Monday, March 20, 2017

Five Comments on Iron Fist

Marvel and Netflix's latest series dropped this past weekend, a week and a half after the pre-air reviews pretty much savaged it, calling it the partnership's (if not the MCU's) first complete dud.  What I found particularly damning about Iron Fist's reviews was their uniformity.  When one reviewer gives you a pan, you can blame the reviewer.  When a dozen reviewers give you pans that all make exactly the same criticisms--a dull and unsympathetic lead performance, an increasing emphasis on an unappealing villain, storylines that focus too much on boardroom shenanigans, lousy fight scenes--you've probably got a turkey on your hands.  Having watched the entire first season of Iron Fist, my only quibble with the reviewers is that most of the flaws they ascribe to the show were also present in the second season of Daredevil, which received generally favorable notices.  In fact, it's not so much that Iron Fist is worse than Daredevil's second season, as that it is more boring (it lacks, for example, a magnetic central performance in the vein of Jon Bernthal's Punisher), and this makes it easier to notice flaws that have been present in all of the Defenders shows, albeit taken to far greater extremes here.  The boring part means that the show doesn't really deserve a full review, but there are a few points about it that I thought were worth discussing.

  1. It is almost impossible to overstate how much of a drag Danny Rand himself is on this show.  To the extent that I strongly suspect that if you tweaked Danny but left everything else exactly as it was, Iron Fist would have gotten much kinder reviews.  In the show's first scene, a barefoot and bedraggled Danny (Finn Jones) arrives at the headquarters of his father's company, after a fifteen-year absence during which was presumed to have died in the plane crash that killed his parents, but in which he was actually training in the mystical city of K'un-Lun.  When he's refused entrance, he attacks and beats the guards who try to stop him, then makes his way to the executive floor where he accosts the grown-up children of his father's partner, Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), insisting that he is their long-lost friend.  Later, he breaks into Joy's house (where he and his family used to live) and then boasts to her about it.  Later still, he steals Ward's car with Ward inside, and, after disarming Ward of his own gun, threatens him with it.  Through it all, Danny is increasingly affronted by the world's refusal to recognize him, and perceives that refusal as a flaw in the people he interacts with.  "You need to calm down," he condescendingly tells Ward after the latter orders him out of his office, and then later complains that "I have been met by nothing but anger and hostility."

    You can almost imagine how all these interactions might have worked in a show that was more willing to make Danny look vulnerable, misguided, or just plain wrong.  But it's clear throughout Iron Fist's first episode that we're meant to be on Danny's side, to feel that his behavior is reasonable and that it is the people who are refusing him who are being foolish and thus deserve everything he does to them.  What's worse, it's clear that Danny feels this way as well.  The show tries to spin him as an innocent who doesn't understand how invasive and creepy his behavior is, but--even leaving aside the fact that this is always the excuse offered when privileged men abuse their power over others--that is simply not how Jones plays the part.  His Danny is smugly certain of his right to other people's attention, and when that certainty is punctured, he slides almost directly into anger.

    You see this, in particular, in Danny's interactions with his new friends, dojo owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Defenders stalwart Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).  All of Danny's interactions with Colleen in Iron Fist's early episodes betray his conviction that he is entitled to her time and attention.  He repeatedly abuses her generosity--when she offers him a place to stay for the night but insists that he be gone in the morning, he instead wakes her up with loud music--and pushes against her clearly-stated boundaries.  In one particularly teeth-gnashing scene, he interrupts Colleen's lesson with Claire to take her out to lunch.  When Colleen points out that they made no plans and that she has prior commitments, he complains that "I ordered takeout"--actually, a full-course meal that he has had delivered to the dojo, complete with white tablecloth and waiters.  It's clear that Iron Fist's writers see this behavior as, at worst, clueless, and at best, sweet (and, eventually, romantic).  But it's a dynamic that constantly puts Colleen and Claire on their back feet, reacting to the rules Danny sets and never being allowed to set their own.  Later in the season, when Danny begins succumbing to PTSD from his unprocessed feelings over his parents' deaths, it falls to Colleen and Claire to baby him when he has outbursts of anger and even violence, and to reassure him that these reactions are not his fault.

    In the season's first episode, Danny is befriended by a homeless man, and after listening to his delusional ravings, muses that "I'm guessing people think we're pretty much alike".  Implicit in all of Danny's interactions in Iron Fist's first half, and in the show's constant validation of his sense of entitlement, is the belief that if people knew who he really was--the real Danny Rand, or the Iron Fist, defender of K'un-Lun--they would treat him differently.  But the truth is, most of the people who interact with Danny do see him for what he is: a pushy, arrogant, condescending man who feels entitled to their time and becomes hostile when they don't give it to him.  That Iron Fist fails to acknowledge this comes down to the show's misguided conviction that we will want to see Danny as a hero, and thus share his belief in his entitlement.  It does not seem to have occurred to the show's writers that Danny needs to earn his role as a hero, and that his behavior instead pushes him further and further away from it.

    Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in the show's handling of the Iron Fist concept itself.  As Danny explains to Joy in the fourth episode, the Iron Fist is charged with the sacred duty of defending K'un-Lun from invaders.  In the same breath, he admits that he only wanted the job because no one thought that an outsider could be chosen for it.  But as soon as the passage between K'un-Lun and our reality opened (which only happens every fifteen years), Danny left his post.  The only justification the show can offer for this dereliction is to argue that Danny's PTSD and feelings of abandonment caused him to pursue the role of Iron Fist for the wrong reasons, but (leaving aside that it makes the monks who chose him for the job look pretty foolish) that excuse doesn't make things any better for the people Danny abandoned--especially since the end of the season reveals that in Danny's absence, some calamity has befallen K'un-Lun.  Once again, there are interesting things that could have been done with this--if Danny were introduced at the beginning of the season as a failure who needs to redeem himself for his betrayal of his duty.  But Iron Fist seems genuinely not to realize how bad it makes its main character look to have pursued a position of great responsibility and importance simply because everyone assumed he couldn't do it, and then, once he realized what it entailed, to abandon it at the first opportunity.  It still wants us to see Danny as a hero, and entitled to the role of Iron Fist, without him having to do any work to (re)earn it.

  2. Iron Fist is about wealth and capitalism in a way that has been largely obscured in the publicity surrounding it.  There's been a lot of conversation about Marvel's decision to cast a white man as Danny Rand, despite loud voices coming out of the fandom requesting that the character--who is, let's face it, a tired '80s trope that doesn't make a lot of sense as a superhero in 2017--be cast with an Asian actor.  Like a lot of people, I had assumed that the choice to ignore those voices was rooted, at least in part, in the desire to make Iron Fist a "plot" show rather than a "message" show like Jessica Jones or Luke Cage (to be clear, I think that this is a false dichotomy, but I could believe that the decision-makers at Marvel bought into it).  Instead, Iron Fist turns out to be just as politically blatant as the Defenders shows preceding it, albeit in the exact opposite direction.  Danny's position as a member of the 1% turns out to be just as important--if not more so--to his story as his martial arts skills and magical powers.  Once again, this does not mean that Danny could not have been cast with an Asian actor, but given the political slant of the show, I think the only thing that would have been accomplished by this would be to give an actor from an under-represented group a high-profile job.  The hopes of so much of fandom, that casting an Asian Danny would be a way for Marvel to grapple with its history of Orientalism and dismantle the "white kung-fu superhero" trope, would probably have been left unanswered, because that is not at all where Iron Fist places its thematic weight.

    The villains of Iron Fist are The Hand, a clandestine, all-powerful cult who have appeared in both seasons of Daredevil, to very little effect.  Led by the perpetually-smiling Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the Hand have tendrils in both organized crime and the occult, and in Iron Fist it's revealed that they have co-opted Rand Corporation by offering Ward and Joy's father, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), a cure for his terminal cancer.  This means that a great deal of Iron Fist is spent in boardrooms, as the Meachums first try to prevent Danny from taking his place on the Rand board, and then act exasperated when he tries to take the company in a more ethical, and less profitable, direction.  But what at first seems like the show treading water before Danny discovers the Hand's presence at Rand, actually turns out to be the point of the exercise.  Iron Fist is seriously trying to argue that all it takes for a billion-dollar corporation to be ethical is for one boardmember with a controlling share to insist on approaches such as selling a new drug at cost.  In one particularly tone-deaf plotline, Rand is sued by people living near one of their chemical plants who have been experiencing abnormally high levels of cancer.  Rather than reveal that the plant is indeed poisoning the residents, the show instead offers the weirdly implausible conclusion that Rand have abided by all existing regulations, but that they may be poisoning the residents through a process not yet understood, or regulated by the law.  This gives Danny the opportunity to insist that the plant be closed nonetheless, but more importantly, it allows the show to paint Rand as innocent--a company that has followed all the rules and is being sued nonetheless.

    The significance of this becomes clear when the show reveals that the Hand is actually an umbrella term that encompasses several warring factions.  Opposing Gao's violent, drug-funded faction is a seemingly more peaceful one, led by a charismatic guru named Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez).  He introduces the Hand to Danny as a sort of benevolence association, who give a home and an education to disadvantaged children, and encourage them to go out into the world and take positions in public service.  One of the biggest twists of the season is the revelation that Colleen is a graduate of this program, Bakuto's own prize pupil, and that her dojo is a recruitment post.  Given the overt cult vibes that Bakuto and his compound give off, it's not surprising when this branch of the Hand also turns out to be sinister, but the terms in which Iron Fist couches this evil are telling.  This version of the Hand are the stereotypical evil Communist infiltrators, seemingly benign and concerned with the public good, but actually obsessed with obedience and conformity, and hard at work placing their operatives at every level of society.  When Colleen realizes she's been working for the wrong people and betrays the Hand to save Danny, her punishment is to be literally drained of her blood--which Bakuto describes as "giving to the Hand".

    In other words, Iron Fist is a story about an innocent corporation escaping from the clutches of an evil Communist plot.  And while Rand Corporation can be saved through the simple expedient of removing Harold Meachum and placing Danny and Ward at its head (Joy has, by this point, been seduced by the forces of evil), the Communist Hand can't be saved.  All of the good it does is corrupted by its ulterior motives, and with the exception of Colleen, its members are brainwashed, willing to turn on their former teacher and benefactor if their leader tells them to (the fact that the leadership of Rand is white and rich, while the Hand is carefully multiethnic and drawn from among the poor and working classes, only makes this conclusion more pointed).  It is, quite frankly, a bizarre turn of plot, and one that I'd like to see get more attention.

  3. Colleen Wing could--and should--have been the show's lead character.  That in the early episodes of the season Colleen ends up being more sympathetic and magnetic than Danny isn't terribly surprising--where he is a son of privilege who has run away from his obligations, she is a young woman with few advantages who has taken on obligations, to train and help the kids in her neighborhood.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Jessica Henwick has a great deal more presence than Finn Jones, as an actress and in her fight scenes.  She manages to sell lines like "you dishonor yourself when you fight for money" or "I stepped way outside the code of Bushido" where he doesn't, because her character always comes off as a person with a code that she believes in but nevertheless struggles to live up to.  Colleen's storyline in the season's first half involves participating in underground cage matches, which not only gives the show its only truly engaging fight scenes--there's a heft and energy to Henwick's fighting that is completely absent from Jones's underpowered attempts at it--but raises the suggestion that Colleen is fighting more because she likes the thrill of it than in order to keep her dojo afloat.

    What is surprising about all this is how closely Colleen's story follows the contours of a standard hero narrative.  All it would take is shunting Danny to the side for the show to be about her and her journey.  Even the revelation that she is working for the Hand--though it makes her anxiety about funding the dojo seem completely unfounded--could easily have been folded into this kind of story, with Colleen learning to see that the people who saved and trained her are actually evil, and striking out on her own.  It's such a blatant heroic journey that one can hardly believe it when the later episodes of the season sideline Colleen in favor of Danny's perspective on her, prioritizing the question of whether he can learn to trust her again, and whether their nascent romance can survive the trauma of learning about her deception, over her own path towards the side of good.

    There's a sense that Iron Fist is grasping towards an equivalence between Danny and Colleen, two young people raised and trained by rigid, dogmatic systems, taught to hate each other but forced to reconsider their prejudices when they actually encounter the enemy (especially since Ward and Joy Meachum, and Danny's friend and fellow acolyte from K'un-Lun, Davos (Sacha Dhawan), who follows him to New York, can also be said to be products of similar systems).  But this would require the show to have spent more time establishing what K'un-Lun is actually like, and less time demonizing Bakuto's faction of the Hand.  Most of all, it would require the show to place a great deal less emphasis on Danny, and turn Iron Fist into more of an ensemble show, and this is clearly not something the writers were interested in doing.

  4. The most interesting character dynamic in the show doesn't involve Danny at all.  In one late-episode scene, after removing Danny from a tense interaction between Harold, Ward, and Joy Meachum, Bakuto comments that "those people... are a pit of vipers.  You should thank me for getting you away from them".  He's right, but that's also why the scenes between the Meachums are consistently--and unexpectedly--the most entertaining thing about Iron Fist.  Though saved from cancer by the Hand, Harold is officially dead, and he's been prohibited from stepping foot outside of his lush penthouse, which he has decorated as nearly a parody of masculine obsessions.  This leaves Ward as his father's go-between, conveying his orders to the Rand board as if they were his own ideas, while an oblivious Joy takes him to be a business genius.

    The dynamic that develops between the three Meachums is thus deliciously twisted.  Ward--who is shown in flashbacks to Danny's childhood to have been a vicious bully--is hardly a sympathetic character, especially when he does things like send goons after Danny or loot the Rand employee pension fund.  But he's also the most self-aware character on the show, recognizing that his father is a monster, and that the path he's taking his family and company on is one of madness.  Ground down by his father's emotional and physical abuse, and lacking the strength to break away, Ward instead spirals into anxiety and drug abuse, which is a refreshingly realistic reaction to the kind of madness that tends to pervade in a Defenders show--not to mention a well-executed portrait of the toll of toxic masculinity.

    Joy, meanwhile, feels like White Feminism personified.  Smart and ambitious, and more than willing to play dirty--in order to close a deal, she manipulates the organ transplant list to help the nephew of a putative business partner; and when threatened with ouster from the Rand board, she coolly gathers sordid blackmail material on her enemies--she's nevertheless been allowed to think of herself as an innocent in all of Rand's dealings.  But Joy is smart enough to have known better, and even when she becomes an active participant in Harold's schemes, she refuses to see what's in front of her--for example, the fact that her father is murdering their opponents on Rand's board.  That there is nevertheless a great deal of love between the three Meachums--in particular between Joy and Ward, who despite their differences strongly support one another until their father comes between them--only makes the tangled family drama more fun to watch.

    The only problem with all this is that there's no place in it for Danny, or at least not Iron Fist's version of Danny.  The Meachums were Danny's second family before the plane crash that killed his parents and derailed his life, and after his return it's clear that he still romanticizes them and the chance to form a new family with them.  Playing on this desire in much the same way that he manipulates his own son, Harold very quickly suborns Danny and convinces him that he has been an unwilling dupe of the Hand.  But that is almost the extent of Danny's interactions with the Meachums.  He spends the season thinking that Harold is a victim--it's only right before the end that we discover, unsurprisingly, that Harold orchestrated Danny's fateful plane crash--and is not privy to Harold's abuse of Ward, or Ward and Joy's close bond and its corruption by secrets, or Joy's growing willingness to adopt her father's tactics.  When Danny finally catches a glimpse of the real Meachums near the end of the season, he's utterly befuddled, because the most interesting story in his own show has been happening largely without his input.

  5. You do not need to watch Iron Fist in order to understand the plot of The Defenders.  This is, obviously, mostly speculation, but Iron Fist is actually fairly self-contained in its storytelling.  Very little is left for The Defenders to resolve, and the only dangling thread that seems as if it might be relevant to that show's story is the fact that Bakuto's faction of the Hand has infiltrated much of New York's government and public services.  It's likely, however, that The Defenders will reintroduce this plot point in order to make its own storytelling work, so if you're planning to watch Iron Fist as a necessary stepping stone to the team-up event, don't bother.

14 comments:

Chris said...

Only two episodes in, a couple comments about the class/economics thing -

One, picking a playboy-billionaire is definitely a jarring dissonance with the rest of Marvel-Netflix given that all of it has, so far, been about street level Little People. They've botched a lot of the execution, but at least the concept was there, up to this point.

Two, haven't gotten to the SJW-Hand yet, but I found it noteworthy that Papa Meachum's spiel of "you find people young, you train them, you pay them twice what they're worth, and they'll never betray you" spiel was being put out as a *villain* speech. Would that corporations actually thought this way in the real world.

Eric said...

It seems strange that Madame Gao is part of the Hand. I wonder if that's a retcon? She clearly wasn't working with Nobu in either of the Daredevil seasons.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris:

What's particularly weird about choosing Danny and making him immediately rich (which as I understand didn't happen at once in the comics) is how it short-circuits so many of the stories you can tell about the other Defenders. Most of Matt, Jessica, Luke, and Claire's problems come down to them not having money. If they're friends and comrades-in-arms with a billionaire, wouldn't he help them out, becoming essentially the Defenders' version of Tony Stark?

About Harold's speech, I do think it's significant that the person he's talking about is Kyle, who is depicted as almost comically spineless (I say "almost" mainly because this is such a humorless show). It's the loyalty that matters to Harold, not the idea of rewarding people and thus earning that loyalty, and though he talks like a reasonable businessman, it's part of the season's main story to reveal the sickness that lies underneath that benevolent exterior. Wilson Fisk and Wesley, this relationship is not.

Eric:

I've been assuming that Gao is associated with the Hand since at least the second season of Daredevil, though I couldn't point to the exact scene where this is established. That said, the Hand are an unbelievably boring villain and it's possible that I spaced out during some more concrete explanation of their org chart.

100thlurker said...

While the (hopefully) unintended McCarthyism is hard to ignore, the way you described the show's presentation of the Bakuto faction reminded me instantly of how Erdogan and his ilk talk about the threat of Gullenists.

Mark W said...

The Iron Fist showrunner is also the Inhumans showrunner, so there's potentially more of this dreck on the horizon.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Mark:

Strangely enough, watching the show leaves me more hopeful about The Inhumans than I was when the savage reviews came out. As I say, the most successful part of the show is the Meachum family drama, and my understanding is that "twisted 1% family who hate and love each other in equal measure and don't know how to relate to anyone from outside their sphere" describes the Inhumans quite well.

Unknown said...

What do you make of the fact that each of these shows there's the sense that the female supporting character is the best part and could/should have gotten her own show? Whether Karen (and to a certain extent Claire) in S1 of Daredevil or Misty Knight in Luke Cage, these characters frequently come off as more compelling than the titular hero of their show (and even Trish in JJ is the most richly drawn best friend character).

My tentative conclusion is that the showrunners know how to craft compelling characters and arcs, but are hamstrung by the demands of the producers or the overarching arc of the MCU and so can't exercise those instincts on the main characters, but I have no evidence of that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Unknown:

I think it's that, but I also think the showrunners of the three shows with male protagonists aren't quite at the point of being willing to let a woman headline her own story. Finn Jones got a lot of flack last week when he tried to explain how great the women on Iron Fist are, and could only come up with how they support the hero. But he wasn't wrong to identify that approach in the show, and while Daredevil and Luke Cage aren't quite that bad, they eventually fall into the same trap. Misty Knight and Karen are both great, but their storylines ends up being subsumed into those of male characters - and in Karen's case, in the second season, it wasn't even the star of the show.

Unknown said...

It seems to me, though, that regardless of gender every character in the Netflix MCU shows gets his/her story subsumed under the hero's story. The plots of these shows have a hero character, a villain character, and their collision in the series finale. Everyone else kind of supports those two characters' stories. Foggy is great, but he's so in Matt's orbit that when he leaves the practice at the end of S2, you read it as a repudiation of Matt rather than something he himself wants. Punisher headlines his own story, but he's positioned as the primary villain of S2 (at least until ninjas and bottomless pits get introduced to Hell's Kitchen).

Trish and Luke Cage have their own arcs in Jessica Jones, but those characters' depth can also be seen as a trailer for Hellcat and Luke Cage standalone projects.

I think that's what I was trying to get at with the demands of the producers - There's only room for in these shows for the story of the hero and the villain and how they collide. Especially towards the end of the seasons, all the characters stop what they're doing and move into position either supporting the good guy or the bad guy.

nathan said...

I was thinking the other day about the relationship between each series' title and its main character's identity.

1. Daredevil - white male lead, superhero name
2. Jessica Jones - white female lead, personal name
3. Luke Cage - black male lead, personal name
4. Iron Fist - white male lead, superhero name

It's not hard to see where this line is drawn - we can talk about marked and unmarked identities all day [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markedness]. And I'm certainly not the first to point out that the two better series have non-(white/male) lead characters. I wonder if that has anything to do with a focus on personal identity rather than superhero identity.

Thanks for this post - I read it when about 4 eps in to the season and it gave me a heap of perspective that I hadn't been sufficiently considering.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Unknown:

Thinking about this some more, I think the issue might be less the fact that female supporting characters don't get their own stories - because after all, they are supporting characters - as that male supporting characters in female-led shows often do. Take iZombie, where the cast-off love interest character introduced in the first episode, who in a gender-swapped version we'd expect to be quickly shuffled off or even killed, becomes one of the most compelling and dynamic characters on the show (and even arguably has a more pro-active role than the female lead). Or Supergirl, where the second season has stumbled precisely by spending so much time giving characters like James, Winn, and even a recurring love interest like Mon-El their own storylines independent from Kara's. Jessica Jones is, in fact, unusual in not doing this. Luke and Malcolm get their own stories, but they're massively underplayed compared to Jessica's (in fact, I might have liked Malcolm to get a little more of a storyline). And the character who in any other show would have been at least the co-lead, Simpson, becomes a villain (and not even the boss villain) precisely because he convinces himself of this fact.

Basically, there's an assumption that men's stories are inherently more interesting than women's stories, that creators end up having to push against constantly. And when you have shows where the male lead is just not that interesting - and this is true, to a certain extent, even in Luke Cage, where Luke himself is often allowed to be a frustratingly flat character - the problems with that way thinking just become more obvious to the eye.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

nathan:

That's a good point about the names, though Jessica Jones is a bit of an aberration since in the comics she is a former superhero (under the name Jewel) who is now living as a civilian and, as far as I know, never takes up the superhero mantle again. That said, the show ignores this backstory, so the fact that both Jessica and Luke are identified by their names while Matt and Danny are identified by monikers does feel significant.

As I said, it feels as if Marvel/Netflix see JJ and LC as "message" shows and DD and IF as "plot" shows. That strikes me as a simplistic division, but even if you buy into it, it's surely significant that the message shows were the ones that turned out better and got better reviews. Marvel is still operating on the assumption that everything has to lead into a team-up event, and therefore it's important to have plotty shows that set this up. But even ignoring the fact that the movies are already starting to back off from this model (it's not an accident, I think, that almost all of the phase 3 MCU movies are standalones, several of them taking place off Earth), I don't see how Netflix's model benefits from it.

Chris said...

"As I said, it feels as if Marvel/Netflix see JJ and LC as "message" shows and DD and IF as "plot" shows."

Well, that's sad if true. I got the sense that the first three were *all* supposed to be "message" shows to some extent - Daredevil being about class in the same way that Jessica Jones was about gender and Luke Cage about race. Not saying they handled it particularly well, but they certainly seemed to be trying. (It's also one of the reasons why, again, I didn't see the need for Iron Fist, which is clearly the odd one out in that dynamic, returning to the "default" superhero setting of the Marvel movies when Marvel-Netflix was supposed to be about the "street" side of the MCU. And this, by the way, further reinforces your "this should've been Colleen's show" idea).

Of course, now that I think about it, all that I just said is largely only true of Daredevil Season 1 - Season 2 pretty much abandons all that in favor of ninjas and the Punisher. Which is wholly consistent with where Iron Fist takes things.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yeah, I would classify Daredevil's first season as a "message" show, but its second definitely veers more in the "plot" direction. And it's no coincidence that it's that season that does the most to set up the Hand before Iron Fist. What this comes down to is the Defenders event, and the apparent conviction in Marvel that you can either set that event up - with one of the dullest and least imposing villains since, well, MCU-Thanos - or talk about political issues, but you can't do both.

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