First housekeeping. There will be spoilers in this article. If you care about spoilers for a mediocre AF martial arts show on Netflix, you probably want to stop reading.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. There’s some racist stuff going on in Iron Fist both on-set and off it. But just to be clear, the central plot of the show involves an insidious order of mystics who are textually situated somewhere in China and / or Japan (and the less we dwell on the inability of the scriptwriters to distinguish between China and Japan the better) and who have infiltrated the American Family Business using opium and the promise of alchemical immortality. These guys are about one Fu Manchu reference away from actually using a 1912 Sax Rohmer style yellow peril narrative here.
But I think that’s been addressed well by others already, including here – where Genevra Littlejohn gets at the disrespect presented by the showrunners and by Jessica Henwick, one of the stars of the show. I also don’t want to belabor the excellent points made by Abigail Nussbaum in her article on the show. What I will say is that while I entirely agree with her assessment of the characterization of Danny Rand, there was a level of personal discomfort with his character for me which I have to accept may have exacerbated my reaction to the show.
Namely, as a white man who speaks Mandarin, does martial arts, has spent time around Buddhist temples and who consumes a lot of Chinese media, some of Danny’s bad behaviour hit a bit too close to home in the, “please tell me I was less insufferable as a kid,” sort of a way. That sense-of-identification with this blatantly awful human being with stunning boundary issues certainly didn’t increase my enjoyment of the show.
I didn’t enjoy the show. In fact, the slight frission of pleasure I got from shitposting about it on Facebook faded by about Episode 4. After that I was mostly only watching out of stubbornness. However, my lack of enjoyment of the show had less to do with the whitewashing controversy or even the yellow peril narrative (which I largely bit my tongue over when Daredevil did similar) than it did with how poorly constructed Iron Fist was as a piece of martial arts media and that’s where I’m going to concentrate.
The creative team
The central problem here appears to be the formation of the creative team. And I think a lot of those can be traced to the employment of Scott Buck as the showrunner. Buck’s previous production and writing credits almost entirely center around either comedies or adult dramas (notably Six Feet Under and Dexter). His only experience with adventure television is Rome. He certainly has no background in martial arts cinema, and with his lack of a background he failed to hire appropriate scriptwriters.
Of course Buck was credited with three episodes himself. Beyond him, Quinton Peeples has done a variety of light genre, but mostly it gravitates towards police and military narratives. He has no experience with martial arts that I can find. Scott Reynolds is also mostly a police drama writer. Christine Chambers pretty much only wrote previously for Boardwalk Empire, a gangster show.
The writer of one of the two best episodes of Iron Fist is also the only one who has previous experience working with anything even remotely close to a martial arts story. Dwain Worrell previously worked as the scriptwriter for a 2010 (zombie?) movie called Walking the Dead which was set in China. It featured an antagonist with an axe but followed slasher tropes rather than martial arts from what little of it I was able to track down.
Ian Stokes, credited on two episodes, is straight-up genre but again no martial arts background. Tamara Beecher-Wilkinson mostly did police drama writing although she was the script coordinator on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pat Charles is mostly known for writing episodes of Bones.
In other words the writer’s room was long on experience with police and crime drama but had no previous experience writing martial arts media. This lack of experience carries through to the direction team, with two notable exceptions.
Episode 6 was directed by RZA and episode 8 was directed by Kevin Tancharoen. These two directors have, between them, a reasonable resume of martial arts related work. Tancharoen has directed good episodes of all the CW superhero properties, while RZA wrote, directed and starred in the grossly under-appreciated martial arts horror / comedy and Shaw Brothers homage The Man With the Iron Fists.
It’s unsurprising then, that as pieces of martial arts media, Episodes 6 and 8 are the best Iron Fist has to offer. It’s the only time there was even a lick of experience in the creative team.
With a creative team better suited to making a police drama than a martial arts show, it’s somewhat unsurprising that their grasp of martial arts tropes is weak. A central example of this has to do with their failure to understand what “external” and “internal” mean in a martial arts context, their failure to properly identify whether named styles are external or internal, their failure to understand how internal cultivation features into the education of a martial arts hero and thus their accidental deployment of the “flawed internal cultivation” trope when they try to address Danny’s PTSD.
So let’s back up.
Internal vs. External
In the real world, internal vs. external is a formalism that divides certain theoretical bases concerning application of force. External martial arts believe in applying personal physical force to combat. Their training regimes focus on body conditioning and use techniques that frequently expect a certain level of strength and speed from the practitioner. Boxing is a perfect example of an external martial art. In martial arts media, external martial arts are the physical manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities, allowing them to become more effective at punching, kicking, wrestling, wielding weapons, etc.
Internal martial arts in the real world describe a group of martial arts that concentrate on leverage and borrowing force from your opponent (and also Xingyiquan which is mostly about stabbing people efficiently with a spear when in military ranks.) Internal martial art training regimes focus on balance, core strength and grace-in-movement. The cooperative and meditative arts such as Taijiquan and Aikido are perfect examples of an internal art. In martial arts media, internal martial arts are the spiritual manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities. With their internal skill, they can empower their external skills to greater effect, make use of qinggong (super-speed, wall running and high jumping) and dianxue (pressure point) techniques, become resistant to injury, heal the internal wounds of themselves and others and impart exceptional force to darts and other small missiles.
Now first off, Danny Rand claims to be versed in internal martial arts when he paternalistically starts instructing Colleen Wing during their awkward fight-flirt. Then he immediately identifies Tiger style as an internal form.
And this is where the CMAists in the room must burst into laughter, because within Shaolin Five Animal, it doesn’t get any more external than Tiger.
Well then, what about if we look at a different CMA with a Tiger style. Say… Hung Gar? Again, tiger is the epitome of external conditioning within that art. Again and again, within kung fu systems with animal naming conventions, tigers stand in for the tendons, for raw power, rending, tearing and breaking. You know, because tigers look like this:
I mean, look at the shoulders on that monster.
Anyway, this seems to suggest that Danny doesn’t have the first clue what external and internal really mean and this is a problem because…
Internal martial arts are a fundamental component in the education of a martial hero
We’re told (not shown) that Danny earned the right to claim the Iron Fist by mastering all the martial arts of K’un Lun. And K’un Lun seems to want to be established like a martial sect. I mean its name is lifted from one after all (even if the Kunlun Sect of the wuxia genre is a secular Taoist one and thus absent warrior monks). Danny is supposed to be the top student of K’un Lun. The star pupil of Lei Kung “The Thunderer”. So why the hell does he need to learn basic neigong for restoration of qi from a master of the Hand?
That’s right, having exhausted himself in a previous fight, Danny is unable to call upon the iron fist. We’re told his qi is depleted, though he doesn’t show the exhaustion and wasting sickness we might expect to see from a person who has scoured their internal force. As part of an effort to seduce him, secret “no we’re the other Hand” hand master, Bakuto teaches Danny some qigong. I guess the taiji we saw him butchering earlier in the series didn’t count or something? It’s never exactly clear. But yeah, somehow the star pupil of this great sect was entrusted with a weapon that depends on manipulation of qi without first getting any education into how to manipulate qi. And, yeah, that’s kind of a problem. Especially when it leads to the apparently accidental deployment of a trope that undercuts some of the character beats they were going with for Danny Rand.
You don’t want to pull an internal muscle
In martial arts stories people get injuries all the time either from overexertion during training or combat. These injuries take on three forms usually: wounds, poison and internal injuries.
Wounds and poisonings are simple enough; though the cure for poison is generally a combination of qigong and medicine rather than medicine alone. But internal injuries are another matter. An internal injury sustained in combat may paralyze or cripple a warrior, but generally they can recover with time, qigong and the intercession of internal masters. More dangerous is making a mistake in internal cultivation.
Here’s a key example: in Legend of the Condor Heroes, Guo Jing comes into possession of a terrible and powerful manual on internal cultivation. For complicated reasons, he’s apprehensive to practice it, but he’s found himself in a position where he both knows the contents of it and has begun making some small use of it. One of the results of this is that he’s caught the attention of several old masters.
One of them, the villainous Ouyang Feng, (note: my favourite villain in the history of literature) extracts leverage from Guo Jing and uses it to demand the young hero give him access to the manual. Unwilling to risk the deadly consequences of defying Ouyang Feng, but also unwilling to grant the vicious poisoner access to another powerful martial art, Guo Jing changes one word in the manual in such a manner that the meaning of one line is opposite what it would otherwise be.
Ouyang Feng begins using the manual and it works. Well. His power grows. But… The reversed character causes the villain to reverse the direction of energy in his body. This has several effects on him that appear in the long run: emotional instability, fits of violence (and not his usual malice but rather actual fits) and an uncontrollable urge to walk around in a handstand – at which he becomes very accomplished – because of the reversed direction of the energy circulating through his body.
Danny Rand is suffering from PTSD. His emotional problems serve as a key character touchstone. But when you combine them with his ineptitude at internal martial arts, it begins to look like the show deployed the, “screwed up Neigong training,” trope. Except that they didn’t. Danny’s inability to regularly access the Iron Fist is, textually, a consequence of his emotional instability alone. The writers’ weak understanding of internal and external means that they never explore the possibility that he was ignoring his internal lessons and somehow became top student anyway.
Of course, top-student is also a problem since…
Finn Jones is not a fighter
Ideally you should cast martial artists for your martial arts show. Iron Fist even did that for some secondary and tertiary characters such as Zhou Cheng (played with aplomb for far too little time by Lewis Tan). If you don’t get a martial artist for your star it’s fine. But picking somebody with a background in dance or gymnastics or… SOME sort of physical activity is probably a good idea. That way, when you do the reaction shots and have to show the character’s face, they can still sell the part.
Finn Jones moves with the coordination of an awkward teenager, has the muscle definition of the same and fails to sell his scenes. In fact, you can tell you’re likely to get a decent fight in Iron Fist when it either doesn’t involve Danny Rand at all, or when it starts with Danny inexplicably putting on a hoodie to hide his head.
Of course there’s an easy fix for this problem with comic book heroes. Put them in a disguise. Daredevil did this. It freaking worked. But for some reason, the directors and writers of Iron Fist insist on showing off Danny’s hipster curls every chance they can and didn’t bother introducing any of the Iron Fist’s costumes. That’s, honestly? I don’t even know what to say. I expected a reveal in the last episode. But nope. No costume at all. Because… reasons? I mean this is a show with a dragon in it (the eyes of one anyway) so the no costume thing CAN’T possibly be, “realism.”
Finn Jones practicing martial arts solo is an embarrassment. His body mechanics suck. It’s clear he’s just learned the forms, he has no inkling of martial intent behind his flailing and his attempts to look focused mostly come off as constipated. Finn Jones engaging in the actual fights is a disaster. And the result is a succession of poorly lit, poorly blocked, highly cut (like three cuts for one hip toss) fight.
During two car-jumping stunts, one is obviously CGI, and the other involves seeing Danny winding up to jump and then landing without showing the jump in the middle at all.
So we have in Iron Fist an actor who can’t move portraying a version of Danny Rand who doesn’t look like a master of martial arts, who is inexplicably ignorant of basic martial arts concepts and who isn’t able to control his own abilities. This is what you get when you hire a bunch of cop show writers and directors to do a martial arts adventure story.
And again, I’ll note that I’m leaving the directors of episodes 6 and 8 out of this critique. RZA didn’t light his fights well, but I think that was him recognizing he had a useless star and doing what he could to hide that. Tancharoen’s solution of putting Danny into a hoodie and filming him from behind led to better fights in general and that’s why I’d give 8 the crown for least-awful episode rather than 6.
So to summarize, we have a show which is ostensibly a martial arts show, which features an actor who doesn’t look like a fighter portraying a supposed martial arts master who doesn’t know basic martial arts knowledge because the writers who wrote his lines didn’t bother finding out. Most of the action beats seem to be derived from 1980s era martial arts ephemera such as the Karate Kid. It’s like nothing filmed after the Matrix was ever made. So yeah, the bad reviews from this show? They’re not just SJW grief over a missed opportunity in casting. They’re because the show is a turkey.
Watch These Instead:
So let’s find some silver lining in this cloud. Here are some shows to watch instead. I’ll start at the shallow end and work deeper.
So let’s say you want a superhero show. One about a hero who is the heir to a major corporation. This heir takes a trip to an Asian locale with his father and sees the vehicle he’s travelling in destroyed, followed in quick succession by witnessing the death of his father. Billionaire heir finds himself stranded somewhere remote and falls into the orbit of a succession of martial arts masters who reshape him first as a survivor and then into a weapon. After several years, during which he has been declared dead, this man returns home to reclaim his life and uncover the truth about the conspiracy behind his fathers’ death. He is haunted by the losses he suffered and has almost crippling emotional and psychological problems that he must overcome.
Does that sound familiar? It’s basically the setup to the plot of Iron Fist. But it’s also the setup to the plot of the first of my “watch this instead” shows:
Watch Arrow instead
I told you that this was the shallow end.
Arrow was the original CW superhero show. From it spawned The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, the second season of Supergirl and there’s talk of more spinoffs in the works. Arrow is not anything even resembling a perfect show. It’s effectively a tawdry soap opera, and its repeated killing of Lance sisters is so not-cool that I very nearly stopped watching on more than one occasion. So why did I come back?
Well, Stephen Amell is a charming and charismatic actor who manages to bring real and resonant emotion to the character of Oliver Queen. He is also built appropriately to be believable as a superhero when he’s doing solo training sequences. (Google Stephen Amell salmon ladder if you want proof of that)
By putting him in a hood and costume from Ep. 1 the Arrow team were able to sub in stunt fighters easily and cleanly; this is a technique that they leaned on increasingly, making sure that the entire Arrow team wear hoods, masks and iconic costumes – which allow them to do group fight set pieces that don’t suck.
In a martial arts program, you can do a lot with a charming lead and good action. Arrow is proof of that as it takes effectively the exact same story as Iron Fist and makes it not suck.
But that’s a little easy. It is, after all, still a superhero program. What if you want, you know, a kung fu show? (Cue the audience being apprehensive that I’m going to rec Martial Law or something…)
Watch Into the Badlands instead
Into the Badlands is proof of how much difference it makes when your writers know their genre.
Specifically Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the creators of the series have past work experience with Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4), Jackie Chan (Shanghai Noon and sequels) and Sammo Hung (Here’s the Martial Law reference). Li, Chan and Hung are three of the biggest names in martial arts cinema since Bruce Lee died. Gough and Millar having worked with martial artists who had the clout to make story decisions since the ’90s means that they understand the tropes they’re using, how to use them, what the audience expects and what the audience knows.
On top of having a decent writing team, Into the Badlands has an excellent star in Daniel Wu.
Wu started training in wushu at age 11, inspired by Jet Li and from 1998 onward has been polishing his talents in a succession of film roles, most in fantasy and martial arts cinema. He’s also able to act, which is not something every martial artist star delivers.
On a personal note, Into the Badlands is precisely how I would write a wuxia story for a North American audience. In fact its setting is so close to that of The Black Trillium, that I remain thankful that it aired first after my publication date. So I’m a bit biased here. It is, in my opinion, the best thing on television.
Seriously, I am watching Season 2 now. It’s still amazing.
But you don’t have to just watch TV to get a sense of what you can do with martial arts on film in the 21st century. So let’s say you want something modern, but rooted in tradition…
Watch 七剑 (Seven Swords) instead
Seven Swords is the painfully under-appreciated 2005 masterwork of long-standing Chinese fantasy auteur Tsui Hark. Starring Donnie Yen, it is an adaptation of a novel by Liang Yusheng.
Liang was one of the four greats of the mid-20th century wuxia renaissance, along with Wang Dulu (whose work led to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Gu Long (whose work has not made inroads in North America but who remains a big deal in Taiwan) and Jin Yong (aka: the greatest living fantasy author in the world, aka: my personal idol).
Liang was also responsible for 大唐游侠传 (Datang Youxia Zhuan) and for 白发魔女传 (Baifa Monü Zhuan or, as it’s better known in North America, The Bride with White Hair).
It’s a very traditional martial arts narrative. The imperial government is occupied by a foreign invader (the Manchus this time, though those themes have been in use even as far back as Shui Hu Zhuan, which came out in the late 1500s.) An opportunistic warlord takes advantage of this to assault the wulin, and is opposed by a ragtag band of martial artists each gifted with a special sword. Seven Swords is long and ponderous compared to 1990s era Jet Li films, but it makes excellent use of Yen’s ability to present melancholy and displays the fantastical and innovative special effects and action which are Tsui Hark’s trademark.
Seven Swords is martial arts cinema at its essence. But pressingly, it’s an example of what can be accomplished in the 21st century with the genre.
Tying this all up
I love martial arts.
I love doing it. I love talking about it. I love reading about it. I love watching it. I went into Iron Fist really hoping that it’d prove better than expected. It proved worse.
Iron Fist is not a show you need to watch. There’s so little movement in its Hand plot that the Hand at the end of Iron Fist is in exactly the same position that it was at the end of Daredevil season 2. The personal journey of Danny Rand is uninteresting at best, grating at worst and also does little to advance his character. He goes from being fucked up and in denial to just being fucked up. But it’s not like he grows or changes. At all. So if you’re thinking of watching it because you plan on watching The Defenders, don’t bother. There’s no need. This is a show which is all noise and fury signifying nothing.
Into the Badlands got renewed for a second season. It deserves to get a third. Go watch that.
Arrow has a catalog of 115 episodes which, at their worst, are equal to Iron Fist at its best.
The martial arts movies of Tsui Hark, Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee elevated wuxia to an art form as great as any other in cinema. Go watch them instead. Or go read a translation of a Jin Yong novel or a Wang Dulu novel (and if you can find any extant Liang Yusheng or Gu Long professional translations let me know). Martial arts is a huge sub-genre of fantasy. One of the biggest, one of the deepest. It deserves respect. Iron Fist doesn’t do that. But we can, as an audience.