“Iron Fist” (Netflix – Season 1)
Created by Scott Buck
Let me start this by saying how much I love (and vociferously championed) the Netflix canon of Marvel-based series. “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” have done something quite wonderful and different for the genre…taking their time with the story…letting it breathe so as to develop a sense of place, a sense of character and a sense of the stakes WITHOUT the cinematic requirement of blowing shit up all over the place. They FEEL much more realistic…the suspension of disbelief, which is part of the contract with the films, is barely necessary in these shows and yet they are suspenseful and pulse-quickening.
So imagine my anticipation, turned disappointment, turned annoyance, turned outright anger when I sat through the thirteen episodes of “Iron Fist”. To call it a mess is to ignore the giant responsibility Scott Buck and his production team carried in to the endeavor. These series matter in many different ways. Obviously there are the expectations of the fanboys, which are almost impossible to meet, but more importantly, there are the casual viewers who may not necessarily go to the films, but do enjoy the Netflix series…and are now used to a higher sense of quality – maturity – from these shows. But, with “Iron Fist”, they have utterly dropped the ball. So, without further ado, let us count the ways they’ve failed based on what makes the others so good:
Story: There’s taking your time, and then there’s being stuck on the 405 at 4:45pm. This story…a story with no real middle or end, by the way…puts the coma in comatose. There are two main plot-lines that eventually interconnect…and not in an “aha!” way, more like…”yes, we know…PLEASE get on with it!”
A sense of place: Well, two places actually. You’d think a show with a main character who has arrived in New York City from a monastery in the high mountains of Tibet would avail itself of exotic locales. No. It’s an office building, a small dojo, a secret compound that looks more like a dorm quad at Vassar, and every vacant lot in New York. Even when they DO go somewhere, in this case China, it looks more like Red Hook, and the entire episode takes place inside a warehouse. Here’s an idea…how about a flashback to the monastery that doesn’t take place in a small clay-walled room. Only once do they create something imaginative…an underground cage-fighting community that lasts all of ten minutes of screen time. I’m telling you, if I didn’t know better, I’d say this had the location budget of a Hallmark film.
A sense of character: This is where it REALLY crashes and burns. I dare you to give a crap about ANY SINGLE CHARACTER IN THE SHOW. There are five main characters introduced, and then there is the pre-requisite Rosario Dawson appearance. The “Iron Fist” is played by “Game of Thrones” convicted buggerist, Finn Jones (Loras Tyrell). A drop-dead doppelganger for “Greatest American Hero”star, William Katt, Jones brings pretty much the exact same earnestness to his role. Nothing wrong with that…it’s part of what makes Charlie Cox’ “Daredevil” so mesmerizing. The problem is Jones is no Cox…not even close. Worse, he subscribes to the acting method of breathing a sigh before every line…a method that never succeeds, by the way. And his performance is a clinic in that style of acting. You don’t believe any emotion our Iron Fist is supposed to convey, because he’s already telegraphed it by the size and weight of the sigh preceding the line. It’s painful. The other actors fare slightly better, but the script, which has no suspense to speak of, requires the actors to make up for it. It’s so uncomfortable to watch them flailing about as they try to do just that. Dawson is okay, but even she looks like she’d rather be doing a commercial for Calgon than be in these scenes with these actors. Jessica Stroup is pretty good, or at least PRESENT, but by the end, she’s stuck in the same place as the rest. Tom Pelphrey is the only actor who seems to get better as the show progresses. Granted, it’s not a long pilgrimage from the beginning to the end for him, but I’ll take what I can get.
A sense of stakes: THE STAKES ARE SKY HIGH! I know this because the characters spend so much time telling me. The world is up for grabs! Everyone of the leads could get killed! The Iron Fist blah blah blah! None of it is actually shown. Every fight lasts about twenty seconds…and there is approximately one fight per episode. I don’t need tons of action…but if you’re going to bore me with a nothing story AND give me terrible performances, I’ll take a tablespoon, or two, of violence. And worst of all, it ends with a shrug. The final episodes of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” (especially “Jessica Jones”) are fantastic…hold-your-breath fantastic. During the Iron Fist finale I fed my dog, washed the dishes and did some writing. <sigh>
The SINGLE place where the show succeeds is in its music, crafted by Trevor Morris. What I love most about the score is how it utterly stays away from the cliche of Eastern music in a martial arts setting, and sticks to the action music formula. The score is, in many ways, a perfect hybrid of Desplat’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and Johannsson’s “Sicario”. Percussive, instructive, and about the only thing creating ANY suspense in the entire thirteen-hour slog. If you listen to film and tv music, then go browse Morris’ offerings. He’s composed the music for “Vikings”, “The Borgias”, “The Tudors”, “Reign”, and just about every other period series of import. He’s quite good. Alas, in terms of film, he only seems to be booking bad action flicks, so hopefully he’ll get his opportunity to branch out soon. I’d love to hear more.
“Iron Fist” has been referred to in many reviews as a “misstep” by the Netflix/Marvel partnership. That is a massive understatement. If this were an HBO joint, there is no way they would give it a second season without some time to re-tool. But, somehow, a second season is already in the works. I wish them luck, but when it is released, I think I’ll spend some time with my dog, my dishes and my work. It’ll be much more satisfying.