Watching Marvel’s Iron Fist with Low Expectations

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Originally published on 26 August.


I wasn’t expecting to watch Iron Fist.

Reception was intensely disinterested at best, and generally negative. Like the other Netflix-Marvel Defenders series, it was 13 hours long (!). I haven’t read any Iron Fist comics whatsoever. From what I did know of the show’s premise, I figured I was already set by keeping up with Arrow. I already have way too much Arrow in my life, thank you very much. I didn’t need any more.

But I was bored, and The Defenders was out soon, so here we are — I finished Iron Fist across four-ish days.

I enjoyed it.

(Spoilers, probably.)

Before I get into why I somehow dug Iron Fist, I’ll preface with: Iron Fist does nothing exceptional or even interesting — which is almost impressive when you think about it.

Reviews more-or-less said the same thing, slamming the show for being kind of worthless. While the premise has some interesting elements, its lack of any fantastical, outlandish visuals to contrast its sterile corporate settings squanders a lot of its potential as a pseudo-fantasy series. Especially when its propped up beside Daredevil, Iron Fist has almost no iconography outside the titular fist (and even that’s being generous).

Though I’ll be defending it in a minute, Iron Fist’s pace is glacial at best. Its length — which is, again, 13 hours, an aspect that’s dragged down every Defenders show before it — doesn’t even wrap up the story. Instead, they almost explicitly set up the recent The Defenders team-up series.

Iron Fist is barely a superhero drama at all. It’s far more focused on sinister corporate dealings and character drama, with little on the superheroism and action.

But, somehow, it’s not all bad.

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For better and for worse

While comparisons to Arrow are unavoidable, it highlights some of Iron Fist’s arguable strengths.

Since it’s a 24-episode-season, case-of-the-week procedural and can’t be avoided, Arrow always plays out like a superhero soap opera. Excuses for superhero action and drama are abundant and constant — the best episodes just let you forget the formula.

Iron Fist, however, is almost the opposite — for better and for worse.

The ‘better’ is that almost every action scene, while occasionally contrived or cheesy, has larger purpose within either the episode or the season, or both. When they eventually happen, what’s happening is integral to the overarching plot and story, and not just another fight scheduled at the 12-minute mark. They usually illustrate some larger conflict that the story is currently focused on (as they probably should).

This also means that, when action scenes occur, they’re inevitably weighted and urgent.

To me, who watches a lot of TV superhero schlock, they’re not just opportunities to let my eyes glaze over and check Twitter or whatever else to occupy myself. Instead of a chain of excuses for fights and childish conflicts to happen, the story is generally more concerned with legitimate character and story development. This means I’ll probably care about whatever the ‘action’ is concerned with.

These are all basic and obvious story tenants — characters come first, dramatic action occurs organically (if possible); etc. Iron Fist just highlights the contrivances in its siblings.

The ‘worse’ is that there isn’t much action at all, and it’s almost definitely budget and/or schedule-related.

Action and fights generally arise naturally, according to the plot, and are not nearly as contrived, but it means that entire episodes can pass without major action sequences. Personally, this didn’t matter to me much, partly because I was fairly invested in the characters and story (though I might be in the minority there), but also because the action wasn’t spectacular.

This brings me to the quality of the action scenes which were, after reading spots of overwhelming criticism, better than expected. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly good, but they’re not nearly as bad in either direction or choreography than I was led to believe.

They’re typically slower (probably too slow for martial arts action) but easy to follow and understand — something you can’t necessarily say of Daredevil at all times. Honestly, their speed kind of reminded me of older, low-budget kung-fu flicks that didn’t involve Bruce Lee or anyone with any real talent. They feel modest and earnest, more focused at trying to entertain than necessarily impress. They aren’t showered in camera cuts that give you headaches, and, probably due to budget than anything else, they’re never very long either. Each action scene serves their purpose in the story, and then ends.

Overall, Iron Fist doesn’t really show off — because they didn’t have the money for it. When they try to show off, you’ll know it, because you’ll be decidedly unimpressed.

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The family trade

If there’s one thing that stood out the most between Iron Fist and the Defenders siblings, it’d be its pacing. Finally, after several distinct series, Iron Fist feels like its specifically acknowledging the weaknesses of the previous series in this regard. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it succeeded, but I would say it improved upon the formula.

Each series before Iron Fist — Daredevil (season 1 and 2), Jessica Jones and Luke Cage — all experimented with this.

Daredevil’s first season is structured very transparently, almost like a videogame, as the story follows the simultaneous rise of both Daredevil and Kingpin. While the 13 hours drags in places, it’s a pretty smooth ride from beginning to end.

Jessica Jones was similar, but very jagged. Similarly focused on its main villain throughout the entire season, its pacing peaks dramatically across a few points, leaving it to constantly crawl along to the next climax. To me, Jessica Jones probably caught the worst of the 13-hours requirement, stretching a strong story across at least five more episodes than necessary.

Daredevil’s second season essentially compartmentalised itself, keeping individual ‘arcs’ within tidy chunks of the season. The first arc is covered in the first four episodes, focusing on the Punisher; the next four focuses on Elektra; and the final five episodes focus on Kingpin’s revival as a crime lord while in prison and the ascension of The Hand organisation, pulling the plot threads of each arc through to the season’s conclusion.

Luke Cage ended up in a similar situation to Jessica Jones, those behind it coming across as unprepared to write and produce such a long season. It begins strong as Cage deals with a local crime lord of his own, but peaks with the crime lord’s demise around the middle of the season. From there, the rest of the season tapers out, slowly wrapping up Cage’s origins without even slightly recapturing the season’s earlier momentum.

Iron Fist, after these four seasons, takes a different approach.

By focusing so much on character drama — again, for better and for worse — the emphasis on a ‘big bad’ or a ‘final boss’ is reined in and ends up closer to Daredevil’s second season. Even its character arcs are strong, each of them effectively feeding into the theme of identity and one’s personal role as the season builds towards its conclusion.

The season progresses organically, changing focus naturally, according to the story. By focusing on interpersonal drama across pretty much the entire season, the overall story and conflicts are consistently stronger dramatically — even if they are far, far less exciting.

Which is its own problem, one that can easily be argued is worse when the viewer, understandably, expects a superhero action-drama in-line with the previous series. I mean, I did. I just happened to like the corporate crime-drama it ultimately ended up being.

Viewed cynically (but likely correctly), Iron Fist’s choice of genre also outlines how it hides its supernatural, mystic elements. While I’d argue it was surprisingly good at blending the modern and mystic elements — by not including such a strong juxtaposition between the contemporary and the ancient, it both preserves a sense of mystery and allows the supernatural elements to stay grounded in the world we already know — it’s also another example of Iron Fist’s almost total lack of identity.

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Filling time

If there’s anything I’d say about Iron Fist compared to its Netflix siblings, it’s terribly mediocre. I’m sure it’s been said more than a few times already (especially months after release…), but it’s worth repeating. As much as I enjoyed it for what it was (and wasn’t), Iron Fist did almost nothing noteworthy other than being better and different than I expected.

It’s barely a martial arts series and much less a superhero series, and the focus on character drama and corporate ‘thrills’ results in a placid pace that, while far more consistent than the other Defenders series, is rarely exciting. It’s forgettable time-filler, just like NCIS or The Bachelor.

Okay, that’s harsher than I expected, but it’s sad that there’s so little passion behind the cameras or even in front of it. Performances are generally strong enough, and the writing is consistent and solid (surprisingly), but nothing about the series demonstrates any ambition or even mild interest.

“Make 13 hours out of Iron Fist with this handful of cash.”

“Done.”

Like most Marvel stuff, it’s inoffensive and competent, and it stood out when I expected less of it. Hell, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t ever watch it, and expected more of a hate-watch before dropping it hard on the gas-lighting second episode (which, while working for the broader story, is still a bizarre choice for a superhero-ish show…).

Regardless, I enjoyed most of those 13 hours, because I’m apparently a very dull person who likes slower-paced corporate crime-drama things that sometimes has slow martial arts happen.

If that sounds neat, and you’re bored, give it a watch. Or not. It won’t make a dent in your life either way.


John Reeves writes about gaming and some other stuff sometimes. Follow him at his blog, TwitterMedium and Tumblr.

All images attributed to Marvel Entertainment/Netflix. 

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