The problem with “Iron Fist” can be identified right from the very first moments — specifically in how its opening credits sequence compares to the other series in the Netflix/Marvel universe. “Daredevil’s” eerie viscous drippings reveal the various conflicting forces in Matt Murdock’s life — justice versus action. “Jessica Jones” is a moody stroll through Jessica’s New York, haunted by her demons. And the landmarks of Harlem ripple across “Luke Cage’s” body as he delivers a hell of a punch.
Here’s what happens in the “Iron Fist” opening sequence: A dude does kung fu. It’s mystical kung fu, clearly, and he starts off doing the kung fu in a forested area before eventually ending up in a city. But it’s a dude doing kung fu. And over the course of Season 1, that ends up feeling like all the show has to say.
The origin story of Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is a familiar mix of Batman and Green Arrow, but if you’re not a comic book fan it breaks down like this: As a kid, the rich young son of business tycoons lost his parents in a plane crash that stranded him in a mystical kingdom called K’un-Lun, where he learned the art of kung fu. Fifteen years later, he returns to New York to reclaim his identity, his family’s company, and fight the evil forces of The Hand.
The ways in which “Iron Fist” stutters and falters are in some ways fascinating. On the one hand, there are multiple scenes devoted to the friendship and partnership between Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) — two smart, interesting and well-developed female characters working together to kick some ass. On the other hand, Episode 6 introduces an Asian woman wearing a S&M-inspired bustier who both fights and attempts to seduce Danny Rand for nefarious reasons. The actress is fine, but the cliches invoked are just depressing. And that’s only one of the ways in which the series is incredibly troubling when it comes to the appropriation of Asian culture.
Jones is steady enough as Danny (though never really proves magnetic), but the best part of “Iron Fist” is its women. Once again, Dawson is the unheralded MVP of the show — the only benefit to her being a supporting player in the Marvel universe is that she appears in all the shows, and thus every six months or so we get to enjoy her company again. And Henwick’s performance as Colleen is a breakout one — a massive physical challenge, due to the martial arts training she’s asked to perform, but she’s also perhaps the most lively element of the series, especially in the early episodes. It’s a treat to watch her.
How does “Iron Fist” reward Colleen for her independence and drive? By undercutting her autonomy. In fact, in trying to win her over (though not necessarily for romantic reasons?), Danny resorts to moves lifted directly from the Christian Grey playbook. Fellas, don’t go thinking that crap is romantic. “50 Shades of Grey” is fiction — bad fiction. Do not try this at home.
The only way some of those moments are forgivable is thanks to the most interesting aspect of Danny’s character: the fact that growing up in a mystical kingdom has left him a pretty much literal babe in the woods. And he’s at his most likable when his more boyish qualities emerge — the reminder that his back story brings with it a certain level not just of naïveté, but arrested development.
Pacing is a concern here, as there are basically a full three episodes of set-up at the beginning, and the show gets bogged down in bringing Danny back to the real world – which means that we don’t really get to the actual narrative until Episode 4. The show introduces some interesting twists in the back half of the season, but Danny’s chief antagonists remain the Meechum family, who took over the Rand corporation after Danny and his family disappeared. The brother-sister duo of Ward and Joy, played by Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup, and their mysterious father Harold (David Wenham) more often than not feel like they belong to a completely different narrative, even when directly brought into conflict with other facets of the universe.
Reviews of the debut season, based on the first six episodes provided to critics by Netflix, did not inspire much excitement. (A 19 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is, simply put, brutal.) And the second half of the season introduces a few new characters who are, quite frankly, far more interesting than the Meechums.
But while 13 episodes has always felt a bit overlong for Marvel shows, “Iron Fist” is by far the biggest offender in that regard — at eight episodes, this might have been tolerable, but 13 really stretch the point of patience. Why did I keep watching? Because not only do I have a bit of a completist streak when it comes to the Marvel universe, but because I really wanted to know how creator Scott Buck would end the season, so that the events of the finale would lead into the upcoming “Defenders” series.
“The Defenders,” you may remember, is the highly anticipated crossover series in which Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand will team up for an eight-episode adventure in late 2017; “Iron Fist” was the last piece in the puzzle building up to this event years in the making.
So how does “Iron Fist” build up anticipation for “The Defenders”? This may be a bit of a spoiler, delivered as a public service in case your only interest in watching the show was to see how it fit into the overall universe: Not all that much. At the very least, no other Defenders make their presence known, and the appearances by pre-established characters like Claire and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) don’t have major plot significance.
The business dealings of the shadowy organizations which occupy New York City and beyond get a little more development and detail, and there are plenty of Easter eggs that fans will no doubt glory in discovering and cataloging. Marvel keeps its secrets close, so it could be that there’s something major planted in this season that will pay off down the line. But “Iron Fist” seems wholly concerned with its own little pocket of the universe, and the ending shows no indication that it’s meant to lead to a bigger narrative.
(If you don’t want to enduce a rage headache, by the way, try not to think too hard about how much of “Jessica Jones” Season 1 was devoted to setting up Luke Cage and his personal trauma. Danny Rand, meanwhile, never has to share the spotlight.)
Ultimately, “Marvel’s Iron Fist” feels incredibly inessential, even boring at times. It’s a show that doesn’t push for bigger themes, doesn’t seek to have its own voice beyond the Buddhist philosophy spouted by a white guy. It just… didn’t need to happen. Marvel could have taken a pass on this one, or found a more interesting take on it. They chose not to. But that doesn’t mean you have to choose to watch it.
“Marvel’s Iron Fist” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.