Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Marvel's Iron Fist (2017) [Spoiler-Free at First]

Spoiler-Free Section

I'm a tremendous fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). As a former card-carrying member of the Benevolent Order of Comic Dorks, I have reveled in nearly all of the movies and TV shows which have brought various Marvel comic heroes to life. While not every film or TV series has been great, I've found the entire MCU to be consistently engaging and entertaining.

But then came Iron Fist. I can't say that I think the show is as terrible as some reviewers have found it (a Forbes article absolutely savaged it a couple of weeks after its release), but I do agree with many who feel that it is the least compelling and generally weakest effort that the MCU has yet produced. This pained me since I really wanted to enjoy it, despite the negative reviews that I'd seen, and because I have enjoyed the other MCU Netflix shows quite a bit. 

Since I'm keeping this part of the review free of spoilers, I'll paint the story in broad strokes. The series follows Danny Rand's return to New York City after a 15-year absence during which he was presumed dead in a plane crash which claimed his parents' lives. While he left as a 10-year old son of an immensely wealthy father, he has returned as a Zen master of martial arts. Danny's naively returns to the skyscraper headquarters of his family's company - the Rand Corporation - and soon becomes the target of attempts to discredit his claims to majority ownership of Rand. As Danny digs deeper into the company, he finds darker secrets buried within its structure - secrets which are also connected to his parents' death and 15-year absence. 

A brief summary of the story reveals some interesting elements for good writers to work with, and there are hints that the writers of Iron Fist recognized this. The problem is that none of them seemed to know how to construct them into a tight, consistently compelling tale with a clear story arc. On virtually every level, the show falls short, making for a rather dull and sometimes puzzling 12-hour viewing experience. 

The other Netflix MCU shows - Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage - did very nice work in creating unique, compelling main characters with clear backgrounds and building solid, single-season stories around them. Iron Fist never seems to get this right, despite there being several very workable ingredients on hand. Danny Rand, although a bit derivative of Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark in terms of being immensely wealthy, could be used as a more Buddhist perspective on the greed-fueled world of corporate business. And the show even hints that this will be a major theme in its early episodes. But then the subject gets overridden by other plot elements, which in turn get overridden by others. In this sense, the show has the feel of a series for which several writers each wrote their own one or two episodes, without consulting each other enough or having the single show runner, Scott Buck, pare things down to a single, focused narrative. Every time I thought that one plot line was taking over and perhaps building some momentum and intrigue, it got lost among others or simply forgotten altogether. The result was a diluted main story. 

Many critics have trashed the casting in the movie, mostly due to English actor Finn Jones being tapped for the title role. I actually didn't have nearly the problem with Jones that many did. I thought he was fine, if not exactly a standout. The greater problem, in my view, was that the script was the most tepid one that I've seen in any MCU product. While there's nothing laughably bad about it, there is very little that is particularly gripping about many of the conversations or exchanges. Even when they start to reveal a potentially interesting plot element or emotion from a character, the momentum is lost due to a lack of follow-through. If not that, then it is simply short on creativity. I got the sense that Danny could have been an extremely complex and curious figure, if his character had been granted more integrity from one scene, situation, and episode to the next, but it is often as if the writers didn't know exactly what they wanted him to be - a naive, Zen goofball? An avenging angel of rage? A love-struck virgin in the big city? A tragic hero in the middle of a Greek tragedy? By trying to make him all of these things, the story effectively washed out the chance for him to clearly be any of them.

Danny at the gate of K'un L'un. His time here is woefully
underexplored in this series which seems to let an awful lot
of time go to waste.
Yet another area of disappointment is how poorly the show uses the 13-episode format which the Netflix series utilize. Admittedly, none of the MCU shows has gotten this completely right, with even the best shows (Daredevil's first season and Luke Cage, in my opinion) sometimes feeling overlong and padded with some unnecessary narrative tangents. Iron Fist not only bears the same weakness, only worse, but it clearly could have used the long running time to far greater effect. One of the more fascinating mysteries about Danny is his training in K'un L'un. How exactly did he survive the lethal, fiery plane crash that killed his parents? How did the monks find him? Why did they decide to take him in and train him? What was that evolution like for those 15 years? These and plenty of other questions could have been explored with so many episodes at their disposal, but the writers opted to keep things almost completely in New York City, with only a few extremely brief flashbacks of Danny in K'un L'un. I know that origin stories have been done to death, but this is actually a character who could use one, given that he is one of the lesser-known heroes in the Marvel Universe. Danny's background and the exact nature of K'un L'un are a constant enigma which is never properly explored in this series, leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction. I'm not saying I needed Danny's entire back story laid out, but I needed far more than was given.

And then there's the kung fu. Boy, is it pretty lame in this show. I'm not saying it's as awful as some B-grade 1980s, Enter the Ninja-style exploitation movie. But for the MCU and what this show was selling us on, they have to do way better than this. Firstly, while I won't knock Finn Jones's acting, the dude has to get in better shape before I buy him as "the greatest practitioner of kung fu in the world." Yes, the guy is in decent "yoga" shape. But we are told constantly in this show that he is, literally, an "unbeatable" weapon who has been under the strictest, most rigid martial arts training in the world for fifteen years. He needs to be in more than "decent" shape. He needs to have a Bruce Lee-in-his-prime physique. He needs to walk, move, and fight with the lithe, deadly grace of a panther. Finn doesn't. On top of that, whether due to the choreography, cinematography, or a combination of both, the action sequences are simply not all that interesting. There are a handful of entertaining moments and moves, but a handful is nowhere near enough for a 12-hour long series about the greatest martial artist in the world, fighting against hordes of thugs and ninjas. And don't get me started on the final fight in the series. It is, simply put, the most underwhelming and disappointing confrontation to end a movie or show in the MCU, by a long shot.

I'm still enough of an obsessive completionist that I will regularly go back and rewatch entire chunks of the MCU. At this point, I've seen the various movies and shows anywhere from two up to seven or eight times. This includes entire longer series like Agents of SHIELD and the 13-episode Netflix series. While I relish some of these re-watches more than others, I do enjoy them all to varying degrees. Iron Fist, unfortunately, will be one that I either skip entirely or force myself to watch through sheer completionist compulsion. This is not, I assume, what MCU honcho Kevin Feige has in mind for his shows.

My primary concern is not so much for this show. If they don't do a second season, I will not feel the slightest loss. If Marvel and Netflix somehow decide to pony up for a second season, though, they will have to do some serious thinking about whether to let showrunner Scott Buck head it up. I'm more concerned now about the forthcoming Inhumans series, which Buck is also overseeing. If his narrative vision and ability to punch up dialogue and characters doesn't improve, I don't have very high hopes for that show, either.

Spoiler-Laden Breakdown Ahead!!

So I can't let go of many, many little problems I have with this show, and I hope that airing them here will offer some sort of catharsis.

The first appearances of Danny make him
look like a guy desperately searching for
his hackey sack. And isn't the portable
music system a ripoff of Starlord?
Danny shows up in NYC and immediately comes off as a goofy, naive country boy. This might have worked, if they had integrated this characteristic into his backstory as well as the modern narrative. Instead, we learn that it was actually Danny's burning rage at his parents' deaths and his burning desire to get answers about them that compelled him to leave his sworn post as guardian of the gate of K'un L'un. If he's that angry, why is he a wide-eyed doofus in parts of the early episodes? From what we learn about his training and his past losses, I would expect him to be a somewhat more brooding, focused man on a mission. What we get, however, is a guy who barely seems to know what he wants to do. Sure, he decides to retake his place at the Rand Corporation, but he has very little notion of what he wants to do with it. This lack of planning on Danny's part almost serves as a reflection of the writers' lack of vision for his character and the arc of the show.

Colleen Wing. OK, I don't have tremendous problems with her. I thought that Jessica Henwick did a solid acting job, and she cut a decent figure as a fighter. However, this was another place where the writers left too much on the table in terms of her background. We can easily see that she's a martial artist to be reckoned with, and we get some hints as to how and why her family has a legacy in East Asian martial arts. The trouble is that these hints never completely give way to a deeper, potentially more engaging look at how she ended up being such a badass and how she ended up being a part of the Hand.

Speaking of the Hand, we get to another issue I have with the series. From the Daredevil series, we know that the Hand is one of the shadowy forces exerting its nefarious power on the city of New York. Based on Daredevil's first two seasons, the Hand had emerged as the great nemesis against which we can presume The Defenders heroes will contend. But in Iron Fist, their threat gets watered down a bit. Bakuto's supposedly "kinder, gentler" faction of the Hand raises more questions than it answers about this group. Until Iron Fist, the Hand was an ancient cabal of ninja and other East Asian power brokers and assassins that could likely take over and/or take down the entire NYC metropolis. After Iron Fist, it comes off as a unit as fractious as the current Republican administration of the U.S. government. Not quite as compelling an adversary, in my view.

And so we get to Bakuto. After his first brief appearances in the series, I found him a bit intriguing. Soon, though, I found actor Ramon Rodriguez's performance frustrating. He adopts a ponderous, Zen-like delivery of his lines...which...come off as...a rather...annoying reworking of...William Shatner. After learning of his deceptions, we never quite get a satisfying reckoning of his ultimate goals with the Rand Corporation or his issues with the nefarious Madame Gao. And even Gao herself, previously a curiously imposing figure, is reduced to an enigma who contradicts herself in illogical ways. "I, unlike others, have never deceived you, Danny," she states towards the end of the series. This, of course, is categorically false, and Danny should immediately realize it (the bargain fight in episode six comes to mind). Of course he doesn't, though, which is yet another indicator of the weak writing in the series.

Harold (right) bullies his son into doing one of many horrific
deeds in this series. Harold was one of several characters that
often threatened to become truly interesting, only to fall short.
One other major beef I have with the series is the character of Harold Meachum, who ultimately becomes the primary foe of Danny. It is clear from the very start of the series that Meachum is a villain, if for no other reason than David Wenham's sleazy, imposing performance. His bizarre shifts between icy-cold, hyper-ambitious businessman to rage-filled, homicidal maniac are never explained in a satisfactory way. Yet again, there was ample opportunity for creative and engaging exploration of these shifts, but they are never realized. In the end, we get an incredibly lame rooftop showdown between Danny and Harold. In a show completely built around "the greatest martial artist in the world," I expect far more than a pathetically short-lived, one-on-one punch-/shootout that ends with the villain getting chucked off a building. Danny uses the Iron Fist for one semi-interesting moment, but the rest of this resolution is sadly lacking.

I could probably go on and on with the little things that irked me about this show. As I stated, there was no one thing that scuttled the show. Rather, it was a classic example of death by a thousand little cuts. I hope the MCU people take the very fair criticisms about the show into account, should they decide to roll the dice on another season.