Yes, I know this review is coming quite late. I originally wanted to make it soon after I binge-watched Iron Fist Season 1 during its debut weekend, but too many things came up that ultimately sabotaged my intention to make a timely review of this somewhat misunderstood entry in the Netflix corner of Marvel Studios’ shared cinematic universe.
As we all know at this point, the critics mostly slammed the show mercilessly, and insisted it would be Marvel Studios’ first failure (before The Inhumans series over at Marvel’s ABC corner of the small screen came along to truly earn that negative distinction). This jumping-of-the-gun assessment was based on the critics’ preview analysis of the first 7 episodes of the show.
Then the full series was released shortly afterwards, and following its binge-weekend debut, it turned out the great majority of the fans vehemently disagreed with the critics. A major pissing contest between critics and fans erupted on Twitter and elsewhere in social media, and soon became one of the most high-profile examples of fan viewers and “professional” critics (some of whom are not necessarily among the ranks of the fan base) having a very serious disagreement. It also made clear the serious disconnect that can exist between professional reviewers (both self-proclaimed or actually hired) and standard but dedicated fans, and the way being the former can lead to much different criteria of judgment than the latter.
Which leads to… What did I happen to think of the series? And perhaps just as importantly, what do I think was the main reason for the conflicting hoopla between critics and fans that erupted around it?
Finn Jones trying to take a well-deserved dump in front of the property of one of the main Iron Fist critics. What goes around comes around, right?
I basically liked the series and enjoyed watching it. I think it was well-scripted and well-acted, with Finn Jones well cast in the title role of Danny Rand, Jessica Henwick doing great in stand-out fashion as the formidable female martial arts master Colleen Wing, and Sacha Dhawan performing admirably as the main character’s best-friend-destined-to-become-mortal-foe Davos (the pre-Steel Serpent version). And of course, Rosario Dawson did a typically great reprisal role of hero-tending “Night Nurse” Claire Temple, the glue who acts as a common link holding all the Netflix Marvel series together in shared universe fashion.
Frankly, I can care less about the nasty arguments surrounding how an Oriental actor should have been picked over Finn Jones to play Iron Fist. The character from the comic books was white and blonde, so it’s not like hiring a white and blonde actor to play the onscreen version of the Living Weapon was a political breach of etiquette akin to a white actor hired to play Luke Cage or a gender reversal casting choice turning Jessica Jones into Jeffery Jones or something like that. Marvel has given us plenty of good ethnic, minority thespians to provide proper racial and gender representation into its shows, even going so far as reversing both the gender and sexual orientation of the supporting character Jeryn Hogarth into Jerri Hogarth in favor of progressive sensibilities, and an alteration of such a minor but notable character was no problem.
Such diverse representation is a good thing, but when taken to PC extremes to satisfy the liberal mavens of identity politics you risk getting the “Comicsgate” debacle that has plagued the comic book branch of Marvel for the past few years. And which, in turn, led to nasty fights between the Marvel staff and the fan base on social media; the emergence of a staff that hated its own fan base; a policy of hiring staff more for their gender/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation & personal politics than anything to do with qualifications as writers & editors; major overall reduction in the quality of the books since they became enslaved to a reactionary “left” agenda; a serious diminishing of sales for the comics; and Marvel’s need to deal with all of that mess by declaring its “Fresh Start” overhaul planned for May of 2018. I’ll deal with all of this in a separate blog, though, as it threatens to go way off topic for a review of a single TV series. I just wanted to mention in passing why I put no major emphasis on this particular gripe that emerged in the back and forth social media fracas about the show.
The fight sequences weren’t the best choreographed among the Marvel series, but they were exciting enough and numerous enough to satisfy the action-lovers of the genre. The exposition and dialogue was good, and though again it wasn’t the best among the series, it was still good. I keep emphasizing that word for good reason, which will soon become clear.
Did the show get the character of Daniel Rand right? For the most part, yes. I strongly disagree with the contention of many critics that Rand was portrayed as an unlikable asshole. I think he was actually portrayed as a decent and endearing guy who found himself in a classic “fish out of water” situation when he returned to the society he hadn’t known since he was a child, following the traumatic loss of his parents and then spending the rest of his formative years in the hidden mythological society of K’un-Lun, which was utterly unlike that of the society he was born in.
Rand was also on a mission to discover the truth of his parents’ murder and his ousting from the company that was rightfully his after he went missing for so many years. Hence, he was often not exactly amiable in his behavior towards others who stood in his way, but still far from unlikable IMO.
Here are my four qualms with what I consider an otherwise good (though not quite awesome) series, for those who may be interested to hear them.
1) The circumstances of how Rand lost his parents were considerably less dramatic and heart-wrenching than in the comic book version (and a lot less bloody!), which did take away a bit of the pathos from the tragedy IMO. For a more iconic analogy, think of the pathos which may be lost from the Batman mythos if Bruce Wayne’s parents weren’t shot to death one after the other in front of the young boy, but he instead lost them via an airplane crash, and though young Bruce was present on the plane he wasn’t conscious when they died. The tragic loss and trauma is still there, of course, but… well, some of the pathos gets lost, if you get my gist. Nevertheless, this change didn’t have any serious impact on the overall storyline, and since Iron Fist is considerably less well known than Batman, the tampering with the origin sequence was likely considered to be forgivable among fan viewers.
2) We didn’t get to see Rand in his iconic costume at all, not even a teaser hint of it as we got with Luke Cage’s original ’70s stuntman-derived yellow-shirted garb. TV Rand did have the very iconic dragon tattoo embedded on his chest, but no sign of the costume whatsoever. This lack of a costume made him more like an action hero along the lines of the characters portrayed onscreen by Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme during the 1980s and ’90s rather than a super-hero. This did fit in with his street level character credentials, of course, and yes, both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage went sans costume in their respective shows without suffering for it.
However, Daredevil kept his costume, and like the Man Without Fear, the Living Weapon has been much more associated with a costume throughout his published career than either Cage or Jones. In the case of Luke Cage, he hasn’t had a costume associated with him since before the 1990s, and Jessica Jones never did (yes, I’m aware of her brief career as the costumed hero Jewel, but that was a very short time during her back story, and this costume barely even got a “teaser” nod in Season 1 of her show).
3) We never saw the dragon Shao-Lao! The dragon was mentioned often enough in the show, so this important aspect of how Rand acquired the power of the Iron Fist was thankfully retained for the TV version; but the dragon was never depicted in any fashion, not even briefly! Would a ten-second appearance for a quick flashback origin sequence really have been too expensive, considering what many TV budgets are producing these days? I understand the appearance of a dragon may have compromised the street level tone of the show for certain tastes, but dammit, I wanted to see the freakin’ dragon!
4) Too much obvious filler, which is a problem plaguing Netflix shows in general, since the online network usually seems to insist upon 13 episodes of roughly 50 minutes of running time (with no commercial breaks) for its original shows. This can make some of the episodes appear to drag on needlessly, and though this problem was evident at times in all the Netflix Marvel series, it seemed to have hit Iron Fist particularly hard, particularly during the all-important first act of the season.
Beyond those four qualms, though, I still think Iron Fist Season 1 was a laudable entry in the Marvel stable that mostly did justice to this venerable second tier Marvel hero, who was an absolute staple of the Marvel oeuvre during the Bronze Age of Comics.
Will we finally see the iconic costume in Season 2? We’ll have to wait until 2019 to find out!
So, finally, why do I think the critics slammed it and presumed it would be the MCU’s first misfire? Two reasons, IMO, both of which were miscalculations on the part of the critics that represent common mistakes made by fans and critics alike. Also, the fan base had the advantage of seeing and considering the whole series, and didn’t have to judge based on the first 7 episodes only, a benefit that the preview critics lacked (which didn’t stop a segment of the critics from maintaining their stance even after having watched the entire season, however).
The first of these reasons was, I believe, due to the degree that Iron Fist, compared to its predecessors Daredevil Season 1-2 and the first seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, was bogged down by filler material. This required a level of commitment on the part of the viewer to get through the meandering parts of the narrative, a problem that decreased with the show’s second act. It can be argued that critics are less tolerant or patient with these details than a regular fan, since the former are more concerned with being critical than they are with being entertained. This is why critics can oftentimes seem to be unreasonably harsh, and there has long been a bias against sci-fi-related material among them, and why you will often hear so many fans decree that they prefer making their own judgments rather than rely on that of critics. Fans and professional critics seem to often judge based on different perspectives, which can result in differing tastes and levels of tolerance for flaws.
The way-cool dragon Shou-Lao. Too bad his important role in the origin of Iron Fist’s super power didn’t warrant so much as a “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance in Season 1.
The second was an all-too common problem that many fans can be as guilty of as any critic: overblown expectations. Here’s the deal with that. Iron Fist had a “problem” that should not have been considered a problem per se: The series that preceded it, Luke Cage, was pretty awesome, whereas Iron Fist was “merely” good. Also, Luke Cage had surpassed the quality of immediate predecessor Jessica Jones, which was itself a good show that more than held its own in terms of worthiness for carrying the Marvel brand.
Therein lies the problem. Because Jessica Jones was good, and Luke Cage was great, the expectation was for Iron Fist to not merely maintain a certain level of high quality, but to actually surpass Luke Cage in terms of awesomeness. Because it didn’t, it was IMO unfairly labeled a “misfire” at best by some critics, while to others it just plain sucked in light of what came before it.
This biased form of judgment is far from a recent development, and existed long before social media came on the scene. How many times before have we seen this phenomenon of overblown expectations cause an audience to be dissatisfied with arguably good quality entries into a franchise because they didn’t outright surpass the spectacle of a previous entry? This is especially true if that previous entry happened to surpass the spectacle of the franchise entry that came before it, i.e., the first film in a franchise.
“See this staff, critics? Now, imagine it’s an extended version of my middle finger thrust into your faces.”
A stellar example of this is what happened with The Godfather III. Let me say off the bat that I did not think the third and (at least for now) final entry in that epic cinematic trilogy was the putrid bottle of suck that so many fans of the franchise have insisted to me that it was. By that same token, I do not think it deserved the so-so box office performance which was the unfortunate result of those overblown expectations, and has stained it with a very low level of respect compared to the high reverence allotted to the first two films in the franchise.
What was the main problem with The Godfather III as I see it? And how is it comparable with the situation of Iron Fist? Well, for starters, The Godfather was and is a classic that really made the genre of the violent but humanized crime family as protagonists. The Godfather II so happened to surpass the first one in terms of the spectacle it provided and the level of performance brought to it by all involved with the production, and how it was seen as taking what was established in the first highly respected entry to a whole new level. In other words, the first sequel wasn’t simply a great follow-up, but many felt it surpassed the original.
As a result, the third entry in the franchise was totally expected to be much, much more than a good, laudable finale to the saga. It was expected to totally surpass the second in spectacle and performance. In other words, it was expected to be something better than awesome. When the end product was merely good and laudable, it was seen as a huge let-down to the impossibly high expectations of the viewers. The end result? Viewers felt it “totally sucked ass,” as one dedicated fan I know so eloquently put it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, The Godfather III had its share of flaws that certainly may have been present in greater measure than the first two films, much as Iron Fist did in terms of having more bogus filler material than its predecessors. However, while I do not think those flaws came anywhere near ship-sinking level, the great number of viewers with impossible expectations naturally jumped on these flaws and insisted they were total quality-killers rather than forgivable flubs that could be overlooked with some patience and understanding.
Something similar happened with Christopher Nolan’s much-lauded Batman film trilogy. With how well-received Batman Begins was and what it did for legitimizing super-hero cinema, and how much The Dark Knight totally surpassed it in spectacle what with the late Heath Ledger’s incredible performance as the Joker, it was a foregone conclusion that there was almost no chance the finale of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rising, would avoid disappointing much of the fan base and performing less than the first two films. This was simply because it was highly unlikely to actually surpass the spectacle of the second movie. However, fans would be totally expecting it to do exactly that despite how unrealistic and even unfair that would be. Of course, all Nolan could do was soldier on and conclude the trilogy with as good a movie as he could provide, even though I suspect he was well aware that whatever he came up with was almost certainly fated to be the least liked of his trilogy.
Now, don’t get wrong again: There are film franchises in which the second entry surpassed a terrific first film but the third was a truly suckish addition that ended the initial trilogy on a sour note. In my opinion, examples of that include the original Superman, The Karate Kid, and Alien franchises. There are some laudable things that can be said about Superman III and Alien 3 certainly, but I strongly believe those movies were a huge and disrespectful let-down compared to their respective predecessors. As for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and The Karate Kid III, the less said about those, the better.
The same principle held here for Iron Fist. Granted, it was the first season of its own show, but it was strongly connected to a franchise comprised of other interconnected series that were part of a shared universe, and it was already well known to the fans that Iron Fist was the final entry in a chain that would lead to The Defenders crossover series. Its major cardinal sin was that it wasn’t as good as the total gem that was Luke Cage, let alone better, and better was what was expected — because Luke Cage was better than the well-received Jessica Jones that preceded it.
So, should fans of the genre watch Iron Fist Season 1? Yes, I think you should. Simply go in without expecting it to blow Luke Cage out of the water, and show some patience getting through the filler material whenever it comes onscreen, and I think you will be well satisfied. Sometimes we can appreciate a show or movie for what it is, rather than what we were made to expect. I believe that Iron Fist is such an example, and it did not deserve the lion’s share of the negative publicity it received and sometimes continues to receive by professional critics. I further believe its success despite all the negative pre-debut press delivered by the critics attests to that.