Executive Producers Scott Buck, Jeph Loeb and Jim Chory
Premiere exclusively on 17th March, 2017 on Netflix
Six episodes watched for review.
Marvel has carved-out a nice little corner for themselves on Netflix. The streaming giant has become a place for Marvel to highlight some lesser-known heroes and not stick so closely to the rigidity of their MCU films. From this form sprung a gritty, bloody take on Daredevil that also managed to feature the first successful live-action interpretation of The Punisher; a bad-ass, diverse and modern Luke Cage and arguably their greatest achievement, the trauma-filled Jessica Jones. This being Marvel, these shows are all building towards a big crossover show, The Defenders. But there’s one piece of the puzzle missing: Danny Rand, aka the Iron Fist. Which brings us to Marvel & Netflix’s latest show, and, unfortunately, their first real misfire, Iron Fist.
The other Marvel Netflix shows were not without their flaws: without exception, all the shows run for too many episodes (psst, cut them down to 8 episodes, Marvel. Please). And recent show Luke Cage started out incredibly strong only to fizzle out midway through. But for the most part, there was much to praise about these first three Marvel/Netflix shows. Iron Fist does not earn such a distinction. The show is maddeningly flat, to the point that you find yourself wondering why you’re even watching it. One wishes Marvel had just approached Danny Rand the same way they approach Hawkeye in the MCU films: instead of giving him his own property to carry, why not just have him show up, assumed to already be a member of the team?
Like all of these shows, Iron Fist is set in New York, and it’s New York that Danny Rand (Finn Jones) returns home to after being presumed dead. Sporting a head of hair styled after Justin Timberlake’s NSYNC days and strolling around the streets of NYC barefoot (gross), Danny returns to his father’s multi-million dollar company and expects to be welcomed with open arms. Instead, security guards try to toss him out on his ass. His childhood friends Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup), who run the company now, greet Danny with with doubt, and for good reason — years ago, the plane carrying Danny and his parents crashed somewhere in the Himalayas, and the family was declared dead. Danny’s parents perished in the crash, but Danny was rescued and raised by a group of warrior monks to become the Iron Fest, a metaphysical butt kicker with a hand that glows gold.
A large chunk of the early Iron Fist episodes consist of Danny insisting again and again that he is who he says is, while Ward and Joy continue to assume he’s some nut or conman. This makes for maddening, frustrating TV, because we already know Danny is who he says he is, so having to sit and watch him keep repeating it drags the show down before it even has a chance to get off the ground. Once Danny’s identity is firmly established, the show starts to pick up a little speed as it sets up Danny’s mission: defeat the evil ninja organization known as The Hand. Along the way he reconnects with Joy; learns that the believed-to-be-deceased father of Joy and Ward, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), is actually alive and hiding out in a secret penthouse; and befriends self-reliant karate teacher Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). Realizing that Danny isn’t enough to support the narrative on his own, Iron Fist tries to flesh things out by giving its supporting cast more to do, with lackluster results. Ward grapples with his conflicted feelings with his father, while Colleen gets involved in underground street fighting for the thrill. Oh, and ever-reliable nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) shows up as well, to do her thing. That thing being what she does in all the Marvel shows: patch up people’s wounds and stand on the sidelines with her arms crossed, frowning. Dawson, to her credit, continues to make this paper-thin character enjoyable, but she deserves better. So do we.
The elephant in Iron Fists room are charges of whitewashing, and for good reason. In the comics, Danny Rand is caucasian, and part of the character’s schtick is that he’s a privileged white kid who learns to master martial arts. But there’s an uncomfortable white savior association with such characterization here — the white guy who masters an Asian art and comes back to show everyone how it’s done — that could’ve easily been avoided had Marvel thought to cast an Asian American actor in the role. To make matters worse, there are several scenes where Danny explains Asian culture to Asian characters, in a tone that implies he knows better than they do, and that really doesn’t sit right at all. You can’t even use the standard Hollywoodism of “They just cast the right person for the role,” because the fact is Finn Jones is lifeless as Danny. The character is too much of a blank slate — we have no idea what, exactly, Danny feels about anything. His life was stolen from him when he was still a child, and he was forced to learn to be a warrior, so perhaps Danny is stuck in a state of arrested development. But mostly, he just seems like a dope, oblivious to the fact that people he keeps turning to for help clearly don’t have his best interests in mind. Jones plays all of this with too much of a straight-face; there’s no life to this performance, and worse, no heart. Not helping matters is the fact that the character is so dreadfully boring; about as exciting as Styrofoam packing peanuts. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better. Jessica Stroup has very little to work with, other than scowling, and Tom Pelphrey is in a constant state of sniveling. David Wenham and Jessica Henwick manage to shine brightest, with Wenham clearly having fun with how silly this material is and Henwick bringing an awesome physicality to her part. But it’s not enough to rescue things.
Even without the specter of whitewashing, Iron Fist in this incarnation would be a disappointment. There simply isn’t enough here to warrant a compelling, or even passable, show. And for a series that is essentially about a man who is an unstoppable fighting machine, the fights in Iron Fist are curiously lacking. Be it through poor choreography or editing, none of the battles seem particularly believable or impactful, especially when compared to the more impressive beat-downs from fellow Marvel Netflix show Daredevil. And yes, in case you were wondering, there is a big fight scene in a hallway, because I guess Marvel thinks that’s what people want from these shows. Iron Fist may fit in better when he’s part of The Defenders team, with more interesting characters to bounce off of and counterbalance how boring he is. On his own, though, there’s not a whole lot here to embrace. Marvel may have had a mostly successful run with Netflix so far, but Iron Fist is their first real stumble.