Netflix’s Iron Fist has about as little self-awareness as its billionaire superhero.

Netflix’s Iron Fist Has About As Little Self-Awareness As its White, Male Billionaire Superhero

Netflix’s Iron Fist Has About As Little Self-Awareness As its White, Male Billionaire Superhero

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March 20 2017 1:53 PM

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Netflix’s Iron Fist has about as little self-awareness as its white, male, billionaire protagonist.

Finn Jones in Iron Fist (2017)
Finn Jones in Iron Fist.

ABC Studios

Coming after Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, Iron Fist might be the most obscure Marvel Comics character to inspire a street-level superhero drama on Netflix, but none has come preloaded with nearly this much baggage. The show stars Finn Jones (Game of Thrones’ Loras Tyrell) as Danny Rand, a billionaire who has returned to New York City 15 years after his disappearance as a child, and who is now a martial arts master whose right fist turns into a glowstick that can punch through walls. Some fans have criticized the production, steeped as it is in Eastern fighting styles and nonspecific Asian mysticism, for not casting an actor of Asian descent in the title role. For his part, Jones has stumbled into awkward debates about race and representation on Twitter and, just last week, attributed some of Iron Fist’s early negative reviews to a Trump-era antipathy toward white American billionaires like the one he plays. At least we know Finn has mastered one Kung Fu move: putting his foot in his mouth.

Jonathan L. Fischer Jonathan L. Fischer

Jonathan L. Fischer is a Slate senior editor.

Unfortunately, the trouble with Iron Fist doesn’t end once you start actually watching the show, which like its character, is occasionally sweet, frequently maddening, and ultimately kind of lost in Marvel’s New York. It’s too bad, because until now the city has, in Netflix’s other superhero shows, been a useful playground for experimenting with surprising, gratifying genre exercises: Daredevil is a legal procedural and noir (with ninjas), Jessica Jones a private-eye yarn and a psychological thriller, Luke Cage a riff on folklore both iconic (the John Henry myth) and modern (the Blaxploitation canon). Iron Fist also has ninjas—so, so many ninjas—and does seem to have something to say about the dazed privilege of Danny Rand, which may or may not satisfy critics of the show’s casting. Still, having seen the six episodes shared with reviewers, I can think of no reason Iron Fist would have been worse off for giving the part to an Asian actor. I also have no hope that would’ve made this show comprehensible or exciting.

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Iron Fist debuted in the comics in 1974, when Marvel sought to harness that era’s enthusiasm for martial-arts movies. In the Netflix version, overseen by Scott Buck, Danny Rand was stranded in the Himalayas by a plane crash that killed his parents and afterward awoke in K’un-Lun, one of the “seven capital cities of heaven.” There, he spent his youth training in fighting styles and learning to recite various Eastern religious platitudes, which he does not keep to himself once he has arrived, at the top of the series, in Manhattan. He wants to connect with anyone still around from his old life, which means his childhood friends, siblings Joy and Ward Meachum (Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey), now executives in charge of the corporation Danny’s father once led. When Danny shows up—barefoot and wearing a Baja hoodie, looking like he should be Hacky Sack–ing outside a Phish concert—they reasonably conclude he is not their long lost pal but a nutjob.

Soon there is much more going on: the appearance of another figure from Danny’s past squirreled away in a fortress-like penthouse, a stay in an asylum, a return to his father’s company. Because Iron Fist shares a universe with the other Marvel characters, there is the smart deployment of Claire Temple and Jeri Hogarth (Rosario Dawson and Carrie-Anne Moss, both fantastic), veterans of the previous Netflix shows, as well as the reappearance of the Hand, the Japanese death cult that haunted the second season of Daredevil and which will surely re-emerge once Netflix’s Marvel heroes unite in the upcoming series The Defenders.

And there are new gems like Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick, another Game of Thrones veteran), a Bushido instructor balancing a self-protective instinct with some rage issues to whom Danny quickly takes a shine. (Once he regains his billions, he buys out the building containing her dojo and drops the rent.) In one comedic bonbon of a scene, Danny intrudes on Colleen’s lesson with Claire to offer “takeout”—except the only takeout he knows is a Michelin-starred restaurant he enjoyed during his youth. Claire sticks around as the bemused third wheel; Danny and Colleen shoot off the right kind of awkward sparks. Then the two of them hop in Danny’s Aston Martin to track some ninjas.

The fight scenes certainly aren’t the problem here, by the way: They’re well-choreographed, coherently shot, and often elegant in their fluidity. An early one during a Lunar New Year celebration is suspense-inducing eye candy; later ones in an underground fight club are gruesome and kinetic. In the sixth episode, Danny will face a trio of fighters who are up to his snuff, in escalating order of danger. I’m not sure it’s worth the wait, but it is worth skipping ahead to savor.

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One of the real problems is Danny. What works for the character in small bursts like that giggly takeout scene—his fish-out-of-water earnestness, his Manichean drive for justice—ends up being a drag over entire episodes. “What is your purpose?” a character asks Danny at one point, and he deadpans “to protect K’un-Lun from all oppression” as though it should have been obvious. He is still working through the trauma of the plane crash, as a series of early flashbacks make clear. But more frequently he exudes the air of an unchallenged innocent who believes he will succeed because, up until now, he always has. (Not all of us could wake up in K’un-Lun and attain the rank of the Iron Fist, after all.) “Defeat has no place in my mind,” Danny declares at one point. Good luck with that, dude!

The supporting cast isn’t much more interesting. Joy and Ward, who are compelled by Danny yet threatened by his presence, flicker between conniving and sympathetic, often within single episodes, not because they are particularly rich characters but because the series doesn’t seem to know what to do with them once they’re no longer its primary antagonists. What it does do at that point is give Joy and Ward more daddy issues than King Lear’s kids and also a B-plot—involving that mysterious penthouse and the demands of fulfilling a father’s twisted wishes—that is so overlong and undercooked it makes the Danny Rand scenes feel edifying in comparison.

What all of these characters seem to have coming is a disruption to the comfort of their glass-windowed boardroom. As the series advances, Danny’s K’un-Lun hayseed act will give way to something moodier and more tantrum-prone, as though his hero’s journey got stuck in a ditch somewhere in adolescence. It may be true, as Jones suggested, that right now audiences have little taste for the travails of the corporate jet set. But it seems more likely that we just ask those billionaires to have at least an ounce of charisma.