Marvel’s Iron Fist has been engulfed in criticism since it was first announced. The series adapts a comic book about a white expert in the culture and martial arts style of a fictional Asian culture, and though that setup is outdated and based on the belief that only a white man can be an effective protagonist, Marvel and Netflix kept that intact in 2017. Aside from the ethnicity of its hero, the series had just one thing to achieve in order to prove itself worthy: Show off some badass kung fu. A cleverly-choreographed action show would have given it some leeway among critics, but unfortunately, the action is where Iron Fist fails the hardest.
If Captain America is the perfect soldier and the Hulk is a big green monster, then Iron Fist should be the avatar of hella sick martial arts. (At least until Shang-Chi shows up.) But the action in Iron Fist is, for a variety of reasons, as bland as Danny himself. Given how Marvel’s properties act as homages to whole genres, Iron Fist stumbles as Marvel-branded kung fu cinema.
Roy Thomas and Gil Kane created Iron Fist in the 1970s. At that time, kung fu movies were a phenomenon spurred on after the passing of Bruce Lee. Though no one could fill Lee’s shoes, many tried. Roy Thomas doesn’t remember the movie that inspired his creation; he insists he saw it pre-Bruceploitation, but Lee’s influence in martial arts cinema is indisputable.
Bruce Lee — and later stars like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping — understood how martial arts and filmmaking worked in harmony: The action must be clear, crisp, and most importantly, it must tell a story. Whether the fights are graceful and fluid (Jackie Chan, Jet Li), or no-bullshit, tactical ass-kicking (Bruce Lee), how it’s filmed matters. Otherwise, it’s just people beating each other up. Imbuing both characters in a fight with separate objectives beyond their emotions is just basic storytelling.
Brett Chan, choreographer of Iron Fist and Netflix’s other exoticized series, Marco Polo, told Comicsverse that showrunner Scott Buck wanted Wing Chun and “all the animal styles of kung fu” like dragon, crane, and tiger. The goal, it seemed, was to make Danny Rand well-versed in combat, as if his skills were fueled by primal instinct. But onscreen, Jones looks uncomfortable, like he’s held by puppet strings.
The crimes of Iron Fist can’t be blamed on just one hand in the cookie jar. The lackluster fight scenes are a team effort between stuntmen, editors, cinematographers, directors, and more, which means things can easily fall apart. So it’s not Chan’s sole responsibility, and he told Comicsverse as much: “[W]ith the action that we have … I hope that the edits come out as action packed with style, that will leave the audience wanting more and more.”
After Iron Fist premiered, a scene from Episode 4 went viral because it showed over 50 — 50! — editing cuts. This problem is rampant throughout the show. Even the simple hallway fight isn’t immune: The constant cutting renders all of Finn Jones’s punches and kicks awfully limp.
When you juxtapose Danny Rand’s hallway up with Matt Murdock’s, or even Choi Min-sik’s in Oldboy, Rand doesn’t come out looking great.
That many edits crammed into such a short scene isn’t dazzling; it’s dizzying. Worse, it’s an affront to the way Bruce Lee constructed his scenes. Despite being over 40 years old, Lee’s fights are still mesmerizing today. Compare any fight scene from Iron Fist to Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury below, which has far fewer cuts and a clearer sense of space.
And it’s not a matter of Bruce Lee having all that space to work with either. The filmmakers of The Raid: Redemption also used tight hallways to their advantage.
Constructing and showcasing martial arts in movies, again, is a joint effort between actor, choreographer, and filmmaker. But despite rigorous training and effort on the part of Jones, who trained in wushu and tai chi “two and a half hours” a day, Jones is not a lifelong martial artist, and it shows. Daniel Wu, the star of Into the Badlands, argues it’s not important to be a master to look like a star. “You’ve gotta understand camera angles, camera movement — a kick that may not be very powerful may look very powerful from a certain angle,” he said in a 2015 GQ interview.
But no camera angle in Iron Fist made Jones look like the unstoppable force he’s supposed to be. Below is a portion of the 35-second scene that’s received immense criticism from cinematographers and fight choreographers alike:
Compare what’s happening above to Jet Li and Michael Ian Lambert in 2005’s Unleashed. Once again: the scene is set inside a confined space like Iron Fist, but there’s still not as many cuts or confusing camera work. In fact, Unleashed pretty much does the exact opposite, and uses the environment to its advantage.
Another thing working against Iron Fist is how an overwhelming amount of fight scenes are cloaked in shadow. The tournament in Episode 6 and the fight with Davos in Episode 12 are almost unwatchable, which wouldn’t be bad if Finn Jones wore his snazzy green or white costumes from the comics instead of all black. Watching this isn’t cool, it’s just frustrating.
Dark atmospheres can still be achieved even with intense lighting, like in Ip Man. Each move is illuminated, but the cinematography remains stark.
Consider this scene from Into the Badlands, in which the actors are clearly supposed to be fighting in a dark dungeon, though their movements have been illuminated for the viewer’s sake.
Perhaps Iron Fist’s most obvious mistake is making the fights in its own story feel low-stakes. Danny Rand is only motivated to beat up each person to get to his next scene like he’s in a video game. But in good kung fu movies, characters fight with high stakes, no matter what point they’re at in their narrative. Jackie Chan is a master of portraying this; so often in his fight scenes, Jackie’s characters have an objective, like surviving a dangerous environment:
Or drinking as much booze as possible while evading capture:
Iron Fist doesn’t have any of this. The show just goes from one scene to the next, treating the fights like an obligation to fulfill.
As the so-called Immortal Weapon, the Iron Fist should be one of the greatest fighters in the MCU. But he lacks both pizazz and charisma. This was Bruce Lee’s true legacy: More than 40 years after his passing, Bruce Lee still feels alive when you watch his no-nonsense style — his signature Jeet Kune Do, which is all about practical fighting — with careful camera movement and cuts that emphasize the action. Iron Fist hides it, perhaps because the production team knew Finn Jones’s fighting ability wasn’t up to par.
Bruce Lee set and still maintains the gold standard of kung fu cinema. He was a champion dancer, but he didn’t fight like he had strings pulling him. The same can’t be said for Iron Fist.
Iron Fist is currently available to stream on Netflix.Photos via Netflix, Vox, YouTube.com/Movieclips, Vudu, AMC, YouTube.com/Miramax