Iron Fist is unquestionably the worst product to come out of the partnership between Marvel and Netflix thus far. The show is ripe with flaws, nearly every episode has something noticeably off or wrong, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Marvel series past. The show is not entirely unwatchable; a handful of skillful performances and a number of well-executed fight scenes make Iron Fist fun to watch about half of the time. However, it’s hard not to feel like the show is a step backward for the Marvel/Netflix saga.
Iron Fist follows the story of Danny Rand, heir to Rand Enterprises, and his reintroduction to the world after 15 years spent in the mystical, inter-dimensional monastery K’un-Lun. Rescued by monks after a plane crash in the Himalayas killed both of his parents, Danny, played by Game of Thrones star Finn Jones, was trained in martial arts and eventually chose to bear the mantle of the Iron Fist, the Immortal Weapon and protector of K’un-Lun. When he centers his chi, Danny’s fist lights up with the power of Shou Lao the dragon, letting him break through metal doors and defeat enemies with a single punch. When the path to K’un-Lun reopens, Danny returns to New York to reclaim his company and his identity as Danny Rand.
It’s a story we’ve seen plenty of times before. When a mangy and barefoot Danny arrives in New York, attempting to convince those who knew him before the crash that he is who he says he is, it’s hard not to think of Oliver Queen and Tony Stark and their similar homecoming stories. Although Danny’s re-entry into the world eventually plays out differently than those heroes, the amount of super-powered billionaires on screen is certainly reaching a critical mass.
From the first episode, problems begin to present themselves. It feels as if the premiere will never end. Only so many people can discard Danny’s story before the constant rejections begin to feel insufferable. Pacing is the single biggest issue in Iron Fist; many of the remaining problems and complaints stem from the poor pacing of the entire series. It makes the series aggressively mediocre and boring. Only two or three of the thirteen episodes feel fluid and well-paced, and all the rest contain either a scene that lingers too long or a mishandled progression of the narrative. The overall, season-length story is poorly paced as well; the series is slow to start, too many things happen too quickly in the middle episodes, and the show simply peters out near the end.
Another major problem with Iron Fist, evident from the first episode, is Danny Rand himself. Finn Jones’s performance is stilted, unbelievable, and inconsistent, but it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly the problems lie. Jones looks the part well enough, but it’s hard to believe that he was the best Marvel and Netflix could find. However, the writing is laughably weak in some instances, and it’s unlikely that any actor would be able to deliver some of the worse lines in any effective manner. The biggest problem with Danny though is that he’s horribly inconsistent. Jones acts and emotes in each scene well enough, but there doesn’t seem to be any continuity to the character. He feels like a different character in every episode, and on a platform designed to binge-watch shows, it’s a significant flaw.
This inconsistency plagues much of the cast. Another glaring example of this is Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) who, alongside her brother Ward (Tom Pelphrey), runs Rand Enterprises after her father, the company’s co-founder Harold Meachum, dies. Throughout the series, Joy’s actions and words clash with her established character. Her actions are unexpected–not surprising or interesting, but inconsistent and unbelievable. Joy is easily the worst aspect of the entire show, and, by the final few episodes, her scenes are nearly unbearable to watch.
The fact that the same problems appear in multiple characters supports the idea that the bulk of the blame for Irons Fist’s problems is the writing, both in the dialogue and the narrative. When Danny spends three minutes on a non-sequitur about K’un-Lun, or when Joy tears into her brother in one scene and fully supports him the next, it’s hard to criticize the actors. There’s only so many ways to deliver bad dialogue. Danny and Joy both struggle with their identity through the series, but when there’s no consistent foundation for their characters, their decisions have absolutely no weight.
That’s not to say that every performance in Iron Fist is subpar. The entire series is carried on the shoulders of a select few. Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meachum is particularly well done. Pelphrey nails the stuck-up, no-nonsense executive-type in the story’s beginning, and his arc is by far the most interesting in the show. His struggles with addiction, work, and his father are handled and acted better than most everything else in the series.
Ward is the only one who knows that his father, Harold Meachum, is alive and living secluded in a penthouse in the city (this is revealed within the first two episodes). After being resurrected by The Hand, in a manner presumably similar to Nobu from Daredevil, Harold has spent the past thirteen years secretly running the business through Ward, in accordance to the Hand’s wishes.
The Hand, the sworn enemy of The Iron Fist, is back and has infested Rand Enterprises. Madame Gao, reprising her role from Daredevil, returns as the leader of the deadly, mysterious group. When her synthetic heroin appears on the streets, Danny makes it his mission to fight back against The Hand, both as Danny Rand and as Iron Fist. Wai Ching Ho gives a fantastic performance as Gao. She is calm yet intimidating, believable yet manipulative. Her one-on-one interactions with the rest of the cast are chilling and effective.
Despite Gao’s performance, Iron Fist’s other major flaw is its antagonists. Harold Meachum, Gao, and two different sects of The Hand make up the forces working against Danny at one point or another. A hero is only as good as his villains, and much of what made Daredevil and Jessica Jones so engaging was Wilson Fisk and Killgrave, some of the best villains in the entire MCU. In Iron Fist, the antagonists are needlessly ambiguous and take up each other’s space. It’s hard to know who the bad guys even are, but not in a way that keeps the audience guessing. There’s no depth here, just ambiguity and a lack of clarity.
The fighting in Iron Fist is undeniably enjoyable. No scene is quite as good as the best found in Daredevil or Luke Cage, but there’s a number of sequences that are exciting and memorable. The fights are directed and choreographed well and professionally. It’s evident that those behind the scenes have done their research. It’s satisfying and refreshing to see a varied and generous offering of Eastern fighting styles on display. Many of the fights play like meticulously crafted dances as opposed to bouts of brute force. The fights don’t do enough to redeem Iron Fist completely, but when the characters shut up and start punching and kicking each other, the quality of the show is significantly increased.
Rosario Dawson also reprises her role as Claire Temple, making her the first to meet all four of the Defenders. While it’s getting harder and harder to justify her randomly meeting all these super-powered people, the show handles her introduction well. She plays her usual self, constantly questioning and calling out Danny on his more reckless decisions.
The undisputed high point of the show is Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick. Colleen runs a dojo for underprivileged teenagers and meets Danny while he is still on the street after his return to the city. The two’s relationship blossoms and grows into a friendship and, eventually, a romance. There’s a number of scenes where Danny and Colleen spar or meditate together, and the chemistry between the two is earned and evident. Colleen is extremely likable and believable, and watching her fight is consistently exciting. If the show was centered around Colleen instead of Danny, it may have been leagues better.
If Iron Fist had come out ten years ago, it might have been highly praised. However, it did not. Iron Fist does not exist in a vacuum, and the shadows of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage loom large. The show feels more like the worse seasons of cable superhero show like Arrow and Supergirl than it does the dark and gritty content that’s come to be expected from Netflix. There is, however, hope for Iron Fist. Perhaps a more skilled director or writer can turn Danny Rand around in The Defenders. We won’t have to wait too long to find out.