The show’s early reviews aren’t great — but Jones seems to be struggling with why that’s the case. In his most recent interview, he blamed the show’s negative reception on President Donald Trump and on critics not “getting” what his show is trying to do. Last week, he quit Twitter after a debate with a fan over the show’s diversity.
But Jones’s excuses only prove that he’s trying to avoid a much simpler truth: His show is pretty awful.
Iron Fist is based on the comic book of the same name, and its main protagonist is one Danny Rand. Rand was created in the ’70s as a way to take advantage of the martial arts craze. He’s a blond, white son of a billionaire who survives a plane crash that kills his parents. Rand, thanks to the kindness of monks, finds a magical Asian city where he eventually becomes a man and learns how to turn himself into a living weapon to fight evil. It’s a fun, weird story, but also one that traffics in stereotypes, Orientalism, and the white savior trope.
It’s easy to assume that those egregious and uncorrected stereotypes are the reason the show is under scrutiny. But its problems run deeper and more fundamental than that — stuff like writing and story structure.
And with a bevy of bad reviews attached to Iron Fist, Marvel and Jones are in the unique position of dealing with a stinker, considering how well the company’s other Netflix series — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage — have been received.
It’s clear that updating the Iron Fist story and its bugs for 2017 has been difficult, and perhaps choosing this specific hero in the first place now seems questionable. But this rare misstep is also a fascinating look at how criticism and comic books collide, and how that dictates the future of superhero storytelling.
Is Iron Fist really that bad?
The early reviews of Iron Fist haven’t been kind. Netflix and Marvel sent out the first six episodes to critics, and said critics are not impressed. On Metacritic, the show is hovering at 35 out of 100, and on Rotten Tomatoes it’s scoring 12 percent.
If Iron Fist were a restaurant, you wouldn’t eat at it because the Yelp reviews panned its service and the food. If it were a blind date, you would probably text a friend and ask them to call you and feign an emergency so you could leave. If it were a doctor, you wouldn’t trust it with your life.
From the six episodes I’ve seen so far (Vox will post a review of the full season this weekend), Iron Fist represents a life-threatening malaise to the superhero genre: terminal boredom. With its lackluster writing, it’s found a way to flatten a story about martial arts, billionaires, and magical cities into something painfully dull and dour. The action scenes, when they aren’t CGI’d to the point of being laughable, are forgettable. And I have a haunting desire to never see Jones anywhere near another television show.
Granted, Iron Fist could potentially turn itself around in the second half of the season. But doing so would require a seismic overhaul of its most fundamental facets, from dialogue to structure to rethinking the main character.
Finn Jones has responded to negative reviews by passing blame
In response to the bad reviews, Jones has been using Iron Fist’s press tour to defend and evade criticism.
His first excuse is one we’ve heard before: Critics just don’t get it.
“What I will say is these shows are not made for critics, they are first and foremost made for the fans,” Jones said in an interview with Metro. “I also think some of the reviews we saw were seeing the show through a very specific lens, and I think when the fans of the Marvel Netflix world and fans of the comic books view the show through the lens of just wanting to enjoy a superhero show, then they will really enjoy what they see.”
Jones isn’t the first person to use this excuse. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder said something very similar last spring when his movie was thrashed by critics. The cast of Suicide Squad echoed the statement last August, implying that “fans” would really get the movie.
The problem with this shopworn response is that it’s aggressively patronizing. It’s condescending to suggest that comic book fans’ taste level is at odds with cultural criticism — that fans will ignore glaring missteps because they’re so desperate to see a live-action remake of their beloved source material. Further, it suggests that critics can’t be comic book fans, which is untrue.
But the “critics just don’t understand” defense isn’t the only excuse Jones used.
In an interview with RadioTimes, he said the negative reviews of Iron Fist are driven by the current political climate. More specifically, he blamed Donald Trump.
“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 No. 1,” he said. “I’m playing a white American billionaire superhero, at a time when the white American billionaire archetype is public enemy No. 1, especially in the US.”
But Jones fails to account for the superhero genre’s recent shift in focus toward privileged white billionaires — just look at the rise of Batman since the ’90s, the popularity of Tony Stark and Iron Man, or even a show like The CW’s Arrow and its billionaire playboy hero Oliver Queen. Most recently, we had Marvel’s Doctor Strange, about a rich surgeon who becomes a superhero after traveling to a magical land, not unlike Iron Fist’s Danny Rand; the film opened in the US the weekend before the presidential election, was well received by critics, and went on to make $232 million domestically.
No doubt there are critics who are suffering superhero fatigue. There are also critics who aren’t big fans of the Trump administration. But Iron Fist’s bad reviews aren’t because Trump-hating critics dislike superhero films. Recent superhero projects such as Logan, FX’s Legion, and Iron Fist’s many Marvel-Netflix cousins have all garnered praise from many of the same critics.
And there’s no boycott against liking rich white male superheroes, either. There are plenty of superheroes with origin stories similar enough to Rand’s who are doing just fine.
Jones is merely trying to avoid the simplest answer for why his show getting bad reviews: It’s not very good.
The biggest problem with Iron Fist is that no one thought about what makes the character human
When Iron Fist was announced, before Jones had even been cast, fans asked Marvel to cast an Asian or Asian-American actor to play the title character, who was white in the original comic. Their argument: The source material, written in 1974, was riddled with Asian stereotypes and Orientalism and leaned heavily into the white savior trope. Changing the character into one of Asian heritage could at least eliminate the white savior aspect, and perhaps Danny Rand could maintain his outsider status if the story were tweaked so that when he traveled to the magical Asian land, he found his roots.
Like a lot of fights over comic books and superhero diversity, there was a counterargument about keeping the character the same. That being white in a magical Asian city is part of Rand’s story of being an outsider. And as casting got underway, there were apparently some higher-ups at Marvel who opposed the fan movement and felt very strongly that the character shouldn’t change.
What’s important to remember about this controversy is the one thing both sides could agree on: that the original material, unaware of its faults, needed updating. Jones said it himself in an interview with Vulture last fall:
“Netflix and Marvel are two of the most forward-thinking entertainment distributors out at the moment,” he said. “The story we’re telling — people are going to be surprised at how we are going to handle this. To be honest, this is one of the most diverse shows I’ve ever worked on. It’s got an amazing cast from all different backgrounds, playing all different types of roles.”
To be clear, Iron Fist isn’t the only comic that’s saddled with racial stereotypes — that’s what Jones is obliquely referencing. The original material for a lot of the comic book superheroes we love today was written in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. How we view the world and the people around us has gotten more informed, and we’re now more capable than past generations of telling stories with decency and humanity when it comes to race, gender, or sexuality.
Iron Fist’s problem is that it never really feels like anyone is trying to tell a good story. And the result is a show that doesn’t make any attempt to think about how a tale conceived in the ’70s could be relevant today.
Iron Fist is a warning to the superhero genre
Superhero comics are in a unique position of being art that trades in morality and goodness. Superhero adventures teach us about respect, vulnerability, kindness, and looking for the good in one another. As real-life products, we expect superhero shows and comic books to be as morally informed as the lessons they’re teaching us. Danny Rand and Iron Fist are no exception.
Though an Asian-American Iron Fist would have been cool to see (growing up, Asian-American kids don’t see many Asian Americans on television), I’m of the belief that a well-written Danny Rand story, no matter his race, could still be good (see: Matt Fraction and artist David Aja’s run on the character).
But the show’s writers didn’t make an effort, at least in Iron Fist’s first six episodes, to figure out what makes this hero compelling, or to better adapt the original story for 2017. What makes Danny Rand different from the other rich white guys — Bruce Wayne, Doctor Strange, Oliver Queen — who went to some far-off land and learned how to kick ass? How is he different from other superhero orphans? What makes him as riveting as Jessica Jones or Luke Cage?
It all comes back to one fundamental question: What did Netflix and Marvel see in Iron Fist to think it could break away from the many stories like it? The answer isn’t totally clear. And the result is that Iron Fist kind of feels like off-brand Batman in a martial arts outfit.
Iron Fist is an important reminder that we’re at the point where superheroes stories have to do more than just hit the same beats over and over again. There’s so much super stuff out there that the slightest whiff of redundancy quickly becomes apparent. That’s why some of the best current projects are pushing superhero stories in new directions, using established characters to touch on other topics — mental illness, parenthood, race, trauma — instead of simply rehashing old plots.
Iron Fist just looks lazy by comparison.
The good news for Marvel, Netflix, and Jones’s career is that Iron Fist feels like an anomaly rather than the norm. As his follow-up to Iron Fist, Jones will appear in the upcoming Defenders series, slated to debut later this year (no date has been announced yet). It’s an eight-episode season in which Matt Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil), Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist will team up to save New York from a big bad (presumably the Hand). Fans and critics will get to see if a new setting changes the dynamic of Danny Rand. And playing off other characters might allow him to find his own distinct voice. If things go well, Iron Fist may even get a second season.
But even if that happens — or even if the second half of Iron Fist’s first season proves the early reviews wrong — it’s no fault of critics, fans, or President Trump that Iron Fist gave us a lackluster first half of a season. Jones has to realize that falls on the show.