After the successes of ‘Daredevil,’ ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘Luke Cage,’ Marvel and Netflix have their first big misstep.
After three straight creative successes, three above-average character introductions, the partnership between Marvel and Netflix was due for a dud.
This isn’t to say that Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have been shows without flaws. Marvel or Netflix’s insistence on doing 13-episode seasons in a format that demands no such rigidity has left each of the shows feeling strained at different points. Each show, though, has had virtues of tone and aspiration that made it feel like a complicated superhero TV code had been cracked.
Debuting on Netflix on Friday, March 17, Iron Fist feels like a step backward on every level, a major disappointment that already suffers from storytelling issues through the first six episodes made available to critics and would probably be mercifully skippable in its entirety if it weren’t the bridge into the long awaited Defenders crossover series.
Finn Jones stars as Danny Rand, heir to a multi-billion dollar business empire. Long thought dead after his family’s plane crash in the Himalayas, Danny returns to New York City looking merely to reclaim his identity, but old pals Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) Meachum have ascended to the top of Rand Enterprises and they aren’t eager to accept that the unkempt, shoeless stranger is the Danny Rand they lost 15 years earlier.
It goes without saying that Danny isn’t exactly the Danny who left. He’s spent his time receiving training in stunt-doubled martial arts and also racially and culturally drained Asian mysticism, which makes him prepared to face down, with the help of poor lighting and fast editing, the nefarious forces that view him as both a business threat to the new Rand hierarchy and a general threat to the evils encroaching on the city. Despite a hand that glows with supernatural power at seemingly random intervals and with entirely random strength, Danny can’t do this alone, and he finds support in dojo owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a gifted fighter who still needs Danny to condescendingly explain spirituality and kung fu to her.
So many of the things that its Netflix-Marvel predecessors did well are lacking in Iron Fist, attributes that include:
Street-level authenticity. From Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen to Luke Cage’s Harlem, these shows have thrived on location shooting in New York City, inhabiting neighborhoods and building characters that felt like they were spawned by their environments. Even if they were fictionalized versions of real parts of the city, they felt organic. For his wealth, Danny Rand is already instantly the least sympathetic of these new characters. His biggest decision in the early episodes is whether to accept a $100 million settlement or hold out indignantly for the slice of the company he deserves. Despite the austerity of his monastic training, his is a New York City of expensive brownstones and luxury apartments and, sadly, of uninterestingly designed opulence, as well as fleeting flashbacks to the Himalayas that aspire to neither accuracy nor flights of visual fancy. We may get an episode with real flashbacks eventually, but so far the mystical city of K’un-L’un is just styrofoam snow drifts that characters talk about while sitting around.
Subtext. Matt Murdock is driven by his Catholic guilt, Jessica Jones by traumatic assault and consent issues, Luke Cage by America’s multi-century history of imperiled black masculinity. Iron Fist arrives in a deep hole amid concerns about its curly-haired, blonde protagonist appropriating Asian culture, but the bigger problem ends up being that he’s barely even appropriating. There’s no specificity to Danny’s experience other than the most generic of identity crises — like the world needed another billionaire vigilante — and Jones is far too placid a leading man to give any sense of Danny’s internal torment. He’s not placid in a Zen way, just tepid like room temperature. Rather than being a man who found enlightenment through tragedy and disassociation from his upbringing, Danny comes across like a spoiled frat boy who took a Comparative Religion class and spends a few months picking up coeds by telling them he’s totally into meditation and tai chi now.
A worthy adversary to our hero. The first season of Daredevil was elevated by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk and the second season felt his general absence. David Tennant’s Kilgrave was so integral to Jessica Jones that his presence became suffocating at times. Luke Cage worked best when Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth and Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard were prominent. Iron Fist counters with petulant, spoiled Ward Meacham and the occasional domineering paternal presence of Harold Meachum (David Wenham), but the season’s real villain is, I guess, The Hand, the organization that was responsible for the Too Many Ninjas monotony that eventually ran the second Daredevil season into the ground. An interesting bad guy with objectives central to the individual show feels important to the crafting of the hero, and Iron Fist/Danny suffers from the absence of exactly that.
With no single, well-performed adversary standing against Danny, showrunner Scott Buck and the writers are putting way more pressure on Danny and on Finn Jones than the character or actor can sustain. Jones, best known as Loras from Game of Thrones, finds no darkness in Danny Rand’s internal struggle; the actor is actually at his best in Danny’s occasional bits of fish-out-of-water corporate bumbling, which definitely aren’t supposed to be the heart of the show.
It’s unclear if Jones’ lack of physical authority is dampening Iron Fist‘s ability to be an action show or if Iron Fist‘s lack of interest in being an action show has negated Jones’ ability to display physical authority. For five episodes, Danny’s fights are weakly staged and all-too-brief, without any effort to even pretend that the show’s leading man is doing any of his own stunts. Danny’s strength and his enhanced abilities are barely explained and inconsistently depicted, and an inordinate percentage of the early episodes is spent on Danny Rand, Generic Corporate Regulator, rather than Danny Rand, The Iron Fist. The sixth episode is the first time Danny participates in any sustained action, but even with renowned kung fu cinema aficionado RZA behind the camera, little in the choreography or presentation is memorable.
With all of the initial concerns about appropriation and the whitewashing of Asian themes at the center of the story, it isn’t surprising that Henwick is exactly good enough to make you wish that Colleen Wing were the focus of the series. At the very least, her fight scenes are more convincing, even as she’s constantly having her autonomy and areas of expertise second-guessed by a protagonist who looks like, and exhibits the urgency of, the missing Masterson brother.
The number of basic character archetypes missing in Iron Fist is baffling. There’s no villain, but there’s also no comic relief or voice of wise authority and well-delivered exposition. There’s nobody you like spending time watching. Ward is whiny, and his every decision is worse, and less motivated, than the one before. Joy’s skepticism toward Danny is well-earned, but too all-encompassing. Harold’s circumstances are strange, but not compelling, and Wenham is part of at least half the cast struggling to hold onto American accents. Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple pops up and, after five seasons of four Marvel-Netflix shows, nobody has yet figured out what her role in this universe is other than “continuity.”
Through six episodes, in addition to failing to introduce a main character I care about at all, Iron Fist hasn’t given me any season-long arc/objective that I could describe for you, much less one I’m curious to see resolved — and that’s before it hits that wall between episodes 7 and 12 that none of the Marvel shows has been immune to. For heaven’s sake, Iron Fist has already wasted the “Is our hero actually crazy?” gaslighting episode, a structural conceit that doesn’t work when you ask the audience to question everything we think we know about a character before we actually know anything about the character.
With a big four-hero mashup allegedly unfolding out of Iron Fist, this misstep couldn’t have come at a worse time for Marvel and Netflix. It’s a good thing I really like Daredevil, Jessica and Luke.
Cast: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, David Wenham, Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey.
Creator/Showrunner: Scott Buck
Premieres Friday, March 17 on Netflix.
‘Marvel’s Iron Fist’: TV Review – Hollywood Reporter