Thursday, March 23, 2017

Iron Fist Business Class

I mentioned in my previous post that the biggest issue I had with Iron Fist wasn't the fight scenes or the slow pacing, but the business decisions. I think this showed ignorance more on the part of the writers than the characters, so I feel that these questionable decisions are worth discussing.

The first one is that Rand Corp has developed a drug that is a cure for a deadly disease. It works wonders, and due to manufacturing efficiencies, they can produce the drug at $5 a dose. Ward Meachum wants to charge $50 a dose. Danny protests that if this drug saves lives, they should sell it at cost. He doesn't seem to realize that doing so doesn't mean they'll break even. It means they'll lose hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost of drugs isn't in the manufacturing. It's in the years of research and development and FDA trials and failed drugs that never made it to market because they didn't make it all the way through the process. That's hundreds of millions of dollars that Rand Corp spent to develop this drug that they won't make back. Money that they won't have to spend on R&D, which the show specifically mentions is something they want to do with the profit, so there won't be any cure for the next epidemic. And yes, maybe at the margins there would have been people who couldn't afford the drug at $50 a dose, but the show even says that the World Health Organization would have subsidized purchase of the drug in poorer regions. And it's not unheard of for drug companies to sell drugs for lower prices in poorer regions in the world, while still making a higher profit in the rest of the world.

In another case, some cancer victims are suing Rand Corp because they believe that the company's chemical plant on Staten Island gave them cancer. The problem is they don't have any evidence. The plant's emissions are all within government limits, and the plant has passed every inspection. As far as anybody can tell, Rand Corp is doing everything it can to run a safe plant. The plaintiffs' only evidence is that 15 people living within a one mile radius of the plant have gotten cancer. Only, wait, how many people live within a mile of the plant? Is 15 cases of cancer a lot for that many? Well, we don't know exactly where on Staten Island the plant is, but according to Wikipedia, Staten Island has a population of 474,588, and a population density of 8,112 people per square mile. So within a one mile radius of the plant, there'd be about 25,000 people. According to this website on cancer statistics, over 450 out of every 100,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer each year. So out of any population of 25,000 people, you'd expect 115 cancer diagnoses. Unless all those people have a specific, rare type of cancer that can be traced to something the Rand plant produces--none of which is even suggested--then if those are the only people with cancer, something in that area has caused an 87% decrease in the rate of cancer. Rand Corp has cured cancer!

I don't blame Danny for not getting this. He spent the last fifteen years in a monastery, and that sort of communal lifestyle typically doesn't operate on capitalist principles or teach basic statistics. But what bugged me is that no one could explain to Danny the simple math of these situations, instead telling him that his ideas were bad business or that they weren't how business worked. Yes, this is true, but he needed to understand why they were bad business, and no one could be bothered to do that--or possibly, none of the writers of the show understood economics any better than Danny did.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Iron Fist Review

I just finished watching Iron Fist. Before its general release, there were rumors that it wasn't very good from some of those who saw the first six episodes. After watching it, I can't say I agree. It does have a somewhat slower pace than a lot of the other Netflix Marvel shows, but I didn't find it dull.

Iron Fist is the story of Danny Rand, the son of Wendell Rand, the founder of Rand Corp, and heir to his company. When he was ten, Danny's parents died in the Himalayas, and he was taken in by K'un-Lun, one of the Capital Cities of Heaven, which exists in another plane of existence and which is only reachable every fifteen years. There Danny trained in martial arts and became the guardian of K'un Lun, the Iron Fist, which is both his title and the name of his ability to focus his chi into his hand and strike with explosive force.

There are a few differences between the origin story in the comic books and the Netflix series. In the comic books, Danny's parents died while seeking the city of K'un-Lun, while in the television series they died in a plane crash without any knowledge of the city. I was somewhat expecting them to lose some of the more mystical bits, like the seven extradimensional cities, or the dragon Shou Lao the undying, through which Danny received his abilities, and instead focus on a more naturalistic explanation, such as having Danny train at a remote monastery to focus his chi, but I was pleased to see that they kept the more mystical aspects of Danny's origin story. Most of the changes they did make serve to make the story more interesting: in the comics, K'un-Lun allowed Danny to leave to seek revenge for his parents' deaths, who, unlike in the Netflix series, were clearly murdered, whereas in the Netflix series, Danny left without permission for reasons which are not explained until much later.

When Danny returns, no one believes that he is who he says he is. Ward and Joy Meachum, the children of his Dad's old business partner who now run Rand Corp, assume that he's either an impostor or a crazy hobo. He certainly looks the part of the latter. This I think is the part that a lot of people found too slow. Danny spends much of the first few episodes trying to prove his identity, and his sanity (hard to do when he says he spent the last fifteen years in an extradimensional city with a dragon in order to become a mystical warrior), while avoiding getting into fights--which, let's face it, is the main thing we want him to do.

Once he's able to prove his identity and return to his company, things begin to pick up, and Danny has to begin dealing with his real enemy. The Hand (who has played a large role in Daredevil) has infiltrated Rand Corp, and is using them to distribute heroin throughout the world. If this plot sounds familiar, it's not that different from what Wilson Fisk was doing in the first season of Daredevil. But it sounds like the Hand has had its hooks in Rand Corp for much longer than that. During the first half of the season, the primary villain is Madame Gao, the drug-dealing little old lady who beat Daredevil quite thoroughly every time they met. Here, though, she's part of something bigger, which ironically makes her less interesting. In Iron Fist, she's an important figure in the Hand, whereas I always assumed that while she worked with the Hand in Daredevil, she was running her own organization. It's actually somewhat disappointing to just make her a lieutenant in the existing Hand organization, whereas the Internet was speculating she might be Crane Mother, the leader of one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven who bore a particular grudge against the Iron Fist.

Unlike some other Netflix shows (Luke Cage, Daredevil Season 2), where the second half of the season is something of a letdown after the first half, in Iron Fist I found the second half of the season more interesting. There's a late season plot twist that challenges everything we thought we knew about the Hand and introduces a new, compelling villain. This is followed by yet another betrayal, though this one was more obvious to the viewer than to Danny Rand. The shifting alliances near the end keep things fresh and interesting, and the season cliffhanger left me wanting more.

Let me reflect on a few of the complaints I've heard about the series. The first one I've heard is that it's too slow, and that Danny Rand's dealings with Rand Corp and the Meachums take up too much time and are the least interesting part of the show. I disagree. I liked seeing the fish out-of-water aspect of Danny trying to run a multinational corporation (more on that later). I also think that the Meachums, and their interaction with Danny and the Hand, are an important driver for the show, and that the character dynamics among Ward, Joy, Harold, and Danny are fascinating, and the way the alliances shift over time help to keep the show interesting.

Another complaint I've heard is about the fight scenes, that they aren't as good as they should have been given Danny's supposed martial arts prowess. I will say that I didn't notice any problems while watching the show. The fight scenes seemed fine to me, and I wouldn't have any reason to think there were problems with them without reading about it on the Internet. On a technical level, I realize that the actor Finn Jones is not going to have the martial arts skills of Danny Rand, who is supposed to be one of the best martial artists in the Marvel Universe, so others with a more critical eye may have picked up on some problems I didn't notice. There's probably room to make the fight scenes more satisfying for those people, and I suspect that with more practice, Finn Jones will be better able to fake it--which is all an actor is supposed to do.

So if neither of those things bothered me, what did? In a word, math. Someone needs to enroll Danny in some basic business classes. A big deal is made of a number of "compassionate" decisions Danny makes, except those decisions only make sense to very liberal writers and directors who have no knowledge of either math or economics. To me, they looked less like decisions guided by compassion than decisions guided by ignorance, and were the sort of thing that would drive Rand Corp into bankruptcy within a year if left unchecked. I'll save the specifics for another post, though.

So, to sum up, I liked Iron Fist, and my biggest complaints are completely unrelated to what bothers the rest of the Internet.