Sunday, March 19, 2017

Iron Fist.... without blinders.

 Spoilers ahead. If you care about spoilers, go away. 

I've been binge-watching Iron Fist on Netflix. Before I began I read a few reviews on the web, and they all were of an accord that this series sucks.

I like it. I can't agree with any of the reviews I've read. Then again, all of those reviews are filled with words like "mansplaining", "White savior", and "cultural appropriation". As far as I can tell, not one of them has actually reviewed the show itself. At least, they didn't see the show I did. So this isn't as much a review of the show as it is a review of the reviews.

Take arguments like this, from the Verge, entitled "Iron Fist isn't just racially uncomfortable, it's also a boring show", which is pretty typical. So typical, in fact, that every review I've read could have come from the same pen:
"In the first episode, Danny breaks into unsubtitled Mandarin upon learning she’s a martial artist, apparently assuming Asian women he casually meets on the street are happy to speak Mandarin with a white stranger. Two episodes later, he mansplains kung-fu to her, all to better illustrate how she needs his protection. At no point does Colleen call him out for this. Instead, she reacts with little more than gentle bemusement toward his better handle on language and his skills as a fighter, when she ought to be kicking him to the curb."
The author of this piece, Kwame Opam, chides Marvel for the "creative laziness" of the series. The only creative laziness I see is in Opam's review. He'd rather push his social platform than pay attention to the show. Case in point:
"But more often than not, Danny comes across as a college student come home from studying abroad, perplexed as to why no one gets his newfound love of yoga."
Fucking lazy.

Reality check:
  • Danny Rand is no college student on walkabout. He spent 15 years in the Orient learning martial arts from Mandarin-speaking monks. As he was 10 years old when he arrived, that's well over half of his life. In his life he has been more immersed in Chinese culture than Colleen Wing (she's half Japanese), and more immersed in Chinese culture than he ever was in American culture. This is not appropriation, this is upbringing
  • He meets a woman with a Chinese name who teaches martial arts. He knows this because she's posting bills on the utility poles, advertising her dojo. After he learns her name and profession, then he speaks Mandarin to her. It's a reasonable expectation on his part, given his experience. And when she says to speak in English, he does. This is hell and gone from just starting a random conversation in Mandarin with the first oriental he meets.
  • On the other hand, Colleen simply assumes that Danny is homeless. As he's performing kata in the park, she drops a couple of bucks at his feet. He strikes up a conversation with her in the first place because he's returning her money. She is the one who made the unwarranted assumption based purely on his appearance... not the other way around. 
  • He demonstrates his proficiency with kung-fu to Wing because he's asking her for a job. He asked for a job on the street as well, and she dissed him because she merely assumed that he was a homeless bum. Does she get called out for that blatant display of economic privilege? Not by the hypocrites, no. She just assumes that this gaijin can't know what he's talking about. So he has to demonstrate. This isn't "mansplaining", it's called "making your case"... unless, of course, you are once again a privileged hypocrite.
  • The fact that he demonstrably does have a better handle on Mandarin and does have better skills as a fighter, both hard-won, means that she "ought to be kicking him to the curb"? Seriously? So a White kid raised in a Chinese monastery from the time he was 10 years of age can't possibly act in accordance with his life experience without being resented and kicked to the curb? Because.... he's White? Turn it around: what does that say about the way we should treat Asian kids raised in America? 
Besides, by the time you hit the end of season one and the backstory is revealed, along with the dramatic points that it enables, complaining about cultural appropriation just makes you look stupid. 


The reviews I've read heap a ton of praise on Jessica Henwick's portrayal of Colleen Wing. And yup, she does a fine job... but then again, so does everybody else, despite protestations to the contrary. One of the things that has struck me about this series is the consistency of the acting. There are a couple of stinkers amongst the minor parts, but nobody just up and steals the show as Vincent D'Onofrio does as Wilson Fisk in Daredevil. And Finn Jones isn't the lifeless actor that his critics imagine. Jones plays his character well. If you want to see what lifeless acting looks like, check out William Hurt in Dune or Lost in Space.

It makes me wonder how much of this is amazing raw talent that I'm somehow not seeing (that is, compared to her peers), and how much of it is Social Justice Warriors punishing the perceived cultural appropriation of this 40-year-old comics property by hanging 100% of their praise on the on the female oriental actress. To be sure, the script writers cater to the feminist mindset by casting this slightly-built woman as a martial artist who simultaneously beats up multiple well-trained assailants twice her size. And I don't blame them for that.

But as far as the characters go, don't tell me that it's mansplaining for Danny to castigate Colleen's students for their lack of respect and discipline. As martial arts teachers go, she doesn't make a great impression. Her students are lazy, sloppy, talkative, and disrespectful. Danny has no experience with that, and knocks the legs out from under one with a Kendo stick (as was probably done to him). Colleen then takes the opportunity to ma'amsplain to him that her dojo isn't really a place where students can learn to defend themselves wherever they may be... and in the process learn the accompanying valuable lessons of philosophy... but it's a safe space. Pretty damned short-sighted, since when martial arts are done right, anywhere in your vicinity is a safe space. That, coupled with the pride that sees her turn down an honorable rental agreement in favor of violating the Bushido code and fighting for money makes her a terribly flawed character. You won't hear that from the reviews, though. And it certainly doesn't change my mind when the source of her philosophy is revealed in episode 10.

From now on let's set aside talk of mansplaining and ma'amsplaining and call explanations what they are. And 86 the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't oscillation between claims of cultural appropriation and stereotyping (a tone-deaf progressive dog-whistle for "a foreigner who isn't appropriating mainstream American culture").


I've read the show described as "boring". What they call boring, I call "has a plot".

I've read that it "lacks a villain". I think they underestimate Madame Gao and The Hand.

I've read that the fights "look choreographed". News flash: they all do. Whether on Arrow, Daredevil, Luke Cage... even in the movies of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, they all look choreographed, because they are. And frankly, they're choreographed by people who are far better qualified to judge them than I or any other reviewer I've read. My son, who is a martial arts teacher, called the engagements in episode 1, "a hot knife through butter". He likes it.

I have not read a well-thought-out discussion of the corporate sub-plots; nor do I expect to from those whose handle on economics doesn't include an understanding of capitalism. In this arena there are no true villains or heroes. Just people with differing points of view. The Meacham siblings' initial response to a presumed impersonator wasn't a "poorly justified overreaction". From their point of view it was a justified reaction to an impostor who showed up to prey on their sympathies and fortune. And one can sympathize with the board members who later took steps to rescue their company and livelihood from a single ignorant stockholder. They weren't evil. Selfish, yes; but that that was their fiduciary responsibility. This will easily put people who are looking for black-and-white simplicity out of their depth.

One thing that reviewers get right are the shout-outs to the larger Marvel cinematic universe, whether it's a mention of "that green guy", "the Devil of Hell's Kitchen", the man with impenetrable skin (Luke Cage) or the drunkard female private eye (Jessica Jones) as well as guest appearances by well-known supporting characters. This is prep for The Defenders, a scaled-down team up which will be to television as The Avengers is to the movies.

This is not a show that succeeds or fails on the basis of its action scenes. It's one part action, one part intrigue, and one part detective story with a little bit of soap opera mixed in. This isn't The Avengers: it's a street-level story that stays on the street.

If that doesn't live up to your expectations, maybe it's your expectations that are the problem.

Now, all that said, and having finished watching Season 1, there are things of which I'm critical. The plot's not consistent, there's a bit too much whining here and there, Danny occasionally exhibits some signs that I'd suspect were due to blunt head trauma rather than psychology; and things sort of fall apart (and come back together) in the last episode. And in general, people bitch about "you've been lying to me!" far too often. At some point, intelligent people would have sussed out that everybody has lied about something. There are also points where you'll legitimately say, "I did not see that coming!" And that's a good thing. My point is that the criticisms of Opam and his like are simply political bullshit, and the rough patches that are left don't make the show unwatchable in the least.

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