Do you remember back in 1999, when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was being talked up as a mind-blowing new world of CGI that would change film forever? Then The Matrix came out of nowhere a month before TPM’s release and gave us a more modern, inventive and influential use of CGI than TPM could ever hope to top. Remember that? Well, that’s basically what Legion and Logan have done to Iron Fist.
The last Defender finally arrives on screen and the response is a shrug of “meh”. And it’s not like Iron Fist is a bad show. It’s a perfectly serviceable superhero show, cultural appropriation notwithstanding (they really should have gone for an Asian Danny Rand). The cast are good. It’s not Finn Jones’ fault that he’s white, and he does the best he can with a role that calls on him to veer between being a wide-eyed Buddhist optimist who doesn’t see why he needs shoes to being a billionaire with an Aston Martin and a smug sense of superiority. Jessica Henwick is the break-out star as Coleen Wing, constantly balanced on a knife-edge between her moral responsibilities as a sensei, and the fact that she really likes beating people up.
But the show just isn’t doing anything new, at least not in the first six episodes. And that’s a massive problem, when Fox’s impressive X-Universe output is reinventing the superhero wheel. With Deadpool they proved that you can make a brilliant R-rated comedy out of a comic book, with Logan they proved that superheroes and Oscar-bait performances don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and with Legion they... well, who knows what’s going on with Legion, but it’s bloody magnificent.
Even DC’s Powerless TV show is doing something different to the norm, and Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok (if the pictures are anything to go by) are reinventing the space opera for the 21st century. Even the oft-maligned Gotham (which I love) is rocking a pulp aesthetic and a bold approach to comic book canon.
Iron Fist, meanwhile, is punching ninjas.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ninja-punching as much as the next person. Remember that show-down between Daredevil and Nobu in season one of Daredevil? Man, that was some good ninja-punching. But in the world of superhero adaptations, 2015 is a pretty long time ago. We’ve seen fight scenes, and we’ve seen them done better than in Iron Fist, so why should we watch it?
In terms of superheroics, the other Defenders shows weren’t exactly breaking the mould either. Daredevil was grittier than we expected, but was really just a damn fine telling of the Matt Murdoch story. Neither Jessica Jones nor Luke Cage boasted innovative action – they stayed relevant and ahead-of-the-superhero curve thanks to their sharp social commentary. What social commentary does Iron Fist give us? That you can be super pure and moral so long as you don’t have to worry about making enough money to pay the rent? Well, it’s bold in its honesty, we’ll give it that.
There will always be room for a really good action movie or TV show. Things don’t have to be startlingly new in order to be good. But with the huge variety of comic book adaptations available now, shows can no longer coast by on pretty decent action and some likeable characters. Logan and Legion mark a new direction in the world of comic book adaptations, a direction in which pleasing the hardcore fan is no longer a number one priority. Logan and Legion aim to simply be a damn good final product. They, like season one of Preacher last year, recognise that a show or a film has to be its own beast, not a slavish adaptation of a comic. And the makers have succeeded in making some seriously powerful beasts. They’ve also finally realised that ‘comic adaptation’ isn’t a genre in its own. Logan is a heavyweight western while Legion is a trippy horror series/character study.
Just five years ago Iron Fist would have been greeted by a rapturous reception, but comic book adaptations have evolved since then. And, as Charles Xavier was wont to tell us, every now and then evolution likes to leap forward. With Logan and Legion we’re suddenly faced with superhero adaptations of such high quality that they should be legitimate awards contenders – and not just in the technical categories. Iron Fist, in comparison, is a damp squib.
As a character, Danny Rand will probably work better in The Defenders (how many platitudes will he have to spout before Jessica Jones smacks him in the face?). But on his own, he’s just not up to scratch. Here’s hoping The Defenders takes a bolder approach, or Marvel might find itself falling behind Fox. And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.