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Welcome back to our reviews of each episode of Netflix and Marvel’s Iron Fist. You can check out my review of the first episode here.
In my last review, I talked about how the premiere episode failed to deliver the thrills and well-executed action that Marvel’s Kung Fu showcase series should specialize in, and that its lack of suspense and excitement failed to cover up its more formulaic qualities. So, do things improve in the second episode? Sadly, the answer is not by much.
The first episode ended with the solid cliffhanger of Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) having drugged Danny Rand (Finn Jones). The second episode opens with Danny waking up in a psychiatric facility on a 72 hour hold. I was a little dubious that someone unconscious could be committed on the say-so of total strangers without so much as a chat with a lawyer or something, but I just chalked that up to how powerful the Meachums are.
While Danny struggles to convince the Doctors of his identity, or failing that, to find a way to escape from the hospital, events on the outside continue to grow more complicated. Colleen (Jessica Henwick) is approached by Ward (Tom Pelphrey) in an attempt to bribe her into laying charges against Danny or swearing to his being dangerous. Joy’s doubts about Danny continue to nag at her until she takes steps to confirm whether or not he is who he says. And Harold Meachum (David Wenham), spying on Danny in the hospital via security cameras, becomes more and more intrigued with Danny’s tale of warrior monks and Iron Fists.
This all seems like it should be compelling stuff. The problem lies, as in the first episode, with the execution. The direction by John Dahl continues to be flabby and poorly paced, with the actions scenes still being incredibly frustrating in how murkily and sluggishly they are put together. Soon I’ll stop harping on the fact that the fights are blowing an opportunity, but once again, this is show about a Kung Fu super-hero. The fights should be fetishized and lovingly bold, not an after-thought, which is what it feels like here. This isn’t the most fight heavy episode, to be sure, but still the moments that do happen should pop and be highlights.
Then there’s the hospital stuff, which really puzzled me. And this is probably a problem with the script by Scott Buck. Let’s leave aside that imprisoning a “sane” person in a mental health facility is a pretty heavily used cliche. Its use didn’t concern me too much here as Danny’s situation and his story does lend itself to questioning his sanity. But I couldn’t figure out the episode’s opinion on the facility itself. Either you show us a corrupt and malignant facility that mistreats its patients or it’s simply a standard facility looking to treat the sick who doesn’t believe Danny’s story. But this script wants it to be both? The direction and design and doesn’t foreshadow it as a sinister place, really, and there are characters like Danny’s Doctor that seem to be trying to do their job well and honestly. But then other characters seem to indict the facility as corrupt and malicious, with bad guys able to enter the facility with ease and abuse and threaten patients. But I couldn’t really get handle on whether the hospital was supposed to be sinister because it was corrupt, or whether the show was going with a “aren’t mental institutions scary, horrible places?” which is not cool in a regressive way. Either way, it would have bene nice to see the show be more clear on this.
There are some other flaws. Two episodes in, I’m already bored with seeing the traumatic plane crash and same snowscapes that haunt Danny. I’m beginning to wonder if the show is going to tease out K’un-L’un in interminable snippets for a bunch of episodes to build up mystery. That’s a choice, I suppose, but at least give us slightly different snippets beyond shots of mountains and snow and Danny sitting on a rock. It’s starting to seem as if the show didn’t want to spend money on anything more that fake snow and a green screen.
Finn Jones continues to do some nice work, though I’d like to see more of his warrior/new age goofball stuff that we saw briefly in the first episode. When he’s all grim determination, the character loses some personality and becomes no different from all the other determined heroes we’ve ever seen. This might be a good point to talk about the elephant in the room which is the fact that I’m unsure why Marvel chose to keep Danny Rand a white guy for the show. Iron Fist, as a concept created over forty years ago, could be forgiven for culturally appropriating Asian heritage and perpetuating the long-held approach of making white guys exemplars of foreign cultures (looking at you “The Last Samurai”), but that it is now 2017, Marvel and Netflix should have really done better. I understand corporate synergy, and Danny is white and blond in the comics, but that doesn’t make the decision to retain that any wiser. Frankly, at this point, neither Marvel nor Netflix is relying on the comic book fan base. If you’re as powerful and as popular as Marvel is at this point, no longer reliant on whether the fanboys show up or not, then there is no reason why Danny Rand couldn’t be Asian-American. This isn’t to slam Jones, who I think does fairly well with the admittedly clunky dialogue he gets, but it’s just a missed opportunity to correct a justifiable criticism.
The other characters and the actors who perform them aren’t well served either. As in the first episode, David Wenham continues to be entertaining as Harold Meachum, brining pretty much the only bits of humor or charm (even if it is an oily, bad guy charm) to the series. Meachum is clearly involved in some pretty mysterious schemes, ones the evidently connect with the larger Marvel/Netflix world as established in the other series, and that’s among the most compelling part of the show so far. Yeah, Wenham’s alpha male businessman is over the top, but he’s sinking his teeth into things and chewing for all he’s worth, so at least he’s never boring. Tom Pelphrey’s Ward, however, hasn’t come alive at all for me. There’s some interesting stuff there int ear son his relationship to his Dad and how that motivates him, but Pelphrey isn’t bringing any depth or complexity to his performance, so I’m not seeing the relationship beyond what the writing tells me. And his scenes where he tries to coerce Colleen are so blatantly shady and sleazy that if Colleen considered the offer for even a second, she’d be beyond stupid. And then there’s Jessica Stroup’s Joy Meachum, whose motivations at this point I’m unable to define. Ward and Harold are clearly shown to see Danny as a threat or opportunity they need to control, for different reasons. But Joy I just can’t figure out. One minute she seems like a kind person who just needs to accept that Danny is back. The next she seems like she views him as a threat to her position in the business. But she doesn’t seem to be all that invested in the business itself. And this is guy who is claiming to be her childhood friend, practically family, that she last saw as a ten year old. Over the course of this episode she comes to believe he is Danny, she clearly feel conflicted about how they are treating him before she is sure of that, so why does she still go along with Ward? I’m not saying I can’t come up with reasons on my own, or that there wouldn’t be reasons that work, but so far we’re not seeing them in performance or writing.
This second episode of Marvel’s Iron Fist does end with a pretty great climax, though, as we see the character’s titular power used for the first time. This was the first moment in the entire series so far that I was fully engaged and enjoying a thrill. And that’s clearly because the show was excited about this moment as well. It was exactly the kind of energy that they need to bring to all their action sequences, and my cat win point is the fact that the fight leading up to this moment was executed in the regrettably murky, sluggish style we’d seen through the first two episodes. But if Marvel’s Iron Fist can retain this brief level of excitement and apply it wider, then the series might pick up and gather steam. As it stands, it’s mildly diverting but not engrossing in any way. 6/10