The Last Defender Arrives and He Packs a Big Punch
Spoilers likely, consider yourself warned.
From the minute the end credits began to run during episode 13 I began deep contemplation about the latest spectacular from the Marvel Netflix Universe (MNU) Iron Fist. My contemplation was not about whether or not I enjoyed it, I was hooked from the first 3-5 minutes of the show, in all honesty I was on board from the opening credit Kata and my interest never waivered across all 13 hours. My contemplation was centered around where I ranked Iron Fist in respect to the first seasons of his Defender cohorts, an extremely difficult task as I loved each show for different reasons. I have always had an appreciation for Iron Fist as he personifies the merger of two things I’ve always deeply enjoyed, comic superheroes and the martial arts. As the MNU progressed through the Defenders, there was obviously going to be a lot of pressure, huge shoes to fill, not just for Iron Fist representing the character but also because of the tremendous success and expert execution on the preceding three shows. Many folks have their opinion on Iron Fist as a whole, as well as how it stacks up to the rest. While my opinion may not be the popular majority, my hope is my reasoning might cause you to give a second take.
First things first, there isn’t anything bad in the MNU, there are no bad casting, writing, directing, editing, choreography, score, or acting in the entirety of all five seasons of MNU that has aired to date. I believe, as much as I love the MCU, Marvel TV, DCTV, and DCEU, that the MNU branch is the best comic book based live action entertainment today. The incredible primary and supporting cast, the phenomenal villains, best villains around today as well, the brilliantly interwoven web across the universe, everything about it is a hit. When you have three tortured souls, one a fearless, death defying, acrobatic brawler punching thugs and flip kicking ninjas by night, masquerading as a lawyer by day, another is a PI who packs a whalup, drowning her demons and sorrows away with anything that has a ‘proof %’ on the label and doing everything she can to deny that she’s a hero, and the third is a powerhouse who is virtually unstoppable yet all he wants to do is live on his own in peace and avoid any conflict until the bad guys start pointing guns at the innocents around him that is.
If you have three tortured souls and are gearing up to add a fourth, what do you need to balance out this band of misfits? Youth, youth filled with all of its optimism, emotional outbursts, and naïveté, mixed with the wonderful dichotomy of zen, master focus, precision dedication to their martial arts training, and oh yeah he punched a dragon in its molten heart and now he can channel his life source into his glowing fist and did I mention he’s the latest in the line of Living Weapons?
Danny Rand, billionaire heir to a lucrative company, dead to the world he knew for fifteen years after a plane he was on with his parents crashed in the Himalayas, with both his parents dead he was taken in by warriors monks from the city of K’un-Lun, one of the seven capital cities of heaven, hidden from the world as we know it, only accessible every fifteen years. There Danny endures constant trials and training that would make the Shaolin Monks raise their eyebrows, as time goes on, the young Rand learns of the most prestigious position one can hold in K’un-Lun, the Living Weapon and protector of the pass, the Iron Fist. Naturally our hero to be is entranced by the challenge and fights a near insurmountable battle to be chosen as the first outsider to face the trisk of Shao-Lao the Undying, a dragon whose molten heart possesses the power of the Iron Fist, granting the wielder the ability to harness and focus their chi in amazing levels and perform many incredible feats, most famously turning your hand all glowy and smashing the crap out of things! After Rand emerges as the Iron Fist, he shortly after questions his full purpose and, noticing a possibility to journey back home, takes the opportunity to resurface on the earth as we know it, fifteen years presumed dead. Now doesn’t that sound like an exciting story to hear?!
One of my favorite things about Iron Fist is the lightness, both literally and figuratively. The literal light, no, not Danny’s hand glowing, but the sheer fact that scenes, and not just dialogue scenes but actual fight scenes and stunts, occur in the light, morning, lit rooms, yes of course there is plenty of dark room/night time action but the introduction of morning time choreography does so many things. It explains the threats our heroes face don’t care about hiding, and it also shows the confidence the show had in its leads and the stunt team/fight coordinator. The figurative light comes from Danny’s optimism and naïveté. He trusts and cares, yes to a fault but it’s a huge change from the rest of our Defenders, and his confidence, borderline arrogance which comes from his title, talent, and youth is a wonderful counterbalance to his centered Chi focus.
The MNU has always been great at making comic references and introducing characters. Iron Fist does that with a precision and intelligence that gives you the impression of watching a live adaptation of a comic. Danny Rand, the Meachums, Madame Gao, Colleen Wing, Bakuto, the Hand, Davos, the Order of the Crane Mother, along side wonderfully interweaving reference points from the other shows, Claire makes thousands of references to Cage and Murdock, there is talk of Karen Page, implication of Jessica Jones, we see Jeri ‘J-Money’ Hogarth and Darryl return, alongside obviously Claire and Gao. The sheer richness and volume they give us are exactly what comics are made of. Their ability to balance all of the inclusions without coming across muddled is a huge testamant, unappreciated by most critics I’ve seen, which is simply not easy to do.
I was blown away by the story we got in this season, we have your typical rich kid returned from the dead but now he’s special and wants to sort out evil origin story, that’s all well and good. It’s the way that story is told which is so beautiful. The ‘it’s me Danny’ bit that results in reactions of fear, disgust, confusion, and committing Rand to a mental asylum is a huge social commentary regarding the treatment of the homeless and mentally ill, just the way Luke Cage comments on race, Jessica Jones on abuse, and Daredevil on corruption, the short scenes, the wonderful writing, and performances by the cast are just too spectacular for words. Now we have another story, a story of living up to your potential, your training, and your responsibility to use your power to help others: our fight against the Hand, the three combat trial, and yielding from a battle you can win to do the right thing and save an innocent life – literally the perfect martial arts film plot line. Then we get to betrayal, the Meachums over and over and over again, Madame Gao’s mind bogglingly wonderful mind games, Bakuto’s deceit and as its result the knowledge that Colleen has been the Hand this whole time, granted she thinks it’s the good Hand but still. Lastly the internal struggle between destiny and free will, do you return to K’un-Lun, abandoning your life in New York and guard the Pass? Or do you stay in New York, be Danny Rand, live your life and protect people from the Hand there? Sprinkle in some jealousy in Davos and the Meachums and how can you not watch this season, really pay attention, and tell me you didn’t just watch a full comic series? Go on, I’m waiting.
Ah the choreography, exquisite, beautifully flowing, soft yet hard, true Kung Fu inspired fight sequences. Be still my heart, there is so much I can say about this element of the show alone, everyone has their own unique forms and skill set in the martial arts, it balances so gracefully and the subtle details are what makes this a class all it’s own. No, it’s not as fast as Daredevil, let me tangent for a moment, in Daredevil you get Hollywood Wushu mixed with street brawling, spliced with a lot of quick cuts to make the spinny flips seem even spinnier. Let me just say, there’s nothing wrong with that, it looks great, and it fits Daredevil, it works, but with Iron Fist, Iron Fist you see pure martial arts. You get elements of your five animal form Kung Fu, Tai Chi, traditional Wushu, all in Danny Rand, and that’s without me really nitpicking on styles.
Is Finn Jones a 40 year trained, master level black belt? No, of course not, but I will say two things, his commitment for an actor playing a role, was incredible, his forms, damn good, and that his range of motion, flexibility, extension, agility, accuracy, and rotation was absolutely incredible for not only a novice martial artist but for a man hitting at or above six feet tall. I can attest, the taller a martial artist gets, the harder it gets to achieve that extension, rotation, and range of motion, something Jones achieves at damn proficient levels. I felt belief in Jones as the Iron Fist, a character I’ve had deep interest in for decades. I also was blown away, watching an actor pick up and execute damn well some immensely challenging choreography.
Jones is not the only one who brought their A game to the fight scene business. I can talk about the incredible talent Davos and Bakuto brought to the table. I can also explain how masterfully Wai Ching Ho aka Madame Gao moved, not quickly, but with intention, every step she took was the embodiment of a talented warrior with countless centuries of training, exactly what is expected from that character. Jessica Henwick, the Daughter of the Dragon herself, was incredible, in fact there were many points where she gave Jones a run for his money. Her elements of Wing Chung, pieces of Kung Fu forms, and an overlay of Karate rolled into the perfect fighting style for Colleen Wing. Not to mention that Katana, Henwick’s use of Kenjutsu is performed exquisitely, the importance of foot placement, precision, and optimizing the angles of the fight are imperative for the wielding of a Katana, and Henwick did not slack.
I simply loved the martial art element of Iron Fist, the choreography was what I would want from my films led by Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, the gracefulness, giving way to strength and destruction when needed IS what martial arts choreography should be all about. The more talented the warrior, the more they realize they exude the minimum amount of effort necessary to win in order to retain fuel for the inevitable next opponent. One of the most exciting things (aside this ridiculously amazing Katana unsheathing Henwick did where she flipped her sheath sending the sword out and into her hand) was in episode 8, we see two beautifully crafted duels, one, Colleen Wing, master Kenjutsu swordsman wield her Katana against a Wushu Sword master in this gorgeous ballet of conflicting styles. The other half, the half that LITERALLY had me out of my chair on my feet, was Danny Rand, the Licing Weapon, the Iron Fist battling Zhou Cheng (played by the insanely talented and under appreciated Lewis Tan) who defends the Hand with Drunken Boxing! If you have the slightest appreciation of martial arts films, or even extensive martial arts action scenes, I beg of you, watch Fearless, featuring Jet Li, then watch Drunken Master, or The Legend of Drunken Master with Jackie Chan, watch those beautiful styles, more Tai Chi/Wush/Kung Fu base with Li, and Drunken Boxing from Chan, you might find yourself thinking, wow, how would they make those styles adapt when battling one another. That’s Episode 8 of Iron Fist! I don’t even have anything else to say about it, it’s just absolutely incredible!
So we have a great story, comic worthy in both flow and the character appearances/arcs, great casting, and the absolutely fantastic display of the associated martial arts featured. So that’s it right? How about no, let’s also talk about how amazing the background score and the killer hip hop inspired soundtrack and how brilliant the music used is, one of the most underestimated elements of film/tv. On top of that the portrayal, the contrast of the youthful emotion, naïveté, and outburst to the calm, centered, Chi focused Jones gives Danny Rand is just perfect, not to be out done, Henwick’s strong, capable Wing, and empowered and moral compass that is Rosario Dawson’s Claire, giving us just an amazing cast.
Needless to say, I disagree with the blithe reviews that have appeared online as of late. I disagree with the opinion that the story, writing, pacing, or acting was a miss, I feel like everything was executed at stellar levels. My absolute biggest dispute with reviews I’ve seen online is the critique of the fight sequences, if anyone reading this far has the desire to hear me out further feel free to comment below. The balance of styles, the grace of the moves, and the attention to detail from the fight coordinator was perfection. All in all I felt like Iron Fist was the absolute perfect bookender of the Defenders introduction seasons.
So after that is all said and done, I sit with the decision of deciding which Defender’s first season takes the cake. We have superb performances across the board, wonderful deep stories very worthy of comic level appreciation, amazing worlds incredibly interwoven throughout one another, and hands down the best villains given to us by any comic based live action medium. There is next to nothing wrong for me with any of the four unless I want to get finicky, yes there are some tweaks I would make, or sure there’s lulls somewhere, but they’re all insanely rewatchable. At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong if you’re stuck picking a favorite, it really boils down to either the most meticulous fine hair splitting or just personal preference. For me the answer has become clear, my favorite first season from the MNU, is the Living Weapon, he who has plunged his fist into the heart of Shou Lou the Undying to become the Iron Fist.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Which was your favorite and don’t forget why! While we eagerly await the Defenders and the Punisher, don’t forget to #keepitnerdy