Marvel’s Iron Fist isn’t just the wimpiest punch ever thrown by the world’s mightiest superhero factory. The new Netflix binge swings and misses so bad that it spins itself around and slaps itself silly with a weirdly flaccid hand. But even that might be generous. “Swing and a miss” implies effort. Iron Fist — devoid of vision, lacking in executional chops — barely even tries. It assumes its own marvelousness and proceeds tediously from there, offering few satisfactions for any possible audience. The media was only given six of the season’s 13 episodes for review, but I was snoozing after two and ready to check out after three. This is yellow belt drama that deserves to flunk out of the TV dojo.
The biggest problem with Iron Fist might be the property itself. With all due respect to character’s creators, comic book legends Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Iron Fist, at least in my humble opinion, just isn’t all that interesting, and the show’s creator and exec producer, Scott Buck (Dexter), and his team fail to unlock any hidden potential or enhance the material to convince me otherwise. The storytelling formula they’ve been given doesn’t do them any favors, either. Iron Fist introduces its protagonist with the kind of season-long origin story common to Netflix-Marvel shows, in which an adult with extraordinary abilities and painful backstory works out issues and slowly develops a costumed vigilante identity. Daredevil forged the mold. Jessica Jones perfected it. Luke Cage did it well. Iron Fist just does it, lazily going through the motions like a bored tai chi artist.
Iron Fist has been described over the years as Iron Man with martial arts, but the series is a wannabe Batman Begins and a few other things, too, stretched way too thin. Danny Rand (Finn Jones from Game of Thrones) is an orphan who lost his billionaire parents when they all crashed in a suspicious plane accident in the Far East. Found and raised by monks who reside in a wintry Brigadoon known as K’un-Lun, Danny spent his formative years learning a mystic type of martial arts. Along the way, he acquired and honed a magical stroke of channeled chi called the Iron Fist, which causes his balled hand to Flame On! and obliterate anything with Hulk Smash! force.
All of this hoo-ha is doled out in bits and drabs of flashback. Like all Marvel-Netflix shows, Iron Fist wants to be an adult-skewing neo-pulp urban crime serial, so it downplays the supernatural aspects as if terrified of them. Danny’s blazing balled fist? It’s used sparingly. (As usual, the connections to the broader Marvel Universe, with its thunder gods, sci-fi monsters and radioactive spider-men, are conspicuously minimized.) More so than any other Marvel series, the concept is beholden to the mandate of “the produceable premise,” and the producers have limited imagination for fulfilling it. Anyone wanting Fists of Fury in the City should table the expectation, and modern comics fanboys should abandon all hope of anything resembling the celebrated, stylish run of the comics treatment by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja that leaned hard into the fantastical.
Iron Fist — which, like Daredevil, aspires to be one half workplace drama, one half action-adventure show — spends the first half of the season slooooooowly developing the first half of this hybrid personality. The series proper begins with Danny — presumed dead by the rest of the world — returning to New York to reclaim his life, fortune and place within the massive corporation started by his father and pursue his do-gooder destiny. In a refreshing change of pace, Danny is no dark knight, though his reverse negative formulation isn’t all that compelling. He’s an elevated man-child, light of spirit and movement, lit with a simpleton’s purity, a hippie-dippy Chauncey Gardener. He re-enters Manhattan on bare feet, gawking at skyscrapers; he shows up at Rand Industries naively expecting to be recognized and greeted like the prodigal son. This could be interesting and it should be funny, but the writing and directing don’t know how to make it so. Jones nails the earnestness, but that’s all he plays.
Danny, an overtly spiritual character, adheres to some form of generic, modulated Buddhism marked by a disinterest in worldly attachments (like, you know, shoes) and a remove from anger that doesn’t detach him from a want for justice. Some have criticized Iron First sight unseen for cultural appropriation, and they’re not wrong. The show validates the complaint by being both slavish and shy about Danny’s purely fantastical K’un-Lun origin story. The character has always been white in the comics, but who cares? Ultimately, I don’t see why Marvel couldn’t have cast Danny with an Asian actor.
The enlightened individual Danny has become contrasted with two childhood friends who initially present as antagonists, but really represent the people he needs to save: brother and sister Joy and Ward Meachum (The Following’s Jessica Stroup and Banshee’s Tom Pelphrey). They’re now soulless suits who manage Rand Industries on behalf of their puppet master pops, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), a ruthless, reclusive mystery man. He has a love interest — and, presumably, future partner in ass-kicking — in the form of Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick, also from Game of Thrones), a tough and lonely martial arts instructor. (Let me note here that all of these actors are very good, but their characters are skimpy and boring.)
Pacing issues hamper so many Netflix serials. In the Marvel shows, the lag hits around mid-season. Iron Fist is sluggish from the get-go. At first, Joy and Ward take Danny to be a crazy man and treat him as such: Episode 2 traps him in a psych ward, an idyll that immediately sidetracks the narrative when it should be settling into a premise. Eventually, the Meachums come to accept that Danny is Danny and begin to wrestle with the implications, which prods them to confront their own waywardness and set them on track to go from foes to allies. By episode 6, Iron Fist gets Danny into a suit and has him helping people — but it’s a three-piece business suit. His heroism consists of saving the soul of Rand Industries, from trying to make things right with a family devastated by Rand’s toxic pollution, to investigating a plot by Japanese ninja gangsters known as The Hand (introduced in Daredevil), to use the company as a mechanism to sell drugs in Manhattan.
I think Iron Fist wants to be some subversive scold of capitalism or secularism. Rand Industries is monolithic big business as super-villain — the Evil Corp. of Mr. Robot (but without any of the personality or true menace imbued by Michael Cristofer’s Phillip Pryce or Martin Wallstrom’s Tyrell Wellick) — with Danny functioning as a redemptive agent, facilitating change from within, not with subversive hacking but with his love-thy-neighbor conscience and atoning activism. I’m not going to dump on those values; I just wish they were played bolder and with more imagination.
The alt-New York that the Marvel-Netflix shows is interesting, at least in concept. You got Luke Cage up in Harlem participating in the redemption and reconstruction of a struggling community. You got Daredevil and Jessica Jones down in Hell’s Kitchen, looking out for the poor and for women and everyone who would exploit and prey upon them. Now, somewhat above them all but also among them, we have Danny, a billionaire suit with a heart of gold, exercising a liberal social conscience in the board room and on the streets. My theory about Marvel’s The Defenders — the forthcoming team-up show — is that it’ll be a superhero remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Whatever they do in The Defenders, whoever the heroes battle, I hope the fights are better than ones we get in Iron Fist. For starters, there aren’t many of them in the first six episodes. But the ones we get are shockingly lame, from the choreography to the performances to the way they are shot. They’re yoga fu.
I think the idea is that Danny is so disciplined in his technique, so mature about his use of violence, he can dispatch opponents with a minimum of moves and with the precise amount of force necessary for the situation. But the show’s ambition to produce an illusion of effortlessness results in fight scenes that look like no effort was put into them at all — as if they shot the dress rehearsal and moved on. All of this said, great fight scenes take time to produce, and in Hollywood, time costs money. I’ve often suspected that Marvel-Netflix shows are made on a tight budget, and it could be that Iron Fist is saving all its pennies for the second half of the season, which promises to have more action as conflicts start to boil, bad guys make their moves, and Danny moves into masked crime-fighter mode.
Yet I can’t say the first half of the season does anything to make me care enough to stick around and find out if I’m right. Iron Fist is pure kung-phooey. Make him number 100 on your list of TV super-guys. D
Iron Fist will be available for streaming Friday, March 17 on Netflix.