According to lore, a boy punches a dragon in the heart in a mystical dimension and gets bestowed with an otherworldly power. When we meet him, he’s a man coming back to run a corporate conglomerate. It feels like we skipped the best part. With Iron Fist, why he comes back doesn’t isn’t answered with any haste. Instead, we’re distracted by hatchet-wielding Triads, and hypnotized into naps by long meetings involving corporate tax strategy. It leaves Iron Fist a confused, choppy mix of the supernatural seen through the lens of business casual.
Iron Fist tells the story of Danny Rand (Finn Jones), who returns to New York City despite being presumed dead for 15 years after a plane carrying him and his parents crashed in the Himalayas. At that time, young Rand — the only survivor — was adopted by monks from a mystical dimension called K’un-Lun, where he was trained as essentially a mixed martial arts fighter. As he learned these skills and other, non-combative ones like harnessing his chi and attempting to live a kind and peaceful existence, he elevated to the level of acquiring the Iron Fist, primarily to be used in protecting this mystical dimension from The Hand. For reasons not fully explored in the first six episodes of the series, he then leaves K’un-Lun and returns to our realm.
Despite a very good cast and a great origin story, Iron Fist is predictable, a little hammy, and has no real sense of how to tell a cohesive story. As such, it has a few moments that are great and many that are not. The show takes a few of its early episodes to consider whether or not the protagonist might be crazy, or if he really does have powers and is who he says. Unfortunately, this isn’t our first Marvel rodeo with these Netflix shows, so there are no stakes here. It’s not FX’s Legion, where we’re actually playing with perception or reality — though it would be much more interesting if that was the case. But unlike some of the other Marvel Netflix heroes, this one doesn’t shun his powers, he embraces them. He was trained, he wants to train others, and he knows exactly who is foe is and why he must defeat them.
But what awaits Danny in NYC is not what he was hoping to find. Danny grew up thinking of his father’s business partner, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), as a second father, and Harold’s two children Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) as his siblings. But instead he finds that his father’s influence has been all but scrubbed from the company, and the Meachums have essentially taken over what should have been the Rands’ lives. Desperate to hold onto their power and fortune, Ward and Joy initially don’t believe Danny is who he says he is. Corporate villainy and a surprising connection to The Hand thus ensue in what should be a fast-paced and exciting caper of a tale.
There’s a difference between the (rightfully) exalted “Slow TV” movement and what I could call Stagnant TV. Unfortunately, too much of Marvel’s Netflix universe has fallen into the latter category. By focusing so intently on making these series — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and now Iron Fist — much more grounded in a gritty real world than what we typically expect from a superhero show (like DC’s candy-colored series on The CW), the problem is that they miss out on the key element: this should be fantastical entertainment. Instead, you get what could be Iron Fist’s alternate tagline: come for the fights, but stay for the corporate litigation!
Much has been said about Netflix’s insistence on making its Marvel shows 13 episodes, and right off the bat Iron Fist’s glacial pace forces plot points and character interactions to be drawn out to a ludicrous degree. Even when things do pick up from there, the editing is choppy, the narrative doesn’t connect particularly well, and Danny’s personality and decision making abilities are split somewhere between an adult man and a 12-year-old boy (which is no real fault of Jones’ — he comes off as charming). It leaves the show with a lot of moving parts and a lot of potential, but ultimately without a central drive or clear motivations.
Here’s what does work: Finn Jones has done a great job learning a variety of different fighting styles, and shows something different from what else we’ve seen in Marvel’s Netflix universe. The Iron Fist — which he rarely calls upon, instead relying just on his physical technique — is powerful, but Jones is a slender guy. It’s explained early on that Jones uses his enemies’ power against them, redirecting it away from him in a way that makes sense for his stature. It’s something we also see with the character of Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) — a fellow fighter Danny befriends — even if her story isn’t handled particularly well and her motivations aren’t really explored.
Six episodes in, it’s even hard to know who the real villain of Iron Fist is. Presumably, ultimately, it’s the Hand. But since that storyline also connects to Daredevil, that showdown might be saved for The Defenders. While the Meachums aren’t great villains, they are very layered, good characters (Ward and Joy are also believable siblings, and thank God we are spared from yet another televised incest storyline). Ward’s jealousy over Danny is something that builds over time, with flashbacks and allusions to their complicated relationship. It works well (especially as some unexpected, very subtle comic relief). Joy, who initially just seems like a pawn, ends up being one of the most shrewd and calculating characters, one who is increasingly pulled into a moral quagmire and forced to consider who she is now, and who she wants to be. And yet, there are times when the show just seems like one large spat among bratty billionaires.
Once Danny is able to install himself back at the company, receive his fortune, and becomes a one-percenter, he also attempts a kind of crusade against corporate malfeasance, with some help from Jessica Jones’ Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss). Hogarth is one of two visual connecting factors in the series — the other is a very awkwardly shoe-horned Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) — but it also makes it less and less believable as each show wears on that the eventual Defenders haven’t run into each other, or that these connecting characters don’t bother mentioning other supers they know in the same neighborhood. That, at this point, is less believable than a man with an Iron Fist from another dimension. (The series does gain some points back though for filming almost everything in daylight, however).
Some have written about the fact that The Hand was incorperated into Daredevil’s second season as a way to open up the supernatural aspects of this world in a more overt way, because Iron Fist is the most “out there” of the Defender storylines. But the Iron Fist series takes no real joy in this, and instead gives us a plodding tale of corporate injustice, only flirting with a more engaging visual and storytelling style. Any of these elements could be interesting on their own, but they come together here in a largely humorless melange of tone.
Each Marvel Netflix series is different, and they aren’t tailored to appeal to everyone. Daredevil has never been my speed, though I adored Jessica Jones. I loved the first four episodes of Luke Cage, which earned it a 5-star review at the time, but once I watched the rest of the series I very much wished to downgrade it. I say this because I don’t want to pick on Iron Fist, it’s just that we’ve seen these issues in the other series, and Iron Fist didn’t learn from them. If anything, it doubled-down on the problems. Because of that, my patience is up with these Defender solo seasons. Iron Fist isn’t terrible, and some of it is actually very good, but it should be so much better. What could have been the boldest series is instead the quietest. Seriously … in the comics, the man gets his powers from punching a dragon in the heart, but that’s withheld from us? If I wanted to focus more on reality I wouldn’t spend so much time watching superhero TV.
Rating: ★★★ – As my colleague Dave Trumbore put it: “It’s Kung Pow Enter the Fist meets John from Cincinnati”
Iron Fist premieres March 17th on Netflix