When Marvel announced that they were partnering with Netflix for multiple series from the ‘Defenders’ properties, it seemed like the streaming giant had struck gold. ‘The Avengers’ had been released the year prior to roaring critical and commercial success, and comic book movies were arguably at their pinnacle of popularity. Now, a little more than three years later, it’s hard to argue that Netflix hasn’t made good on their fortune, as all of their Defenders series that have aired have been met with (mostly) positive reviews all around. However, as Iron Fist prepares to be released this week, and amid many negative reviews from critics everywhere (the show is currently rated at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes), I felt like expressing why I feel that might be the case, and what you can expect from the series as a whole.
Firstly, you need to understand some key things about the main character, Danny Rand, and his origin that may have worked fine back when the character was created, but has since been a bit overdone in American/comic book culture. Firstly, Danny Rand is traditionally white. This isn’t weird if you understand the character, which is to say, the son of a billionaire company owner who gets stranded on a mountain that leads to a mystical city where he becomes a martial arts master and eventually returns home. But, for those with little to no knowledge of that aspect of the character, it seems like a case of Hollywood “White-washing”, which a lot of critics have been quick to point out. The counterpoint to this though, is that making a character of Asian decent just because he’s a martial artist can cause similar backlash. For instance, why did Marvel make the kung-fu guy Asian but not billionaire genius who builds sweet Iron Man suits? Why does the martial artist always have to be the Asian one? This seems a bit ridiculous, but it’s a genuine concern among Hollywood to avoid stereotyping this way, even if the result of this is viewed as white-washing. Obviously this creates a catch-22 for the series creators, but with that being the case, defaulting to the original character’s origin feels like a smart move.
“But why not make him Asian-American? You could even have included something about immigration and America, which is topical in today’s political climate,” you say. To which my counter-point would be: yeah, you could. But this series started filming in April of 2016, and was being written and thought out much earlier. Think about how volatile the political climate in America has become since then with regards to immigration/anti-immigration. Expecting a studio to be ahead of the curve on these sorts of things is a bit ridiculous when you consider the amount of time that goes into making shows like these.
Another point about Danny Rand’s character is that he’s not just white, but very rich and white. This is something that’s not only overdone in comic book origins as a whole, but an archetype that looks substantially less appealing considering the current U.S. President and the division that’s gone through America due to his election. Finn Jones, the actor that plays Danny Rand even mentioned this in an interview, saying, “I think the world has changed a lot since we were filming that television show. I’m playing a white American billionaire superhero, at a time when the white American billionaire archetype is public enemy number one, especially in the US. We filmed the show way before Trump’s election, and I think it’s very interesting to see how that perception, now that Trump’s in power, how it makes it very difficult to root for someone coming from white privilege, when that archetype is public enemy number one.” This actually makes a lot of sense, and when combined with the fact that being a billionaire and/or white and/or male isn’t something that a lot of people can relate to, it’s understandable why people are as drawn to Danny Rand as say, Luke Cage or Jessica Jones.
And there’s something to that relatable that needs addressing – viewers need to understand, going in, the fundamental differences between the character and the established universe. With the first three defenders so far, Marvel and Netflix have put in a lot of effort to make a gritty, more violent, and above all, more realistic take on the Defenders than on their Avengers counterparts. I know this sounds silly when you consider the premises surrounding the Defenders as characters, but it’s undeniable that the studios have been trying to work in more relatable, real-world issues and characters into these shows. Now, compare those to the Iron Fist who, among other things, gets his power in a mystical city of immortal beings that only appears on Earth once every ten years after he punches a dragon in the heart. So yeah, it’s not exactly what you’d call relatable.
But with the introduction of Doctor Strange in Marvel’s most recent theatrical outing, this mysticism and overall shift in what we, as viewers, are used to, should hopefully an easier thing to accept. And while early indications are that it hasn’t been easy for critics, what needs to be understood is that, with an origin story steeped in mysticism and magic, Iron fist may take a little more time to cook than the other Defenders’ series did, simply by the nature of it.
Furthermore, pointing out exactly how much of the show critics have had access to is also important to point out. Thus far most, if not all, critics have only seen the first six episodes, which is only half of the series. Now, deciding you don’t like something after six hours is usually fine, however when you consider the previous point about how different Iron Fist is going to be, it may honestly take the first six to eight episodes to really start to make total sense, and become as relatable and down-to-earth as the other Netflix series’ have been. You also have to consider that Marvel and Netflix have gone with an approach that makes these shows feel like an almost twelve-hour movie as opposed to a standard television show, in which every episode has its own conflict and resolution with an overarching plot that has several episodes, and in some cases several seasons, to resolve themselves. This can make the beginning of something as complicated as the Iron Fist’s origin story to feel a bit more like a slog than Marvel properties have felt like in the past.
So, what can we expect from “Iron Fist”? Well, if I had to guess, probably a slow backstory. But this isn’t a bad thing either. A common criticism of Luke Cage, Netflix’s most recent Marvel release, was that while the first half was excellent, the second half fell flat. This is something I agree with, and if the studios decide to slow the first half of the series to establish a strong and compelling second half, I’m very much on board.
We can also expect a lot of intricate and brutal fight scenes, although according to the critics, maybe not. This is the thing I worry the most about, especially after Luke Cage fell very flat in terms of fight scenes and choreography compared to its predecessors. Considering this new show is centered a mystical martial arts master who’s supposed to have the best fighting skills of anyone in the Marvel universe, I would hope the fight scenes can actually look good. Falling flat in this area would, in my opinion, mark the show as Netflix and Marvel’s biggest failure up to this point, though maybe that isn’t a bad thing. If Marvel wants to keep producing things that are high-quality and not stagnate into making the same stuff over and over, then getting negative critical feedback when something is actually bad is important. Failure is ok so long as Marvel learns the right lessons and provides better series’ and movies later on. Hopefully it doesn’t fail so badly that they consider moving away from Iron Fist though, as he’s an integral part of the Defenders and has some of the most interesting and fun comics and stories of any of them.
Ultimately, if critics don’t like it, it’s because their judgement was affected by only seeing half of the show, they didn’t care for something that was made more for fans rather than critics, or because it’s actually bad. And the funny thing is, all of these scenarios are fine. Sure, the first is ideal, because it indicates a strong show that can be viewed by both fans of Marvel and regular viewers if they put in the time, but on the flip-side, if the show really is bad, then better to pan it as such and keep Marvel and Netflix from making this some mistake again. If Iron Fist has to be bad so that Defenders, and everything else moving forward, can benefit off of the learning experience and be excellent, I’m all for it.
With that said, please be good, Iron Fist. I really would like you to be good.