Netflix and Marvel, under the watchful eye of acclaimed comic creator Jeph Loeb, have had a pretty darn solid run so far. They successfully brought Daredevil to the realm of live action, a trick that Mark Steven Johnson and Ben Affleck couldn’t manage to pull off almost 15 years ago. They took a beautifully written neo-noir comic book, Alias, and turned it into an equally beautiful season of television named after its protagonist, Jessica Jones. Luke Cage, a long time fan favorite, was next on the docket. By paying homage to the blaxploitation film movement of the 70s and infusing it with a hip hop sensibility, Luke Cage was a triumphant introduction to the non-comic reading masses. Along with a strong second season of Daredevil that introduced new versions of both the Punisher and Elektra, Marvel and Netflix’s collaboration has been on a pretty solid roll. And now, their newest iteration of a beloved Marvel property is fully available to lose a weekend of sleep over. But the question is, does Iron Fist stand shoulder to shoulder with its peers as well as set the stage for the Defenders, Marvel and Netflix’s massive ensemble effort to bridge their franchises the way Joss Whedon did with the Avengers in 2012?
Honestly? Not really.
I had considered reviewing this series episode by episode, but given the nature of its structure, and the emphasis Netflix tends to place on “binge watching”, it just seems prudent to treat Iron Fist like a movie. A long, aimless, inconsistent movie. Honestly, I had trouble coming to a frank conclusion on Iron Fist, because each of its sister shows were such strong, fun, stylistically inventive programs, and there were several instances over the course of the season where I found myself wondering if I was judging Iron Fist based on the merits of its contemporaries as opposed to it’s own. But ultimately, Iron Fist is a lukewarm, often problematic, and unfortunately kind of boring take on the defender of the mystical city of K’un-Lun.
For those not familiar with the character, Iron Fist is about a young man named Danny Rand (played by Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). After his family’s plane crashed somewhere in the Himalayas, leaving young Danny an orphan, he spends 15 years in a magic city learning Kung Fu, and becomes a super powered champion known as the Iron Fist. Upon returning home to New York City, he finds himself fighting an uphill battle to reclaim his identity and his heritage, as well as the corporation his father built. Taking care of the company in his absence are Ward and Joy Meachum (played by Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup respectively), his childhood best friends, and offspring of his father’s business partner Harold Meachum (played by David Wenham of Lord of the Rings and 300 fame). Along the way he meets a martial arts instructor, Colleen Wing (played by Jessica Henwick), and Marvel tv series stalwart Claire Temple (again played by Rosario Dawson). Over the course of 13 episodes, we find ourselves trying to uncover the machinations of the evil, mystical criminal organization known as the Hand. If you’ve been following the Marvel series thus far, you might recognize the Hand as the slow burning series antagonist of Daredevil. Considering the prior track record Marvel/Netflix has had at realizing similar elements so effectively (tight martial arts choreography, season long mysteries, and tight, well-built narratives), you’d think Iron Fist would be another slam dunk. Unfortunately, Iron Fist just never seems to find a consistent stride. In fact, if I were to pick a single word to describe my overall takeaway from Iron Fist, it would be “inconsistent”.
Iron Fist just can’t ever seem to find a clear focus. From episode to episode, or even just scene to scene, character motivations often change on a whim. Danny, our primary protagonist, can go from petulant manchild suffering from severe arrested development to introspective man of wisdom in the very next scene. While I totally understand that people have many facets to their personality, these jarring transitions come off as almost schizophrenic. And the frequency with which his personality can change from episode to episode undermines any major character arcs they are hoping to convey by the time you reach the end of the season. I will say though that Finn Jones is clearly a talented actor, and he does the best he can with the material he’s given. And unfortunately, that idea acts as a sort of microcosm for the series as a whole. You have talented people trying hard to keep a fractured production afloat. I will say though, that as a whole, that effort keeps the series from ever dipping into “just plain bad” territory.
While the series lacks any kind of unified vision for what it wants to be, or any kind of bold stylistic approach that gives it a sense of distinction, it’s production values are still on par with everything Marvel/Netflix has presented before. While I was admittedly hoping for much more in terms of the martial arts choreography, because, you know, Kung Fu is a kind of important element of the story, it’s action choreography is still more than passable, opting for wide shots and good-looking acrobatics. The show is shot well, making good use of it’s New York backdrop. Even the writing, barring the noted trouble with establishing a consistent tone and sense of purpose, manages to tie the disparate elements together competently. And I will even say that a few of the performances stand out as really quite good.
Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing is great. Her character feels the most developed of any of them, and Henwick makes the most out of what she’s given. She’s a strong character with arguably the most consistent motivations throughout the course of the show, even when a midseason revelation threatens to shake up the dynamic she’s created. Unlike Danny Rand, Colleen Wing has a clear arc over the course of the season, making her the easiest character to relate to, and certainly the most compelling. Rosario Dawson is just a delight. And frankly, as ham-fisted of an addition as her character is in the show, her presence and charisma make up for the fact that her character is used almost solely to maintain continuity between the other shows that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, she perks up a number of otherwise dull scenes just by virtue of having her personality in the mix. I would also like to mention Wai Ching Ho, who plays the always mysterious Madame Gao. As another character who has been around since the first season of Daredevil, her ability to straddle the line between sinister and cryptically aware of some greater goings on, often times keeps the threat from fizzling out before we get to the climactic last third of the season.
Ultimately, by the end of 13 episodes, you’re left with a largely forgettable season of television. It’s not bad, but never really rises above just okay. It certainly leaves open some questions that I’m curious to see answered, though I couldn’t tell you whether it will ultimately be picked up for another season, or if any of those questions will be answered in the follow-up series, the Defenders. It’s a show of missed opportunities, where it often attempts to explain things as opposed to show them (Danny’s 15 years in a magic Kung Fu dimension is almost entirely left to exposition, showing almost none of it). And frankly, a clear sense of focus could have lessened nearly all the major gripes I have with it, even if that focus was just something as simple as paying homage to the Kung Fu movies that inspired the character in the first place. But as it stands, Iron Fist is an overall tepid experience that you probably won’t find yourself hustling to see to completion.
Barry is a freelance artist and writer. Check out his webcomic Mind the Exit