Friday, March 17, 2017

The Formula Of Banal: Why Iron Fist Season 1 Underwhelms.

The Good: Moments of character, Moments of performance
The Bad: Dull plot, Boring character progressions, Very obvious fight sequences
The Basics: Iron Fist Season 1 blends bullying, business drama and martial arts in a surprisingly dull Marvel television series.

Despite being a fairly objective reviewer, I have become a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For sure, the highlight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the television components - it is hard not to see the blockbuster film franchise as painfully repetitive and a bit of a letdown given that in the movies there are almost no characters who actually die and stay dead. With generally enjoying the Marvel Cinematic Universe and having components I have some real anticipation for, I cannot think of an element I have been less enthusiastic for than Iron Fist. I have no knowledge of the character Iron Fist from the Marvel Comics source material and the first full trailer for Iron Fist Season 1 made the backstory of Iron Fist seem like a very cheap rip off of Bruce Wayne's complete arc in Batman Begins (reviewed here!). But, as a fan, I was up early for the debut of Iron Fist the moment it aired on Netflix!

Iron Fist Season 1 is something of a "necessary evil" season of television. Iron Fist is the last of the essential characters for the street-level heroes from Marvel Comics, who form the core characters of The Defenders, whose television series will air in September. The Defenders needs Iron Fist and rather than introduce him in that series, season one of Iron Fist was created.

Unfortunately, the first season of Iron Fist is painfully familiar. Iron Fist is formulaic, with twists and lines that the viewer can call well in advance. This corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is particularly non-compelling. The new characters introduced in the first season of Iron Fist plod through the motions and most feel like afterimages of previously-established MCU characters. In fact, I did not realize just how little I was enjoying the first season of Iron Fist until my overwhelming sense of boredom led me to articulate that only the scenes with Claire Temple and Madame Gao were entertaining me.

Equally problematic to the boring aspect of the first season of Iron Fist is the sheer volume of details for the business drama that the show gets wrong, robbing it of a sense of reality in that theater. In many ways, the first season of Iron Fist is a minor variation on Tony Stark's arc in Iron Man (reviewed here!) and there is something that feels unfortunately naive about how none of the businesspeople make a crack about Danny Rand being like Tony Stark when Rand tries to reject profit motive for the business in favor of doing the right thing.

Danny Rand shows up in New York City and tries to see the corporate head of Rand Enterprises, the company his parents built. He is met by Joy and Ward Meachum, whom he knew as a child as their father worked with his. The Meachums tell Danny that he was declared dead when he went missing fifteen years prior and Ward sees Danny as a threat to their expanding business interests. After the pair commit Rand to a mental institution, Danny escapes and hires legal representation to authenticate his identity and his claim to his 51% stake in Rand Enterprises. Danny begins to acclimate to business life and life in modern New York with the help of Colleen Wing. When Danny discovers that Harold Meachum, his father's business partner and Ward and Joy's father, is alive, he learns that The Hand is present and active in New York City.

Danny Rand, in the fifteen years he was thought dead, lived in another dimension where he was trained by monks to become the Iron Fist, sworn destroyer of The Hand. Rand begins to dig into the relationship between Rand Enterprises and The Hand, quickly realizing that the new heroine trade in New York is based in the bowels of Rand, under the direct supervision of Madame Gao! As Joy and Ward are pushed out of Rand Enterprises, Danny Rand, Colleen Wing, and Claire Temple go on a desperate mission to China to capture Gao. As all their lives spin out of control, The Hand comes in force, compelling the heroes to make tough decisions.

The first season of Iron Fist is a troubling necessary evil chapter of the street-level heroes saga. It is the most concrete prequel to The Defenders and it firmly establishes the reasonable expectation that Madame Gao, The Hand and the war that Stick once warned Matt Murdock about will be the prime focus of the next Netflix Marvel series. But on its own, Iron Fist is not a compelling story or character. The lack of spark for Iron Fist was hammered home when I felt an uncharacteristic sense of delight - late in the season - when a character references hiring Jessica Jones and, taking an educated gamble, pausing on the cover of Danny Rand's Forbes cover, I found the Stark Enterprises line!

For a show called Iron Fist, it is an unforgivable sin of writing and production that almost all of the characters are smarter and more interesting than the protagonist.

To better understand the series, it helps to know who the main characters are. In the first season of Iron Fist, the principle characters are:

Danny Rand - The Iron Fist, he is a billionaire who does not know his own cash worth at the outset of his return from Kun Lun. He is a master of martial arts and can channel his chi to make a powerful, glowing fist that is virtually indestructible. He grew up with Joy and Ward, the latter of whom bullied him. He wants to re-establish ties with the people he once cared about and he wants to make his parents' business socially responsible. He is kind and spiritual, but has anger issues and seems to be stunted at about his ten year-old level of development,

Colleen Wing - A martial arts expert who runs a dojo in New York City, she is training Claire Temple in karate. She is one of the first people Danny meets upon his return to New York City and is struggling to keep her dojo in the black. She refuses to let Ward manipulate or bribe her to keep Danny committed. She works to do the right thing, but is harboring a secret from Rand,

Joy Meachum - The efficient legal counsel for Rand Enterprises, she cared deeply about Danny as a child. She is the first to believe that Danny could be exactly who he says he is. She is essentially half of a power couple with Ward, running Rand Enterprises. She is protective of Ward and proves herself to be a surprisingly adept strategist,

Ward Meachum - The head of Rand Enterprises, leading the board of directors with ambitious plans for the company. He is resistant to accepting Danny Rand and sets henchmen on him. He is one of only two people who knows that Harold Meachum is alive and he continues to bully people based upon pressure from his father. He is drug-addicted and when the company turns on him and Joy, he looks at it as an out from a life he never wanted,

Claire Temple - Now training to fight, she continues to mend those damaged peripheral to the actions of Danny Rand and The Hand. She recalls well what happened the last time The Hand attacked New York City and killer her friend. She continues to date Luke Cage (who remains in prison) and quickly recognizes the awkward chemistry between Danny and Colleen,

Harold Meachum - The former head of Rand Enterprises, he was declared dead over a decade ago. He actually died and was resurrected by The Hand, with whom he had a devil's deal. He is controlling, manipulative, and rules Ward's life,

and Madame Gao - The ancient evil who rules over The Hand. She continues to drop hints as to her true nature. She has a history with Rand's parents and Harold Meachum, which leads Danny Rand to hunt her around the world.

The first season of Iron Fist is led by Finn Jones in the title role. Finn Jones has been taking a lot of flack for being a white man who was cast . . . in the role of a white martial arts fighter. As near as I can tell from various Marvel databases, Danny Rand was always a white boy who crashed in the Himalayas, so I'm not sure where the whitewashing claim comes from. Finn Jones is not bad as Danny Rand, but wow is Danny Rand a horrible character. The thing is, even when Danny Rand throws a temper tantrum, acts instinctually compassionate, or shows complete naivete to business, it fits his character and Jones gets through the season fine as him. Jones actually is fairly convincing playing a man whose emotional and intellectual growth was pretty much stunted at age ten.

David Wenham is given a near-impossible task in the first season of Iron Fist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe villains roster list set the bar exceptionally high by impressive performances from David Tennant, Jeff Bridges, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Tom Hiddleston and Wenham does the best he can with the material he is given. Wenham is at his best as Harold Meachum when he plays the role with subtlety and like a man who is trapped under the thumb of The Hand. Wenham is forced to play moments of over-the-top anger as well, but most of the time, his Meachum comes across like a parody of Donald Trump. In fact, one suspects that much of Wenham's performance could be cut together to make a "Donald Trump In Hiding" video montage. Unfortunately, Wenham is pushed into the second-place villain slot when Wai Ching Ho appears. Ho's Madame Gao quickly overwhelms Iron Fist with the power of her presence.

Jessica Henwick, Jessica Stroup, and Rosario Dawson have their moments as Colleen, Joy and Claire. All three play their characters as far smarter and resourceful than their male counterparts. Tom Pelphrey brings something different to almost every episode he plays Ward in, which illustrates a pretty extraordinary range. Pelphrey's Ward is arguably the most complex character in the first season of Iron Fist and Pelphrey plays him with an exceptional emotional range and level of sophistication.

Unfortunately rendered in Iron Fist is the soundtrack. While Luke Cage used soundtrack exceptionally well as an accent piece and form of characterization, much of the rap music in Iron Fist feels intrusive and awkward.

Ultimately, the few moments of performance are not enough to save the often-dull and formulaic first season of Iron Fist from the morass it quickly gets stuck in.

For a better understanding of what this season comprises, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes in the season at:
"Snow Gives Way"
"Shadow Hawk Takes Flight"
"Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch"
"Eight Diagram Dragon Palm"
"Under Leaf Pluck Lotus"
"Immortal Emerges From Cave"
"Felling Tree With Roots"
"The Blessing Of Many Fractures"
"The Mistress Of All Agonies"
"Black Tiger Steals Heart"
"Lead Horse Back To Stable"
"Bar The Big Boss"
"Dragon Plays With Fire"

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Love - Season 2
Santa Clarita Diet - Season 1
A Series Of Unfortunate Events - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
"Happy Fuckin' New Year" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"Self Control" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"The Wrath Of Savitar" - The Flash
"Land Of The Lost" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Exodus" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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