Volume 6, Issue 11!
“TV Review: Iron Fist”
Now that Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have had their time in the Netflix spotlight, it’s time for Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, to get his chance to grace the streaming service. While the early reviews for the latest Marvel Netflix series haven’t been great (to put it mildly), I was still pretty intrigued by the show. After all, how would Marvel Studios go about adapting Iron Fist, a character that has a more mystical background than any of the other members of the Defenders?
Well for starters, you play down any and all mysticism associated with the character.
One of the biggest flaws of Iron Fist, and there are quite a few, is that we don’t see much of the mystical world of K’un-Lun. When we first meet Danny Rand (played by Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones), he’s arrived back in New York City at the front steps of Rand Industries, the company started by his father. He looks aloof, and more than a little homeless, but still casually strides right into the front doors, asking for the heads of the company. Since he’s been missing and presumed dead for fifteen years, naturally things go a little awry, and after taking down some security guards, he makes his way to the head offices, where the rest of Danny Rand’s journey begins.
The decision to start Iron Fist here is a pretty interesting one, and I give credit for not starting with an origin story, but as the series progresses it becomes more and more frustrating that the show tells us about the legacy of the Iron Fist, the mystical city of K’un-Lun, and the fact that Danny Rand gets his power from punching a dragon instead of, well, showing us any of it. When it comes time for the audience to question any of Danny Rand’s sanity (which occurs in the second episode of all places), it feels off, mainly because we haven’t seen any of his training. Up until this point in the series, we’ve only seen his parents die in a plane crash, and Danny waking up in the mountains with some monks. If we knew anything about his training, it would give us something to go with, and put us on his side. We’d be able to root for Danny because we’ve seen the truth, and not just heard him tell his story.
Weird story choices like this make Iron Fist frustrating at times to watch. More often than not, it seems like both Marvel Studios and show runner Scott Buck couldn’t find a solid handle on how they wanted to present Danny Rand’s story, and instead of delaying the series (which would’ve thrown this whole Netflix and Marvel Defenders plan into chaos), they decided to just soldier ahead. But that lack of direction is apparent from the beginning of the show. Much has been made about the critical reaction to Iron Fist, and a lot of that is because the first six episodes were given to critics to review. Danny Rand’s story doesn’t really get going until the fourth episode, and the opening three episodes are easily the worst in the whole series. It almost makes you wonder if Netflix and Marvel might be better off giving a few random episodes or clips for review, if only for the fact that all of these shows have had some duds for episodes. Unlike the other Marvel Netflix shows, Iron Fist’s most problematic (and boring) episodes occur in the front half of the season, which is probably why the show hasn’t received as warm of a welcome as its predecessors.
However, once the show gets going, it starts to find a groove. The high point is the sixth episode, which finally shows you what Iron Fist could be as a show. Directed by The RZA (yes, you read that right), it finds Danny Rand entering a competition with The Hand for the fate of a kidnapped girl. It’s very Enter The Dragon on a TV budget, but it works really well, and features some of the best fight scenes in the show. It’s the moment that the show finds itself, and while other episodes come close, it’s easily the standout of the thirteen episodes, and if you were only going to watch one, it’s the one I’d recommend.
Oh yeah, Iron Fist is also thirteen episodes, and just like Luke Cage, Daredevil, and even Jessica Jones there is no reason for it to be this long. There really must’ve been some weird clause in the Netflix contract that all of these season had to have the same number of episodes, because there are some very familiar beats that hit here. Once again, our hero loses his abilities. Once again, a villain character is (seemingly) killed. And once again, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is shoehorned in as the connective tissue, although here she has the most screen time and even gets to throw a few punches (yet never offers to call Matt Murdock or any of the other Defenders she knows for back up). Thankfully Defenders will only be eight episodes long, but I worry based on the track record established that a large chunk of those episodes will be used to set up the four leads meeting.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the casting of Finn Jones as Danny Rand, and while Jones probably won’t definitively silence any of his naysayers, he does a pretty good job with what is given him. Many of the problems that come from Rand aren’t due to Jones, but the writing, which has Danny Rand acting like a supreme bad ass one moment and then like a complete naïve kid the next. There’s also weird aspects of his character that are glossed over (when did he learn to drive exactly?). It would’ve been nice to take some time away from the series’ “villains” the Meachums to focus on Danny getting used to things that have changed in the fifteen years that he’s been gone. It’d work as a fun Marvel Netflix version of Captain America adjusting to modern life, and endear Danny to the audience even more.
Speaking of the Meachums, Ward and Harold Meachum (played by Tom Pelphrey and David Wenham, respectively), technically serve as our villains here, though Ward doesn’t follow the path you’d expect. You’ll get to spend a lot of time with the Meachums (some might say too much), but for the most part, they’re fairly interesting, with Harold, who faked his death for years, being the most intriguing of the group. There’s a subplot with Ward and his sister Joy (Jessica Stroup) that gets a little too soap opera-y for my tastes, but the characters do start to grow on you after awhile. They don’t reach the heights of Kingpin or Kilgrave, but they’re pretty solid threats that serve as a good way for Danny to confront his past and his idea of family.
Iron Fist also heavily features the Hand (who I mentioned earlier), and while I didn’t like their use in Daredevil’s second season, I actually really enjoyed this extended look into their forces here. The wide varieties of fighters they use, from the Bride of Nine Spiders to Zhou Cheng, are really cool, and hint at a larger world that will hopefully be explored in Defenders. The Hand here is less of a ninja clan and more like a rival crime gang, but this focus on them works really well when you see how much of New York City’s underworld they control. Madam Gao even returns in an extended role, and is easily one of the standouts in the series.
A lot of early reviews mentioned that the fight scenes were pretty lackluster. While they are pretty poorly staged early on, as the series continues (and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing gets into the action); they really start to pick up. But even these improvements can’t help Iron Fist deliver a truly satisfying finale, which is another villain that the Netflix shows still haven’t been able to defeat. There is a lot of plot crammed into the last two hours of the show, and a lot of Harold Meachum’s plan crumbles when you really step back and think about it.
In the end, Iron Fist is just in the “pretty good” category of Marvel Studios’ output. It doesn’t have a complete tonal shift like Daredevil season two, and there’s nothing as bad as Diamondback in Luke Cage. But it’s hard to figure out exactly what it’s trying to say. Daredevil dealt with themes of guilt and vengeance, Jessica Jones was about surviving trauma, and Luke Cage was about race and identity. After finishing Iron Fist, I’m still struggling to figure out what the underlying theme was, several hours after spending an entire weekend watching it. Is it about identity? Danny Rand does call himself “The Iron Fist” a lot. Is it about accepting a higher calling? Well that can’t be it, because Rand leaves K’un-Lun when he is supposed to be guarding it. It’s this lack of guidance from show runner Scott Buck that hurts the show. Here’s hoping Danny finds his way when he joins The Defenders.