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Light on Chi: The Tragedy of Marvel’s “Iron Fist”

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Pop quiz. What comic-book adaptation centers on a white man, orphaned by tragedy but blessed with great wealth, who travels to an Asian country, only to return to America as a fearsome hero of amazing skill? That’s a trick question, of course: There are too many to count. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne faces harsh training in the Himalayas under the tutelage of Ra’s al Ghul. With the fortune he made as a surgeon, Doctor Strange is able to travel great distances and master some vaguely defined Asian mysticism. Arrow, itself a bland riff that takes more from Batman’s mythos than I can keep up with, also fits. And now here’s Iron Fist, a copy of a copy of a copy.

That the new Netflix/Marvel series repeats this premise is the least of its problems. Worse, it simply isn’t entertaining. Each of the six episodes made available to critics proves a taxing affair where you’re asked to invest in characters so thinly constructed they could be cardboard cutouts cleverly lit to resemble human beings. It demonstrates the limits of the Marvel brand and how desperately the superhero genre needs to evolve.

Iron Fist is anchored by Danny Rand’s (Finn Jones) struggle to reconcile his own identity with his role as the Iron Fist, a hero destined to destroy the Hand, an ancient order of ninja assassins whose nefarious endgame remains frustratingly opaque. As with all heroes of this ilk, Danny’s story begins with tragedy. His parents’ private jet crashed over the Himalayas, killing them and leaving him stranded in the snowy wilderness. He’s saved and eventually trained in martial arts by monks in K’un-Lun, a mystical city outside this realm of existence.

Fifteen years later, he returns to New York City in order to reclaim his life — and his father’s multibillion-dollar company. Of course, it isn’t the welcome home he expects; childhood friends Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) now run the business that bears his last name. They alternate between being wary and downright antagonistic. Danny faces villains in the streets and in the boardroom, including David Wenham as Harold Meachum, a former associate of his father’s who is entangled with the Hand and has been pretending to be dead for years.

Created more than forty years ago by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Iron Fist is a character born of the Seventies pop-culture fascination with kung fu films and martial-arts heroes like Bruce Lee. He also exists within the troubling lineage of white characters acting as outsiders only to master a skill more fully than the people of color who invented it. Netflix’s series does little to subvert these racial politics or assuage the discomfort they stir: The Asian characters exist primarily in the margins as interchangeable foes for Danny to dispose of. (More active, given her villainy, is Madame Gao, played by Wai Ching Ho, reprising her role from Daredevil.)

The creators forsake the bright flourishes of the comics for grit, but the series doesn’t offer the depth, intelligence, or pathos necessary to make that decision work. Moments that should evoke wonder, like Danny harnessing his “chi” into his glowing fists to punch through a metal door, fall flat. Even seeing him scaling a skyscraper, with the Empire State Building in stark relief behind him, lends the rote story no awe or tension.

That might matter less if Iron Fist centered on the supernova-bright movie-star charisma that has saved a lot of Marvel output. But Jones can’t convincingly play any side of the character, and Danny is written with no through-line for him to hold on to. The struggle between his superhero life and his family’s legacy feels cursory. Flashbacks to his time in K’un-Lun read as abuse, like a brief moment of a young Danny beaten with sticks to build endurance as blood drips from his body, but showrunner Scott Buck and his collaborators don’t build on moments like this. When Danny seems meant to come across as optimistic, Jones pushes too hard, making the character appear naïve or even oddly childlike.

This isn’t the first Netflix Marvel series to have this problem. Luke Cage suffered from a hero so burdened with having to be a symbol that the writers never considered who he was as a man, leading to a surprisingly leaden performance from Mike Colter. But Luke Cage was bolstered by excellent supporting performances from Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard. Iron Fist has no such saving grace. The Meachums don’t convince as dedicated siblings or Wall Street power players. Rosario Dawson reprises her Marvel role as Claire Temple in episode five, but she’s more a device than a character. (Dawson’s charm almost wins out over the dialogue.) Characters make decisions that seem demanded by the plot but aren’t true to what we know about them. There’s not enough chemistry, interiority, or personality to make this engaging.

The most troublesome character is Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). She’s pretty much a greatest-hits version of the Strong Female Character, all flash but no real development. Her supposedly badass comebacks and fight scenes might seem profound whittled down to brief social-media posts, but in the episodes they’re lifeless. She displays incredible rancor and maybe even a death wish, given her proclivity for tournament-fighting men twice her size, but the underpinnings of this anger are never explored.

Iron Fist even makes one of the gravest mistakes a martial-arts story can: The fight scenes are middling. During the third episode, Colleen gets a showcase rumble at an underground fight tournament. It’s hard to get a handle on the fight given the quick cuts and alternating perspectives, which highlight rather than distract from the poor choreography. The best fight scenes aren’t just visually inventive feasts demonstrating the limits of the human body — they inform our understanding of characters like the heroes of John Wick: Chapter Two, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Enter the Dragon. Iron Fist doesn’t do either. The cinematography by Manuel Billeter is remarkably flat and lackluster, and the flavor and color of New York, so often a vital part of Marvel comics, is completely absent.

Even the episode directed by Wu-Tang Clan stalwart RZA has little panache. It finds Danny in a fight to the death with a series of opponents in an effort to save a young woman from the clutches of Madame Gao. Such an epic, personal struggle should elevate our understanding of his character and at least be visually dynamic.

“Are you willing to kill Danny Rand so that the Iron Fist may live?” Danny is asked by the robed master whom only he can see. The line is meant to strike at the heart of Danny’s central struggle as a hero and a man. Instead it encapsulates the fundamental problems of this torpid series: It’s a soulless, un-entertaining nadir for Marvel that has neither the grace nor the style to truly bring these characters to life.
Iron Fist premieres March 17 on Netflix.

 

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