Why the Netflix Adaptation of Iron Fist is More Disappointing Than What’s on Screen
As I am sure many a comic book aficionado did on St. Patrick’s day 2017, I sat down on my couch eager to start my premeditated weekend-long binge of the Netflix adaptation of Marvel’s Iron fist. It was a Friday so I was diligent in clearing out my schedule for the ensuing 48 hours, because any social activity that I could have planned wouldn’t have possibly compared to what was waiting for me on my Netflix watch list– season one of the last member of the Defenders: Iron Fist. As I am sure many a comic book aficionado can relate, I was wrong.
The season started out well enough with the sort of in your face exposition that you can expect from a show that is meant to garner a fanbase beyond those of us who may have had a relationship with the characters before tuning in. The episodes included your usual narrative devices that are meant to support the story arc like Danny’s flashbacks to the plane crash that killed his parents. The problem is these narrative devices and intermittent pieces of exposition continued throughout the entire season for no discernable reason except to wake Danny up in a cold sweat and serve as the catalyst for his kitschy mediation/training sequences that were poorly juxtaposed with epic hip-hop compositions from the likes of Camp-Lo, Outkast, Killah Priest and new comers like The Cool Kids and Vince Staples. In effect, these devices became the plot and any seasoned tv watcher knows that never works.
The fight sequences were skillfully choreographed, the sets were designed well enough, and the casting decisions in terms of holding true to the the look of the comic book characters were acceptable. But anything outside of the aesthetic experience left much to be desired. The story arc was anything but dynamic, it was executed halfheartedly and drawled on for far too many episodes. Character development was virtually non-existent, all of the characters were one dimensional and behaved in an exactly the way that one would expect them to behave. There were no surprises, nor did I question my assumptions about the motives of any character. Even the writing for the enigmatic villain Madame Gao who appeared in the other Netflix Marvel adaptations fell completely flat next to the unloveable and moody Danny Rand.
At no point did I find myself rooting for Danny as I soldiered through my grueling binge watching experience. He seemed to be aimlessly bumbling through the show struggling to come to terms with his dead parents, his decision to leave K’un-Lun, and his purpose in a world that was foreign to him. He vacillates between enlightened hippie monk with no earthly attachments and brooding teenage boy who doesn’t seem worthy of the power of the Iron Fist. He is downright capricious which makes the bits where he isn’t beating people up painful to endure. The on-screen representation of Iron Fist is such a huge departure from his comic book counterpart that I had to revisit the comic books with fresh eyes to make sure that the Iron Fist I knew wasn’t as vapid as the one I was watching on screen.
My dad was a big comic book head in the the 70’s and 80’s so I first encountered Iron Fist on the cover of a Power Man comic that was in a box at my grandmother’s house. I regret that I never read it but the green suit and ridiculous yellow lapels stuck with me. I was reintroduced to Danny Rand during Ed Brubaker’s run on Daredevil following Bendis’ in 2006. Danny had dawned Daredevil’s crimson to protect Matt Murdock’s identity after a series of hapless events sent him to jail.
I found Danny in daredevil to be fun and dynamic albeit mysterious because I hadn’t yet read his origin story until I discovered that Brubaker revitalized his character in The Immortal Iron Fist which ran from ’06 to ’09. It is both a cliche and a gross understatement to say that Ed Brubaker is a phenomenal scriptwriter but Ed Brubaker is truly a phenomenal scriptwriter. He has the uncanny ability to create characters that are complex and layered to the point where even the most reprehensible character traits become endearing to readers because they make the character unequivocally human.
Brubaker’s Iron Fist retains all of the qualities and story elements that the Netflix’s Iron Fist does but Brubaker did it right and Netflix did it unreservedly wrong. Danny Rand’s biggest villain in the panels of those pages isn’t The Hand or the trauma of his past or the reality of his power, it is the same thing that we all deal with as people. It is his very existence. He battles with assigning himself his purpose and deciding if he’s ultimately relinquished that power by donning the mantle of the Iron Fist. He struggles not with having power but determining whether or not the power he has is good; whether anyone should have that power. He nearly transcends the fourth wall by contemplating whether or not his power and his existence is little more than a natural counterbalance to the evil that he at times willfully and at times begrudgingly wages war against.
Brubaker’s characters, Iron Fist among them, make readers question what makes us fundamentally human. He makes us ask is it our virtue and our ability to champion our values for the sake of others or is it, in fact, our ability to willfully destroy others for our own benefit? Netflix’s Iron Fist does not come close to doing that. The show isn’t cringeworthy because of mediocre acting, it’s cringeworthy because it missed an opportunity to cast a mirror onto our own humanity with a character who is more than up to the task.