A few weeks ago, Disney executives must have been feeling pretty pleased with themselves. Iron Fist was about to launch on Netflix, adding a fourth Defender to the streaming service’s stable of Marvel characters. And given how well Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were received, they were on to a sure-fire winner.
Except this time around everyone has decided that Iron Fist is bad. And it is in these circumstances that the internet knows what to do: pile on.
And, umm, we called it Marvel and Netflix’s First Big Failure.
Iron Fist Isn’t THAT Bad
But here’s something that struck me as I was watching the first six episodes over the weekend: It isn’t actually that bad. I can’t claim to be the most sophisticated of cultural consumers, but I’m pretty sure that the reaction we’re seeing is actually less to do with the quality of the show. Instead it feels more like a good example of how critical reaction isn’t objective, or separate from the rest of the universe. How critical opinion will herd around a specific view, partially distinct from whatever the critics are supposed to be critiquing.
Don’t get me wrong - I think the criticisms made of Iron Fist are legitimate: Yes, the orientalist approach to eastern mysticism is awkward, and yes, the series isn’t doing anything particularly new and is just more-of-the-same. Yes, Danny Rand isn’t as good a character as Jessica Jones, the boardroom drama isn’t as interesting a setting as Luke Cage’s Harlem, and action scenes are not as exciting as Daredevil. In my view (again, on the strength of the first six episodes) is that it’s definitely the weakest Defenders show yet, but that doesn’t make it as terrible as critics are queuing up to shovel shit on to.
What’s quite interesting is if you look at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes - the show is (at the time of writing) given 16% by the critics, but the audience score (which is, admittedly, methodologically problematic) is 86% - suggesting a huge gulf between the opinions of critics and the opinions of normal viewers.
So what’s going on here? My grand theory here is that critical reaction is susceptible to an anchoring bias. This is when your reaction to something is manipulated by expectations planted in your mind earlier.
For example, to borrow an example from Richard Thaler’s book, Misbehaving, imagine you’re on a beach and your friend goes to buy some drinks. He comes back and says that the bottle of Coke he’s brought back cost £3. If he then tells you that he bought it from a small convenience store, that sounds outrageously pricey. Yet if he’d told you that he’d bought it from the fancy, five-star hotel bar nearby that would seem much more reasonable - perhaps even cheap.
So in the case of Iron Fist, my hypothesis is that it is because early on one, or a small number of critics, wrote the “Iron Fist is bad” take (based on the first six episodes supplied to them by Netflix for review), this seeded the conventional wisdom. Anyone who watched - particularly other critics - will have been going into the show expecting it to be bad. Falling straight into another bias - a confirmation bias - this means that whenever we see something in the show that doesn’t quite work. It appears to confirm the opinions that have been planted.
The huge discrepancy with the normal viewers reaction could then perhaps also be explained by normal people not paying as much attention to critical reaction as the critics might like - so being more insulated from the critical consensus.
The incentives are also there for critics to have convergent opinions too: Like all journalism and any close-nit group, there could be a social cost to stepping outside of the conventional view. When I saw Birdman a few years ago I was nervous about expressing the view that I thought it was a bunch of smug, self-indulgent tosh - when the “correct” opinion was that it was brilliant. Who is going to want to be the critic who picks Iron Fist as their hill to die on?
This Happens All The Time
Though it sounds contrarian, I don’t think my take is that radical, given that we see this anchoring effect happen all of the time. Remember back in 2013 when in the battle between the PS4 and Xbox One, the launch of the latter was agreed to be a disaster? Leaving aside the fact that the two platforms are basically identical, gaming consensus quickly coalesced around the idea that Microsoft had screwed things up completely - on the strength of one E3 presentation.
The impact was significant too, as the early adopters and opinion formers who bought into the current console generation at the beginning moved to the PS4 by a wide margin. Proof that early perceptions - how they are anchored, and the consensus that are formed - can make or break something.
We also sometimes see this reversed given the benefit of hindsight. Mark Kermode famously reversed his negative opinion of the film AI several years after it was originally released - because only after the release-window consensus had melted away was he able to view the film more fairly.
I want you to imagine a counterfactual. When Deadpool was released in 2016, it was near universally critically acclaimed. Gosh! It was doing something new! How exciting!
But imagine if in the weeks leading up to release it had received a beating by feminist critics. After all, there’s surely plenty to take issue with: The scenes set in a strip club for no reason, the objectification of the main woman in the cast, the jokes about violence against women and so on. If the film had been tagged by the critical consensus as “problematic” - you can bet that it would have resulted in the same sort of ritualistic hate that Iron Fist is now experiencing. But because these opinions were not anchored ahead of time, the film dodged the heat and was a huge success.
Wake Up Sheeple
And finally, here’s the weirdest part: I don’t think anyone would dispute that herding is a thing. In fact, it’s the reason PR exists. It’s the reason that film companies spend their time buttering up bloggers and YouTubers letting them see films and TV shows ahead of time. They want the right, influential people to put out messages, reviews and videos proclaiming something is great - because they know that not only will it get more eyeballs, but it’ll also help shape our perceptions.
Essentially, what I’m saying is that we can’t trust our brains.
Perhaps - if my grand theory holds true - Iron Fist isn’t quite as bad as the braying critics want it to be - it’s just that we’ve been going along with the herd.