The partnership between Marvel and Netflix has been mutually beneficial, allowing both parties to continue their stranglehold on the pop culture landscape. But the Marvel series to appear on Netflix haven’t yet reached the highs of their cinematic counterparts, though they’ve certainly been entertaining enough for the die-hard fans hungry for more and more Marvel. The latest series to debut on the streaming service is Iron Fist, bringing the character of Danny Rand and his kung-fu fury to life for the first time ever. Iron Fist is the weakest collaboration between Marvel and Netflix yet, a show that seems to be rehashing a number of elements from the previous shows that are leading up to the team up of The Defenders. The limitations of these New York based shows occupying the darkest corner of Marvel Cinematic Universe are overwhelming in Iron Fist, as the first six episodes of the series seem like a bland rehash of the weakest parts of Daredevil.
Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has just returned from the dead. 15 years ago, Danny was believed to be killed with his parents in a plane crash near the Himalayas. Having been raised by monks and learning martial arts, Danny Rand returns to the company that his father built looking like he spent the past 15 years following Phish instead of being the immortal Iron Fist. Rand Enterprises has been controlled by Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Mecham (Jessica Stroup), the childhood friends of Danny having taken over the company following the death of their father Harold (David Wenham). Danny is viewed as a crazy person by his former friends and must prove that he is truly the heir to the throne of Rand Enterprises. Meanwhile, Danny befriends Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a young woman who teaches martial arts in her own struggling dojo. Danny Rand struggles with returning to a life of American normalcy in New York and must find a way to prove his identity as the shadowy forces of the nefarious clan The Hand exert their deadly influences on the underbelly of the Big Apple.
Pacing has always been an issue for the Marvel shows on Netflix, and it really seems to have reached its breaking point with Iron Fist. Having sat through the six hours that were available for critics, the leisurely pace of the show becomes increasingly frustrating as little of interest happens over the first couple episodes, though it slightly raises the stakes from its fourth episode on. At the end of six episodes, there’s no real villain established, simply the amorphous ninjas of The Hand. Iron Fist is a show without its own identity and the fact that it’s borrowing characters from the other Netflix shows to tie it into the larger universe just emphasizes how little of the show can stand on its own. None of the Netflix and Marvel collaborations have been perfect, but Iron Fist is the first of the series that doesn’t have its own personality which makes its problems with story and pacing all the more glaring as it progresses.
Finn Jones does his best with the middling characterization of Danny Rand, one that aims to have the character trapped between two worlds. However, it’s an incredibly thin characterization that sees him an eternal do-gooder that is also naïve to the cutthroat world of corporate capitalism. There’s really little depth to the character, no darker edges that make him any more interesting than a privileged white dude that slowly reenters a world of wealth that he was previously separated from. Danny Rand is a character that is sworn to fight The Hand but he’s never actually encountered them before, making Iron Fist a kind of bland reintroduction to the ninja cabal from Daredevil.
The supporting characters of Iron Fist are just as underwhelming as its lead. Joy Meacham is the more sympathetic of the Meacham siblings when it comes to Danny, and his reemergence allows her to realize that she’s lost her kindness in her evolution in becoming a shrewd corporate raider. Jessica Stroup isn’t bad in the role but the writing of the character leaves few surprises as the series progresses. Conversely, Ward is the weakest and most obvious of all the characters in Iron Fist, a selfish corporatist that is devious and duplicitous. Tom Pelphrey plays this character is the most blatant of ways, leaving the character as this generic borderline villain. Ward’s story takes an unintentionally comedic turn when the character experiments with synthetic heroin and soon finds himself in desperate need for another fix. Finally there’s the character of Colleen Wing who is just as bland and unoriginal as the rest of characters. She’s the reluctant helper of Danny Rand, one with her own set of martial arts skills that soon set her on a path to be Danny’s fighting partner. Jessica Henwick avails herself as well as the material will allow in the role but the character is endemic of the series’ predilection for broad-stroke characters that lean heavily on clichés. Eventually Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple makes an appearance, making her the unofficial Nick Fury of the Netflix series as she is the lone connecting link between all of these New York stories.
Even the fight scenes of Iron Fist feel underwhelming in comparison to the other Marvel shows to appear on Netflix. There’s also this sense that you’ve already seen these moments in Daredevil and Iron Fist presents them without a character in costume or the technical audacity on display in the hallway and stairway sequences from both season of ol’ hornhead’s tale. In the first six hours of the show there are simply two memorable fight scenes – one being an elevator fight in the fourth episode that employs split screen to amplify the action and the other comes in the sixth episode (directed by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) where Danny Rand must fight a number of Hand villains in succession, like a 36 Chambers for the Marvel hero (though there are only three). There’s nothing in the first half of this show that feels the least bit fresh, just a milder iteration of what we’ve already seen before.
As for the matter of cultural appropriation that have dogged the show since its inception, I didn’t find much within the episodes of Iron Fist that seemed to be particularly egregious. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of the show that some will take exception to, but I’m not in any place to write off any detractors’ opinions as to the show’s cultural sensitivity.
What it really comes down to is the Marvel shows on Netflix run into a variety of storytelling problems because their 13-episode seasons of one-hour episodes. There’s no reason that some of these episodes couldn’t be shorter and leaner in their developments. As it stands, there’s a lot of filler throughout Iron Fist and the fact that it has a number of the same problems as its peers presents just how limited the scope of these shows truly are. Running time and episode obligations have humstrung Iron Fist as it become more and more obvious that there’s simply not 13 hours of great material here. With six episodes, Iron Fist really hasn’t set the stage for a compelling story that I have any interest in continuing. The Marvel movies are a well-oiled machine that introduce new characters and expand the world with each successive installment; the movies really face their greatest limitations when they’re concerned about the next movie, but they’re consistently able to bring in risky or relatively unknown characters into the broader pop culture conversation. The Marvel shows aren’t quite on that same level, and Iron Fist just proves that these shows are running out of ideas and desperately need room to grow.
Season One of Iron Fist debuts exclusive on Netflix on March 17th, 2017.