Warning: Spoilers below.
Since the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there have been a great number of films in the action genre released with actual substance and character development. This year’s Logan marked the pinnacle of that perfect blend of action and acting. Of course, there have also been a few miscues on the part of MCU, mainly X-Men 3: The Last Stand and, on television, Luke Cage, which are still enjoyable, but markedly less well-made. Marvel’s most recent release, Iron Fist, manages to hit that rare middle target of a Marvel production: great character development with more than OK acting (especially from Jessica Henwick) and writing, but a near-complete failure to deliver the action, in both choreography and editing, to which the MCU fan-base has become so accustomed.
The story begins in a very Return of Martin Guerre sort of way: a man who has been missing for fifteen years returns home and is met with suspicion from everyone he used to call a friend. Of course, here, there is one primary difference: the man, claiming to be Danny Rand, is Danny Rand. He tells his childhood friends Ward and Joy Meachum, now the co-runners of Rand Enterprises, that he was training in another dimension at a place called K’un-Lun, and that he defeated the dragon Shou Lao to become the legendary Iron Fist. Danny is predictably kicked to the curb, and must prove his identity while avoiding the assassins Ward sends after him and, eventually, confront his sworn enemy, the Hand.
Alright, so bad news first. My favorite part about any TV show or film I watch is the editing. This is easily the worst Marvel series in terms of fight sequences, special effects, and editing. I’m normally quite forgiving of television shows when it comes to effects, but the MCU productions on Netflix have spoiled me rotten for great stunts, action, and visual effects.
Iron Fist was the television equivalent of quitting great action television cold turkey. The first episode has a very simple stunt: Rand back-flips over an oncoming taxi. If this was Daredevil or Jessica Jones, the stunt would have been at least halfway decent. If it was Luke Cage, the cab would’ve been smashed from crashing into the human wrecking-ball that is the eponymous character. When Rand does the flip in Iron Fist, you can practically see the cables doing all the work. It was one of the most pathetic showings of visuals I’ve ever seen a Marvel production do. And guess what? It wasn’t done yet. More simple jumps that would’ve been flawlessly done in any other MCU work looked amateurish and not-even-half-assed. Finally, you get the epitome of stupid a few episodes in: a less-than-one-minute fight scene with more cuts than a naked man who fell on a cactus. It was almost as if the producers knew that neither Finn Jones nor his stunt double were capable of performing the stunts adequately enough to be worthy of unedited footage. Fortunately, the fight scenes manage to improve over the course of the season, but my God is it painful to sit through the first half of the season watching humans get manipulated by strings, doing their best impressions of puppets.
Now for the good stuff. The writing is, most of the time, on point. The acting, too, is very well done. The character development of Danny Rand, Eileen, and Ward and Howard Meachum are great. In the Ward/Howard father-son dynamic, the script perfectly lays out Ward’s role as the overly submissive and cowering son to Howard’s oppressive, almost totalitarian rule over Ward and his life. David Wenham has always been an underrated actor, and I am very happy to see him get a main role and be given the chance to flex his acting muscles. His work as Howard was easily one of the most frightening roles in MCU television. He might not be the biggest or the evilest villain, but he is the only one who would get to the point where he would beat someone to death with an ice cream scooper. It is this clear desperation that makes his character as scary as it is, and it really is fun to watch Wenham portray the devolution of a powerful, corrupt man to a weak, cruel knock-off of his former self.
Eileen is clearly laid out as the primary source of logic in the show. She follows her own rules until she is shown a reasonable alternative with acceptable facts. This is shown in her initial rebuking of one of her martial arts students for joining a fight club, but when he argues that it is something he must do to earn money and be able to “survive today,” she changes her mind and joins the same club. Jessica Henwick shines in this role, and is the best thing about the show. It is the personal strife, the internal war of doing the smart things versus doing the right things, that makes her performance the one to watch.
Danny Rand’s character is one I find often heavily misunderstood by critics. Most say that the character, as well as Jones’ portrayal of Rand, is not “tortured” enough. According to them, if Rand isn’t written like an overtly, psychologically damaged man as a result of witnessing his parents’ death as a child, then there’s something wrong with the script. Likewise, they say that Jones’ acting job is subpar because he does not show the inner demons that Rand so clearly must struggle with during the entire course of the show. Now, I’ll admit that I never read the comic books growing up. That said, I will also be the first to say that what you get in books is not necessarily what you’re going to get on film or television. The way they showed it on TV made it very clear that Rand is clearly still scarred from his trauma, but his training at K’un-Lun taught him that he needed to repress his feelings. If anything, the writing and Jones’ performance work together in perfect tandem to show that he is desperate to stick to what he was taught regarding controlling his emotions.
He only begins to fail when everything he experiences in his time back in New York—betrayal after betrayal, new information about his parents’ deaths, a personal fight with an old friend—piles up near the end of the season. So while Danny clearly suffers from his past, just as in the real world, people in the MCU do not always have to wear their depression and anger on their sleeves. For this reason, Jones’ performance is the most underrated in the series. He balances that private grief with the public calm that Rand learned at K’un-Lun. Then, when he approaches that breaking point, Jones turns Rand into an emotional dam. First, he shows signs of small cracks, plugging up each break only to have the patch cause two more fractures. Eventually, he cracks from the pressure, resulting in the emotionally charged final episodes of the season.
There is plenty wrong with Iron Fist from a production point of view. There is no defending the sloppiness of the stunts and editing. That said, if you can stick through the rough-hewn early parts and focus on the acting and writing, the payoff is more than worth it. Plus, it sets up The Defenders, so if you’re a Marvel fan, you really have no choice but to watch it.