Iron Fist is the latest entry into Netflix and Marvel’s collaborative effort to bring us the stories of Marvel’s street level heroes. Following in the footsteps of what many have seen as the progressively better outings in Daredevil, Jessica Jones and most recently Luke Cage, Iron Fist had a huge legacy to live up to. With a pre-production black eye in what critics see as just the latest mishandling by Marvel of its Asian-influenced heroes, a main character that tests the limits of fans’ obscurity tolerance, and a cast devoid of overall star power, Iron Fist was bound to struggle. There are redeeming qualities to this series, but a lot of content you’d expect out of a show that introduces you to a man that refers to himself as a living weapon isn’t there. If you’re a fan of what Marvel’s done in this medium already and you’re excited to learn a little more about the last addition to the impending Defenders series, Iron Fist is a great binge. But there are a lot of flaws to this show, most of which I think could’ve been avoided.
The Immortal Iron Fist is a character with a story that won’t surprise anyone that’s seen anything Marvel has made since 2008. Iron Fist, or Danny Rand, is yet another rich kid that undergoes a great trauma and emerges as a hero of singular ability, destined to save something or other. The point of power for this particular hero is also his title: the Iron Fist, a force of concentrated Chi gifted to Danny by a dragon in a cave in a mystical city in the Himalayas. If that description seems cursory, know that I gave you almost exactly as much as all 13 episodes of the show give you, total. Knowing that Danny Rand comes from an ancient kung fu city with the gift and title of the Iron Fist must’ve gotten anyone that’s ever owned anything with Bruce Lee on it pumped! It’s just too bad that one of its biggest selling points for this show ends up being one of its biggest letdowns.
This may have something to do with the casting of aggressively whiny and professional shifter of blame Finn Jones. Most likely remembered as Loras Tyrell from Game of Thrones, Finn Jones is still a relative newcomer, which again isn’t anything new with the Marvel/Netflix shows, with Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones having the most screen cred prior to powering up. To say Finn Jones was miscast would be misplaced blame because he does the best with what he’s given. The characterization of Danny is a dichotic amalgam of guru hipsterism and privileged rich kid which more often than not comes across as incredibly irritating, and also represents one of the points where I think this show really missed an opportunity.
Each of the other Netflix shows has an overarching theme, a narrative behind the narrative that can be at times thinly veiled but tends to represent issues of great importance. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage exemplified this by dealing with women’s/domestic violence issues and the Black experience, respectively, and I think Iron Fist could have dealt with mental illness/post traumatic stress disorder in kind. They spend half the show with Danny’s hands at the side of his head, staving off memories of a plane crash, talking to masters that aren’t there and fighting off bouts of rage. But instead of delving into this issues, they just have him either fight or center his Chi. One of the characters mentions how unhealthy this practice is but that’s the extent of examining the issue. And that’s just another in a plethora of missed opportunities and weird choices Iron Fist makes.
The more menacing antagonists in Iron Fist are the shared universe all around bad guy group, the Hand. In Daredevil, we had an all encompassing, ninja infested death cult, as focused on creating unkillable warriors as it was dominating the heroin game. Now, the Hand appears to be a summer camp for at risk youth, run by a guy so clearly up to no good that his “we’re the good guys” schtick elicits immediate eyerolls. And you want to talk about miscasting? Ramon Rodriguez as the latter episodes’ antagonist doesn’t work for me at all. In the show largely devoid of recognizable star power (save for the ageless awesomeness of Rosario Dawson) this gray area bad guy would have been the perfect place for talent. I hate to continue to compare all of the other Marvel TV shows but when you go Vincent D’Onofrio, David Tennant, Mahershala Ali, and then Ramon Rodriguez… one of these things is not like the other.
Luckily, outside of old Ramon, the rest of the cast does a great job filling out the roster or necessary roles and are genuinely more interesting than Danny. This show would be completely boring and ultimately plotless without Jessica Henwick, one of the best female characters in any Marvel property. Her role as Colleen Wing is so appropriately utilized within the plot that her development as a character feels organic and pointed. Joy and Ward Meachem, Danny’s childhood friends and progeny of Danny’s father business partner Harold, create this interesting character triangle with their father by representing both sides of his dual personality (another opportunity to delve into mental health) while flirting with helping and hindering Danny’s return to his old life as the show progresses. Iron Fist has a barely-there plot that focuses on philanthropy versus capitalism in the corporate world and the Meachem siblings represent that struggle, even more so when they’re brought into contact with Danny.
Focusing on the Hand as the main trouble for the Iron Fist, or the difficulties or the corporate world Danny Rand is thrust back into, is something the show hopes to intertwine, but instead of all of this generating a grand conspiracy for our hero, it becomes a muddled narrative filled with bad guys that seem to be eviling by accident, particularly Harold Meachem. This show is filled to the brim with plots that seem poised to take over and genuinely be interesting but never pan out. Whether it’s illegal fight clubs, corporate-backed heroin rings, immortality; all these things have the clout to run for three or four episodes but barely get throw away mentions after they make an appearance.
Iron Fist treats us to a watered down second run version of a shadowy syndicate and dispatches them in much less interesting showdowns than the first time we saw them in Daredevil. We’re gifted with a protagonist that never really seems to be super or heroic, much more Walker, Texas Ranger than anything from Kung Fu’s glory days. With decades of movies and TV shows martial arts fans would have love to see blatantly ripped off, a show about a character that follows all the tropes you’d expect from a Buddhist monk turned billionaire is decidedly untropey. We never really get an origin story, skirting around the periphery of what we really want to know: what is the Iron Fist, who bestows it, what was K’un-Lun like and why did Danny leave? That last part ties back into one of the shows biggest missed opportunity to reflect on PTSD and mental health, but they cover the how and why so flippantly that it doesn’t really seem to register as a legitimate reason.
The fight sequences rarely showcase this supposed kung fu master. It’s not like Netflix and Marvel don’t know how to choreograph a fight scene; Daredevil’s initial pull for so many viewers was its brutal sequences. And it’s not that they can’t showcase a hero with an augmented power set fighting normal people either; both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage could destroy almost anyone they come to blows with. The mishandling of the skillset seems as much a misunderstanding of the character as it was poor direction. Having a character that most accurately represents a focus on fighting technique and raw power somehow comes off lacking both.
Everything about this show screams that if it’s going to get one thing right, it’s going to be the martial arts. The Iron Fist is supposed to be an immortal living weapon, trained in every form of kung fu by extradimensional monks in a hidden ancient city and gifted a magical fist by a dragon the marks his champion with a DRAGON TATTOO IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS CHEST. Every single fight scene the Iron Fist participates in should be either a ballet of efficiency or an exhibition of brutality. But more often than not, Danny comes across as outmatched by seemingly normal fighters, even people that seem to have no legitimate training at all. And if you tell me having superheroes fight normals is never any fun, I’ve got plenty of movies and shows that prove otherwise.
Case in point is the most blatant, and frankly from the outset, most exciting episode that mimics Bruce Lee’s Game of Death. Danny is challenged as the Iron Fist to duel with three different style of fighters, spending the entire fight literally speaking with the ghost of someone I knew was supposed to be incredibly important, but never met for the rest of the show. This tournament to the death never feels that important and ultimately is part of yet another frivolous plotline that’s. This episode should’ve been the major talking point for the entire series but instead seemed like a heavy handed but surprisingly cheap knock off.
And still, I watched every second of this show with rapt attention. I’m a Marvel fanboy so my ability to differentiate the why I enjoy this material so much from my critical analysis is hard at times. Extricating my experience from overall enjoyment was tough, but I think this show could’ve been so much more. The performances are there, the character is interesting enough. The fight scenes, while not as amazing as they could’ve and should’ve been, are still engrossing, if not too often shot in oppressively dark of hallways. And for the lack of a positive impression Finn Jones left on me, he does intensity and bravado quite well. I feel like the world of Iron Fist is a world I want to know more about, which is something that a lot of shows based on preexisting media can struggle with. It just sucks that the most interesting Iron Fist in this show kicks ass in a grainy video from the ‘40s.
Iron Fist does have some redeeming qualities but they’re too few and far between to give an unencumbered recommendation. If you’ve watched all of the other Netflix/Marvel shows, and are excited about the crossover series The Defenders, this is almost required viewing. Just be prepared for the guy you’d think would kick the most ass to kick surprisingly less ass than you’d imagine. I’d also like to give an additional shoutout to Jessica Henwick as the best love interest in recent memory and Netflix show stalwart Rosario Dawson for continuing to kill it as Claire. I like this show a lot more than it deserves, because it’s given me a lot of reasons not to, but I had an enjoyable watching experience, buffeted by my binging abilities. This show has me wanting the second season to happen right now! It’s just a pity that it’s mostly for the wrong reasons.