I know some of us already started a discussion on The Other Murdock Papers Facebook page, but I felt that this show deserved a proper review. If you want to call it that. In all honesty, it’s more like a list of thoughts and observations. (One of these days, I’ll get to Luke Cage as well. It came out in the middle of my hiatus, but I’m currently watching it for the third time).
Oh, and I seriously started this post in the middle of March, before a shitload of “life” happened (some bad, most of it good) and got in the way. I really am making a comeback. In fact, I’m looking forward to finishing another handful of half-finished posts after this one. Oh, and we also need to talk about the first proper Defenders trailer. To be continued. Meanwhile, beware of full spoilers ahead.
Iron Fist has already been branded a failure by most critics, and I’m sure many viewers were preparing for the worst after the early reviews almost unanimously warned us to stay away. Interstingly, while the show has a shocklingly low rotten tomatos rating of 17 percent, the corresponding audience rating is much higher. Not quite as high as for the other Netflix shows, but still a respectable 79 percent (Rotten Tomatos ranks an audience rating of at least 3.5 out of 5 as a “like”). It also has a relatively impressive 7.2 rating on IMDB. Does it deserve an 7.2 out of 10? No, I don’t think so (I’d give it maybe a 6.8), but neither does it deserve a Rotten Tomatos rating of 17. Seriously. This was the show that a lot of people were looking to tear down from the very beginning for reasons that have little to do with the actual merits of the show. Rarely great, but consistently fair to good would be my overall assessment.
What I found when looking at the reviews was that Iron Fist was penalized much harder than the other shows for problems that are common to all of them. All of these shows have pacing issues. For instance, I loved Luke Cage – and definitely rank it higher than Iron Fist – but it also took me almost three full episodes to really get into it. While Iron Fist also moves a long at a leisurely pace, it didn’t really bother me, and the show kept my interest going into each new episode, without necessarily wowing me. I’m sure some people have the opposite view when comparing Iron Fist to the other shows, but it’s hard to establish objectively that Iron Fist has considerably worse pacing issues than its predecessors. Unlike both seasons of Daredevil, which fizzled near the end, I also thought that the last third of Iron Fist was the strongest.
I’ve also seen at least one reviewer note that Iron Fist takes the generally problematic (for all the shows) subplot issue into new realms of absurd. I don’t get this at all. In fact, Iron Fist has two clearly recognizable main plots – let’s call them “inside the Rand Corporation” and “outside the Rand Corporation” – that run parallel to each other and intersect at regular intervals. What additional subplots were there? Sure, characters are added as we move along, but they all fit neatly into on the two spheres. Heck, I thought the first season of Daredevil had bigger subplot issues, such as Elena Cardenas, Ben and Karen etc. Not to mention Jessica Jones. While it’s true that there is a lot of time devoted to the Maechums and their family dynamic, that’s probably a good thing, considering that the characterization of Danny Rand was, by far, the biggest single problem of this show.
Whenever you feel that something has been unfairly maligned, it’s easy to get overly defensive. I intend to try to avoid that, because there are some pretty glaring flaws that need to be looked at honestly. Finn Jones was okay as Danny Rand, but only just okay. The show might very well have fared better with a different lead actor. However, the problem with the Danny Rand character isn’t the actor as much as the material he had to work with. Danny is poorly written, his motivations are unclear and shifting, and he shows virtually no character growth at all during the entire season. His naiveté would have been charming if it weren’t for the fact that it is often so profound as to cross into the territory of gratingly annoying. Combine that with the kind of arrogance that often comes with immaturity, and he’s not nearly as likable as he should be.
Whatever this show accomplishes it does so in spite of the main character, not because of him. Because so much of what’s wrong with Danny has to do with the material the actor is given, I do still hope that he’ll have a stronger outing in The Defenders, when he’s in the more capable hands of the Daredevil season two showrunners. Give the character an actual arc that makes sense and Finn Jones will be in a better position to do a good job.
It’s no surprise that people are falling in love with Colleen. There’s a lightness and elegance to her being that immediately attracts the viewer, and makes you want to spend time with her. And, her complicated past, as revealed to us late in the season, makes her even more interesting than she would have been as a one hundred percent benign character.
She is also the most interesting character to watch in all of the fight scenes she’s in. Iron Fist manages to never look like the strongest fighter in any of his fights. Colleen Wing, on the other hand, looks much lighter, quicker and more dynamic. I really loved her cage fights, personally.
The cult mindset and the organization of the Hand
While on the topic of Colleen Wing, let’s get to one of the more interesting themes of this show: The cult mindset. In the “post-truth” era, dealing with characters that have reason to question and reevaluate what they know and why they believe what they believe is quite refreshing. Both Danny and Colleen have grown up under the influence of people with strong views and very particular beliefs when it comes to right and wrong, friends and enemies. There is little room for doubt and no shades of gray. The Iron Fist is a sworn enemy of the Hand, and that’s that. Colleen, meanwhile, lives her life following the path laid out for her by her sensei. Doubt is discouraged and submission to the established hierarchy is a given.
I’ve always been interested in cults, and the reasons people join them and stay in. Over the last few years, I’ve been particularly fascinated by Scientology and have about half a shelf worth of books devoted to the subject, ranging from the stories of ex-Scientologists to general exposes of the church and its founder L Ron Hubbard. When Colleen tried to defend The Hand, my thoughts went straight to the Church of Scientology, as there are some pretty interesting parallels between the two.
One is the way in which the nature of the organization changes depending on who you are, how long you’ve been in and where you are in the larger hierarchy. Only the upper echelon membership is privy to the bigger secrets, and a new member – or even the likes of Colleen – may have an incomplete, even misguided, idea of what they’ve gotten themselves into.
When a person gets increasingly invested in an endeavor (in the case of Scientology, we’re talking about both time and a lot of money), that investment in itself becomes another factor that keeps people committed to the cause. People don’t like being wrong, and they don’t like having to face the reality of having invested themselves in something that wasn’t what it appeared. For someone like Colleen, having to face the music is painful, and her initial resistance to learning the truth is a very natural and human reaction. This also leads her to try to rationalize her commitment to the Hand. She’s also repeating what she’s conveniently been told: Whenever you hear anything about the Hand doing evil things, that’s not the “real” Hand, but a rogue faction.
What the real life example of Scientology also teaches us (as evidenced by the many upper management types who’ve left and spoken out), is that even “good people” can find themselves in situations where they commit horrible acts, not only as a result of being under pressure from people higher on the proverbial ladder, but because the end goal is considered so grand and worthwhile that it must be achieved at all cost. When under the “spell” of the Hand, Colleen might find herself doing things – such as reporting on Danny – that would not be something she’d feel comfortable doing in a different context. Of course, none of this excuses cult members from being fully responsible for their actions – we’ve seen enough instances of “I was only following orders” throughout history – but understanding the psychology of cult indoctrination is helpful if we wish to at least understand how people come to act in ways that might run contrary to how they would act outside of the influence of a cult.
My final piece of comparison between the Hand and Scientology – before I start to bore you – has to do with the organizational structure and the actual infiltration of other entities. I’m not thinking only of what they’re doing to Rand Enterprises, but also the way they’ve planted agents in other places, such as hospitals. (Unbeknownst to most people, in the 1970s Scientology was behind one of the biggest cases of domestic espionage in U.S. history. “Operation Snow White” saw thousands of agents infiltrate various government agencies.) The Hand has its proverbial fingers in many places you wouldn’t expect and I find that rather intriguing.
While we’re on the topic of the Hand, let’s talk about Madame Gao. It was a big surprise to many of us to discover that she’s actually a member. Or is she? What I love about Gao – and she reaches new heights of mysterious creepiness in this show – is that she still seems somehow outside and beyond whatever context she finds herself in.
If she’s perceived by the Hand as one of their own, I would suspect that’s an assumption they make at their own peril. She seems to have her own agenda, and the fact that she’s never given any indication previously that she’s connected to the Hand (these shows are, after all, supposed to be linked), suggests to me that they are a mere tool for her.
Whatever the case may be, and however strange the twist of her ties to the Hand seems in light of her previous appearances in Daredevil, there’s no denying that she comes across as more menacing in Iron Fist than she did in Daredevil.
The problems with Danny
I’ve touched on this already and I don’t mean to belabor the point more than necessary, but Danny was a big problem with this show. The hippie puppy dog thing was charming for a little while, but felt over the top. By the time Danny was back at the helm of his father’s company, I was starting to root for him to get fired. Was the profit margin that the board wanted for their new drug excessive? Quite possibly. Whatever the case may be, the rational thing for Danny to have done in that situation was probably not to just give it away. Not if he wanted to actually continue to invest in future research, possibly curing other diseases, as well as put money away for the next recession or to offset a bad future investment.
A morally sound entrepreneur, the kind that Danny probably hopes to be, is one who can conduct his business without bankrupting either his soul or the company he runs. Danny has no idea how to strike an appropriate balance here. His naiveté was on display again when he promised the woman who’s suing the company that he would take care of things. There may well have been something going on at the Rand plant that was making people sick. But we don’t know that and Danny wouldn’t know either. He could have expressed empathy and promised to look into it, without making empty promises.
In the creators’ defense, it is pretty obvious that they intend for us to feel that Danny is way out of his depth here. And, considering how common the archetype of the Big Evil Corporation is in modern storytelling, they probably had to go overboard to make as many in the audience as possible look at Danny as an overgrown child who just got his own toy company, and is now busy blowing bubbles and flinging cereal all over the place, while the adults watch. That Danny is not only trying to do the right thing, but is trying to do the right things while not having any clue or sense of how to run a business.
But the problem goes back to the character’s motivations. Danny admits at the end – and everybody agrees – that he’s not much of a businessman. But what made him think he wanted to be one in the first place? What, aside from the fact that the passage from K’Un-Lun is only open once every fifteen years and he may be a bit homesick, made him want to return to New York? It’s presumably to secure his father’s legacy and take back what was his, but what did he think that would actually entail? What plan or idea did he have beyond going back to New York and having his destiny magically materialize?
There’s also the fact that, to paraphrase Madame Gao, he’s not a very good Iron Fist. When you think of someone raised by monks in isolation, with years of training under his belt, presumably special enough to be chosen for such an honor, you expect that person to possess some restraint and discipline. To be more of a sage and less of a man-child. You also expect his fighting chops to be out of this world. I’ll tell you this much: Matt Murdock had much better training. Though I suppose the two of them can bond over both having a childhood that included being hit with sticks. This aspect of the show didn’t live up to what I expected at all. Oh, and can we talk about why Danny insists on driving even when Colleen is in the car? Danny doesn’t have a license. Colleen probably does. That bit is just weird.
Danny’s being naive and rudderless is clearly meant to be a part of his story, but it still amazes me that he never quite graduates from that. Did they not know what to make of him? Even in The Defenders trailer, it’s clear that he’s the one no one takes seriously. Which fits the narrative of Iron Fist, but is a strange thing to have happen by design.
Ward may have been the best thing about this show. At first you hate him. Not because he’s really being unreasonable (with the exception of looking to have Danny killed!), but because he comes across as an unfeeling creep, especially in the flashback scenes. Then he gradually grows into a human being you care about. Not a great human being, by any means, and certainly not without serious flaws, but a real person who gets some measure of redemption at the end. Ward puts up with so much madness in this show, it’s really no wonder he ends up addicted to prescription drugs. I’m not sure having all the money in the world is enough to make up for having a controlling dad raised from the dead dictating your every move.
Much of the credit for making Ward so watchable goes to actor Tom Pelphrey who feels like he was born to play this role. The first time I watched the show, I was actually a bit annoyed that both Ward and Joy appeared to be much older than they were supposed to be (I was shocked to learn that both actors are actually only five years older than their characters’ presumed ages of 25 and 30), but in Ward’s case at least, I don’t care, because he’s just so good in the role.
If you want to read a real love letter to Tom Pelphrey’s work in this show, and a very funny one at that, here’s a story from Mashable that’s bound to put a smile on your face. It certainly did mine. And, as suggested in that post, if you have a hard time watching Iron Fist because Danny doesn’t really do it for you, try watching it again, and pretend it’s Ward Meachum’s story. It sure makes it a lot more interesting.
Things to ponder going into The Defenders
People don’t come back the same
We already know that Elektra will be coming back in The Defenders, presumably as a fairly major character. One interesting thing to think about, that I haven’t really seen anyone mention, is what we learn about Hand resurrections from the strange case of Harold Meachum (another entertaining, albeit very unevenly conceived, character in Iron Fist). Harold comes back from the dead a second time in this show, and it is mentioned that every time someone comes back, they’re essentially a little worse for wear. In the case of Harold, he becomes noticeably more sinister after his second return from the dead, with no impulse control. What will this mean for Elektra? There’s a lot of comic book lore that goes into this one, as Elektra’s comic book counterpart was also raised from the dead, but here there’s a lot to suggest that she’ll have a little less good in her than she did the last time we say her.
Claire needs to be brought back to basics
I love Claire, I think most of us do, The only problem is that each new show seems to bring a slightly different incarnation of her. I loved her in Luke Cage, but found her newfound fascination with superheroes to be a bit surprising given her appearances in seasons one and two of Daredevil. In Iron Fist, her reluctance to mention or contact any of the other heroes she knows almost takes you out of the story. I know she can’t, because they’re not supposed to meet yet, but at this point you have to give her a decent reason for not contacting them, or it will feel odd given that everyone watching knows what she knows. And it can’t be that she thinks Danny’s got this all figured out on his own, because he so clearly doesn’t. Overall, she feels shoehorned into this story, and I’m really hoping that The Defenders will do a good job of finding a place for her where she’s a real person again, as opposed to a storytelling device.
Matt’s accident and its connection to Rand
Remember those early set images from before season one of Daredevil was released of young Matt clearly being hit by a truck with a Rand logo on it? I suspect the reason we never got to see the truck from an angle where the logo is clearly visible, in the show itself, was because they’re saving that bit for The Defenders. People who are fans already know about this connection, but still. In Iron Fist, the logo has been updated, except in flashback scenes where it looks exactly as it did on the truck that hit Matt. If they do anything with this in The Defenders, expect quite a bit of tension, especially since it appears the Murdocks were never paid a dime for what happened. And this was back when Danny’s father was still running things, which might be an interesting eye-opener for Danny.
I think I’ll end here. My apologies if this post has been all over the place, but I’m still getting back into the swing of things, and I have to admit I feel a bit rusty. This post being written over so many weeks didn’t help either, though I promise you won’t have to wait this long for the next one. 😉