing and letting other people deal with it, or placing the blame on someone else). This sort of thing can work but only if you do it right.
Zuko from Avatar was a good example of this. Yes, he was emotional, had a short fuse, was full of shame, and often lashed out, but he also, over the course of the show, learned and DEMONSTRATED patience, introspection, critical thought, and compassion. Even in his earliest and worst days you could get the sense of honor and fairness that he had in the way that he treated both his peers and his enemies. We do not get much of that from Danny beyond a couple instances of him babbling about fighting honor or emotional control like he memorized a book on meditation.
And with regard to that, Danny keeps talking about where he comes from and how he was raised and the lessons he was taught but we hardly ever SEE ANY OF IT. For crying out loud, Marvel, SHOW. DON’T TELL. I cannot become invested in a character’s backstory if all I’m going to get is recounts of the philosophy he was taught and the responsibilities that were explained to him. Let me see the damn place. Let me see how his formative years went. How did he become the person he is? What were his relationships like? How did they foster the psychology he now possesses and the emotional conflicts he now harbors? Who the fuck knows. Danny, I can’t get invested in you as a character if I’m not given more of a foundation for all of your problems and motivations. This is the same issue I had with Man of Steel and Superman. Yes, I get it. You want to save lives. BUT WHY. Actually, Man of Steel did a much better job than Iron Fist, because at least you did get some form of explanation for why Superman does some of the things he does and has some of the issues that he has.
And this is connected to another problem that the overall narrative experiences. An overarching theme in this show is friendship and family. Danny seems to very, very much value family, as is demonstrated time and again in the show. He holds his name as priceless, regards Joy and Ward as siblings, treats Howard like a second father, and (purportedly) does whatever he can to protect and care for the people closest to him as the basis for his whole modus operandi. Family is precious to Danny, and informs the general philosophy of the show and its emotional through line.
You know why that doesn’t work, though? Because there’s almost no goddamn examples of POSITIVE relationships in this entire show. Everyone hates each other. Everyone is either lying to, manipulating, threatening, or straight-up stabbing everyone else that they have any connection to. Ward and Joy are constantly at odds. Ward despises his father, who is an enigmatic dick. Danny, Joy, and Ward openly show aggression, distrust, and resentment for one another. There’s a scene where Danny calls Ward his brother, acknowledges that he was a complete fucking dick to him his whole life, but still his brother. In that scene, Danny himself points out the vast and irritating dissonance between the values espoused by the show and what it actually portrays. We don’t even get flashbacks, save for one where Ward is, big surprise, being a dick to both Joy and Danny.
So what is Danny fighting for? Himself, whom we’ve been given very little opportunity to care for and like? Oh, no, wait, his parents. His parents are the cornerstone of his life experience and his purpose. And you know who we never get to see in the show outside of the scene where they literally both die? This is another example of the show withholding from its audience the opportunity to understand and become emotionally invested in anything that the characters, especially Danny, is ever fighting for or talking about. What kind of a man was Danny’s father? What did he do? What sort of relationship did he have with Danny? How did he make Danny who he is? How did he make the company what it was? What does the company even supposedly really stand for? Apparently, the show doesn’t care to tell you outside of a few scant tidbits.
So how about the other characters? Honestly, I can’t say much about them. Most of them are pretty boring. Colleen is okay, but she’s not particularly interesting. She’s very similar to Danny, as Claire points out, and functions mostly as a romantic foil. Joy is sort of just your token female supporting drama character who has some moral fiber that she sometimes acts on and tries not to take shit from anybody but generally she does very little in the way of helping the plot along and mostly just reacts and gets treated as a plot device. Howard, the antagonist of the show, could be intimidating at times, but he was largely a one-note character who had very little nuance and room to be sympathized with. And he loses a lot of that intimidation factor after it turns out he’s just the Hand’s bitch.
Ward probably has the most dramatic and fleshed out character arc in the show. They actually take the time to illustrate what sort of life he leads, why he does what he does, what causes him to have the feelings and thoughts that he does, and how he deals with them. Unfortunately, he’s still kind of a manipulative dick who doesn’t generally do a very good job at being either the good or the bad guy (and I’m sorry, but he does NOT redeem himself).
Honestly, the best characters in this show were probably Hogarth and Claire—the two characters not native to this show. Claire especially was good for the fact that she would, on occasion, actually point out Danny and Colleen’s bullshit and what terrible, stupid people they are. Small victories for the impatient and flabbergasted audience members.
The writing is lackluster. There was a whole stealth sequence in one of the episodes with Danny and Colleen where they’re just having banter for a few minutes, and it was just nothing. I almost skipped through it, I was so unamused. The dialogue often feels lazy. Scarcely anything in the script is ever very clever, enlightening, or funny. And speaking of funny, this show really could’ve done with some levity. I mean, seriously, going back to Danny as a character, having a more quirky, funny, fun protagonist would’ve been such a welcome change of pace for the Marvel Netflix shows. And it’s such a major letdown that, while you can see the seeds of it in some moments, those qualities of Danny largely are overtaken by his angst and self-pity. Seriously, Hogarth was probably the closest thing the show had to a comic relief, and she was in about ten minutes of it.
And, okay, let’s address those first couple of episodes. People complained that the show starts out really slow, and I’ve seen some people defend how slow it is. They say “well, you know, people looking for an intense, energetic action show should just shift gears and appreciate its smoother pace.” Bullshit. Slow does not make a show bad. Bad makes a show bad. You want to see a show that’s both slow and awesome? Go watch the new episodes of Samurai Jack. It understands that those slower moments are used to build character, tension, and atmosphere. Season 1 of Daredevil also understood this. You do not.
The first couple episodes are probably the worst in the show because, as people have already criticized, it’s dumb, boring, predictable, frustrating, seen-it-a-million-times soap opera drama. It’s the same problem that Arrow had for two seasons before people finally started to wise up to it and decide that it was BS and to stop watching. And the rest of the show isn’t much better, because while the pace picks up a bit, it intertwines all the Soap Opera drama BS with generic action drama BS. Plot twist after plot twist after contrived threat after cliff hanger happens over and over again, like the show is trying to distract you from how little weight there is to anything actually going on.
Later into the series, you find out that Colleen is a member of the Hand, and had been deceiving Danny this whole time. But, she also professes that the faction of the Hand to which she belongs is actually a “good” faction, as it carries out justice and helps those who need care, support, and shelter. But, Danny, who is convinced that the Hand is just plain bad and evil because that’s what he was raised believing (again, a period in his life that it would’ve been good to actually see), reacts very strongly negatively and cuts off ties with Colleen.
Now, what you had here was an opportunity for a genuinely interesting plot development which could’ve helped imbue the show with an actually evolving and challenging story. Maybe Danny would have to question his beliefs, look inside himself, see things from other people’s perspectives for once, grow as a person, and start understanding things on more than just a surface, emotional level.
But that’s not what happens. What happens is that the faction of the Hand of which Colleen is a member turns out to be evil after all. Colleen has to apologize to Danny for being so in the wrong, Danny is vindicated, he doesn’t learn jack shit, we get another positive relationship undercut by distrust and negativity, and the plot goes on as it always has with no real significant changes or new stakes. That is how this and shows like Arrow or Agents of SHIELD or movies like DCEU films operate and why they have lost their support as the years went on. Some, maybe not everyone, but some people wise up to contrived, clichéd, formulaic, ill-executed BS writing like that.
There was a scene towards the series’ climax where Danny has to make this big moral choice that seems like it’s some huge dilemma that will serve as a making-or-breaking point for the character. And it infuriated me. Because they were delivering it with so much dramatic emphasis that the scene DIDN’T DESERVE. You can’t just make 10 episodes and then have some big dramatic development and expect it to be emotionally engaging. You have to WORK UP TO THAT. You have to get me INVESTED in the CHARACTER and the STORY. You have to allow me to feel like I UNDERSTAND and EMPATHIZE with what the people in the story are going through. You have to fluidly and skillfully CONVEY AND EXEMPLIFY the themes and underlying philosophy of your narrative. You can’t just be like “guy has a tragic accident, learns kung fu, is messed up, learns a lesson.” No. That is how you tell a story immediately after you learn what a story is in the third grade. You are professionals. You are showrunners. You are handling a character which people value who belongs to a franchise which people value. GET IT RIGHT. DO IT JUSTICE. LEARN. EVOLVE. EXCEL.
Now, do I think that this show is just…top to bottom terrible with no redeeming qualities? Like, they wrote the script in a week and gave it no thought or effort? No, I don’t. I think plenty of effort and care, on some level, must have gone into this. But the issue is that all of that effort and care almost comes across as nothing more than an affectation or a mask of the show, as opposed to a foundational crux of its overall quality and spirit. The show just felt directionless, like it was trying to be something great but it didn’t understand what that was or how to do it. I get similar impressions from the DCEU movies (sometimes). It has the look of something amazing, but underneath is just gobbledy gook.
It’s a show that maybe worked on paper, but supremely failed in execution. Maybe you like this show, and I won’t tell you that your opinion doesn’t matter or that you shouldn’t allow what I’m saying to affect you. Because that’s bs. Of course your opinion matters and what I’m saying should affect you because people care about what other people think. It’s what makes art and discussion matter in the first place. But, seriously, you have to at least acknowledge that this is, from some understanding, a heavily, heavily flawed show. I know some people think critics are all full of hot air, the level of criticism this show has been getting is not something you can just dismiss as critics not knowing what they’re talking about. There’s a line. And this is the show that crossed it.
I’ll close my review by saying this: I hope Defenders is better, or else I’m swearing off Superhero dramas for a while. If you want a dramatic and dark show with martial arts and awesome direction? Go watch the new season of Samurai Jack. It even has humor.
EDIT: Iron Fist's action also sucks.