With the highly anticipated release of Netflix’s Iron Fist, the final leg of Marvel’s Defenders quartet, the world let out a resounding sigh as it became evident that this is the first fatally flawed entry into the series, not hitting its stride like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. While none of these series were perfect, they each contributed to the world that Netflix was building with their own unique style and intriguing characters. Daredevil delved deep into a violent world of vigilantism, not pulling any punches as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen brought bloody justice to the streets of New York with fists, fury and occasionally, a knack for being able to navigate the criminal justice system. Jessica Jones combined a noir detective tale with our fear of control – or losing control, sending a very relevant message regarding violence, and violence against women. Luke Cage embraced its 1970s blaxpoitation heritage and told a tale of racial politics, social injustice and ultimately heroism, with Luke Cage’s strength not only being his actual immense physical power, but also the kindness he shows to those around him.
Enter Iron Fist: The story of Danny Rand, billionaire heir of his father’s namesake company. Being the first of Netflix’s shows to feature a lead character that is a master of kung fu, having being raised by warrior monks in the mystical city of K’un-Lun, Danny Rand takes on the mantle of the Iron Fist after defeating a dragon named Shou-Lao the Undying by punching into its heart and taking its power. Sounds awesome, right? Well, unfortunately – as you may or may not know – most of this really cool and rich mysticism and martial arts myths are ignored in the Netflix adaptation, with Danny Rand more concerned with gaining a corner office in a skyscraper than being the Iron Fist. Most of the series is spent throwing the book at his childhood friends, now in control of the company that he is the controlling heir to and when we finally see some kung fu action, the choreography and actual martial arts is uninspired and often, seemingly amateur, with Finn Jones’ Danny Rand utterly unconvincing as someone who is one of the greatest martial arts masters the world has ever seen – let alone someone in total control of their chi.
Don’t fret though, as there is a cure for your Iron Fist disappointment, and it comes in the form of AMC’s Into The Badlands. Also a martial arts fantasy, Into The Badlands takes place in a far future post-apocalyptic feudal America known as the Badlands. This new landscape, surviving in the aftermath of some unspecified great war or natural calamity, draws inspiration from the familiar, but makes it its own, whether it shows us a violent Baron’s South Carolina-inspired fiefdom or a Mad Max-esque wasteland. The show is filled with all the characters you would expect to inhabit such a world and some you wouldn’t, as it even borrows aspects of classic Asian folktale Journey To the West.
Into The Badlands follows Sunny, the regent and clipper (aka elite soldier) for a Baron, who controls and owns everything in his lands with violence, fear and an army of martial arts enforcers. You see, guns are outlawed in these lands, so you live by the fist or die by the sword… something we see much of as Sunny (played by the fantastic Daniel Wu), brings some of the most amazing fight choreography ever to grace the small screen to life in a truly spectacular fashion. The intrigue doesn’t end there though. As the show starts, Sunny is faced with a moral dilemma which might see him want to leave his position as regent for his baron Quinn – played by Marton Csokas, who steals the show in an almost Negan-like fashion. It seems that AMC truly enjoys its charismatic villians!
Quinn is not the only Baron though, as we delve into the bloody politics that sees a fragile alliance, based on fear and power, being maintained between Quinn and the other Barons. That is until the Widow – a Baroness with a penchant for vengeance – starts making power plays on the lands and investments of Quinn. The Widow, played by Emily Beechum, is definitely a favourite. As deadly as she is beautiful, she often sees the best fights and the most spectacular choreography, crushing her enemies (often literally) under her stiletto heels. Throw into this mix a mystery surrounding a young boy, MK (Aramis Knight), who becomes imbued with massive power whenever he starts bleeding, and a legendary city believed to exist outside the Badlands, and you have a martial arts fantasy that will make you forget that Iron Fist even existed.
With recent revelations of the rushed choreography used in Iron Fist, it is easy to see how it seems amateur compared to the talent you see in Into The Badlands. Besides for veteran martial artists like Daniel Wu and even MMA legend Cung Le, the show does feature many non-martial artists but these actors all undergo months of training before they attempt their fights, and the results are clear to see.
If lacklustre fight scenes was Iron Fist’s only problem though, it would be understandable – but the show’s utter lack of inspiration when it comes to the richness of culture and cinematic history that it has to draw from is almost unforgivable. There is not one scene that captured a mystical moment as good as, for example, the misty alley truck scene in Kurt Russell’s Big Trouble In Little China – which is the kind of movie I was hoping it would draw inspiration from, let alone the countless other classic martial arts movies which is the entire reason for the existence of the Iron Fist character in the first place. What we are left with is a mediocre episode of Suits, with a mostly unlikable lead, who largely fails to excite when the fighting starts. I’m sorry Danny, but even Matt Murdock did it better.
Into the Badlands, on the other hand, revels in its classic martial arts entertainment roots, from the use of old-school kung fu wire-work, to its wholesale embracing of the mystical and its much more epic, operatic approach to its storytelling. It’s also not afraid to get really violent at times, showing what skilled martial artists armed with pointy blades can really do to each other. Daniel Wu’s Sunny is a consummate badass that you can’t help but root for as his personal journey puts him at odds with the loyalties he has observed his entire life. The supporting characters are always colorful, but in the best way, while there’s plenty of intrigue and fantasy packed into its narrative.
Best of all, the show’s first season is just six episodes long, so there’s absolutely no chance of the pacing issues and bloated wheel spinning that so often creeps into the Marvel/Netflix shows. This will grip you within the first few minutes of the first episode, and as the show barrels along it will never let go.
So do yourselves a favour, and watch Into The Badlands. The first season is currently available in full on Netflix US and it is definitely binge-worthy (the 10-episode second season has just started on AMC last week and is thus not available locally yet). It is well made, fist-pumpingly exciting and does almost everything right that Iron Fist did wrong. It has very few cookie-cutter characters, and a whole range of morally ambiguous heroes and villains that will make you fall in love with its surprising and violent world. If you are a fan of martial arts fantasy, I give this my highest recommendation.