Imagine a show with no plot or interesting characters oh wait
by Luis Gómez
Co-editor in Chief
Binge-watching Iron Fist, the newest of the Marvel-Netflix co-productions, is an experience akin to watching cheese melt over tortilla chips in the microwave at 2AM. It’s like very slowly toasting a bagel and putting on the smallest amount of butter possible. It’s like doing the dishes or cutting the grass or, ironically, watching a season of a show you don’t really like just to get context for the upcoming tie-in material. Iron Fist fails, quite simply, because there is nothing of consequence to engage with in it.
Iron Fist tells the story of Danny Rand, a slice of Wonder Bread whose plane crashed into the Himalayas when he was ten, killing his parents. Danny is eventually found by warrior monks and raised in, get this, an alternate dimension called K’un-Lun that’s literally referred to as ‘heaven.’ Danny spends fifteen years training under these monks, until he is chosen to become the next Iron Fist, a title that means you get glowy strong punching as a superpower, and are tasked with defending K’un-Lun against ‘The Hand,’ the evil superninjas previously seen in Daredevil’s second season. Danny eventually leaves K’un-Lun because reasons, goes back to his life in New York, takes back his fortune and board position at his father’s huge company, and then spends the next few days or weeks doing absolutely nothing of value.
To be fair, the show has its good moments, notably the show’s sixth episode, directed by Wu-Tang Clan member RZA. This is due in part to RZA’s direction, which proved commendable in his 2011 pulpy martial arts sendup film, The Man with the Iron Fists (no pun intended…I think), but it’s also due to the fact that episode 6 is the first time Danny Rand is allowed to actually do something.
Actually, let’s talk about casting. The supporting cast is, by and large, a welcome reprieve – Jessica Henwick’s portrayal of martial arts instructor Colleen Wing is, for the most part, nuanced and enjoyable. Equally enjoyable are the returns of Carrie-Anne Moss as power lawyer Jeri Hogarth, and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, the beleaguered, infinitely patient nurse that keeps making an appearance in the Netflix shows because continuity trumps all.
And then there’s the main batch. David Wenham does his very best to be a compelling villain, and as Harold Meachum he almost pulls it off, but he’s ultimately brought down by his awful, awful kids. Joy Meachum can’t decide if she’s the world’s biggest corporate hardass or some kind of wilting sob story about the importance of feeling, because she waffles between both with liberty. I think we’re ultimately meant to see her as finding a sort of balance between being a high-powered corporate stooge and a Nice Caring Person, but either the writing or Jessica Stroup’s performance won’t allow her to get there. Ward Meachum is, I think, supposed to be an unlikeable fall guy for Harold’s scheming, but he mostly comes across as a petulant corporate wannabe with a drug problem. Actually, his drug problem is the most interesting thing about him. Otherwise, his purpose in the story is basically to be a narrative gatekeeper, to hold the protagonist back just enough until we reach the point in the prewritten story that he’s allowed to learn some new fact or gain some meager insight.
Which brings us to Danny Rand. Oh how wrong everything went.
Danny Rand is the worst part of this show. And the show is supposed to be about him. Even if we place aside the debate over the show’s (and, to be fair, the original comic’s) appropriative nature, the biggest crime is that Danny is just an awful protagonist. Danny stumbles from story beat to story beat for five straight episodes, poking his curly-haired blank canvas for a face into everyone else’s life and business, becomes interesting for an episode, then retreats back into narrative mediocrity for the rest of the series. Danny has no interesting characteristics. Danny’s flaws are poorly established and inconsistently brought up. Danny has no need to exist in his own story, because the ultimate outcome of his tale is that the status quo is preserved, at least to everyone on the outside. His arrival in his own story is about as impactful as a duck eating a stale cracker in a different movie.
Iron Fist’s characters don’t actually feel as though they are engaging with the plot that happens around them, and this is especially true of the protagonist. The palace intrigue segments between Harold, his kids, Danny, and the company all happen based on a script we’ve seen before, as does Ward’s drug problem, as does Colleen’s shocking twist reveal that she was part of The Hand all along. Everything happens according to plan, with the result being that nothing happens because the characters in this story want it to happen or actively exert their influence. And because the characters have no agency in their own story, narrative elements just keep happening. At one point Colleen, Danny, and Claire fly the corporate jet to Guangzhou, China, which occurs after Danny has been removed from the company’s board and likely would have exactly zero “I’m going to fly this private jet to China and back kthx” privileges. But this is never addressed, because the story said they had to go to Guangzhou, so they went to Guangzhou.
Maybe Iron Fist’s biggest fault is that on top of the useless protagonist and ham-fisted uneven writing, there’s no broader point to the show. Jessica Jones explored rape, abuse and the aftermath; Luke Cage took a good long look at race and power dynamics; even Daredevil managed to be about managing disability and the expectations of others. Iron Fist has no broader point. It has no secondary layer to draw upon. I suppose it tries to posit Danny Rand overcoming his trauma as a Point, but he doesn’t overcome anything. The final fight between him and Harold is entirely driven by Danny’s trauma, and the resolution of the fight is Ward shooting his dad in the face and Harold falling off the building. Danny learns nothing meaningful about himself, only more plot to explore in future seasons of this godforsaken pile of stale popcorn.
The most amazing thing about Iron Fist is that it is the platonic ideal of nothingness. It’s not bad enough for it to be held up as a categorical failure on Netflix’s part, but it’s not good enough to sit at the big kids’ table with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It isn’t action-y or campy enough for it to be a true homage to the kinds of 80s pulp action movies it stole its plot from, but it also isn’t so horribly produced that the crew can’t pat themselves on the back for a job well done. It isn’t interesting, but it also isn’t uninteresting either. Iron Fist isn’t terribly bad, or terribly good. Iron Fist simply isn’t anything.