By J.J. Ulm
Marvel’s Iron Fist, the fourth Marvel Cinematic Universe series made for Netflix and the last one leading into the Avengers-style The Defenders, is kind of an easy target. Pretty much everything about the character is hella problematic – he’s a stock White Savior character, a rich white boy raised by kung fu monks after his family’s private jet crashed in the Himalayas who turns out to be their actual prophesied hero, and there’s not much done to mitigate any of that.
Iron Fist brings us deep into that cringe-inducing corner of the Marvel Universe that we first saw in the second season of Daredevil. See, we got into Cosmic Marvel with Guardians of the Galaxy. We got into Magic Marvel with Doctor Strange. And now we’re getting into Awkwardly Orientalist Martial Arts Marvel, full of katana beheadings, diatribes about honor, and actual goddamn ninjas.
But it’s also just not very good.
Was it a hesitance on the part of the writers to dive headfirst into the mess of a white-boy kung fu savior that made Danny Rand so lifeless? Was it Finn Jones, who made for an adorable twink knight in Game of Thrones but who is much less convincing as a martial artist? Or is Iron Fist just not that interesting when he’s not Luke Cage’s scrawny white hippie friend?
For a show about a martial artist, Iron Fist has precious little fighting. And that’s even more of a shame because more fighting would have meant less of Danny having poorly-defined moral conflicts, less of his friend Joy Meachum having poorly-defined characterization, less of Colleen Wing turning from a great character into mush the moment anything resembling a love interest came along. It would have meant less of the Rand Enterprises’ dull corporate intrigues.
There’s enough enjoyable about the series to make it watchable, which is good for those of us who want to be up to speed for the return of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage in The Defenders. Joy’s brother Ward, despite the (back to Game of Thrones again) Lanniser-y undertones of his relationship with his sister, gets a character arc worthy of a main character as he deals with his increasingly violent undead father Harold, who sold his soul and his company’s distribution network to the Hand (you know, the ninjas) in exchange for immortality.
The recurring characters from Marvel’s other Netflix shows are a high point of the show as well, especially philandering lesbian lawyer Jeri Hogarth, whose deadpan cynicism is a perfect foil for Danny’s derpy guilelessness. Claire Temple helps Colleen remember that she’s not just there to reject and then inevitably pine over Danny.
And then there’s Madame Gao, the charming little old Chinese lady who also happens to be one of the Hand’s leaders, first seen in Daredevil and fleshed out far more here as Danny investigates her ties to his father’s company. She manages to be threatening despite never throwing a punch – she has plenty of underlings to do that for her. If we’re going to continue having actual goddamn ninjas in The Defenders, they could do worse than to keep her in charge of them.
If you’re deeply invested in the MCU, then you’re going to watch it regardless. You probably already have – whatever arcane tools are used to measure Netflix views show lots of people already have. Just temper your expectations. Iron Fist is no Jessica Jones.