Neither seem to have considered that their actions might not be welcomed
Finn Jones is not having the week he thought he’d have when he first landed the role of Danny Rand in Iron Fist. The new series is the first Marvel Netflix show to draw majority negative reviews, turning the anticipated launch party into an ongoing lesson in what not to do during a crisis. Jones has been under fire for trying to downplay the criticism with comments that have had the opposite effect, whether it’s telling people that Iron Fist is “for fans” rather than critics or suggesting that people only dislike the show because they dislike Donald Trump.
It’s become a fascinating case of life imitating art, especially as it relates to entitlement. At the beginning of Iron Fist, Jones’ Danny Rand is the embodiment of entitlement. The series kicks off when he turns up in New York and demands a meeting with the CEO of Rand Enterprises. He isn’t wearing any shoes, he hasn’t showered for days, and everyone thinks he’s been dead for fifteen years, but he expects to be taken seriously because he walked through the door and put his name on the list.
That cycle plays out over and over again throughout the first six episodes. Danny breaks into people’s homes and offices without once considering that he is not welcome in those spaces. He assaults the security staff sent to remove him from private property, and then is genuinely surprised when his next efforts at outreach are met with hostility and fear.
When committed to a psychiatric hospital — because again, no one has any reason to believe his outwardly absurd story about K’un L’un — his response to mistreatment is equally telling. Danny repeats that same story and assumes the doctor will believe it because it happens to be the truth. That attitude is one of the hallmarks of male privilege. Even when stripped of wealth and status, Danny carries himself like someone who has both. He offers little in the way of proof because he doesn’t understand why people would need proof in the first place. He can’t look at the issue from another person’s perspective, so he struggles to present himself in a way that would make him less threatening or more plausible.
Danny is still the hero in Iron Fist, and for the most part he’s a well-meaning human being. He displays a genuine interest in the welfare of the less fortunate and takes steps to make Rand a more ethical corporation. At the same time, he’s also a bit of a doofus. He has a way of making things worse by attempting to help people without their guidance or permission, and while he learns from his mistakes — because he wants to be a more effective hero — he never fully appreciates the extent to which his endless string of second chances is itself a mark of his privilege. Danny is often unaware of the way in which he’s perceived, not recognizing that his obliviousness is a luxury. Most people cannot be so careless if they wish to be respected.
None of that makes Iron Fist a bad show per se. The display of privilege is so overt that it could almost be a deconstruction, even if I suspect that much of that is accidental. Privilege is so intrinsic to the show’s interpretation of the character that I don’t know what it would look like with a non-white lead. In the comics, Danny Rand is an orphaned martial arts champion who was born a white billionaire. Iron Fist is a show about a young white billionaire, and is more or less what you’d expect from such an endeavor.
There just isn’t that much public interest in that type of character at the present moment. The market is saturated with Tony Stark knockoffs, and the outcry reflects that audience exhaustion. It doesn’t help that most of the critiques identify legitimate flaws with the material. As originally conceived, Iron Fist was an exercise in cultural appropriation. Much of that troubled legacy ends up on screen, even though there were alternatives available to Marvel. The studio had a chance to reinvent the character on another platform free from the shackles of continuity, but instead chose to make another show about a white guy at a time when fans are calling for more diversity. For better or worse, this is the inevitable fallout.
That brings us to Finn Jones, the star currently stumbling through an old set of double standards. The actor seems to have good intentions – the latest controversy started when he shared a speech by Riz Ahmed – but his very involvement in a show like Iron Fist undercuts the point he’s trying to make. Finn Jones is a walking reminder that white actors get better opportunities than their non-white counterparts, and that makes him an unwelcome presence for fans who wanted a different take on the character.
It is possible to navigate that disappointment, but only if the problem is accurately identified. Iron Fist wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy in a media environment with equal representation, and that seems to be what Jones is speaking to when he tries to defend the show. Unfortunately, that world doesn’t exist, which makes it impossible to separate the show from from the broader systemic issues that continue to plague the industry.
Jones’ attempts to deflect criticism feel more evasive than enlightened, as if he’s trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about race and representation. He has some inkling that the timing is bad for a show about a white man who masters Asian martial arts, but he doesn’t understand why he’s become the focal point for that backlash. From his perspective, he landed a career-making role and tried to make the best show he could (for the moment, we’ll set aside the question of whether or not he actually did so). He’s therefore asking people to make an exception for Iron Fist. He wants people to set aside their frustrations with Hollywood’s casting imbalance for the benefit of one TV show and the career of one white actor.
Jones probably believes that his show deserves that special treatment. He feels secure enough to say so because he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that his show would be received with anything less than adulation. The part he’s missing is that most people would like to receive the benefit of the doubt. Getting it has to be earned. Like Danny Rand, Jones wants people to see his best intentions, but he hasn’t given any thought to the impression he’s making. Instead of crafting his argument with more care, he’s asking other people to invest the mental energy needed to make his point more coherent, shifting the burden for misinterpretation from the speaker to the audience.
The reality is that Iron Fist doesn’t get to be an exception because the show does not exist in isolation. It perpetuates the kind of cultural appropriation that has sustained white Hollywood for decades, and fans and critics are under no obligation to overlook those optics. I don’t think the show is an outright disaster, but it is ill advised and it definitely makes a few mistakes. The criticisms are perfectly valid — and the context and fan anger need to be acknowledged.
In Iron Fist, Danny is the son of a billionaire, so the system works for him once he convinces powerful people to listen. The fact that he has the confidence to ask for that attention speaks to social privilege that goes well beyond tangible resources.
It remains to be seen whether the same will be true for Finn Jones (my guess: he’ll be fine). He might even be right, insofar as audiences probably will be kinder to Iron Fist than the critics have been. Iron Fist is no Jessica Jones, but neither is it as terrible or remarkable as some of the reviews have suggested. The central arc revolves around Danny’s efforts to balance his role as the Iron Fist with the corporate responsibilities inherited from his family, and the character does become more self-aware and more considerate as he approaches the back half of the series.
However, if Jones is serious about improving representation outside of the show (or if he simply wants to be less tone deaf), he needs to learn to listen and to accept the fact that he can’t have everything. Fans told Marvel that they want more diverse programming. Instead, they’re getting another project about a spoiled white dude. Jones is unable to recognize the ways in which he has benefited from his privilege, and that makes him just as clueless as the character he portrays.
An interesting read via Polygon – Full