Destroy All Monsters: IRON FIST Doesn't Just Suck, It Sucks the Rest of the Marvel Television Universe Down With It

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: IRON FIST Doesn't Just Suck, It Sucks the Rest of the Marvel Television Universe Down With It

Iron Fist isn't just the worst thing in Marvel's nearly-ten-year MCU arsenal; it's indeed one of those rarest of pop cultural entities, an outright creative disaster. It can be used as a teaching case in universities for everything from film classes to project management: just because A was successful (and B, and C, and D in Marvel's case), doesn't mean whatever you do next will be.

Iron Fist, starring the hopelessly miscast Finn Jones in the title role, behaves as though it smelled the Orientalism controversy coming and decided to lean into the punch. Where Doctor Strange contained, at least, notions of white privilege as it applies to its overall white saviour framework, Iron Fist doesn't seem to know that those notions are there, or could be there (or could make the show better by being there).

It indeed casts a white man as a traditionally-white character in Marvel's '70s kung fu comic, and buffs up that decision by casting a white man who must be the single least convincing action lead I've ever seen on a screen, anywhere. And it surrounds all this with overall storytelling and production value so unrelentingly pisspoor that they begin to serve as a kind of mediocrity cloaking device.

You've gotta work pretty hard to make an Iron Fist show where the problematic racial elements are just as bad as everyone feared, and yet aren't actually the worst thing going on. Off a guess, I'd say the series' mission statement was: "Let's see what happens when we make a series built around a lead character who is a colossal asshole in an unwavering state of chaos, who doesn't know it, never finds out about it, and never changes it." I'm all for the unsympathetic protagonists, but Breaking Bad, this ain't.

Marvel is teeing up for a big year at the movies (Guardians 2, the new Spider-Man, and a Thor movie that even non-Thor people are keyed up to see) and, perhaps, a less than stellar year on television. Iron Fist showrunner Scott Buck is beavering away on The Inhumans for this fall, a series that is already a downgrade from a feature film project and which covers ground better handled elsewhere already. The Defenders is on its way, but between last year's flawed-but-worthy offerings (Daredevil season 2; Luke Cage) and this Iron Fist mess, I'm mostly looking forward to it as an opportunity to spend some more time with Jessica Jones (and Sigourney Weaver).

Surprising everyone including myself, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is in the middle of its best season yet, but now feels so divorced from the rest of the MCU that it scarcely seems to matter. It got walled off back when it was the worst thing Marvel had done, and is doing just fine.

Iron Fist, by dint of being the anchor leg of the Defenders project, doesn't have that luxury. Whether its failures will torpedo The Defenders remains to be seen, but watching the series, I was more amazed (and disappointed) by how quickly and effectively it rubbed the shine off its preceding series as well.

Look, I'm a big booster overall for both seasons of Daredevil and for Jessica Jones, and think that Luke Cage gets off to a great start. Iron Fist's mess spills over onto them, though. The latest series takes a can of pink spray paint to the shoddy workmanship of its predecessors.

It makes the various Netflix series' reveals feel more like tricks, their predictable beats feel more like laziness, and the shoestring budgets feel more like a bug and less like a feature than ever before.

Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage each, in their way, felt like Marvel pushing the boundaries of the established House Style. Iron Fist makes the quadruped feel more like what it is: bargain basement stories married to low-rent production values and dangled before an audience long since presumed to be "captive." It feels, disappointingly, like it was true all along. This was just the one where the seams burst, the illusion no longer able to carry the flimsiness of the construction.

It takes a pathological kind of creative bankruptcy to take a franchise that is, by any rational analysis, a kung fu movie, and strait-jacket it into the established Defenders universe visual language without even the courtesy nods towards stylistic innovation that marked the first couple episodes of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. This is some cheap, cheap chicken.

The average issue of Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja's run on The Immortal Iron Fist had more kinetic imagery on the page (pages which do not, last I checked, actually move) than any given fight scene in Iron Fist. None of the season's directors seem to want to make even token efforts to stretch the resources they've been given to arrive at something even slightly more artful and daring than what the terrible scripts have given them. Even RZA, who really ought to know better, is brought in to direct the season's only "tournament" style episode and never finds a moment of wuxia grace in any of it.

I give Netflix maximum kudos for their push towards house-owned content and the speed and effectiveness with which they've gotten there. The more entries like Iron Fist show up, though, the more it starts to make the entire Netflix-style 13-episode binge series feel mightily threadbare.

If everyone knows that the middle third of a Netflix season is going to be wild-goose-chase plotting, why are those episodes there? Would subscriptions actually dip if Iron Fist was 8 episodes, or 6, or a TV movie? Would a single viewer notice or care if the Meachums - Ward, June, and Faramir - weren't in Iron Fist at all? I doubt it. They're padding, wandering around on two legs apiece.

Just as the visual blandness of Iron Fist shows the limitations of its sister series, the proscribed run of episodes shows how haphazardly arbitrary the 13-episode order actually is. It's based on a model of network television to which Netflix has literally never been beholden. If the studio is the only one with the balls to bank Scorsese's next movie, might they also have the balls to find a television creator and ask him or her what the natural extent of their storytelling frame is? Are audiences still this dim-witted, that they think they're being duped if they don't see more episode titles in their queue than they have room on the screen?

I've written before about the dangers of pipeline content, where every new show or movie is just streaming media to eventually be sent down the digital delivery pipes regardless of shape, size, or colour. Iron Fist feels like the grey paste that comes out of that pipe when no one cares what's being delivered any more, so long as something is being delivered.

If this is television's new "golden age," studios are going to tailor the medium to the content, not the other way around. The flexibility is there, and the field is wide open. Television is an embarrassment of riches right now - why would anyone waste their time with Iron Fist?


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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  • Adrian Castro

    A lot of solid points on this, but i just can't understand all the hate on Iron Fist, particularly when they always use Jessica Jones as point of comparison, which was such a boring, subpar show to begin with. There seems to be a lot of articles praising Jessica Jones for being feminist and Luke Cage for being all #blacklivesmatter, and hating on Iron Fist for so-called whitewashing, when really all 3 could have been much better. And other than Daredevil, Iron Fist did the best use of 13 episodes, while Jessica Jones could have been greatly improved by being at least 3 episodes shorter. But probably all of the marvel series could be better at 8-10 episodes, as The Defenders is gonna be.

  • Kuuzo

    Iron Fist is pretty good. Someone cried "whitewashing", and the whole world piled on. It's like someone saying "Make the hulk Mexian!" There is nothing wrong with the request, but when they don't do it, don't claim whitewashing. It is the same thing, and it is stupid. Jessica Jones was far more boring of a show anyway.

  • David Pollison

    I Like Iron Fist but freely admit that it's the weakest of the Defenders. Your whiny rant sounds like something we used to find on IMDB.

  • rockcreek

    Could not really care about the whitewashing. This portrayal of Danny Rand makes him look like a cut-rate Batman; rich kid goes to Tibet and comes home, but unlike the Dark Knight, Rand returns as a clueless and insensitive doofus.

    As for the production value, the two dummies "climbing" the Himalayas in sweaters was only slightly less convincing than the Elves in "A Christmas Story."

  • wafle7350 .

    All i read after complains about priviledge and orientalism and casting a white man is Whaaaaaa whaaaaaaaaa Whaaaaaaaaa

    Anyways this like very other website before who criticize this series based on the cast race is being blocked. Never again to fall in this BS place. you join the blocklist alonside racist websites like breitbart pjmedia buzzfeed salon etc.

  • Ard Vijn

    "It indeed casts a white man as a traditionally-white character in Marvel's '70s kung fu comic,..."
    OK wafle7350, kindly explain to me what Matt's race criticism was here?

  • DNA Cowboy

    You couldn't be more wrong, the show is amazing and according to the data is Netflix's most binge-watched show this year bar none. http://variety.com/2017/tv/... As for 'white-washing' Danny Rand has always been a white guy.

  • zuko

    Ignore the whitewashing claims and what are we left with? Crappy choreography, bad acting, and bad writing.

  • Kuuzo

    You can request that Daredevil be played by an Iranian or the hulk played by a Mexican, but when it doesn't happen, you can not claim whitewashing. This is the exact same situation. So we can in fact easily ignore "claims of whitewashing" because they are false. The only thing the producers are guilty of is not fulfilling a request to change a character to a different race for no specific reason.

  • zuko

    You clearly can't read. I said to ignore the white washing claims. Without those controversies, the series still sucks compared to the other defenders. Stop trying to pick illogical fights to prove your stupid point.

  • Kuuzo

    You clearly can't read. Let me spell it out for you: There is no controversy, only idiots trying to invent controversy.

  • zuko

    I don't give a f*ck if there is a controversy or not. The show still sucks.

  • Christopher Cline

    You are just wrong. I liked it and so do most people I talk to. It had some issues but all the shows do.

  • rantingsw3de

    I suppose that 17% on Rotten Tomatoes is completely misguided?

  • Kuuzo

    Probably done by a ton of people who never saw the show but piled on because of false claims of whitewashing. The source material was not changed one bit in order to add white characters or convert non-white characters to white. Hence, no whitewashing, hence, people are idiots desperate to signal their virtue when they think they can get credit for being a stellar social justice warrior.

  • Udayalaksmanakartiyasa Halim

    I experienced the exact opposite of you.

  • wabalicious

    What "problematic racial elements" are you referring to? The character, as you said, is white and a white actor plays him. Where the problem? The show wasn't that bad, it was an improvement on Luke Cage anyway. Too many people feel guilty for being white these days. Unless you owned slave or something you should really stop feeling bad about things you can't control. Would you have felt better if they cast an Asian actor as this white character?

  • Cabius

    I can guarantee if they did cast and Asian actor there would be no one talking about "problematic race elements" it's just another case of critics having no clue what their talking about. Every single comic book fan that I have talked to has loved the series (including myself). I won't let some old men in suits who say it isn't good stop me from enjoying it lol. The whole race debate and claims of white washing are fucking stupid. Danny Rand is White. The only reason anyone thinks it should be an Asian actor is because it deals with martial arts, and that in itself is more racist to me than a white actor being cast for the role of a white character.

  • hamilton geyser

    lol white guy plays white character: Such controversy! Such Tragedy! Such racism! Stow your morally bankrupt self hatred. No one cares. But all these Marvel shows are garbage anyway.

  • bricriu .

    Iron Fist is supposed to be so in tune with his inner chi that he can focus it's power into physical form yet wavers psychologically between Forest Gump and a toddler having a temper tantrum. The set pieces are laughably amateurish.

    You know your show is in trouble when the most interesting character is the bully spoil for the protagonist.

  • Awesome Awesome

    Iron Fist was freaking hilarious. Need to make drinking game for it. Take a drink everytime Finn Jones gives his constipation look. "Oh I'm angry and I have to take a poop. Grhhh!". I've seen adult movies with better acting.

  • Rick

    I feel like this reviewer wanted to watch a completely different series than the one that Marvel produced, and is upset that Iron Fist is completely different from his expectations. Rather than judge the series on its own merit, let's join the feeding frenzy.
    The difference between the critic (17%) and audience (80%) scores for Iron Fist at Rotten Tomatoes is stunning. Perhaps critics should dial back the feeding frenzy and try to figure out what audiences like about the show. No, it's not an Enter the Dragon-style martial arts extravaganza. But that kind of combat-oriented story wouldn't work for an 13-episode season. Iron Fist has characters with well-developed diverse motivations, different factions working against each other, and a naive lead being pulled in several different directions. The story develops slowly, but it's rich and is going in a given direction the entire season (in contrast to Luke Cage, which devolved into baddie replaced by baddie replaced by baddie...)

  • rohit pandey

    Characters should not be racially profiled. Even luke cage was not that good and people dont make fuzz about it. People who have watched iron fist first in this series really liked the show.

  • jabo Man

    Luke cage crashed netflix....

  • DNA Cowboy

    No it didn't Iron Fist did though: http://variety.com/2017/tv/...

  • jabo Man

    Iron fist bad reviews have crashed the Internet.... Lol. I wonder if it will be a season 2

  • DNA Cowboy

    I suggest they were not 'bad reviews' rather 'offended reviews' which should receive all of the attention they deserve, which is none.

  • The Dude

    Iron Fist suffers from making its main character an annoying, whining, 'almost' badass character. He didn't have to come back from the monastery with the brain of a 10 year old. He was there for 15 years. 15 year Monks don't act like that. It would have made sense for him not to know business or politics, but not to such a degree that he acts like a 10 year old brat. And the whole mental institution thing took to long. He should have meditated that medicine out after he developed a plan for what he was going to do next, knowing he could meditate out of that medication whenever he wanted to. They made the Iron Fist to weak and annoying, I never got past the 5th episode. I couldn't stomach it anymore.
    I hope he has small parts in The Defenders, or his balls drop by then.

  • TheWalkingLost

    Danny was a kid when his parents died and when he was taken in by the monks. He was almost immediately beaten so he wouldn't show "weakness" by grieving their deaths. He was never given any time to properly mourn his parents. Sure, he had some downtime based on the stories he told of him and Davos, but that doesn't take away the fact that he was never allowed to openly mourn his parents, that he was made to stifle his emotions. It amazes me that people think he would be well-adjusted. He had a form of PTSD, so is it any wonder that he would lapse into fits of anger?

  • Mayank Jain

    The only marvel show that made me fall asleep. Nuff said!

  • Hail Eris!

    Wow. Now that's what I call "bashing." Gotta say, I disagree with every word. I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Fist, and I don't have my TV hooked up to cablevision (since 2011), here in Canada. I watched IF on my computer (meaning, I don't watch anything "casually"), though I suppose I could've watched it on my TV via my PS4. Anyway, I don't watch shows with an eye towards finding something to criticise. I watch for whatever there is to enjoy, and I found plenty of that, in this show.

    Snarky
    I don't believe in innocent bystanders.

  • Jonny Fortunato

    Finn Jones moves with the grace of a three legged gazelle and is as spontaneous as a bucket of cement mix. This guy struggles to keep his balance on one leg and struggles even more with his childish tantrums and panic attacks. Not really impressive for a guy who spent 15 years disciplining and learning to master every aspect of his mind and body. All I can say is God help the monks at Kun Lun if this clown is all that stands between them and certain destruction.

  • rockcreek

    I guess we saw how that turned out.

  • Shut The Fuck Up

    Fuck the sjw stuff, the show is just plain awful. The lead is horrible, the action is weak and the writing is stupid. The show sucking has nothing to do with 'whitewashing' or some shit.

  • John Nakashima

    despite the sjw stuff ill ignore, he's right about the poor action, terrible lead , bad writing. not that I disagree/agree with sjw stuff. Just ignore it.

  • Brian DeVille

    This is why idiots won the election, because of moron sjws like this... I say this as someone on the left, I'm sick and tired of sjws ruining our side.

  • Jan Brunborg

    Please shut the fuck up. Anybody who whines about white privilege when pouring out their own personal and irrelevant opinion about a TV-show should never be taken seriously.

  • Corey Douglas

    It's just sad .. it's not enough with all the shit going on with the world now we attack an actor playing a privileged white man a fictional white man playing a comic book character that gets so much negative feedback about the roots of Asian culture. Who fucking cares your right shut the fuck up if u don't like the show say that don't drag it out with some ideal bull shit that we are holding a culture back .. really it's laughable that show is fine it's the marvel machine don't make it into some draw out crap about holyier then now speeches about a fictional show based on a fictional comic .. reaching for a story has been the problem with media for ever don't habituate a problem that's was not even there for the start..

  • Rick

    I can't tell what side you're on.

  • Daniel

    I dunno if anybody noticed but this "critique" contains very little actual critique. I think Iron Fist is very good...and I'm way snobbier about stuff than most folks.

    What's really going on is the author of this article wants to join in the circle jerk of negative press so badly that he forgot to learn how to write a compelling review.

    Try starting with a blog on Jezebel. Seems more your speed, bro.

  • wabalicious

    Yeah, apparently he doesn't dislike it because they cast a Caucasian actor in the part of a white man, but he simultaneously thinks that is a major problem. Amazing. The review is nonsense and totally obtuse.

  • KitChaotic

    Yes! The lack of substance is exactly what I was thinking! This review skirts around ever actually SAYING anything, particularly about specifics! It's just grand generalizations, like calling yourself an artist and then painting a bedroom.

  • Corey Douglas

    It's so sad that because it's in vouge to trash a show, people focus on one thing that was not even there from the beginning the more shit I read about iron fist the more I see it as a good show .. why can't people have there own mind when reviewing .. it is hard to find someone that can give an a unbaise reveiw even a true account of there experience..

  • Rick Hogg

    I liked Iron Fist. The show didn't suck. I don't see anything wrong with the show. It was very good. But this article is your opinion on the show. Glad I didn't listen to all the negativity about Iron Fist and went ahead and watched it. Like I said it is a very good show and I throughly enjoyed it.

  • Jason Todd

    I did not mind IF but the last 2 episodes were unfulfilling. It was JJ was a tedious drain at best. Madam Gao is the best villain by far in the MCU. Ben Urich & Misty Stone are the only 'heroes' that I was truly liked & rooted for

    As for TV, Marvel has really dropped the ball. Agent Carter > AoS. They should have had kept Agent Carter had it do 10-13 episodes, start a mystery, tie in to the MCU (i.e Darkhold and Dr Strange this yr), and then have AoS wrap it all up.

    Daisy, May, & occasionally Simmons have been the only good things about AoS. # different storylines this yr have been a mess. Ghost Rider was better than expected. The LMD was weak. The what if is shaping up to be average.

    Ir would have been better if somehow Simmons were pushed beyond the pale and ended up being Madam Hydra... not Aida

    The DC on CW has had its share of melodrama, but, has been way more fulfilling esp now that Caitlin is no longer Caitlin. I hope Felicity goes to the darkside and Helix is the big bad for Arrow S6.

    p.s. Sara Lance would kick Melinda May's a$$ upside one side and back down the other

  • Keith Allison

    I'd at least miss Ward Meachum. He's the only one in the entire mess I found entertaining. And he has great "clammy drug binge face." I'd rather see *him* join the Defenders instead of Iron Fist.

  • Braaainz

    I'm usually pretty critical of movies and TV shows and while Iron Fist wasn't very good, it still was far better than the early Shield series.

    The whole white savior thing is a non issue for me. We now know that Danny Rand is not the best martial artist. He's portrayed as a lost ten year old trying to fit back into a world he only knew and saw thru a child's eyes.

    We "know" the Hand is bad (more because of Daredevil), but I loved that Iron First is questioning the whole basis of guys hidden city. Danny Rand as a child is showed being beaten by his teachers. Was he taught, or was he brainwashed to fight in a centuries old battle?

    I felt there were layers to this show that few critics addressed.

    Yes, there were a lot of bad elements in it, but quite a bit of good too. Still better than Shield.

  • Douglas White

    The middle 4-5 episodes were REALLY bad though.... and Finn Jones seems to have only one emotion he can display on screen... petulantly angry... I half-expected him to scream "WHY CAN'T I HAVE DESSERT BEFORE DINNER!?!?!" in some scenes....

    But I agree... the script was a bit better than the zero-rating some critics gave it. I am hoping that Jones can take some acting lessons, and maybe we can get past the weak first season...

  • ManateeAdvocate

    Yeeouch. I haven't partaken yet, but the trailer I saw enticed me. I'll get around to seeing it eventually, but I'm in no rush now.

  • wabalicious

    I found it pretty enjoyable, it's not exactly Fist of Legend in the martial arts stakes or anything but it's entertaining. I expected it to be terrible but i enjoyed it more than i liked Luke Cage.

  • Yojimbo

    I wouldn't bother sir I have watched the whole series and it's very poor.
    Poor story, poor plotting, poor choreography and some terrible direction.
    Massive disappointment for this old Powerman and Ironfist fan.
    If you want some good fun TV martial arts Into The Badlands second season has started.

  • ManateeAdvocate

    Well I certainly trust you opinion and appreciate the response. Fact of the matter is, I've only seen season one of Daredevil which I thought was exceptional entertainment. Jessica Jones, Daredevil Season Two and Luke Cage all look good to me. Iron Fist sounds like they shit the bed and man alive am I an Iron Fist fan. Heartbreaking.

    Into the Badlands looks stellar.

    Thanks again for chiming in and be well.

  • Rick

    I'd give Iron Fist a try. JJ is the best of the bunch, largely because of David Tenant. Every DD episode with Fisk is worth watching, but some of the S2 episodes are weak. I enjoyed Luke Cage but I think they got lost a bit in the plotting trying to stretch out a simple story into an entire season.

  • ManateeAdvocate

    All right. I may. Fisk WAS why Daredevil was so enjoyable to me. Looking forward to Jessica Jones.

  • Yojimbo

    Your welcome sir season two of Badlands has added Nick Frost, I'm hoping he busts out his Sammo Hung impersonation from The World's End.

  • ManateeAdvocate

    That's so funny that you mentioned that. I just watched The World's End for the very first time last week. Sammo Hung is a legend.

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