Iron Fist and the Lack of Stylistic Consistency



Since posting my last post on Iron Fist, I’ve completed the series and kept telling myself that I was done with it. As the show went on, I liked it less and less but wanted to write about it more and more. I still have some Iron Fist demons that need to be exorcized, because I still find myself talking about or thinking about this show on an almost-daily basis. And I feel a little bad because I don’t want it to be all critically negative stuff. I also wanted to discuss some of its greatness (like Claire Temple and Madame Gao), some of its goodness (like some of the not-Danny-Rand-performances), and some of its awkwardnesses (like every time Bakuto speaks).

But I still haven’t said my peace on the martial arts and action of the show. And it turns out Episode 8, “The Blessings of Many Fractures,” provides some really great concrete examples to talk about. AND, since the show’s been out for a little longer now, it’s easier to find clips of specific fights streaming online. So here goes!

The great thing about this episode is that we have two fights that – I think – can more precisely illustrate the show’s martial arts problem. But before getting to that, I have to talk about how embarrassed I felt for the show in this one other sequence. I can’t remember what episode it’s from, but it’s when Danny and Colleen are supposed to be getting closer through their love of martial arts. I get exactly what the language of the scene is trying to convey and that it’s supposed to be a flirtatious oneupmanship, but – I kid you not – when Danny picked up those nunchucks, I wasn’t 100% sure his moves were supposed to be taken seriously. Here’s the scene:

For just a glimmering of what a simple nunchuck-show-off-sequence COULD have looked like, I give you this amazing little dude who I wish I knew personally:

Whew. Glad that’s out of my system. Anyway, back to what I really want to talk about.

This episode really illustrates another problem with the show’s already-problematic approach to action cinema by exposing its lack of stylistic consistency. Let me explain.

It’s not just that the action that exists within the show is subpar (which it is), or that it doesn’t follow the aesthetic rules, conventions, and traditions of Chinese martial arts cinema (which it doesn’t), but that it’s not even consistent about how it DOES portray its action and its fights when they do go down. Comparing two fights from Episode 8 will clarify what I mean.

First, let’s watch them each in their entirety:

Iron Fist vs. Drunken Fist:

Colleen vs. the Chinese Guard:

I had a really hard time deciding if I wanted to start with the good or the bad. But I think we should start with the bad: Iron Fist vs. Drunken Fist.Just like the Axe Gang in my previous post, bringing in a practitioner of drunken boxing is just one more example of the creators of the show halfheartedly acknowledging the tradition in which they’re kind of wanting to be a part of but not really. Pretty much all of the great martial arts stars of the last several decades have shown off their drunken boxing skills on screen: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, to name just three. So if you’re gonna throw one in there, it’s got to be good! And Lewis Tan, who plays the drunken fighter, doesn’t disappoint. (Interesting side note, Tan was apparently in the running to play the lead role of Danny Rand.) But unfortunately, he just doesn’t have a very skillful partner in Finn Jones.

So let’s talk about Finn Jones. Who plays Danny Rand. The Iron Fist. The Immortal Weapon. That’s a big name to live up to. A comic book character whose superpower is martial arts. And the editing of this fight shows just how poorly cast Jones really was. I’m not even talking about his acting, which could take up an entire post of its own. All I’m saying is, if you’re going to cast a show about the greatest martial artist in the world, I would presume that the Top 2 Requirements for any performer would be 1) the ability to portray a complexity of emotions, and 2) actual knowledge of martial arts. I think Jones falls short on both counts at this point in his career, but let’s just talk about his martial arts skills for now.

Clearly, he doesn’t really have any in any significant measure. Sure, he probably did some training before shooting began, but it’s obviously not something he or the show itself feels comfortable having him do. And here’s how we know that: the show does everything possible to hide Jones during fight scenes. Whether the hiding is done through lighting, costuming, or something else, there are very intentional choices being made here.

In the sequence above for example vs. the drunken fist, there is absolutely no strategic value to doing martial arts with a hoodie on. I panic walking down the street in a hoodie because it messes with my peripheral vision! The only reason for Danny Rand to put on a hoodie before engaging in this fight is to hide Jones and make it easier for the filmmakers to cut his stunt double into as many shots as possible.  And just how many shots is the stunt double cut into? Well, I had a little fun with this clip to find out.

Before going on, I think it’s important that we don’t just do the easy thing and blame the editor for the subpar editing of a sequence like this. Instead, let’s talk about the fact that the lack of ability on the performer’s part FORCES the editor to cut around him.

So I went ahead and threw the whole sequence above into Adobe Premiere Pro and some interesting things came to light. First up, in case you’re interested, there were a whopping 82 cuts in the brief 2 minutes and 52 seconds of the sequence. BUT, things got really interesting once I isolated all of the shots that DEFINITELY featured Finn Jones the actor and not a stunt double.

The sound got a bit off-sync at times, but here’s what I came up with:

It’s pretty much just a collection of reaction shots!

Wondering what it would look like if I isolated all of the shots of his stunt double instead? Wonder no more! Here it is:

Unsurprisingly, it still looks like a pretty complete fight. Because HE’S DOING ALL THE WORK!

The second fight, between Colleen Wing and Nameless Female Chinese Guard, is probably the best fight in the entire season. It is no coincidence that the formal qualities of this sequence are so closely in line with the martial arts cinema aesthetics. Both women clearly know what they’re doing. Jessica Henwick, who plays Colleen, can be seen in all of the shots. The sequence is well lit, her face is clearly exposed, and there are shots in which the performers go through 10+ movements in one single take. I tried isolating the shots in which I could clearly identify Henwick’s stunt double, but there weren’t any! It only makes it that much cooler that this match0up falls in line with the age-old battle between Japanese katana and Chinese sword. Now, can Disney just cast her as live-action-Mulan already?!

So, what can we learn from Iron Fist? A couple of things:

  1. If you’re going to feature a lead character whose martial arts ability is central to the identity of said character, cast a performer for whom martial arts holds a similar place in their personal life.
  2. If your show is going to feature multiple fight scenes per episode, make sure to maintain a certain amount of stylistic consistency. If you don’t want to do the Chinese martial arts aesthetics thing, then fine, don’t do it. But don’t switch back and forth between that and the more “typical” formal qualities of Hollywood cinema.
  3. Jessica Henwick for Mulan!
  4. Probably more things.

I wish I could end this post with 100% certainty that I am done writing about Iron Fist

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