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Cautionary Tale: Netflix’s Iron Fist

Man, it’s rough when an entertainment company you love breaks their winning streak.

Marvel’s been cranking out consistently good material both in the cinematic universe and in the television universe for years now, and I think maybe we all got so used to it that we forgot it’s possible to completely miss the mark. To me, that’s what their latest venture, Iron Fist, is in essence: a swing and a miss.

To be frank, I rage quit the pilot to Iron Fist twice. Keep in mind, I wasn’t one of the naysayers who hated it before it came out and I actually didn’t listen to the early negative reviews because I knew there were people who wanted to hate it right out of the gate and nothing was going to change their minds. I saw the trailer and felt underwhelmed, but with Marvel’s excellent track record, I was willing to give it a try. This is not to say that I haven’t had problems with a few Marvel properties before. For instance, I didn’t finish Jessica Jones—not because it wasn’t good, but rather because I was not the key demographic for that show. Being an urban fantasy author, I have seen the exact same archetype that Jessica Jones is about a million times and so I was already burned out on the “inexplicably attractive but perpetually rude and standoffish private detective with super special powers” trope long before the show came around. Plus, the pacing was too slow and I wasn’t a fan of the gratuitous sex scenes with the far superior character of Luke Cage.

So why did I rage quit Iron Fist?

In order to understand why I’ve included Iron Fist in the cautionary tales catalog on my blog, let’s take a look at just what made me quit watching the pilot twice in the same day. Let’s do a comparison between the first fifteen minutes of Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and see if you can understand my utter frustration with this new show.

In the first fifteen minutes of Daredevil, here is what is established:

-How Matt Murdock lost his eyesight as a child and gained his powers saving an old man’s life

-Matt’s devout Catholicism and conflicted conscious because of how he misses his father and realizes how much they are alike in having “the devil” in them

-Matt goes down to the docks and stops a bunch a human traffickers from kidnapping innocent women

-Gives us that unforgettable opening sequence of blood over the city

-Introduces the unbelievably perfect Foggy Nelson and what he does for a living with Matt as well as the friend they have on the police force

-Introduces Karen Page and her predicament

-Introduces the dynamic between Karen, Matt, and Foggy

In the first fifteen minutes of Luke Cage, here is what is established:

-That funky, colorful opening sequence

-Introduces Pops and his shop members as well as Luke’s overall cool-as-a-cucumber-but-don’t-push-your-luck-fool attitude

-Introduces a minor character and her son who will impact the plot later on

-Establishes the relationship between Luke and Pops and hints at Luke’s powers

-Hints at Luke’s backstory and shows us his daily struggles to find rent money and his desire to stay under the radar even though he could do more if he wanted to

-Introduces Harlem’s Paradise as well as the first two main villains, Cottonmouth and Mariah

And in the first fifteen minutes of Iron Fist, here is what is established:

-A bland, forgettable afterthought of an opening sequence

-Danny thinks he owns a building

-Danny thinks people he knew over a decade ago still work at his father’s company

-Danny thinks he can talk to the CEO of a company with no appointment and zero proof that he is the founder’s son who was believed to have died in a plane crash a decade ago

-Danny thinks that two people he knew when he was a kid would recognize him as an adult and after he was presumed dead as a child

-Danny presumably has no money and no shoes and just sleeps in the park after meeting a bum who ends up not contributing to the narrative whatsoever

-Danny, still looking homeless, starts speaking Mandarin to the Asian girl hanging up dojo fliers

-Danny breaks into his old house and walks around like it’s not big deal

-Danny’s relationship with Ward is revealed as abusive

Do you see the stark difference between these shows? How is it that Daredevil and Luke Cage can establish that much story in a quarter of the runtime and yet Iron Fist establishes almost nothing in the same amount of time? This is exactly why I couldn’t get through Iron Fist’s pilot in one sitting. First of all, Danny is characterized like an entitled douchebag. We don’t know anything about him other than he’s woefully naïve and just assumes that everything will fall into place for him without concrete evidence towards his claims. We don’t know why he came back to the city or what his mission is, whereas with both of our other examples, we are quickly shown the character’s personalities and what they are working towards. All we know is that Danny thinks he owns the company, but yet we see no skillset that suggests he even could run it when he doesn’t even have the good sense to wear shoes while walking through New York or to find some kind of proof that he is in fact Danny Rand.

I’ve been describing Iron Fist’s script as “something that was written the night before it was due and was never revised.” Now that the whole show is up on Netflix, we’re starting to get stories that fill in why this show is falling flat on its face, such as the fact that Finn Jones, the titular Danny, only trained three weeks before shooting a show about martial arts. That’s unheard of. If you check the backgrounds of most actors who are cast as superheroes, they train for literal months at a time—not only so that they are physically intimidating, but so that the fight choreography is nuanced, believable, and a joy to watch. For example, one of my favorite modern fight scenes is Captain America (Chris Evans) versus Batroc (Georges St. Pierre) because Chris Evans trained for months to be able to do a majority of the shots in that amazing fight scene since he is in fact opposite a real UFC fighter. It is painfully obvious when Danny Rand fights that he isn’t a martial artist, and it would be different if it were like Daredevil when you have the complicated routines performed by an amazing stunt double. I didn’t make it past the pilot, but I’ve heard that Iron Fist’s fight choreography centered around Finn Jones is underwhelming at best, and it’s impossible not to make a comparison to either Daredevil or Luke Cage, which had intense fight scenes that were both unique and engrossing.

Furthermore, even if you forget the sloppy fighting, the dialogue is wooden and poorly done. Dialogue is about moving the plot forward, making complications between characters, or solving a problem, and none of that is included in the pilot episode of Iron Fist. It is so obvious that they are dumping exposition on your head. They don’t even try to hide it. Hell, the two main villains basically have a meeting where absolutely nothing gets done. They just meet to show the audience that they’re evil and in cahootz with each other. They don’t solve the problem at hand; they instead regurgitate rancid dialogue to establish their relationship.

Lastly, it also doesn’t help that Danny comes across as a pretentious college kid who spent one summer abroad and thinks he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Buddhist martial artist. He once again finds the Asian girl and starts condescendingly telling her that she should teach kung fu if she wants more students, mansplains that he’s supposed to “fight the master of the dojo” now that he has entered their city, and asserts that she should just give him a job even though he still looks like a crazy hobo. Understandably, she tells him to get lost, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth that he’s so arrogant. The troublesome part is that arrogance is a normal thing in certain heroes like Tony Stark or Thor, but even in those movies, we are immediately shown that both of them have a heart and are just spoiled rather than truly being douchebags. Danny doesn’t give us a moment of humanity in the pilot. He doesn’t give us a reason to care about him, and at the end of the day, if you don’t do that in the first episode of your show, odds are that you are doomed to fail.

In the end, even though I can’t fully judge the show since I won’t be finishing it, I think this is a product of Marvel rushing to put something out so that they have time to work on the Defenders instead. Danny Rand is an afterthought. This whole show feels like an afterthought. It doesn’t have a flavor. It doesn’t have the careful writing or beautiful cinematography of any of its siblings. If nothing else, then Iron Fist teaches us caution—that even when you’re on a winning streak you can still bomb out if you don’t take your time and tell a story worth telling. Even the mighty Marvel can trip and fall. No one is above that.

Let’s just hope they try harder with the upcoming Defenders show.

Cautionary Tale: FX’s Taboo

In my experience, writing a good story is like baking a cake.

You have to measure each ingredient carefully. You have to know what things taste good together and what to leave out. Put too much liquid and it won’t firm up. Don’t put enough, the cake is dry. Add too much sugar and it’s inedible. Don’t add enough and it’s bland and tasteless.

Finally, after you have a good story, you add your icing. For novels, icing can be the worldbuilding aspects, extra juicy scenes to pander to the fans, or any manner of things. In television, however, I would equate the icing to the acting and atmosphere of a story.

FX’s mini-series Taboo is like a dry cake with excellent frosting.

Naturally, spoilers ahead. 

Unfortunately, what I believe happens in instances like Taboo is that the writers got so wrapped up in the “mystery” of the show that they just flat-out refused to tell a story the way that people have been doing it for thousands of years, because for some reason, they thought they knew better. We’ve all seen shows, movies, or books of the like, where it’s so clear that the author wants to lead you around by the nose and never see a twist coming that they actually fail storytelling in general.

You see, Taboo has a terribly interesting premise, and it has strong dialogue delivered by an incredibly talented cast. I fully admit that I am a Tom Hardy fangirl, but it’s true that I gave this show a chance because it had the potential to be unlike anything else on network television these days. Hell, FX is one of my favorite channels for that reason. They like to take risks and explore the worlds outside of the boring lineup of every other channel with its shows only about doctors, lawyers, or cops. Furthermore, the cinematography is Emmy-worthy, and that’s saying something considering the show is set in Crapsack World 1800’s where everything is dirty, cold, wet, and diseased.

Still, this is what happens sometimes when you get big name directors like Ridley Scott who are so concerned with making something unsolvable that they lose the entire reason why we sat down to watch Taboo in the first place.

Let’s start with the big man himself, James Keziah Delaney. Is his part well-acted? Absolutely. Tom’s using his A-game and he’s given us a heavy, disturbing, intriguing performance as Delaney, who is just as batshit insane as a man can possibly get, and is so far into the antagonist role that you could easily argue he is a villain protagonist. Over the course of the show, we really are not given much in the way of redeeming qualities. At the most, we see he has a slight fondness for the madam’s daughter Winter and he has a slight attachment for his father’s servant Brace, but he is portrayed as basically a step below full on evil. He takes Anti-Hero to a whole new level, and it’s the first mistake that the show made: you cannot root for a man who is almost completely aligned with the villain, and so you never grow attached to him, therefore meaning that his fate is ultimately pointless.

As I mentioned before, basic storytelling means that you introduce a character, introduce their motivations, glance over their background in order to help the audience understand them, and then you put them on a journey.

Well, what the hell is James’ motivation? They never give us a full picture of who he is as a man, despite how much time we’ve spent with him. The writers threw us a few crumbs, but there is no payoff for who James Delaney is and why he does what he does. For example, most storytellers would make this a revenge story based around how the East India Company killed James’ father. We would assume as much, but we’re shown that James doesn’t have that much loyalty to his father and isn’t broken up at finding out he was killed for the Nootka land.

Well, maybe it’s about James’ mother, who was clearly a Native of some sort. Maybe she’s the reason he’s fighting the company to go to Nootka and maybe rediscover his roots. Nope. They never go into who his mother was, what she did, why she did it, how it affected him, or if he actually has any supernatural powers. They tease at it constantly and never address it, and it’s worse because it could have been one of the most interesting concepts of the entire show. Once more, it’s because the writers think it’s cool to keep the audience guessing and keep them in the dark, but all it does is make you impatient and frustrated that they’re jerking you around for the sake of jerking you around. James’ mother should have a larger impact on understanding who he is and where he came from, but ultimately she matters about as much as James’ father, which is not at all.

Over and over again, James makes decisions that can’t be predicted or absorbed by the audience because the show constantly holds us at arms’ length in order to deliver “ooh, aah, what a twist!” moments. I don’t know why they seem to think this is enough to keep our butts in the chairs. Without a reason to care or understand or sympathize with James, why should we stick around for a few cheap, paltry writing tricks?

Let’s say for argument’s sake that maybe it’s not about understanding James Delaney. Fine. What about Zilpha or Lorna? Nope. We’re not given any motivations for either of them. Zilpha is living under the greasy boot of her stupid abusive husband until the last two or three episodes. We don’t know how she ended up with him. We don’t know why she puts up with his abuse when she clearly has some kind of self-esteem and thoughts independent of him. Was her husband always an abusive creep or did James’ reappearance change him? Sure, it’s satisfying when she stabs his bitch ass and he dies knowing that she sent his sorry butt to the afterlife, but then the show immediately ruins it by letting her story unceremoniously end with suicide. What? Are you kidding me? Why did James doggedly pursue her, to the point where he was giving her wet dreams, and then just randomly drop her on her ass? They never explain why he just cut her off and then she just dies for no reason. What was the point of telling that story in the first place if there is no pay off?

Alright, then let’s focus on Lorna. Maybe she was meant to be the focus. Nope. No dice. Lorna shows up all proud and arrogant like she’s hot shit in a champagne glass, but she then proceeds to just take up space as the Token Vagina of the group. She contributes absolutely nothing to the story until the season finale when she exonerates James from the murder of Winter—which, by the way, no one was investigating and he was just stomping around London free as a bird in spite of this—but even then that became a moot point because James was escaping London altogether and Winter’s mother dies in the finale. Again, what was the point of this character? They never show us anything about her marriage to James’ father, if it was even legit, or if she knew all along that attaching herself to him would give her Nootka, or why she wanted Nootka to begin with considering she was just an actress. How could she sail to America and expect not to be instantly killed upon arriving? Or was she just going to sell Nootka to the highest bidder? We, as the audience, cannot answer any of these questions, and that is a huge sign that this story is sour.

There are so many points in this show where there is no pay off. It’s just sloppy. For example, we later see that James and Goddard did file the account of the Influence’s sinking and gave it to Chichester, but then James just murders Stuart Strange, who is the reason why Chichester wanted justice in the first place. Stuart is dead and therefore cannot pay for his crime in the justice system. Perhaps it means the destruction or at least the seizure of the East India Trading Company, but those two actions are at odds with each other in terms of the story. You could argue that it shows that James has at least some common decency, but since we still don’t know what’s going on inside his head, it’s not satisfying.

To me, Taboo could have been a delicious cake with delicious frosting, and instead, it is a dry cake with fantastic frosting. Most of the time, you want it to be bad frosting on a good cake because you can simply scrape the frosting off and eat the cake, but Taboo is at its core an unstable story wobbling because the cook was so busy trying to be Avant Garde that he just forgot the right ingredients and the right measurements.

I must admit that I’m not entirely sure if I’ll be back if FX orders another season. It’s extremely clear that the people in that writers’ room just want to dick around instead of doing their job and telling a story so that we care about the characters we’ve spent so much time with. I suppose I’ll have to mull it over and decide if it’s worth it for another go at an extremely overcooked cake with poor flavoring, but excellent frosting.

Maybe if Tom Hardy shares it with me…