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Netflix and Marvel’s Iron Fist is an ill-conceived, poorly written disaster

But its worst sin is being belligerently boring.

Iron Fist!
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Friday, Marvel and Netflix unleashed 13 episodes of the first season of Iron Fist upon the world — and it is the single worst thing the superhero television factory has ever created.

This series takes everything good Marvel has done on a joy ride, then returns it scratched, bruised, and smelling like patchouli and broken promises. After the 13-hour slog, I’m not angry — I’m just disappointed.

Disappointed, but not particularly surprised. After all, from concept to release, Iron Fist has been a challenge. Iron Fist isn’t really one of Marvel’s most compelling heroes. And the original source material is clunky and full of Asian stereotypes — dragons, Orientalist flourishes, and Fu Manchu facial hair.

Prior to Iron Fist’s casting of Finn Jones as the title character, there was a fan movement to get Marvel to cast Danny Rand as an Asian or Asian-American man. But even if Marvel did that, and even if it managed to perfect the depictions of Asian people on this show, Iron Fist would still be awful.

Iron Fist’s biggest weakness is its writing

The story of Iron Fist, a.k.a Danny Rand — a rich white man (and orphan) who learns martial/mystical arts and returns home to fight evil — isn’t unlike that of Batman, Green Arrow, or Doctor Strange, putting the onus on the show to do something interesting with a well-trod narrative. The show is also the last of Marvel’s core four Netflix solo series leading up to its Avengers-like team-up show The Defenders, meaning Iron Fist is tasked with a lot of last-minute place setting for that series. And perhaps the biggest challenge facing Iron Fist in 2017 is that the source material, written in the ’70s, is rife with Orientalist stereotypes, making fans, especially those of Asian descent, wary of what Marvel would do with Iron Fist.

Thankfully, Netflix’s Iron Fist tones down the ’70s-era stereotypes — though any writer working in television in 2017 should be able to recognize the comics’ racial hangups, so that’s not saying much. But there’s still the nagging problem that most of the people of color on the series, save Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, are affiliated with the bad guys.

Jessica Henwick, Finn Jones, Rosario Dawson.
Cara Howe/Netflix

The bigger challenge facing the show’s writers was taking the Iron Fist narrative and making it both digestible and distinct, which they’ve utterly failed to do. The most consistently disappointing and distracting Iron Fist element is its flat, repetitive writing. Here’s how a typical Iron Fist conversation goes:

CHARACTER 1: You did [insert something that the audience just saw happen].

CHARACTER 2: I did [the thing character 1 is talking about].

CHARACTER 1: That’s a bad idea that you [did that thing].

CHARACTER 2: I am this thing that did that thing. This is what I’m feeling right now.

Repeat that over and over, and you’ve basically got yourself one season of Iron Fist. On multiple occasions in any given episode, characters will just say plainly how they feel. Half of the first part of the season is Danny Rand saying, “I can explain,” over and over, to the point where it begins to feel like a threat.

The clunky dialogue often creates the sense that the show doesn’t trust its audience. After Danny gets into a fight at Rand HQ, the camera lingers on the head security guard. Later in the episode, the same security guard pursues Danny, and he exclaims, “Hey, you’re that security guard from earlier!” as if we’d somehow forgotten what’s happened in the last 20 minutes.

But perhaps that’s the thing: No character on this show seems to remember what just happened.

Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) is Danny’s childhood friend, and her position at Rand Enterprises makes her one of the series’ more intriguing characters. But her decisions never make sense for her character, whether she’s being happy that Danny Rand has returned, then promptly stuffing him into a mental institution, or distrusting and re-trusting her sinister family, and ultimately consulting the Hand. Joy is supposed to be a brittle ice queen, but like many of the characters on this show, she feels more like a collection of icy actions than an actual person.

Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing suffers from the same inconsistency. One minute she’s fully weighing the consequences of helping Rand. Later, we find out she’s been battling in underground cage matches while teaching teens the balance of restraint in martial arts. The next minute, she’s spouting off about the samurai way of life, and is really down with killing people. Iron Fist doesn’t really understand how to use Wing in a way that makes sense.

These actors aren’t bad — Stroup and Henwick are actually really good in this series — but they’re not in charge of writing their mangled characters. Maybe they should be.

The fight choreography is aggressively uninteresting

When I first watched Daredevil’s first season, I was taken by how the show’s fight scenes had a language of their own. Each character fought differently: Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, had an acrobatic precision to his style, which contrasted with Wilson Fisk’s brutish, raw power. In the second season, the series developed this language even further, with Elektra’s agile style and Punisher’s brutal violence. The series’ visual style reflected this dynamism, experimenting with heights and angles in fight scenes to great effect.

Sadly, there’s absolutely none of that in Iron Fist.

Granted, there’s also a lack of great fight choreography in Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, the two Netflix solo series preceding Iron Fist, but those shows aren’t centered on martial arts and acrobatic fighting the way Iron Fist is. The fights here look generic, to the point where if you told me they were actually footage from the ’90s Power Rangers series, I would believe you.

Everyone fights the same, and no one looks interesting doing it.

Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Some of this can be attributed to Danny Rand’s lack of mask or bandana. Thanks to Daredevil’s costuming, a stunt person could step in for actor Charlie Cox, providing the show the freedom to visually experiment. Meanwhile, Iron Fist’s action sequences want to make clear that we’re actually seeing Finn Jones doing some of the punching. But the drawback to that verisimilitude is that the scenes feel choppy and redundant — a style Marvel should be long past at this point. A slapdash assassin tournament midway through the season makes it especially evident how the series uses its fight scenes like a cudgel instead of a paintbrush.

Iron Fist feels more like setup for the Hand than a show about a superhero

What makes Iron Fist feel like a conceptual failure is that it’s simply a piece of Marvel’s grand plan to assemble its Netflix shows into The Defenders series, rather than a show intended to showcase its hero. At its best in the comic books, the Iron Fist narrative is about the family Rand builds, the legacy of Iron Fists before him, and the destiny he can’t evade. But it’s hard to get at all those points in this series when there’s so much else it has to set up on the way to Defenders.

There’s a set path for the Marvel’s solo Netflix shows to converge, bringing together a villain (the Hand), recurring characters (Jeri Hogarth and Claire Temple), and potential crossovers with existing characters (Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Jessica and Matt Murdock via Hogarth). By the time Iron Fist came around, it needed to be massaged and finessed to fit the missing pieces of this almost-assembled puzzle. It was constructed backward.

Iron Fist is, for better or worse, handcuffed to the Hand in a way that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage weren’t. Those two series could have more freedom with their villains and storytelling. Iron Fist, by contrast, is chained to a story intended to establish the importance and complexity of the Hand, the villainous ninja-filled organization from the second season of Daredevil (one of that series’ more successful concepts). Iron Fist reveals that the Hand is a Hydra-like entity, whose tentacles (fingers?) reach into powerful places.

It’s also capable of a kind of brainwashing.

In the latter half of the season, we find out the Hand resurrected Harold Meachum (David Wenham), Danny’s father’s thought-to-be-dead shady business partner, through some kind of dark magic. When he returns, he’s more violent and aggressive, with a significant, dangerous debt owed to the Hand. We don’t know how many people aside from Harold and Elektra (who underwent a similar process at the end of Daredevil’s second season) have been resurrected in this manner, and it raises the question of just how many Hand replacements are currently installed in powerful places.

It’s a riveting reveal that sets up the inevitable Defenders showdown and expands on the Hand’s (and to some extent, the Meachums’) origin story of an ancient organization adapting and growing in power in modern times. The problem: It’s a better arc than the one afforded to Iron Fist’s titular hero.

Iron Fist is almost entirely without merit. Almost.

Watching the entire season of Iron Fist left me at the crossroads of fatigue and boredom. I went into this show a young, spry man. I left with arthritis and a pocket full of Werther’s Originals.

At multiple points, I yelled at my screen because another character told us something we just saw happen. And somewhere around episode eight, Jones’s moribund performance led me to Google “handsome actors martial arts training.” (I then found myself on a Cam Gigandet Pinterest board.)

Carrie-Anne Moss, Finn Jones.
Sarah Shatz/Netflix

But within Iron Fist’s relentless mediocrity, there are a couple of lone bright spots. They go by the names of Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), both previously introduced into the Marvel-Netflix television universe in prior series. Here, they’re sardonic voices of reason, pragmatic figures to help Danny Rand understand the cynicism and the way the world around him (which he’s been removed from for 15 years) works.

A lot of my affection for these two comes from their constant undercutting of the people around them. Like a salty Greek chorus, Jeri and Claire repeatedly sharpen their faces and give Danny and Colleen a “you’ve got to be kidding me” stare that captures all the annoyance and frustration the viewer is feeling at their antics. Or, because this is a poorly written show, sometimes they give that stare and then actually say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

This might be the fatigue talking, but Marvel should really think about a spinoff for these two. It couldn’t be any worse than the 13 hours I just watched.

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