Iron Fist Problems? Is the Criticism of Marvel's Series Fair (Netflix)
Iron Fist Problems?
So, I grew up with a lot of these Marvel comics finding their homes on Netflix (especially DD and Luke Cage). I will freely admit that I don't have an encyclopedic recall of the books but I was a fan and certainly remember them back in the day (I am now 49).
Iron Fist was getting a TON of critical blowback even weeks before its release yesterday. Since I have been a defender of many unloved series (Vinyl, Halt and Catch Fire) as well as one of the only critics of some beloved series (Game of Thrones, The entire CBS Network) I figured I would binge watch season one of Iron Fist last night and type up my feelings.
Is the Criticism of the new Marvel Netflix Series Fair?
There have been several criticisms of Iron Fist. By far the most consistent has been that Danny Rand is portrayed by a white man (Finn Jones). So let's address that one first and then some of the defenses of Iron Fist. And finally, my judgment on if Iron Fist is actually a good show.
One thing I can say with 100% certainty, the soundtrack is really good (I will link some of my favorite songs from the show throughout the rest of the post).
The Unbearable Whiteness of Danny Rand
I think the main reason this criticism of Iron Fist seems so out of bounds from hardcore comics fans is that Danny Rand has ALWAYS been white (since 1974).
In defense of the critics, one of the great things about exploring an "old" comic is that you get to evolve the character, as long as that evolution is in-line with the core attitudes and values of the character being evolved).
It would be hard to argue that Luke Cage, for instance, wasn't started so that Marvel could cash in on the Blaxploitation boom in cinema in the 70's. But, when Luke Cage came out on Netflix in 2016, the new Luke (while still Black) was hardly the Shaft with superpowers from the original comics. He remained rooted in Harlem but was MUCH more concerned about social justice than looking fly and cleaning up the cartoonish pimp buffoons of some imaginary ghetto straight out of white fears.
Iron Fist was, similarly, an attempt by Marvel to cash in on the Kung Fu craze in cinema in the 1970's. The mysticism was pure dime-store appropriated Colonization of and reduction of Asian culture to only the things that Americans appreciated (butt kicking). Asian's in America had become so reduced to caricatures by cinema that it became a frequent joke for comic characters to ask a potential Asian opponent if they "knew Kung Fu" before engaging in a fight with them.
It could be fairly argued that the original Daniel "Danny" Rand represented the ultimate end-game of Colonization. A white person who, through contact with Asians, mastered everything that white people could ever use of need from Asian culture.
So, while I understand entirely why comic book fans get mad when an obvious non-comic book fan criticizes Danny Rand's whiteness, this criticism actually has some historical merit. It isn't enough to simply say Danny Rand was "always white." You have to also be able to defend why it is okay that Danny Rand was "always white."
In addition, it is 100% fair to ask why Netflix didn't evolve the character.
There is ZERO evidence in the first seven episodes that this Danny Rand is trying to deconstruct the orientalist box his character originally sprung from.
On the good side, Danny doesn't spend a lot of time nodding to Asian mysticism (there is some gobbledygook about his Chi and meditation, but even here it isn't explained very well). But, on the bad side, the show is almost entirely grounded in the same stereotypes of Asians and of Asian New York City that have been trafficked in by Hollywood since the days of the studio system.
There is no attempt to show Asian culture in any light other than secretive conclaves (usually housed in the backs of Chinese restaurants) full of Kung Fu fighters and devious "wise and powerful" matrons and patrons.
And worse than that, in the ultimate colonial insult he even starts to teach actual Asians how to be better at martial arts. At some level, I understand since he is The Iron Fist, this was inevitable. But I think the creators and the folks at Netflix could have at least tried to diversify their presentation of what Asian culture in NYC was and is.
I am not saying Asians should be good at martial arts, but when you reduce Asian culture to 70's Kung Fu tropes, can't they even be better at that?
I get that we are in a new "post-PC" universe just like, supposedly, for the last 8 years we were in a post-racial society. But the truth is that "post" universes are just cloaks we provide ourselves for insincerity and carelessness.
Why do we think it is okay to reduce Asian culture down to ONLY Chinese Restaurants filled with martial arts fighters? To have the only other Asian character be a Kung Fu instructor (I have been informed she mostly teaches Kendo, my mistake, apologies)? To have almost all of the Masters of the Universe in this universe be either white or be orientalist caricatures?
Just Because PC sucks?
That makes no sense.
I don't think the problem is that Danny is white. I think it is the way they constructed an uncritical Orientalist universe around Danny's whiteness.
How you depict people matters.
Netflix had a real opportunity, they could have broadened the lens, they chose not to.
Iron Fist is Just Good Escapist Fun (The Colorblindness Argument)
How you choose to present culture is a conscious and not a neutral choice.
In other words, choosing to depict the world where Danny Rand lives is deliberate and the writers have to write every choice word by word.
I am sure the writers of "Gone with the Wind," and most of its millions of fans, want everyone to only focus on how great the performances were and forget that the writers chose to create a universe of apologists for a glorious South.
I am sure that the creators of the original "Birth of a Nation" want everyone to focus on the great leap forward in dramatic storytelling instead of it's reduction of the African Americans in the movie to only sub-human rapists and criminals.
Iron Fist is nowhere near as bad as "Gone with the Wind" or "Birth of a Nation," but this is the same kind of thinking always used to justify problematic movie content.
"Why won't you just allow me to enjoy my movie as it insults and offends you?"
The idea that stories are simply neutral attempts at entertaining people seems to always beg a pretty simple question. In the context of Iron Fist, for example:
If this was intended ONLY as neutral entertainment, why did they choose to use almost entirely Orientalist depictions of Asian culture?
And you can also the reverse question. If Netflix had constructed a less Orientalist universe around Danny, could it have still been good escapist fun?
I would say yes.
So what is the justification for the series choices again?
There is an element of me that wonders "at what cost my entertainment."
One other problem with the entertainment argument, it isn't exactly that entertaining (sorry, sad but true).
Iron Fist's Biggest Crime - It is Kind of Boring
I have waited for this show to be released for a long time, I was pretty excited TBH.
I generally love this kind of show. I loved DD, I mostly loved Jessica Jones, and I liked Luke Cage. But, to be honest, I was kind of bored by Iron Fist.
It takes way too long for the story to get going.
It takes way too long to make me care about the bad guys or the heroes quest.
For several episodes, the show is really just about if Danny is going to get his company back or not. And to be indelicate, who cares? Did you tune in to watch the Iron Fist Kung Fu show for the corporate intrigue, psychiatric shenanigans, and legal wrangling?
Even that could have been remedied by having the sister and brother "evil doer" team be a bit less boring. Tom Pelphrey, as Ward Meachum, is pretty good at seeming annoyed and conflicted but he communicates very little menace. Jessica Stroup, as Joy Meachum, seems much more capable of portraying a real baddy but for some reason was cast as the nicer half of the duo (at least through Episode 7).
For goodness sakes, it takes hours before you even find out that the company is caught up in the exact same kinds of mischief Danny was trained to destroy but who, aside from me, is going to wade through hours of television before they get to the hook?
I guess if there is one person in the entire show having a great time camping things up it is David Wenham as Mr. Meachum. Sure, he isn't given that much to do, but he has a great time with whatever camera time he gets.
Wai Ching Ho is great as Madame Gao (Daredevil fans remember). Sure it is one of the most Orientalist characters, but you can't blame her for the writing and she is very effective in the part.
Iron Fists superpowers aren't really enough, by themselves, to carry a series. I mean the fight scenes are fine (stock "one guy beats up many guys" scenes) but seeing him use the Iron Fist certainly isn't cool enough to justify watching the series alone IMHO.
In addition, the show does a terrible job of communicating his own inner struggle and quest. After watching seven episodes, I know more about the stupid Rand Corporations organizational structure and legal team than I do about Danny's heroes quest.
Finally, and I mean this with love (I didn't hate Iron Fist as much as it sounds like I do, but I am only in "lukewarm like" with it, at best):
Finn Jones is kind of bland as Iron Fist. And, even worse, after seeing him in action, he doesn't seem that badass. He made me think of that old skit where the one "evil henchman" keeps asking the other evil henchmen why they don't all rush him at once.
In one of the later episodes, one of the bad guys asks Iron Fist when the "real Iron Fist" will be arriving. Normally, this would be the time when I thought, "Oh just wait, you are about to get yours" but instead I found myself kind of agreeing with him.
Okay, that is probably too much bashing, I didn't hate Iron Fist "that" much.
It is still better than most everything on CBS (and for some reason, people watch CBS by the millions) so maybe Iron Fist will find a monster audience too?
Will I watch the rest of the season, Yes
Will I love it, No
Could it have been much better, 100%
Do the critics have a point, 100%
I love the genre, love the network (I cover half of their shows), but I can't say that I loved Iron Fist.
In all fairness, I understand if many people disagree.