Author Mistake: Shaking your audience’s faith in the Protagonist (a lesson from Iron Fist)

Netflix and Marvel have been teaming up to offer some lesser known comic heroes and heroines a chance at the spotlight. They’ve given us Daredevil (2 seasons), Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and now, Iron Fist.

Say what you will about the first three because although they have flaws, they definitely have a solid story structure and clear protagonist character arcs. It set a high bar for their audiences, especially because Iron Fist is the last needed character introduction before Netflix offers the four-hero team-up series – named after their comic run – the Defenders.

A quick summary for those who are interested but aren’t familiar with the series: Danny Rand is the lead character of the Iron Fist comics. He is an American white boy who learns kung-fu from warrior monks at a practically unreachable monetary in the Himalayas. Their society trains them to protect their home from outside forces, and also the potential of entering the mystical trial of Shou-Lao the Undying. There are many warriors who trained equally for the chance, but the elder monks give the honor to Danny. He succeeds and becomes the Iron Fist, a quote-unquote Immortal Living Weapon.

When we meet Danny in episode one of his Netflix series, he is a kung-fu master and newly returned to New York City. He’s been through training, duels, combat tests, and who knows what else to become one of the greatest warriors of the Order of the Crane Mother. This was even before he was officially the Iron Fist.

We get to see him in action against security guards in the fist twenty minutes of the show, and he is certainly impressive. Not only gifted as a warrior, he showcases his ability to improvise and a shrewd sense of how to achieve what he wants efficiently even with obstacles in his way. The security guards are no pushovers and he manages to win past four of them, armed with batons, without really being touched.

To break that down from a storytelling perspective, this means that Danny Rand is at a high bar for physical confrontations. In my initial viewing of the episode, I remember thinking, “Okay, so this story is going to be mostly about his emotional arc, like Jessica Jones, instead of a beat-um-up train like Daredevil. He’s too good of a fighter for small time stuff, so the fights they do have will need to be deliberately one-sided in Danny’s favor or against equally skilled opponents, and right now I don’t know who that could be.”

Sadly, this wasn’t an accurate assumption on my part, which is what brings us here today to talk about the failings of Episode 3, Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch (yes, all the episode titles are from a kung-fu movie library).

Danny is trying to legally prove his identity – something that bringing his story into the 21st century definitely needed to address. (P.S. before he was trained by warrior monks, he was the only child of Wendell and Heather Rand, making him a 51% shareholder in the Rand Corporation and a billionaire – if he can prove he is who he says he is.) The people currently in control of the company obviously prefer to stay in control, so they are actively destroying any physical proof that would confirm Danny’s identity.

One of the things that might help him, he remembers, is an x-ray from when he broke his arm skateboarding. The accident occurred not long before he survived losing his family in a plane crash and being taken in by the monks.

As soon as the first few moments of scene started playing, I knew there was trouble. Not in the narrative sense, like Danny was about to encounter trouble. In the execution sense, because it had all the earmarks of serving up a ham-handed contrived fight scene.

Here are all the warning notes the scene is about to flop:

  1. Danny himself goes to retrieve the records, despite having no I.D. and the fact that his lawyer, Hogarth, should have been able to send a flunky to retrieve them.
  2. When the scene opens, he simply steps off an elevator and enters into a room of file boxes. No one stops him or questions why he is there.
  3. Thus far, Danny has definitely proven he is terrible at reading people and anticipating their reactions. That said, there is a man already in the room, clearly in a hurry to find something, and Danny knows that this may be the last untouched record that could prove his identity. Seeing the guy as a possible threat would have been prudent even without the hurried looking as a clue. But instead of evaluating the guy Danny just strikes up a conversation, and on top of it casually offers the exact info that would allow someone to find the record.
    Then the guy puts on a set of brass knuckles.

This far into the scene, Danny isn’t just willfully oblivious or ignorant – this an obvious failing on part of the writers. It seems like someone decided, “Hey, there should probably be another fight scene soon. Oh, hey, there’s this last record that Danny could get to prove he is who he says he is, let’s make the fight go there!” Which could have been fine, except they got lazy.

By the time Danny got hit over the head with brass knuckles, I was rewriting the scene in my head.

Here’s what they should have done, narratively:

If they wanted the fight to happen there, have a reason for Danny to be there. Not as a “just because!” but legitimately – for instance, have Hogarth suggest that Danny shouldn’t waste any time, and if the records are there he can get the hospital to give him an x-ray to confirm the presence of the healed bone identical to where he was injured as a child. Also, have someone from the law offices go with him, to wave him through security and to provide legal documentation requiring the surrender of the records.

Boom, nothing big needs to change. And if they hadn’t wanted to include a throwaway character from the law firm (could have been awesome if they’d had Foggy do it, just saying – Marcy would’ve been cool too) they could have written a one-sided conversation over the phone between the record-keeper person and someone unheard from the law office (Mr. Nelson *cough*) plus a fax or email or something with the legal documentation.

Now you queue the dude with the brass knuckles. All he has to do is surprise them in the records room, and you can now have your fight in a much more realistic way. Or, if you would rather have him in there already, have the record-keeper person say the classic line, “Sir, what are you doing here?” and let it escalate from there. Bonus: Have the record-keeper direct Danny to the correct file out-loud, so the bad-guy has confirmation that yes, that’s Danny Rand (since that’s clearly what they were going for with having Danny say it).

Which brings us to the fight itself

Remember how Danny is a kung-fu master? Now, I don’t know much about kung-fu, but I do know how martial arts warriors are portrayed in cinema. You catch them off-guard, there better be something good distracting them.

In the existing scene, I’ll give the brass-knuckle guy a step or two in Danny’s direction. I refuse to entertain the idea that he got close enough and landed a blow to Danny’s head without the aforementioned kung-fu master’s reflexes or combat senses kicking in.

Here’s what they got wrong:

  1. The writers needed the records destroyed to lay the groundwork for how Danny does end up proving his identity. (This automatically makes the entire scene useless, by the way. If I was really editing this, red flag, do not proceed. Get rid of the scene and nothing about the story changes or could easily be addressed some other way? Cut it, and don’t look back.)
  2. They seemed to belatedly realize there would be a record-keeper person. To prevent Danny from having more time to search for the record, they had him rescue the person from the fire set by the brass-knuckles guy after the camera conveniently panned to show her unconscious in the hallway. (Wrong. Go back and write her in from the beginning. If you want Danny in a position of needing to save her versus saving the records, there are better ways of doing it. Also, Danny missed the hurried looking guy and unconscious lady? I’m officially disbelieving the kung-fu master title and he hasn’t even been hit yet.)
  3. If I was going to keep the scene in, I would have required the writers to come up with at least one plot-forwarding detail. Or at least, to make the existing detail much more front and center. After the loss of the records, Danny is motivated to track down the Meachums (the family controlling his company) in public. There is a stirring confrontation where even the sister, who is relatively sympathetic to Danny, has to tell him that he isn’t family – something clearly emotionally devastating to our protagonist.

The scene’s secondary goal, then, needs to be establishing Danny’s genuine hope and relief at being able to prove his identity. Also, it would have been nice to know why it was so important to him because it sort of seems like a side-quest in these early episodes. The end of the scene would then have been about ripping away that hope, and the clear motivation for Danny to confront the Meachums.

The fight scene as it is written is a hurried mess. Danny is able to summon the Iron Fist (it’s a concentration of his chi that makes his fist harder and stronger than any other material – thus far, at least) and he destroys the brass knuckles but otherwise is on the defensive during the entire fight.

Now, here’s the list of things that need to be addressed for a successful fight scene:

  • The goal – the only important thing – is that the records are destroyed. Everything else is gravy.
  • The record-keeper needs to be handled realistically to get them out of the way. Maybe they draw attention to themselves by trying to call for help, and brass-knuckles is forced to do something to stop them. If they’re the confrontational type, have them give the brass-knuckles guy a stern lecture about patient confidentiality and the law. Somewhere in between, have Danny get them out of the room but they stay close by – probably in eye-sight – because they refuse to just walk away from their post. (This is only important if the goal is to need Danny to rescue them.)
  • While that is going on, what is brass knuckles guy doing? If the destruction of the records is all that really matters, that’s the only thing that matters to him, too. He’s the antagonist of the scene. Figure out how he’s destroying them.)
  • Decide how Danny is going to win the fight but lose the records.
  • Decide how brass-knuckles leaves the scene – a prisoner, a quick escape, or something else? Make the decision based on what feeds the story better. If a prisoner, Danny will have to leave before the police show up.
  • As it is written, there was ethanol in the storage room with the records (I have no idea if that’s even remotely normal for a hospital record area, but it seemed odd to me), and that’s what the brass-knuckles guy uses to destroy the records and secure his escape. Fire is a cliche and overboard considering they are in a hospital.

Added note as I think about it: Danny just leaves the hospital to confront the Meachums rather than helping with the fire. This seems out of character for him and his continued demonstration of not taking the easy road.
Here’s the redone scene I would have crafted with all this in mind:

Open on Danny and law-firm flunky in x-ray room with nurse or doctor. They have the existing record copy and are in process of taking a new x-ray for comparison. Have brief cut-away to brass-knuckle guy talking to record-keeper who says they just handed over that record he’s looking for to **insert description of Danny** and tell the guy what floor x-ray is on. Cut back to Danny and the doctor and law-firm fluky waiting for the x-ray to develop (talk about how fast it is now versus how it was when the x-ray was taken as a kid or something) and then have the brass-knuckle guy come in.

Now you have a fight scene, with two people Danny needs to keep out of harm’s way, plus expensive hospital equipment it would be nice not to damage, which places him at a decent disadvantage. Also, the brass-knuckles guy has had the whole walk to the x-ray room to come up with a plan for how to destroy the record. (Fixes the “Oh hey, convenient ethanol!” problem.) Queue fight. Queue destruction of the record. Bonus: We definitely get to see Danny hopeful about the results of the x-ray and being so close to proving his identity.

That scene would fit in the narrative, as long as it showcases Danny’s abilities without conveniently handicapping him for no reason other than “just because”.

Insights for your own writing:

One of the reasons this scene in episode three jumped out at me is because it reminded me of a similar edit I required in the first Vampire Flynn Book. The author had needed to establish that the protagonist was coming off a rough night and was disoriented, so they went with the somewhat-classic “stumbles through the room in pitch black to get to whoever is irritatingly knocking on the door” method.

The problem was that the protagonist is a trained assassin, hyper-aware of his surroundings on most nights, and also he was currently in his own room. If I’m going to expect the audience to believe he’s as good an assassin as he says he is, he can’t be taken down by his own coffee table.

If Danny Rand is a kung-fu master, no one will be able to hit him over the head with brass knuckles by surprise. There’s also no way he wouldn’t notice an unconscious woman on the ground just down the hall. And he wouldn’t be stupid enough to not at least suspect that the man in the record room could be an adversary, considering all that’s been going on. Otherwise, sure, have a fight scene. Just don’t half-ass it.

That’s it for this week, folks. I do hope you go watch the Iron Fist because although it is the weakest of the four Netflix/Marvel collaborations, it’d be nice to give them some encouragement that we’re still looking forward to the Defenders. If you want the best of the bunch, though, watch Jessica Jones for the story. Luke Cage will give you a taste of Harlem, plus some awesome music. And Daredevil is still my personal favorite because Matt Murdock is the sort of protagonist I can always get behind as they try to do good while sabotaging themselves along the way. Never gets old.

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