Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Iron Fisting

Yes, I'm alive (that's an obligatory statement for delinquent bloggers returning from a long hiatus). Been busy and, no, not writing anything. As a result, expect my composition skills to be a bit "rusty."

So just finished watching the Netflix series Iron Fist last night (the fact it took me this long to get through it should tell you something about my schedule). While I'm sure folks would rather hear about something besides another television review...well, I've done the other Marvel series on Netflix and it would seem unfair not to. Also, the show has taken a serious beating by reviewers and I thought I'd offer a bit of a dissenting opinion.

Yes, I've even come to like the beard.

[there will be some minor **SPOILERS**]

As I've written before (I think/hope) a show can be judged strictly by its merit as "good (episodic) television" or by its value as "other-medium-(comic book)-translated-to-TV." I prefer to judge by both, but it's hard for me to watch withOUT considering the comic book it adapts, and I find Iron Fist to be very enjoyable from that perspective. And I'll offer a real 180 turn from most reviewers by commending Finn Jones's portrayal of the titular character: I was surprised at the fantastic job he did with a very complicated character.

[more on this in a moment]

Iron Fist definitely has its failings. Like the other Marvel Netflix offerings, the development of its story and characters is slow for the first episode or two. It also suffers (as did the otherwise excellent Luke Cage) from a rather anti-climactic final episode...at least when it comes to the showdown with the Big Bad. Its pacing, story-wise, is a little stilted at times, and the director/writer has difficulty juggling so many characters without feeling rushed. There's a deftness of handling the material (and communicating the concepts) that is frequently missing. It often feels like their are scenes that are missing, or that were cut, in favor of lingering on some other plot point that (perhaps) didn't require as much time.

But despite this, I quite enjoyed the series. Let me put it this way: Iron Fist is an acquired taste. His comic book is not well known, and never enjoyed the popularity of the Spider-Mans and Captain Americas or the Marvel universe. His status as a second (or third) tier hero is one of several reasons cited by folks who wanted Netflix to reboot the character as Asian-American, to make him more interesting than some "Batman knockoff."

But Iron Fist doesn't...and has never...resembled Batman or Green Arrow or any other billionaire playboy type other than in the most superficial of ways. Batman's wealth exists to explain his vehicles and gadgets and the leisure its afforded him to hone his detective and fighting skills. One of Iron Fist's (multiple) conflicts is his relationship to his wealth, how he reconciles himself to money considering that he's learned to live without it, and has all but taken vows of austerity and poverty...especially in light of the greater good one can do as a philanthropist, compared to punching people.

He's also anything but the smug, self-assured playboy. He constantly makes a hash of things, whether with regard to his attempts at business (he has little to no financial acumen) or with his love life (his long-time love affair with Misty Knight is one of the more realistic on-again/off-again relationships I've seen depicted in comics). The only thing he really knows how to do is fight...and yet he has the whole peaceful, Zen-attitude thing that butts up against that. At the same time, he has this stunted personal development because of his abbreviated childhood (his approach to things is a bit of the wide-eyed innocent-type), despite NOT being raised from birth with some Jedi attitude (he spent his formative years living in wealth and privilege in New York City). He is no stranger to having wealth, but his attitude towards it is that of a child, with no concept of what it takes to earn it, to run a company, to maintain propriety, etc.

It makes him a bit of a shmuck, but a lovable one.

Many reviewers have complained about the inordinate amount of time the show devoted to the boardroom dealing with the Rand Corporation as opposed to the ass-kicking one would expect from a martial arts superhero. But Iron Fist isn't about non-stop fights. I mean, Danny's the Iron Fist...he doesn't get defeated in hand-to-hand combat, so how many fights do you need to see him winning? As with most Marvel characters, much of his story revolves around his private life. And in this case, it's the family drama he shares with the Meachums and his relationship with Colleen Wing. Maybe that doesn't scratch your comic book itch...like I said, Iron Fist is a bit of an acquired taste...but it shouldn't be unexpected.

The juxtaposition of corporate politics and violent takeovers (in The Immortal Iron Fist comic series it's Hydra - not the Hand - that has infiltrated Rand in recent years) against the pulp mysticism of K'un L'un is part of the fun of the series...though to be honest, I found the show worked best when dealing with the pulp elements. Ninjas showing up at Harold's apartment, Danny and Davos reminiscing, the "iron fist" glow effect (which I particularly liked)...these things really helped to emphasize and distinguish Iron Fist from the other Netflix Marvel offerings. They were also fun, and part of the reason I enjoy the comic (I don't get enough pulpy mystic Tibetan fiction in my life).

Why does Danny sometimes lose his mojo and get it back mysteriously? Because it's mysterious and weird and he's young and has an imperfect understanding of his powers. In the comic, mystic enemies are always "stealing his Chi" or damaging it or finding ways to sabotage it...just like villains find ways to overload and disrupt Daredevil's heightened senses (thus hindering his fighting ability). Just like kryptonite puts in an appearance in every Superman film.

There's real sense, and there's comic book sense. From a television-watching POV, I really appreciate Rosario Dawson's normal person, no nonsense straight-talk...and I absolutely HATE watching her take a few karate lessons and holding her own in melee against professional assassins (presumably) trained from birth in hand-to-hand combat. But this is very comic book-y: all sorts of minor characters have, over the years, been "trained" by Captain America (or whoever), becoming capable vigilantes; call it the Rick Jones effect. It's something akin to the movie "training montage" on a separate, parallel scale of silliness.

ANYway...a few last notes:

  • As with Luke Cage, viewers are treated to a double-feature with regard to heroic protagonists, this time with Colleen Wing sharing the handbill. Jessica Henwick, similar to Simone Missick, is a quality casting choice, showing a wide range over the course of the show (and some nice sword-work), but what's doubly impressive is that she's given so much to do. Misty Knight has had a variety of interesting things to do over the years: working with the X-Men, running clandestine organizations, blasting people with a cyborg arm, etc. But Wing's role in the comics has mostly been "Misty's BFF," supporting her, tagging along on adventures (even as an "equal partner") and giving an excuse to incorporate a little "Jap-sploitation" in the comics (why does a half-Chinese girl carry a samurai katana and follow a "bushido code?" Because the sword's more recognizable and "Wing" is easier to pronounce than, say, Watanabe). Here we have an American girl of Asian ancestry (a welcome change to the canon), with a complicated history, the same vigilante lust for violence one finds in male comic characters, and some interesting dichotomies-dramatic splits one would expect in a headliner. Kudos to the writers for offering a complex character in place of a cardboard sidekick...and good work by Henwick in an expressive, believable portrayal.
  • I would have been pleased just to have Colleen Wing by the way (to complete the "Heroes for Hire" set), but the fact that she turned out so cool, makes me happy to see where the next show goes...even if it is "the Defenders" (see below).
  • That being said, the way they've set up Wing's relationship with Rand, it makes it even less likely that we'll see the long-established Knight-Rand romance. *sigh* Still wondering if Jessica Jones will eventually end up with Cage...how could they not when it's such an important part of their books (ah, yes, the soap opera that keeps us reading Marvel). So Misty ends up bitter and alone? Hardly seems fair...I thought that was only Daredevil's destined lot in romance.  ; )
  • It would be difficult to follow-up the strong performances by Vincent D'onofrio (Kingpin), David Tennant (Purple Man), and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (Cottonmouth), but David Weham is delightfully weird and sinister as Harold Meachum. It doesn't bother me that the viewers were aware of his villainy for the entire series, even as Danny was (characteristically!) obtuse...there doesn't have to be some "big reveal" in these series. And he had some absolutely fantastic moments throughout the series. But the final episode was a little cliche and disappointingly written. In this way, it was reminiscent of Luke Cage's series one finale.
  • Also, enjoyed the Meachum kids, including their flip-flopping (few people are 100% evil or good). Good performances from both Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup.
  • I did not expect Finn Jones to do a good job, and I was clueless as to how the writers would approach the titular character. I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. ALSO, Finn Jones definitely nailed the look of the character from the comic books (at least, The Immortal Iron Fist series) in spite of his curls, and his moves and fighting style are straight out of the comics. I was not expecting Hong Kong action theater, and I didn't think I'd see Bruce Lee (still the greatest martial artist on celluloid, apologies to Chan, Li, and Jaa). What I got was Iron Fist...even the ducking behind cover when facing automatic weapons. I thought it was good, and I look forward to Jones portrayal in the future.
  • On the other hand, while I liked Sacha Dhawan's portrayal of Davos (the Steel Serpent), can I be a little disappointed that he wasn't...um...taller? Also, he's of a radically different ethnicity than Hoon Lee (who plays Davos's father in the show) but...ah, well. It was a good performance.
  • I know there's supposed to be a giant cross-over of all these Netflix heroes (DD, JJ, Cage, Iron Fist), but, man, they do NOT scream Defenders at me. When I hear "the Defenders" I'm thinking the more mystical side of the Marvel universe: Doctor Strange, first and foremost, but also Moon Knight, Gargoyle, Valkyrie, Prince Namor, etc. These street level heroes should really be called Heroes for Hire (except none of them are for hire in Netflix), or maybe Marvel Knights (except that's a stupid name). I'm still looking forward to seeing what they do (I'm guessing something involving the Hand...again), but...well...it's a quibble. I'm allowed a few.

The Defenders(?)...minus Daredevil
Okay, that's enough for now. Wow. Wasn't sure I'd get through a whole post today, but I somehow managed it. We'll see what happens tomorrow.
: )

4 comments:

  1. Nice review.
    Matches my viewing experience.
    I'm a big fan of the comic book C-list, like Iron fist, Moon Knight, and Adam Strange, so this show was on my most-waited-for list since it was announced.

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  2. @ Waffle:

    I, too, was very excited when it was first announced. I agree with most folks that the show wasn't as strong/impactful as the previous Marvel series on Netflix, but I found it far from a disaster. And I'm quite surprised by the hate and bile that's been penned regarding Jones's performance.

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  3. My favorite slam from Facebook was someone who posted, "And what is up with the Iron fist power? It's totally undefined, it's like it does something different every time it's used!"

    To which I replied, "In all honesty, that's very true to the comic book."

    As for me, I am in the middle of the show and it appears to me that what I am watching is a character spending character-build points as he goes. he starts out as a fish-out-of-water with a very lightly sketched character, then rapidly gains skills and abilities as they occur to him that he should have them; or not have them.

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    Replies
    1. @ Ingot:

      Hmm. I haven't really watched it with an eye towards "how does this mimic a game" or anything. But that is an interesting way to interpret it.

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