Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Iron Fist has a heavy hand but lacks a backbone

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Now that my top-class puns got your attention, stay with me as we have a look into three more episodes of Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist. After a boring and problematic start, the show improved but still struggled with basic storytelling concepts like consistent characterization or pacing. It seems to be finally gaining momentum, but I still can’t bring myself to be excited about it. As we enter the final half of the first season, Iron Fist still has to show what it’s made of. Let’s see what we got.

Episode 7: Felling Tree with Roots

Harold Meachum is visited by Hand minions. The Hand is displeased that Harold gave the Iron Fist control over Rand Enterprises, so they want to cut one or two of his fingers as a punishment. Harold denies any knowledge, but that becomes a lot harder when Danny enters the penthouse calling for him. A quick fight ensues and Danny is shocked that Harold violently killed the minions. Harold emotionally manipulates him again and then cuts one of his own fingers to pretend the minions actually did their jobs. We see it in detail, because buddha forbid missing the opportunity to be edgy. Harold calls Ward for help and when he arrives he sees his father bashing the minion’s heads with a hammer. We see it too, ripped teeth and everything. Despite feeling deeply disturbed, Ward takes the bodies and dumps them in a pond as his father wanted. He’s having hallucinations too, possibly due to drug withdrawal.

Ward and Harold’s dynamic is one of the most interesting parts of the show. Harold is manipulative and abusive, and we don’t question he’s a villain. More important, Ward doesn’t question it either; unlike Danny, he sees his father for what he truly is. Yet he’s caught in this relationship and unable to leave it. The show was remarkably consistent on those two characters, so despite Ward being a bully and a corporate douche, I can’t help but feeling sorry for him. I see myself more emotionally invested in this storyline than anything the main character is doing.

Stop, hammer time!

Speaking of him, Danny is updating Colleen on his challenge against the Hand while she tends his wounds. He tells her stories about K’un Lun and Colleen doesn’t understand what the Iron Fist is. To be honest, neither do I: “sworn enemy of the Hand” and “protector of K’un Lun” are dropped constantly, but I don’t really know what being the Iron Fist means or what powers he’s supposed to have because Danny sucks at explaining things. All I know so far is that he’s a lesser version of Luke Cage, because he does only with his fists what Luke does with his entire body. How can I know if Danny is having trouble using his powers if I don’t even know what those powers are supposed to be?

He also says in every generation there’s a chosen one the power of the Iron Fist is given to one of the students at the monastery. But Danny emphasizes he wasn’t chosen, he “earned” it. Why the remark? Why would we need to be reminded that Danny deserves this position? Because, in all honesty, so far we haven’t seen Danny doing jack to deserve anything. He’s the supreme ruler of Rand Enterprises despite absolutely no knowledge or experience or qualification, not caring about the company except when ruining other people’s work. He’s the Iron Fist, but we don’t know what he did to deserve this, because we barely see him training or fighting and when we do it’s lacking and dull.

He doesn’t even have a solid motivation to be the Iron Fist, because he doesn’t care about K’un Lun or destroying the Hand (remember, he only started caring about the Hand’s whereabouts when he learned they were infiltrated in his father’s company), and he said he wanted this power because other people said he wouldn’t get it. Plus notice that among all other students, it’s the mediocre white rich boy that “deserves” the special power. Danny Rand is the embodiment of privilege.

Colleen is feeling bad for failing to protect Radovan at the hospital. She and Danny kiss and have sex. There’s something uncomfortable about this scene. It’s not bad, but with all the effort the show puts in portraying Danny as a traumatized child in a grown body, I can’t help but actually see him as a traumatized child in a grown body.

Danny finally comes back to Rand, because he needs something. Joy calls him out on his behavior, saying he wanted so much to be a part of the company and now he doesn’t care about it. I’m all YOU GO, GIRL, but the narrative undermines her speech with Madame Gao arriving at Rand and Danny leaving Joy without addressing any of her complaints.

Danny confronts Madame Gao and she rubs in his face what a lame Iron Fist he is. She puts in words what the plot was clumsily trying to tell us: that Danny wasn’t sent to New York, he simply abandoned his post at K’un Lun because he wanted to be Danny Rand instead of the Iron Fist. She also threatens to harm Colleen and Claire. When she leaves, Danny jumps in the elevator pit to follow her because that’s the only thing he can do to track a person in a building he owns. He eavesdrops Gao arranging heroine shipments and as soon as she leaves he armlocks her secretary. He takes her password and her crime tablet, gives them to Harold and finds out where Radovan is probably being kept. What an easy detective work, the show can be really quick when they don’t want a plot in the way!

Meanwhile, Colleen is visited by her sensei Bakuto. Does the show ever explains why a Puerto Rican guy has a Japanese name? Anyway, Colleen tells Bakuto about Danny and it’s the funniest thing ever. She says he fights not only with his body, but also his heart—it’s almost second language to him, and it’s truly inspiring. Cool, I’d love to watch that show! The fighting scenes with Danny that we actually got, far too few to call Iron Fist a martial arts show, were dull and confusing, probably to hide Finn Jones’s lack of fighting prowess. The show can’t say “Danny is an awesome fighter” if I have constant evidence saying he’s mediocre at best. You can’t say “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” if I can see the damn droids.

It’s been a while since Danny last screwed Rand and got rewarded for it, so he goes to the board meeting and instead of apologizing he declares they’re shutting the factory until they can find out if it’s actually causing cancer. Also he told the press about this. AND THEN HE LEAVES. WHAT A DOUCHEBAG. No, seriously. The guy doesn’t care about learning his job and for the most part doesn’t care about this company at all. Instead of admitting his decisions lead to unfortunate repercussions, he simply decides something on his own, imposes this decision over a board of much more experienced people who actually work for this company, with no room for arguing or thinking alternative solutions, and tells the press about it so they can’t back down.

Don’t get me wrong, shutting down the factory was probably the best decision ethically speaking, but the way it was done was awful. Danny is abusing his power as a majority shareholding, this was a dick move to the people he’s supposed to be working with, and being an authoritarian leader is bad regardless of the good intentions of your commands. I’m all in for the fall of capitalism, but this is the fall of capitalism according to a 13-year-old Tumblr user. Fuck you show, because for a second I thought I would stop utterly despising your cardboard protagonist.

Since someone has to pay for Danny’s mistakes, the board decides to oust Danny, Joy and Ward. Can the board actually do that? If they have enough power for that, couldn’t they simply have stopped Danny’s most stupid orders? It all feels very plot convenient, but I honestly don’t know because I have a nearly non-existent knowledge on financial markets and company management. But hey, so does Danny Rand, so maybe I can be a Corporate Hero too.

Danny and Colleen decide to look for Radovan at the Hand factory. They reach Hai-Qing Yang and his Hatchet Men for help, because everything you need to stand against your enemies is a white leadership. It’s funny that Danny sees no problem in allying himself with the Hatchet Men despite their business being far from legal. Where’s your work ethic now, Danny? The Hatchet Men become the Machine Gun Men and attack the heroine factory. Danny and Colleen just use martial arts, because the screams of dozens of people dying in agony by the hands of the guys they hired are in no way their responsibility. They find Radovan and he conveniently dies just after delivering Gao’s location. You know, despite being captive and isolated he somehow knew Gao went to Anzhou, China. Danny recognizes Anzhou as the city his father was taking them 15 years ago when their plane crashed.

Meanwhile, Ward is ready to take a Joy-approved vacation when he sees all his personal savings are gone. He correctly deduces Harold did it and goes to the penthouse. Ward confronts his father, who continues to be abusive and manipulative. Ward then reaches breaking point, stabbing Harold multiple times and dumping his body in the pond.

Jaime Lannister sends his regards

Episode 8: The Blessing of Many Fractures

Danny goes to the penthouse looking for Harold, but when he finds the place empty and bloody, he assumes the worst. He gives Ward the bad news, though he thinks the Hand did it and blames himself for it. Ward is a dick and doesn’t deny, pretending to be shocked and using this opportunity to make Danny feel bad about himself. Here’s the catch: Ward questioned what Danny expected to accomplish by simply destroying one of Gao’s labs. It’s a fair question and highlights the stupidity of superheroes just punching their problems away, a sin Danny Rand is especially guilty of. Yet Danny was feeling genuinely sorry for something that wasn’t his fault and Ward not only allowed him to do that, but explored this feeling for his own benefit. So I don’t like anyone in this scene.

Meanwhile, Claire is at home happily reading a letter from Luke Cage. Madame Gao’s henchmen are ready to invade her apartment, but Colleen saves her just in time. They meet Danny and he explains there’s a Rand factory in Anzhou. His father never visited the international factories, so he must have suspected something was wrong. He wants to go to Anzhou and Claire points this is a stupid plan, because he can’t trust what Gao says. I love Claire for being so honest, but Danny says if he doesn’t investigate he’ll never let this go, and he has a fair point. Each member of the trio exposes their reasons to go to China and the ladies ask Danny what’s his plan once he gets there. He doesn’t have one and he’s angry at them for asking, but at least he apologizes.

Lawrence offers Joy and Ward a severance for the termination of their employment at Rand. He says bringing Danny to the company was an awful decision and I agree, but Joy defends Danny. Maybe the show believes if everyone loves Danny we will love him too? So far it had the opposite effect. Joy wants to fight for their jobs, but Ward is 100% done with everything and just wants to accept the severance and leave.

The Meachum siblings discuss the severance alone and Ward says the only reason they work for Rand is because their father tied the inheritance to their permanence at the company (is that a thing you can actually do?). This severance is the opportunity to pursue their actual dreams and live the life they wanted instead of the one Harold prescribed them. Joy argues that she never dreamed about Rand indeed, but she worked hard to learn the job, be respected and earn her position, so she doesn’t want to leave. Both have good points and they agree to consider each other’s position before making a final decision. Also Ward is hallucinating with blood.

The flight to China proves to be a challenge for Danny, bringing back the memories of his plane crash. Claire helps him to calm down and it’s a nice scene to strengthen the bond between both characters, though its effect in exploring Danny’s trauma is undermined by the fact that we’ve seen the plane crash scene a thousand times already and this one doesn’t add anything new.

There’s also a discussion on what to do once they find Gao. Colleen thinks killing an awful person like Gao may not be such a bad idea, Claire is against killing, and Danny is against killing except if she was responsible for the death of his parents, in which case killing is totally fine. Good to know our hero has such selfless motivations and such a consistent moral code. He also says he won’t do anything impulsive because he spent 15 years learning to control his body, mind, and spirit. I honestly don’t know if this is meant to be a joke, because his core traits are to be reckless, impulsive, and aggressive.

Ward tells Lawrence that he and Joy have different positions and are likely not reaching an agreement, so he wants their severance offers to be independent. He’s willing to take just 30% of the promised amount, but Lawrence says Joy already called him to refuse the deal. This presents Joy as a jerk, but Lawrence gives Ward a speech about how he and Joy should be working together. This upsets me because it paints the conflict between the Meachum siblings as Ward’s doing alone, when both are to blame, and Ward’s position as wrong when we know his reasons for being desperate for that deal. This is a pattern in the show: everybody hates or despises Ward, blames him for stuff he didn’t do, or is more than willing to tell him why he sucks. Ward is a murderer, an asshole and a bully, no questioning that. But he’s also right or innocent in several moments and I wonder why the show wants to punish this character so badly. If Danny gets the St. Tyrion treatment, Ward gets the Stannis treatment.  

Ward confronts Joy and we learn she refused the severance because she has a plan to get their jobs back. A while ago she hired Jessica Jones to do some digging into the lives of the board members and she has dirty on all of them. Yes, every single one of them is either involved with embezzlement or adultery and she thinks this is enough to blackmail them. It’s also not clear why she hired Jessica in first place? Just a general assumption that all corporate people must be up to something evil?

I couldn’t care less about Rand Enterprises and its boring subplot, but at least this scene gives us an emotional moment between the Meachum siblings. Joy tells Ward he’s the person she admires the most, but at some point he isolated himself and now they barely know each other outside work. Ward finally decides to tell her the truth about what he’s being hiding. Joy finding out about Harold is one of the few mysteries I care in this show, so I’m excited for this. Unfortunately I can’t have nice things for too long, because once they reach the penthouse Ward starts hallucinating with blood again and decides he can’t go on, being mean to Joy on his way out.

Meanwhile, the trio is waiting outside a Chinese heroine factory and we get bits of Colleen’s backstory. She says she lost her mother when she was young, and her father sent her to Japan to live with her grandfather. Danny is done waiting and wants to give one of the guards the choice to “talk or bleed”. Remember, kids: murder is bad, but torturing people for information is okay. Fortunately, Colleen has a better plan and offers money to a homeless guy for information. Now Danny’s plan is to torch down the place. I’m not kidding. He and Colleen enter the factory, but Madame Gao arrives before they can do anything. Colleen returns to Claire and has a Designated Girl Fight against a Hand minion that conveniently also carries a sword so they can have a cool sword fight.

Danny is following Gao, but first he must pass Zhou Cheng, a drunk warrior. This fight is actually amusing, perhaps because Zhou Cheng is a great opponent and there’s a real sense of danger. I would probably find it even better if I haven’t seen Yusuke versus Tiyu in Yu Yu Hakusho twenty years ago, but it’s still a cool scene in its own right. Isn’t it telling that I find Danny’s kung fu stances to be  almost comical? And that the drunk warrior is more intimidating than him? 

I’m talking about this guy.

Unfortunately this character also externalizes Danny’s inner conflict, saying that he remained faithful to his path. Danny says he’s fighting the Hand, so he’s doing the Iron Fist thing. Zhou Cheng laughs at that, because Danny’s clearly after a personal vendetta. Danny snaps, beating Zhou Cheng until his face is deformed. Claire and Colleen try to stop him and Danny realizes what he did.

Gao shows up and gives him the Sith talk, saying she could teach him to use his anger. She orders her minions to kill Claire and Colleen, and the fight is too quick and confusing for me to see anything. One of the minions is poisoned with their own weapons and Danny recognizes the effect from the pilot of his plane 15 years ago, getting confirmation that Gao was involved in the accident somehow. He invokes the power of the Iron Fist for a really strong punch, and for a moment it looks like he killed Gao, but he just destroyed the wall behind her and took her in custody. I still don’t know what Gao was doing in China and why she didn’t use her magical powers from a few episodes ago to stop Danny from capturing her. Maybe she just wanted a free flight back to America? Can’t blame her.

Episode 9: The Mistress of All Agonies

We open the episode with Harold Meachum waking up from the bottom of the pond. Just like that. I was honestly expecting him to come back at some point, but this was disappointing. We get a lot of scenes with zombie!Harold wandering around New York and I’m honestly embarrassed for everyone involved. He struggles to remember basic stuff, but not the password that somehow wasn’t changed in 12 years for a Rand back entrance. By the time his assistant picks him up, he seems the same old Harold.

“Previously on AMC’s The Walking Dead…”

At the Chikara dojo, Danny, Claire and Colleen discuss what to do with Madame Gao. Claire and Colleen call Danny out on his bad plans, but he accuses them of “ganging up” against him. Claire suggests they use sodium thiopental, aka Truth Serum, to obtain information from Gao instead of torturing her.

You know all those times I think the show is mishandling reality, but I can’t prove it because I don’t have enough knowledge on the subject? Unfortunately for the show, this time I do have the knowledge. See, the way Hollywood portrays Truth Serum is a myth. Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate, acting as a central nervous system depressant. It inhibits brain activity, leading to a calming, sedative or even anesthetic effect, depending on the dosage. In fact, barbiturates are less used as treatment to anxiety or sleeping disorders because they have potential for addiction and a higher risk of overdose, but that’s essentially what they do. The principle behind the Truth Serum is that lying is more complex than telling the truth, so when your brain activity is inhibited you’re likelier to tell the truth. You know people that become more “honest” when they drink? Same thing. So this isn’t magical Veritaserum, it won’t guarantee that the information you’re getting is a reliable truth and, more importantly, it won’t make a person uncontrollably start spilling out information as if the truth was being exorcised out of their body.

This is lazy storytelling and it’s almost offensive that they had Claire, a health care professional who should know all this stuff I just said, to suggest such a ridiculous method. 

Joy is trying to reach Ward, but he’s missing. She leaves a message saying she investigated the penthouse building and their father bought it a week before he died, so if Ward doesn’t tell her the truth she’ll find out on her own. She runs into Danny, who just now learns he was ousted from Rand. This time Joy says that everything was his fault, because what is character consistency? She also asks him about the building and he’s the worst liar ever, making her even more suspicious.

Gao plays mind games with Claire and a sick Colleen, externalizing their motivations and inner conflicts so the writers don’t have to come up with actually interesting ways to convey this. It’s a pity they’re using Madame Gao for those silly scenes because, despite the stereotypes surrounding the character, she’s an interesting villain. She’s mysterious and intimidating, and her survival for two seasons of Daredevil more or less unharmed raises the expectations for her.

The trio gives Gao the Veritaserum and she starts spilling information. She’s actually just pretending to be affected, but she says Harold Meachum was more than happy to do business with the Hand when he and Wendell Rand were running the company. Before Danny can process this information, we learn Colleen’s sickness is actually poisoning, as she was cut by one of the Hand’s weapons on her sword fight. Shouldn’t this poison have acted sooner? The Hand’s henchmen died almost instantly. Even if her cut wasn’t so deep, it was more than a day ago (flights from China to New York are not exactly quick). The poison is now acting fast, and she tells Danny to call Bakuto because he’ll know what to do. Some military guys attack the dojo and are quickly defeated.

Meanwhile, a guy came into a food truck parked in front of Rand, beat the owner, stared at Danny’s picture in a magazine and crafter several shurikens out of tinfoil. Okay.

Ward goes to the penthouse and is shocked to find his father there, chilling as usual. They talk and Harold apologizes to his puzzled son, also saying he can leave all this mess behind if he wants to. Ward is happy with the possibility, until he learns that Harold will use Joy instead of him. Ward knows he must stop his father, so he asks for Hai-Qing Yang’s help. The leader of the Hatchet Men tells Ward there’s no solution for that, but he must be careful because the same has happened to a man in the village his ancestors come from, and each time this man came back he was less human than before, becoming a danger to those closest to him. To illustrate his point, in the next scene Harold kills his assistant with an ice cream scooper.

As it often happens, the show doesn’t seem to know what they want with Harold: is the danger he presents because he had some sort of brain damage and/or doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions? Or he knows what he’s doing, he just doesn’t feels things and doesn’t care about hurting others? Those are two very different approaches, but the show seems to be alternating between them.

Ward is arrested on a drug charge and sent to the same hospital and doctor that treated Danny several why-god-why plots ago. Joy goes to the penthouse on her own and Harold sees her with the security cameras, decides to let her in, and opens all the doors for her. They finally meet, but the emotional meaning this has for Joy is undermined by the fact that we know Harold is dangerous and unstable.

Bakuto finally arrives at Chikara and there are some serious romantic vibes between him and Colleen. He tells Danny that the Iron Fist can heal poison, teaching him how to do it. Danny heals Colleen, but faints from exhaustion. Colleen, Bakuto and some suspicious-looking guys take Danny and Gao and leave, under Claire’s protests. Tinfoil Shuriken is in front of Chikara, watching all that.


I’m not gonna lie, I was ready to write a better review until this last episode. The previous two had their issues, but each of them also had something interesting going. “The Mistress of All Agonies” took a step back, wasting our time with dull and unimportant subplots and repeating well-known mistakes.

There’s only four episodes left and the most positive I feel about Danny Rand is when I tolerate him. His motivations are still erratic and for most of the time they’re selfish too. His only character development so far is that he continues to be a douchebag, but now he occasionally apologizes. His character could be a brilliant parody of white male superhero angst and privileged unawareness, except the show takes itself far too serious for that. The angst Finn Jones puts in the character feels almost over-the-top sometimes, perhaps because it lacks a solid writing behind his performance.

This heavy hand is a pattern in the show. Information we already know is repeated. New information sometimes is shoved to our faces. References to Asian cultures are almost always blunt. Expository dialogue is everywhere, with characters explaining theirs or someone else’s motivations. I get that it’s hard to convey inner conflict, but if you can’t show instead of tell, then your entire story reads with the emotion of a police report.

The conflict on whether or not to kill villains was much better developed in Daredevil than here. It’s also very cheap to say your hero is against killing when his entire modus operandi hinges on violence against others. M’dudes, when you stop a fight by rendering the other person unconscious, you’re causing them brain damage. You’re hitting their most important organ so hard it goes blue screen. If you’re willing to do that, you must know you may occasionally kill someone or cause them permanent damage. If Danny struggles with killing, he must struggle too with punching people until they stop moving. Iron Fist is hardly the only show guilty of ignoring potential murder just because we don’t see the dead bodies, but it’s still annoying.

To the show’s credit, it has been improving a lot. The plot is moving, the acting is mostly good and the supporting cast is interesting. Yet any issues it presents now stand in the shoulders of previous issues, forming a pattern of flawed storytelling. That’s why beginnings are so important. Now the final episodes approach and they’ll have a lot of work to do if Iron Fist doesn’t want to be considered the worst thing to come out of Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Images courtesy of Marvel 

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