Marvel's Iron Fist superhero character is far from engaging, but a flawed woman nicknamed Fleabag brings on the laughs
How do you solve a problem like Danny Rand, the protagonist of Marvel's Iron Fist, Netflix's newest superhero show?
Adapted from the Iron Fist comic books, the character, played here by Finn Jones, has sparked a heated debate over whether this gongfu- kicking white man represents cultural appropriation.
Despite the best intentions of those retelling such stories, Rand is in many ways inherently problematic (much like Tarzan, into whose DNA the white-saviour trope is baked).
He stumbles upon an exotic land, where he learns to become a martial arts expert who calls upon a mystical force known as the Iron Fist, then uses it to become a hero and protector.
For many, this is a prime example of inappropriately "borrowing" from a minority culture.
But Iron Fist wasn't entirely unsalvageable. An entertaining narrative with a likeable hero, powerful action sequences, clever dialogue or a distinctive visual style would have covered a multitude of sins.
Unfortunately, all the writers came up with was a middling superhero show that further pales when compared to Marvel's ground-breaking Netflix series Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.
The producers did not do themselves any favours by casting Finn Jones, whose blandness and limited range cannot convey Rand's supposed self-doubt and inner torment.
This squanders the goodwill the audience initially feels as they root for him to prove his identity at the beginning of the series, when he must convince his childhood friends he is really Danny, who was presumed dead in a plane crash 15 years ago.
Jessica Henwick is far more appealing as Colleen Wing, Rand's tough, savvy ally who kicks plenty of butt even without a supernatural assist. It is enough to make you wish they had written the show around her (and enough for an extra half-star in this reviewer's rating).
Then there are the fight sequences. Both she and Rand are martial arts whizzes, so you would expect to be dazzled. But the clunky choreography and CGI make these scenes feel staged and stiff - punches look pulled and the timing is always a little off.
In gongfu movies, gravity- defying works when the rest of the story has primed you to suspend disbelief, or because it is so overtly cheesy it is hilarious. Iron Fist does neither, so when Rand vaults weightlessly up a wall, it is distractingly silly.
It is equally silly - and cliched - when he spouts nuggets of vaguely Eastern philosophy. This and his sage martial arts lectures to Colleen, who is Asian, does not help the show's cultural-appropriation defence. Nor does Jones' mangling of the few lines of Mandarin dialogue he has. Non-speakers will not know any better, but to those who do, it may be irksome, even if you don't pass PSLE Chinese to become a gongfu master.
An infinitely more original protagonist is Fleabag, who, as heroes go, is at the other end of the competency scale from Danny.
Written by star Phoebe Waller- Bridge, it is about a young woman, nicknamed Fleabag, who is generally failing at life. The London cafe she owns has barely any customers; her patchy romances are cynical and dysfunctional; her relationships with family are strained; and she herself seems inordinately selfish, neurotic, mendacious and sex-obsessed.
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But as Waller-Bridge looks into the camera and shares her most despondent and embarrassing thoughts, she is also self-aware, sharp and very funny.
The result is a cutting satire of society and social archetypes in a country where awkward politeness is almost an art form.
Waller-Bridge is especially clear- eyed when it comes to her family and boyfriends, whether it is her rotating menagerie of annoying sexual partners or her smiling- assassin of a stepmother, whose Olympian levels of passive- aggressiveness she is constantly trying to one-up.
She knows all too well what her own problem is, too: insecurity about being "broken", messing up her life and losing her youth and nubility.
As a relationship comedy about a hapless single girl in London, it makes the Bridget Jones stories look toothless and tame.
The audience slowly comes to understand how the deaths of Fleabag's mother and best friend affected her. This makes for some moments of unexpected poignancy.
Yet, a more sophisticated narrative would have resisted the urge to over-explain the character's flaws, which, with her unique voice, endear her to the viewer.
People can behave badly even when nothing particularly bad happens to them - that would have been the finer point to make.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Drab hero vs fab Fleabag'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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