After three acclaimed TV ventures featuring Marvel’s “street level” heroes, Netflix appears to have hit a speed bump with Iron Fist.
Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were all kinds of riveting for a variety of reasons but this latest effort, introducing the guy who will team up with the other three to form The Defenders, doesn’t quite grab you and refuse to let go.
Iron Fist ran into a spot of bother very early on, when cries of whitewashing greeted the decision to have a white guy play a white character (?). Right – so the first martial arts hero on Marvel TV had to be … Oriental? Shades of “Hey, I bet you know kung fu.”
Anyway, the showrunners went ahead with Game Of Thrones’ Finn Jones as the title character Iron Fist, a.k.a. billionaire Danny Rand, and the show is out now. The verdict: alas, it isn’t all that great.
For one thing, there’s precious little story meat to fill out all 13 episodes of its first season. Netflix should really review the 13-episode format if there simply isn’t enough story to stretch that far. A significant amount of Iron Fist seems like filler, and not terribly interesting filler at that.
Seemingly half the show (actually more like a quarter, it just seems that long) is spent on Danny – missing for 15 years after a plane crash, trained in martial arts to be the protector of an other-dimensional city known as K’un-Lun – trying to convince people that he is indeed the heir to a multibillion-dollar corporation.
He is called the Iron Fist because he has gained the power to focus his chi into his fist, causing it to glow and become a powerful weapon of destruction. But more on that later.
Returning to New York, Danny meets Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), his childhood friends … though Ward was more of a tormentor than a pal.
They’re all grown up too and running Rand Corp, which was taken over by their dad Harold (David Wenham) after the crash that seemingly killed Danny and his parents. And then Harold died, too.
So, the Meachums are not about to just roll over when someone claiming to be the man who owns 51% of the company shows up without a shred of identification.
And surprise, surprise, Harold is not dead after all, as the world thinks. No, he’s actually being forced to live in seclusion while Rand Corp is used for a wide range of nefarious purposes by Daredevil baddies The Hand.
These villains show up in various forms and guises throughout the series, none of them more compelling than Wai Ching Ho’s quietly menacing Madame Gao. She, thankfully, has way more screen time than her previous appearances on Daredevil. Which is good, because she always commands attention when she’s around, and heaven knows this show could do with more attention-commanding material.
When he’s not being petulant and whiny about being unable to convince the world of his identity and intentions, Danny is busy building a hesitant romance with angry martial arts teacher Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).
Why is she always so angry? Even after we find out why, we’re still not sure. But at least her character arc is kind of interesting, and surprisingly, so is Ward’s. Pelphrey, who makes being a total patricidal jerk seem somehow vulnerable and almost affable, needs to be commended here.
Other characters, like Joy and Harold, get a bit stale after a time from overuse or inconsistent use. Some – like Colleen’s enigmatic sensei Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez), and Davos (Sacha Dhawan), Danny’s bro from K’un-Lun – are potentially interesting but given too little time or, again, put to inconsistent use. What’s with that whole Dark Knight Rises afternoon tea scene near the end, huh?
But it’s Iron Fist himself who doesn’t come off too well. Whether it’s Jones or the writers’ fault, Danny Rand comes across as a rather immature character whose barely-contained temper does not speak well of his status as a disciplined warrior.
Er, I’m presuming here by thinking that K’un-Lun, even if it does reside in another dimension, would not just allow some short-fused bucko to go through the trials necessary to become its trusted protector.
And while Danny may still be finding his feet (fists?) in his role, the series doesn’t provide a satisfying enough payoff for us to sympathise with all his rash decisions (chief among them: deserting his post as guardian of K’un-Lun).
The Marvel Netflix shows have succeeded on the strengths of their intriguing dramatic structure, solid character dynamics, and – especially with Daredevil – some truly eye-popping action scenes.
Iron Fist has flashes of excellence in all three areas – with unexpected humour at times (I think the dodgy accents in the China sequences are a deliberate riff on dubbed kung fu movies) – but is unable to stretch those glimpses into full-blown assets.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the strangely ungainly fight scenes, save for one really terrific battle with a Hand disciple skilled in drunken boxing.
Interestingly, this fighter is played by Brit Lewis Tan, who was reportedly almost cast as Danny Rand, which would have made the character Asian American. Tan shows off some impressive moves and good screen presence, too. (Hey, Marvel – time for a show about Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. He’s right here.)
Not quite a train wreck, Iron Fist just manages to be watchable enough to get you through the whole stretch even if the bingeing sometimes feels more like being force-fed.
All 13 episodes of Iron Fist are available on Netflix.