Marvel's Iron Fist: Netflix series lands like a soft slap, not a super-powered punch

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Mar 8, 2017

In the new Netflix show Marvel's Iron Fist, Danny Rand can channel his chi into his hands for a nearly indestructible, super-powered punch ... yet the show itself arrives with less of a wallop and more of a soft tap.

After two seasons of Daredevil and one each of Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, 13 episodes of Iron Fist premieres on Netflix on March 17. Based on the first six episodes made available to press, the Finn Jones-starring vehicle – which leads into this year's The Defenders crossover – is the weakest of the NYC street-level bunch.

While showrunner Scott Buck (Dexter) may have intended this show to take its time getting to any build-up, Iron Fist instead plods from the outset and lacks a clear direction. Whereas its Marvel/Netflix predecessors started strong but ran into pacing problems in the back half (and I still really enjoyed them), those benefited from excellent casting of both protagonist and antagonist and featured pretty stellar fight sequences.

Iron Fist is missing these, as well as the all-important Netflix Bingeability Quotient (NBQ; yes, I made that up), where each chapter needn't end on a cliffhanger, but teases the viewer just enough to need to watch the next ep. It isn't terrible, but Iron Fist is not particularly interesting, either. And it dings a pretty reliable franchise model just as fans should be excited for The Defenders.

For more details, let's head into Spoiler country.

The plot

Based on the comic character that debuted in 1974, Iron Fist begins with billionaire orphan Danny Rand (Finn Jones) returning to New York City after the plane carrying him and his parents went down 15 years ago somewhere over the Himalayas. As it turns out, he'd been training as a kung-fu master in the hidden, mystical city of K'un L'un – and is the latest in near-mythical chosen one 'Iron Fists' who can focus their chi and punch things real good.

Long presumed dead, he shows up in rags with the hope re-connecting with his family company Rand Enterprises and his childhood pals Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup). He also connects with another martial artist, self-defense instructor Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who moonlights as an illegal cage fighter. He learns The Hand, the sworn enemies of K'un L'un – and the group of ninjas we met in Daredevil – are operational in the city and have infiltrated the family business. Somehow connected to all this is Harold Meachum (David Wenham), the co-founder of Rand Enterprises, who is dead to the world yet dwells in a hidden penthouse monitoring his children via secret cameras.

The characters

Admittedly, being a secretly-trained presumed dead billionaire returning to the big city to reclaim his life is well-tread territory in the superhero genre after Batman Begins and Arrow. So Finn Jones (previously seen as Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones) already had his work cut out for him.

It seems Jones is aiming for a Zen-like interpretation of Danny; he is naïve from his time away from the world yet supposedly possesses a sage-like wisdom and is a living weapon. But this makes Danny seem like a trust fund kid who dropped out of school (Philosophy major) and chooses to live on the streets. The character doesn't have any real charisma, and there isn't much to connect to that made me want to follow him on his journey.

Though genuinely good-natured, Danny has no common sense (as if people won't get upset when they learn he's broken into their home, or that corporate security may try to stop the guy in tatters without I.D. trying to breeze through a checkpoint). What complicates matters is that there is no alter-ego for him to play with. At least with Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen, the clueless rich kid was the mask, which could be removed to reveal the true hero. Here, Danny is just Danny.

Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing is capable and likable and a character that I wanted more time with in these six episodes. She teaches her students not to fight for fun, only defense, but she relishes kicking the crap out of cocky brawlers at illegal cage matches. She's the character that deserves to don a mask and fight crime in the city. However, Colleen too often plays student to Danny's instructor (I'll touch more on that below).

The Meachum clan is, well, underdeveloped. Ward and Joy react to Danny's initial appearance by trying to have him killed and then committed to a psych ward. The characters slightly overreact, OK? And when Ward, who likely views Patrick Bateman as a role model, has nothing else to do, he develops a pill-popping addiction out of nowhere.

Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple does turn up, but whereas her appearance made sense in the other Netflix series, Iron Fist doesn't seem to know what to do with her here. She again serves as a night nurse in a pinch, and patches up a Russian scientist who was held hostage by The Hand, but she is a bit too shoehorned here. While they may solve this problem in the second half of the season, it did irk me that Danny mentions this group of ninjas – who nearly killed her off in Daredevil Season 2 – and she didn't offer to get her super friends to help out. Dawson is still great in the role, but, moving forward, the Netflix shows need to figure out how to best use her lest she simply becomes a connective cameo between these stories.

The villain

Vincent D'Onofrio, David Tennant, Jon Bernthal, Mahershala Ali: The Marvel Netflix model has a track record of casting damn fine actors as compelling, complicated, well-rounded foils for the hero. The straight-up most evil of them, Kilgrave (played by Tennant in Jessica Jones), still possessed a human quality, and even a likability, despite how detestable he was.

Iron Fist has no real villain, at least not in the first six episodes. In a general sense, there is The Hand, and Wai Ching Ho returns as crime boss Madame Gao – a character fun to watch, but best utilized as a puppet master operating in the shadows. But Danny Rand has no big bad to face off against, except perhaps his own self-doubt (which, he knows he's the Iron Fist, so he knows he’' 'chosen one' level of worthy).

The absence of a baddie (or even a best friend, or mentor, for that matter) is most certainly felt here – so much so that when Danny enters the gauntlet for an Episode 6 showdown, I was itching for any colorful villain I could get. The one-off Bride of Nine Spiders (Jane Kim) ends up being the most memorable antagonist thus far in the series.

The action

Speaking of Episode 6, the RZA-directed "Immortal Emerges From Cave," is the best of the bunch. The Wu-Tang Clan leader rolls out a story that comes closest to exciting fans of kung-fu and the comics.

Even then, the kung-fu action in Iron Fist is sparse and infrequent and shot in a series of low-lit, fast-edit sequences. Yes, there are close-quarters fights, in a hallway or in a truck trailer, but they don't match the intensity of, say, Daredevil getting severely beat down (and still getting up) on his way to save a little kid.

And because it doesn't look much like Jones in some of these sequences, the fights don't have close-up intimacy. A great hand-to-hand-to-sword-to-axe-to-iron-fist fight should involve the camera getting out of the way and remaining pretty still while beautifully choreographed brutality plays out in full view. That is missing here.

That diversity problem

It is worth discussing the diversity problem Iron Fist has faced since casting a white guy in the part of Danny Rand. I think an Asian actor could have been the traditionally white character, although I likewise recognize it could be problematic to once again cast an Asian actor as a chosen-one martial artist. However, I was by-and-large OK with Finn Jones as Danny, and wanted to see what he could do.

However. It is uncomfortable watching white boy Danny explain concepts of martial arts and Eastern spirituality to Asian woman Colleen Wing. Someone in the writer's room should have flagged this as a no-no (and double-flagged it for mansplaining). Plus, it would seem someone, anyone (like Madame Gao, for instance), could question this white rich kid's role as an Iron Fist. Unfortunately, with so much time spent in the fairly monochromatic boardrooms of the corporate world and less time in the multicultural streets of a lived-in New York City, the optics of Iron Fist do not do a whole lot to address earlier criticisms. And this is something that could have been handled with clever writing and by putting Danny in the hot seat a little.

Marvel's Iron Fist is the last bit of new superhero action we'll get from Netflix until The Defenders, which is a bit of a shame. While mostly harmless, the series fails to excite or ignite anticipation for the culmination of a 'phase one' in this TV pocket of the MCU. Outside of the reliable track record of the other Marvel Netflix shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, this would still be fairly unremarkable TV. Compared to its siblings, Iron Fist is more forgettable than immortal.