Marvel's recent run of films and television shows has been a juggernaut of critical and commercial success that would make any Hollywood studio turn Hulk-green with envy. What had once been considered the biggest gamble in modern film industry history has quickly become a billion-dollar game-changer that’s redefined the blockbuster for a new generation. That success comes down to a minutely crafted formula where attention to detail is key and having the most talented people on their team for every element of the story. Up until now, it’s yielded results varying from pretty good to damn near perfect.
That’s partly what makes the critical and audience disappointment with Iron Fist so fascinating. Even Marvel loyalists expressed skepticism with the project from its announcement, and the recent reviews have done little to quell the questions potential viewers had with the show’s direction. Much has been written about Iron Fist’s unexamined adherence to the white savior trope, but the show has also been poorly received for other reasons, with much of the criticism centred on its lagging pace, weak writing, and messy fight scenes.
The criticisms of Iron Fist's action have been crystallized in a circulating clip that shows no fewer than 56 cuts in a 35 second fight sequence. It's a choppily edited scene that's dizzying, confusing and borderline unwatchable in its structure. It’s also a dishearteningly common occurrence in major Hollywood features, as editors and fight choreographers are forced to compensate for lack of time, lack of training, and plain old miscasting.
This clip has led many to blame Iron Fist's limp action on poor editing, which feels unfair. Editors can only work with what they’re given, and it’s clear throughout the series that there wasn’t much to work with in the first place. Despite Iron Fist's core identity as a kung fu show, the main cast - including lead Finn Jones and Colleen Wing actress Jessica Henwick - do not come from a background in martial arts, and were given minimal training before filming began. In an interview with Metro, Jones revealed:
"When I first moved over to New York, before I started actually filming, I had three weeks of very intense martial arts and weight training preparation. But then unfortunately once the show started, the filming schedule was just so tight – I was working 14 hours every day, six days a week, days into nights, nights into days – and actually my schedule didn’t allow me to continue the training as much as I really hoped."
He goes on to explain that he'd be in the gym on days off, and was "learning the fight scenes 15 minutes before we actually shot them." Even if this is hyperbole, it's clear that Jones wasn't given enough training and rehearsal time for an actor with little to no experience in the field - even most professionals would struggle with such tight scheduling.
Pop Culture Uncovered spoke to a professional fight choreographer to get his opinion on the scenes, and he emphasized the importance of qualified actors:
“I would say the choreography is actually fairly good, however the lead actors do not have the skill or presence to pull it off; so the end result is fights that don’t reach their full potential. I can see where the choreographers were going, but the actors just can’t reach that level. It should have been better but the guy [Finn Jones] just sucks.”
It seems unfair to pick on Jones at this point – it’s clear that he was in over his head, both in terms of the role and the historical and cultural context of it – but his casting is the elephant in the room. Many defences of his casting rely on the assertion that he must have been the most qualified person for the role, but you don’t need to be a critic to know that’s clearly not the case. He’s easily the weakest link in the cast, which has some wonderful people in it, and his struggles with the basic requirements of the role of Danny Rand exacerbate the weaknesses of an already messy show. Contrast that with the lauded five-and-a-half-minute long fight scene in Daredevil, where the team spent half a day just perfecting the camera movements. The talent must be there for the scene to work, but time is also key, and it's obvious Iron Fist was lacking in that area.
While the editing is probably trying to mask the major problem, its disjointed mish-mash of micro-moments into something vaguely recognizable can’t be overlooked. Tony Zhou, the editor behind the wonderful YouTube series Every Frame a Painting, dedicated an episode to the action comedy chops of the legendary Jackie Chan, an actor who famously does all his own stunts. Zhou discussed the ways in which Hollywood editing tends to cut action scenes in a way that downplays the real pain of the moment. By cutting on every single hit, kick or slam, the momentum of the scene is killed stone dead, and diminishes the force of the fight. There’s no sense of true threat when the editing is forced to hide the deficiencies of the actors.
The sad thing is that the makers of the show had an amazing solution at their fingertips during the casting process, and they dismissed it. Lewis Tan (above), who shows up in episode 8 and had already garnered a more enthusiastic fan response than Jones, is an actor and trained martial artist who has been vocal for many months about auditioning for the lead role in Iron Fist and being turned down. In a recent interview with Vulture, Tan talked about the process of auditioning, and his struggles in the industry to be recognized for his sizeable talents. He was clearly qualified for the role of Danny, and his casting would put a fresh spin on the outsider narrative of the character, but he was passed over in favor of an actor who had Danny Rand's comic book-accurate blond hair and blue eyes, but not his comic book-accurate fighting abilities.
Martial arts is a true art, one that requires years of work, skill and focus to get to the top levels, and it can’t just be taught in a few afternoons to fully capture its power. Iron Fist could have been a major opportunity for Marvel to spotlight the art, its culture and the people who created it; instead, it's a hard lesson in the pitfalls of misguided casting.
Iron Fist is available now on Netflix.