If you want an example of the writers taking the audience’s attention for granted, the new Marvel series on Netflix, Iron Fist, is a really good one. I won’t have to tell you to only watch the first episode because after cringing and groaning your way through 50ish minutes of aimless bewilderment you probably won’t have the appetite to continue. The protagonist goes from one self-induced crisis to the next almost totally bereft of motivation or goals, as if the spectacle alone (of which there is very little) is supposed to draw you in.
The story begins with the protagonist Danny Rand walking the streets of New York barefoot and in clothes that look like he’s been sleeping in them for a year. After dropping some expository hints that he’s actually a wealthy heir, he waltzes in to a gleaming office building and insists on talking to the CEO. After a completely predictable rebuff from the receptionist, he judo-chops his way through security and reaches Ward and Joy Meacham, a brother and sister. They’ve become the second-generation executives of a Koch Industries-like company that Danny’s parents used to own half of. He fails to explain himself and is quickly escorted out of the building at gunpoint.
He spends the next three days sleeping in a park and stalking the Meachams, making vague demands to “talk”. Somehow, no matter how many times he corners them, he never gets to the point. He gets chased by assassins sent by Ward because apparently calling the police just wasn’t butch enough, and their failure escalates the matter to Ward’s father — a stereotypically menacing corporate strongman.
In between his trespassing, grand theft auto, and kidnapping of former childhood frenemies, Danny does try to get a job. But yet again, his social grace is like a bird repeatedly flying into a window. He fails to convince Colleen Wing that he would be an asset to her dojo.
Danny is eventually drugged and taken captive by the Meachams. The end.
The ending credits begin to roll without the viewer encountering a single reason to give a damn about Danny Rand. The evergreen advice of Robert McKee is to start your story on the worst day of your character’s life. The episode had that potential, but a bad day requires thwarted expectations. What were Danny’s expectations? He is so zen that he is shown turning down $2 and even shoes. It isn’t clear that he would care about material things, like losing the company he would have inherited. According to the flashbacks scattered through the episode, he never had a good relationship with the Meachams in the first place, so it’s not very plausible that this was his animating desire. He never gets around to telling us what he expects besides the “answers” he never gets.
When asked what his purpose in life is, he says, “To protect K’un-Lun from all oppression and honor the sacrifice of Shun Lao the undying.” Which means nothing until you can find out what the hell the proper nouns in that sentence refer to. The viewer is left wondering why going to New York protects K’un-Lun from oppression, or how he made the journey at all, being broke and shoeless.
Is he here rebelling from his mission, seeking to return to his old life ten years too late? Perhaps the corporation his parents left behind threatens K’un-Lun somehow? Either would have given us a way to care about what happens to him, but instead the episode is all confusion and mystery. He’s too enlightened for material possessions, yet incensed at being deprived of his billion-dollar inheritance. He’s lived as a stoic almost half his life, yet still fumes at Ward for being cruel to him when they were kids. But he also wants to be buddies again?
It’s as if the writers are saying,”this will all make sense soon, we promise!” They expect you to slog onward without a clear goal to hang on to. For all we know, something is at stake in all the conflict between Danny and Ward, but unless we know what it is, what’s the point?
If they were expecting the stellar reputations of Daredevil and Jessica Jones to carry their show’s weight too, that was a mistake. The cardinal sins in fiction are making your audience bored or confused, and during the debut episode of Iron Fist, I was both.