Sunday, May 26, 2024

Iron Fist Struggles to Be an Okay Show

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Last week, we saw the beginning of Danny Rand’s adventures as the Iron Fist. It wasn’t a very promising beginning. Not only is the show racially uncomfortable, cultural appropriation and whitesplaining abound, it was also dull. It got swiftly lost in pointless subplots. Yet, those were just the first three episodes and a lot can change in the upcoming ten. Will it? That’s what I’m here to find out.

Episode 4: Eight Diagram Dragon Palm

Picking up where the last episode left us, Danny falls from the building and wakes up inside the Meachum penthouse. Ward has no trouble admitting he pushed Danny, but they’re interrupted by the arrival of Harold Meachum. We learn that Harold indeed died a few years ago after struggling against cancer, but he was brought back by the Hand and is now indebted to them. They’re infiltrating Rand Enterprises, and Harold is not allowed to leave the penthouse, not even to see his daughter.

It’s an effective scene for all the characters involved. It does a good job portraying Danny as a childish person whose emotional development was severely affected by traumatic events. Harold is warm, but it’s clear to the viewer that he’s dangerous and only playing with Danny’s desire for connection. Ward is relegated to the background, his daddy issues made clear every time he eye-rolls at Harold.

Once more the problems arise from inconsistent writing. In the first episode, Danny behaved aggressively and illogically because he was eager to get answers from Harold, but at no point in this conversation did he mention his suspicions or demand any answers at all. Danny makes constant references to several elements from Asian cultures to show how he identifies with them now, but when Harold tells him his story, Danny’s reaction is to utter “Jesus”. Danny said his purpose in life was to defend K’un Lun from the Hand, but he didn’t know the Hand was in New York. He was expecting them to strike K’un Lun, so why exactly is he in New York? It’s hard to be emotionally invested in Danny if his characterization is so erratic and his motivations change according to plot needs. Perhaps we should posit a Danny Rand Construct?

He could also be known as “Danny Random”.

Harold wants Danny’s help against the Hand, but he can’t do it while battling Rand Enterprises in court. So, Ward has to drop all charges and give Danny everything he deserves as Wendell Rand’s heir. He won’t have a position in the company, but he’ll be the majority shareholder, owning 51% of Rand and having the final say in board meetings.

I’m not familiar with financial markets, so can someone explain to me if that’s actually how it works? Wendell and his heir were gone for 15 years, presumed dead. What would happen to his 51% shares? Do they just hang in the air waiting for an heir to claim them? Were they redistributed? If Jeri was managing the Rand estate for all those years, does that means she was the majority shareholder of Rand Enterprises? Nobody objected to Jeri managing the Rand estate, by the way. What would have happened if no one ever came back?

Ward discusses “his” decision with Joy, adding that he knows she gave Danny and Jeri the bowl from last episode. Fortunately for Joy, they’re interrupted by Danny. His new status as the majority shareholder of Rand Enterprises is made public in a press conference, and we have a few scenes showing his adaptation in the company. Later he interrupts a board meeting where Ward is presenting their price strategy for a leishmaniasis medication. Danny is shocked the company wants to profit from it and demands the medication to be sold at cost price, using all the power of his majority shareholding to get that done.

Meanwhile, Colleen learns that the video of her cage fighting went viral when one of her students posted it online. She feels ashamed, but he insists that she’ll have more students if everyone sees she’s a badass. She later returns to the underground fight, this time kicking the asses of two men as if it was a piece of cake. Those scenes are always good to watch, and I’m glad Colleen has her own story going on.

Danny and Joy go for a walk and we get confirmation that she gave him and Jeri the bowl. They discuss the pier deal and Joy wants to know why Danny is so curious about it. He tells her that when he was at the monastery he learned about a certain “job” of great prestige, but everyone said a foreigner like him would never get it. This made him want it even more and he fought all the way until he got it.

This tale marks one of the problems with our hero. He became the Iron Fist out of spite, not because he understood the meaning of the position. This paints him as an entitled manbaby again. Furthermore, do I need to explain what’s problematic with the narrative of “white person masters something related to a poc culture better than any poc from that culture could”? The fact that the Iron Fist is supposed to be the protector of K’un Lun is also remarkably close to the white savior trope.

Back to Danny, who describes how different his current apartment is from what he had at the monastery. This quickly becomes disturbing as we learn the monastery was like the Borogravian Girl’s Working School, an awful place where Danny was constantly beaten and treated almost like a prisoner. As Joy correctly points out, this is abuse. This is actually worst than “white Western guy goes to Chinese-ish monastery to find himself”, because it paints all those Asian monks as abusive. Are we still doing the “white hero, poc villain” thing?

Apparently we are, because Joy answers the door and there are several Asian minions ready to kidnap her. We get a Hallway Fight scene and an Elevator Scene, both dull and uninspired. At least we see Danny using his Iron Fist power for the second time. He takes Joy to Colleen, looking for a clue about the identities of the attackers. Colleen says they belong to the triad and Danny goes after them alone. When the triads tell Danny that Joy stole the pier from them, Danny explains the Hand forced Rand Enterprises to acquire the place. The triads back away and apologize, so Danny leaves.

Please don’t let this be a love triangle

Later, someone knocks on Danny’s door, leaving only a cryptic message with the picture of a small dragon.

Episode 5: Under Leaf Pluck Lotus

We follow three ladies coming to the city, and their luggage displays the same dragon symbol Danny received. They’re like pharmaceutical representatives, but trying to sell a stronger variant of heroine. Danny learns the Hand is using Rand’s new pier to smuggle it. He tells Ward about it, but Ward doesn’t care. Meanwhile, Joy handles a potential lawsuit from people who got cancer living near a Rand factory, and it may or may not be the company’s fault. One of those people approaches Danny when he leaves Rand, saying he’s different and compassionate. He wants to help them and unknowingly assumes responsibility in behalf of the company while being recorded.

To counter the amount of corporate dullness of the episode, we finally see Claire! She’s taking self defense classes with Colleen, as hinted at the end of Luke Cage, but they’re interrupted by Danny. He needs to talk with Colleen, and he even brought dinner! Colleen says he’ll have to wait because she’s in the middle of a class, but too late, because people enter her dojo bringing chairs and tables and candles and fancy food. So once again we see someone saying “no” and Danny ignoring it. I don’t care that his intentions were good, he did not respect her boundaries and this is becoming a pattern. 

After Claire leaves, Danny explains what he knows about the heroine to Colleen. He knows there will be another shipment tonight and he wants Colleen to guard his back while he obtains proof of the smuggling. Colleen would have to cancel her classes, but Danny says she doesn’t have to worry about rent anymore because he purchased her entire building! Ta-daa! Except, no, this is super creepy.

I thought that after Fifty Shades of Grey we were done with the “conventionally attractive billionaire displays stalking behavior and uses his money power to get the girl, is rewarded by narrative because being conventionally attractive and billionaire apparently make up for stalking behavior”. Apparently not, because Danny and Colleen have a moment where they sort of seduce each other by displaying their weapon skills. It could’ve been a cute way to show them bonding over shared interests, but right now I just want Danny away from her.

Danny and Colleen reach the pier and we have a rare moment of Danny apologizing. I also like that he doesn’t judge Colleen for fighting in the underground cage fights.

One of the trucks they’re watching has only boxes and Danny wants to investigate. Taking a page from The Walking Dead’s book, he hides inside the truck when it departs. Colleen follows them in a car. Behind the boxes, Danny finds a chemist called Radovan, guarded by a minion. Danny and the minion fight, injuring Radovan in the process. Using the Iron Fist to open the truck, Danny escapes with Radovan to Colleen’s car. Radovan is wanted in several countries, so they take him to Claire. Being the badass Macgyver that she is, she temporarily fixes his lung with a credit card. Radovan says the Hand has his daughter Sabina, and Claire briefly sums up the final episodes of Daredevil season 2. We learn she has more experience with the Hand than Danny, but Danny has special skills, so he promises Radovan he’ll bring Sabina back.

Meanwhile, Ward uses the super heroine that Danny gave him. We also see the minion that fought Danny in the truck meeting Madame Gao, who seems to be aware that Danny is an Iron Fist. If the mark of a true hero is beating people without killing them, the mark of a true villain is rewarding bad employees with gruesome deaths. But, we do finally get to see Madame Gao’s face.

Episode 6: Immortal Emerges from Cave

We open the episode with several people receiving a wooden piece with a message, telling them the time has come. At Rand Enterprises, Joy finds Ward recovering from his heroine night. She is handling everything on her own and hired a crisis management team to deal with Danny’s leaked video, now viral. She needs Ward and Danny at the meeting with her, but Danny doesn’t care. He wants to check Rand’s warehouses for clues on Sabina, so Ward reluctantly comes with him to ensure he’ll be back in time.

It’s hard to pick what I despise the most about Danny’s corporate plot. He clearly doesn’t care about Rand Enterprises and doesn’t know what to do with it, except occasionally create a problem that will have to be solved by someone else and will probably be blamed on Ward. Instead of being presented as further proof of Danny’s incompetence, those moments are meant to demonstrate that he is Good™. Because all other businessmen are Bad™. It’s a cheap way to make a hero seem morally superior, but it becomes laughable when we consider Danny’s hypocritical relationship with money.

The show forces the idea of Danny as an enlightened human being above materialistic needs, but he has no qualms about using Rand money to obtain whatever he wishes, from his Aston Martin to Colleen’s building. I have no problem with rich superheroes and neither do most people, as Batman or Iron Man can attest. The problem comes from when you want to pretend your rich heir/1%-er is not privileged and is not enjoying this privilege.

Part of the Danny Rand Construct is Danny Rand Corporate Hero, and he’s the majority shareholder of boring subplots.

Danny and Ward visit warehouses until they find the one where Madame Gao killed her minion last episode. The minion’s head is still there, holding an invitation for the Iron Fist. Danny refuses to go back to Rand with Ward, meeting Colleen and Claire instead. He explains to them that this is the Hand’s version of a challenge, pitting their best fighters against him. Claire and Colleen are worried about him, but he says he’s the Iron Fist and this means he never loses. 

After Danny leaves, Colleen and Claire decide they must take Radovan to a hospital, otherwise he’ll die. They take him to Metro-General, where Claire used to work. When they hear no news of him, Claire suspects something is wrong and the security cameras prove she’s right: minions are taking Radovan away. Claire and Colleen chase them, and Colleen once more shows her fighting prowess. Unfortunately, the villains trick them and escape with Radovan.

Danny’s challenge starts and the terms are set. Should Danny win, the Hand will release Sabina and leave Rand Enterprises. Should he lose and stay alive, he will stop interfering with the Hand’s business. His first fight is against two Russian brothers, and they wonder why Danny is not guarding the gates of K’un Lun if he’s the Iron Fist. He has visions of his master saying platitudes while he fights and defeats the two brothers. His next opponent is the embodiment of the Dragon Lady trope, dressed in an impractical outfit and trying to seduce Danny because what else would a woman do?

Trust me, it’s bad.

She teases Danny about his identity and uses needles to poison him. He wins the fight, but is in a pretty bad shape. His final opponent is a specialist in several different weapons. Danny finally connects with his purpose of defeating the Hand, using his Iron Fist power to punch him. When it looks like Danny will win, Madame Gao holds a blade on Sabina’s throat and says she’ll kill the girl if Danny doesn’t withdraw. He reluctantly accepts and Madame Gao releases Sabina. It’s revealed she’s been to K’un Lun herself and knows Danny’s father. When he hears this he demands answers, but she pushes him away using her magical powers. Danny is forced to leave with Sabina.

I should note the fighting scenes were not bad, but they were not good either. The constant narration and the minions conveniently externalizing Danny’s identity crisis were heavy-handed and shaped this as a personal moment for him rather than something with high stakes for the plot. Yet, there’s no emotional payoff when Danny finds strength in his purpose because that purpose has been constantly undermined by the narrative thus far. Danny’s motivations change so much and his reasons for becoming the Iron Fist are so flimsy that I find myself more invested in Claire and Colleen’s scene than his entire challenge.

Wrap Up

With those episodes, we’re almost halfway done! Iron Fist has admittedly improved a lot since last week, but it still struggles to be an okay show.

All Marvel Netflix shows so far have had pacing issues, but nothing this egregious. Too much time is wasted in subplots that add very little to the story, like Ward’s drug addiction or Danny’s journey as a Corporate Hero. The main plot is finally moving, but it’s on a faulty foundation. A good portion of it hinges on Danny’s character and motivations, and both are poorly developed, which is by far the show’s weakest spot. It takes far more time, effort and consistency to establish a compelling identity crisis than a cheesy narration during a bland fight scene. The child-like traumatized Danny is the best version of Danny Rand we’ve gotten so far, because he’s the only Danny I don’t want to punch in the face with a chair. Yet I’m not sure I can see this guy blending with Jessica, Matt, or Luke.

The portrayal of Asian cultures remains problematic. There are a lot of scenes with Danny quoting an Asian saying or demonstrating an Asian practice, and I excluded most of them from the recap because of how little they affect the plot. They’re just there as a clumsy reminder of Danny’s connection to K’un Lun, but are so poorly executed that they feel like cultural appropriation. Danny reminds me of Alyson Hannigan’s character in American Pie, except instead of “one time at band camp” we get “one time in fictional Asia”. Add it to the white savior undertones and the constant use of Asians and Asian Americans as antagonists to the white hero, and we have a tone deaf show.

There’s still potential in Iron Fist, especially coming from its supporting cast. But like Danny Rand, the show needs to connect with its purpose and prove its skills if it’s going to raise my current opinion of it. 

Images Courtesy of Marvel

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