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Welcome back to our reviews of each episode of Netflix and Marvel’s Iron Fist. You can check out my reviews of previous episodes by clicking the links below:
Episode 4: “Eight Diagram Dragon Palm”
So far, Marvel’s Iron Fist has been kind of a mess, and not a hot one. Bogged down in unconvincing dialogue, inconsistent characterization and a narrative stuck in neutral, the series also hasn’t taken advantage of the no-brainer of an opportunity to craft a martial arts epic. This fourth episode does manage to deliver enough good scenes and at least one decent action sequence to suggest there’s potential here, though, resulting in the first episode I’d say approaches “good” territory. This review is going to look at two problematic areas plaguing the series as a whole, one of which is slightly improved in this outing, the other of which continues to acts as a drag on the show. Let’s start with the latter problem.
That problem is Finn Jones and the character he portrays, Danny Rand. Prior to Marvel’s Iron Fist, each of the Netflix series had flawed but compelling central figures at their hearts. The production teams behind those series weren’t afraid to give us protagonists whose deep-seated issues caused them to make mistakes. We watched them rise above their failings and traumas to by the end become something more than they were at the beginning of their journeys. We can argue the degree to which each of these series were successful, but there’s no denying that both the production teams, and the actors in the roles, had definite and specific ideas about their arcs and did portray them clearly and specifically. I’ve read some articles here and there where Jones and those involved in the production of Iron Fist have suggested that Danny is a similarly broken and flawed individual, a boy who lived through a trauma, was raised by what amounts to a cult and is now in a contemporary world with a very old-fashioned world view and a lack of maturity. A young man still dealing with trauma and his cultish upbringing and how that causes him to make poor choices. According to those involved in the show, maybe the audience isn’t always meant to think Danny’s right, or even likable.
Here’s the problem; that’s not coming across. It’s tempting to lay the blame at Jones’ feet, and while I do think there are a few deficiencies in his performance, the bulk of the issue is that the writing doesn’t support him at all. The script doesn’t go far enough in making his flaws evident or specific. We get a few moments of the “big kid” here and there, particularly in his scenes with Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss, once again seeming like she’s swooping in from a way better TV series, which I guess she is), and those moments should be more prevalent, not less. But pretty soon he’s acting all grim and determined and self-righteous, and the show isn’t confident enough in their protagonist to make him appear wrong or an asshole. Compare this with Tony Stark, or even Jessica Jones or Matt Murdock, and Danny Rand doesn’t get anywhere near as clearly defined flaws to be revealed, nor is his show as comfortable with revealing them.
There’s a scene where he disrupts a board meeting about Rand Enterprises discussing selling a life-giving drug to the developing world. Danny objects to the mark-up Rand is placing on the drug and demands they sell it at cost. Which is noble, and the series clearly wants us to be on Danny’s side. Though some characters in the meeting put up a fight, if they really wanted to show us the dangers of Danny’s self-righteous naivete, someone should point out a thing that even I know about the pharmaceutical industry; that while pills are cheap to manufacture once they’re discovered, the research into discovering that treatment is mind-bogglingly expensive. No profit on this pill means no funds to research for the next one. That’s an argument that could point out Danny’s heart may be in the right place, but that it’s the heart of a kid with no experience in the real world. Which I presume is the flaw they’re talking about. instead, we are meant to simply see Danny as pure of heart and everyone else as capitalist money-grubbers. And that’s fine, but then let’s have Danny just be the kind of saintly new age warrior and stop trying to convince us of his dark depths. Because that would require a willingness plumb actual nuance and depth.
The show could also help out Jones when he has a tender moment with Joy explaining the severity of his upbringing among the monks of K’un-L’un. But another huge problem I have with Marvel’s Iron Fist so far is that they violate the cardinal rule of good writing; namely that it is always more effective to show rather than tell. Just like in the mental institution episode, we get Danny telling us about his upbringing, rather than a scene showing us that upbringing. The brief snippets we’ve seen thus far haven’t really revealed much about Danny’s life in K’un-L’un, but instead revolve around Jones telling us in monologue form about his experience. And while I do think there are actors that could make that evocative and haunting, Jones isn’t that kind of actor. He’s got moments of charm here and there, but I’m afraid after four episodes I’d have conclude that he’s miscast in the role as written. He can’t put across a sense of damage to make us sympathetic to him, if you’re going for a grim version of the character. But the scripts so far aren’t allowing him enough opportunities to showcase the more light-hearted and naive if good-natured side of him, which I think Jones could better handle. His flaws don’t have be dark, they could be about him struggling to connect with this world and culture that he barely recalls, but the series can’t seem to commit to what kind of Danny they want to see. What we should be seeing more clearly is that Danny’s really only at home and on sure footing when he’s dealing with things he understands; like martial arts. And this brings us to the second problem of the series I referred to, the one that slightly improves this episode.
Episode Four’s writer Scott Reynolds, and director Miguel Sapochnik, do deliver a stronger episode in terms of action, with another pretty good fight involving Colleen and the underground fight club she’s become involved with. But the climax of the episode is a well-constructed fight scene that sees Danny defend Joy from hatchet-wielding Triad gang members set on abducting her. It’s a well-done piece, though still not near the standards of any of the best Marvel/Netflix action sequences. I’m willing to see if they continue to improve, because maybe they’re building up to an explosive fight in later episodes?
I’m not that confident however, due to the fact that, according to press reports, Finn Jones only had three weeks or so of training before shooting began, and he himself has reported hastily choreographed and barely rehearsed fight scenes. If that’s true, then the production team has badly let down both its star and the series as a whole. More than any other Marvel series, Marvel’s Iron Fist absolutely demands strong, well-crafted, specific action that should blow our minds. And if Jones had been superbly prepared for top-notch action scenes, then that level of confidence would come across in all other aspects of his performance as well. This explains the murkily lit, sluggish fight scenes with their manic editing that has prevented viewers from understanding the story of the fights. When it comes to action in films, each individual sequence has to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. If you obscure the storytelling to cover up poor execution, then the fights lose all impact and investment. What makes the hallway fight in this episode work is that Reynolds builds towards it effectively in the scripting, and then Sapochnik and his team maintain a strong hold on the story of the fight, particularly with a fleeting use of split-screen that made me think, “They should be using that all time!” I still think it’s not a mind-blowing king fu fight, but at least I could follow it and had stakes in it. So, just the morsel of a good fight with a dominant Iron Fist was enough to make me think this episode rose above its predecessors. But in a post-“Matrix,” post-“Bourne,” post-“The Raid” era, it’s actually embarrassing that Marvel and Netflix haven’t taken their martial arts action series as seriously as they should have. This show should literally be a Kung Fu delivery system. The styles and disciplines should be specific, well-researched and innovative. If you are making Marvel’s Iron Fist, and you don’t insist on at least one mind-blowingly kick-ass fight scene every two episodes, you have no business running this show.
You may have noticed I haven’t talked too much about the plot of the episode. Well, things actually do advance a tad. We put behind us Danny’s quest to re-establish himself, which allows the show to finally make Joy a more consistent and engaging character now that she doesn’t have to have whiplash between being Danny’s ally and foil. This allows the Hand and the threat they pose to come to the fore, which immediately feels like a better fit, and also ties Harold into the ongoing story in a clearer way. Ward continues to be both a creep and a moron, giving an interview to a reporter that is frankly too idiotic to be believed.
What I’m becoming increasingly worried about is the glacial pace of developments, a common issue with the Marvel shows, but in Iron Fist‘s case this is matched by an un-engaging protagonist and unsatisfying action. So, while this might be my favorite episode thus far, I’d still say Marvel’s Iron Fist has a long way to go before approaching consistent greatness. 7.5/10