‘Iron Fist’ is not the show it should have been
The latest Marvel Netflix series lacks a lot, including everything that could have made its lead character interesting…and kung fu
It’s fair to say that for the most part, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has set the bar pretty high for its properties. This is particularly true of the Marvel Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage; which is why it’s so disappointing to see the Iron Fist series fall so flat. What’s more frustrating, is that a character like Iron Fist has so much potential and so many possibilities in terms of building a truly unique show around. Unfortunately, Iron Fist fails to deliver on a few key things — style, identity, and (ummm, oh yeah!) awesome kung fu!
First announced in late 2013 as one of four series that would ultimately build towards uniting the four characters for a Defenders miniseries, Iron Fist seemed to be the slowest series to develop (at one point, it was rumored that plans for an Iron Fist series were canceled in favor of a Punisher series, which we’ll now be getting, too), and was of course the last Defender to finally reach the screen before the crossover miniseries premieres next fall. Up until now, all of these series proved to be strong, character-driven shows, each with a distinct style that captured the essence of each character’s comic book source material. Daredevil is a gritty, urban vigilante story that feels more akin to The Wire than Spider-Man. Jessica Jones is a throwback to hard-boiled detective stories that also manages to address PTSD. Luke Cage embraces and plays up the character’s Blaxploitation origins while also making the community of Harlem feel like as much a character on the show in and of itself as any of the leads.
Meanwhile, Iron Fist draws on the least interesting parts of the character, and the result feels like a very long cut of the middle 40 minutes of Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne returns to Wayne Enterprises, much to the frustration of the shareholders. The series feels shoe-horned into being entirely grounded in New York City to fit in with the other Defenders-related series, and to perhaps serve as a prelude to that crossover, rather than embracing its own potential richness.
Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in 1974, spinning out of a pop culture trend of martial arts heroes at the time. After losing his parents in an expedition in the Himalayas, Danny Rand was raised in the ancient mystical city of K’un Lun, where he was trained in martial arts, and goes on to defeat a dragon named Shou-Lao to gain the power of the Iron Fist. While he starred in his own comic book for a time, he ultimately had his longest run when teamed up with Luke Cage for Power Man and Iron Fist.
More recently, in the past decade, he’s starred in two excellent solo titles, The Immortal Iron Fist (2006–2009) and Iron Fist: The Living Weapon (2014–2015). The Immortal Iron Fist, written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction and drawn by David Aja (later on Duane Swierczynski took over writing with art by Travel Foreman), dove into the legacy of the Iron Fist, including those who previously held the mantle, while also building extensively on the history of K’un Lun, as well as other “immortal weapons” similar to the Iron Fist. Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, written and drawn by Kaare Andrews, leveraged the events of the previous series while further exploring the history and corruption that existed in K’un Lun. (And actually, for those irritated that Danny wasn’t cast as Asian for the show, Andrews’ series event poked some fun at the fact that “rich white men” had stolen the mantle of the Iron Fist.) I never expected the Netflix series to adapt these specific stories, but I definitely hoped the series would capture the spirit.
Both of these comic series had style, identity, direction, and above all, they had a particularly strong focus on the idea of legacy and how important that is to the Iron Fist. They grounded Danny Rand as the heir to his father’s billion-dollar corporation (while making him a bit naïve in terms of how to actually run it), while also exploring what it means to be the Iron Fist. Danny carries two legacies — Rand Enterprises and the Iron Fist — and the show gets pretty preoccupied with one, while doing little more than ask questions about the other. As Iron Fist gets bogged down in boardroom meetings and investigations into corrupt corporate manipulation at Rand Enterprises, the closest the show gets to exploring the idea of legacy as a theme is Danny stating (repeatedly), “I’m Danny Rand,” or stressing the fact that the actions of Rand Enterprises reflect both on him and his father because, as he so aptly puts it, “It’s my name.”
Meanwhile, the series shows next to nothing of the mystical city of K’un Lun and the 15 years Danny spent training there. What was Danny’s upbringing like? Was Danny the only outsider? What did Danny learn about the legacy of the Iron Fist growing up? More importantly, if he was willing to fight a dragon to become the Iron Fist, why and how does he seem to know so little about what he’s capable of as the Iron Fist? These are questions that are barely asked, and across 13 episodes, I would’ve expected most of them to actually be answered.
Narratively, the show drags its feet as if it was a stretch to fill 13 episodes. With so much history and potential to tap into, it felt wasteful to spend the first quarter of the season on Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), Danny’s childhood friends currently in control of Rand Enterprises, doubting Danny is who he says he is (including one completed wasted hour with Danny in a mental health facility that did nothing for the overall story). Furthermore, Ward and Joy’s presumed-but-not-quite-dead father, Harold (David Wenham), while helpful in developing The Hand’s backstory, wasn’t a terribly interesting antagonist to carry the season. And worse, at times it felt like he was doing an imitation of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.
In terms of the cast, Finn Jones does well enough in the title role, it’s just unfortunate he wasn’t working from better material. Jessica Henwick plays Colleen Wing, a comic book character who’s typically been associated with Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Misty Knight, and is also due to return in The Defenders series. She stands out, and is not only badass, but helped drive the story forward and overall had a good dynamic with Jones. Returning players from prior Marvel Netflix shows include Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth, Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao (first introduced in Daredevil season 1, and in a much larger role here), and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple…which felt like a bit too much Claire Temple. I get that she’s sort of playing the common thread across the Marvel Netflix shows, but it just felt like there was maybe an opportunity here to tease other characters.
We’re at a point where it’s reasonable for these characters to cross paths, and clearly, that’s happening. That said, I would’ve loved to see Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who first debuted in Luke Cage and has a significant history in the comics with Danny, get thrown into the mix for two to three episodes. In some ways, she would’ve made more sense than Claire. Along those same lines, I know Luke Cage is allegedly back in prison, but a two-episode Power Man/Iron Fist team-up would’ve been fun, and could have even served as an early bridge to The Defenders.
Among other missed opportunities is Danny’s iPod. Danny has an old iPod filled with old school hip-hop, which early on, he’s regularly listening to and seems like it should have and could have been more directly infused into the show as the soundtrack (I hate to compare every inch of Iron Fist to its predecessors, but Luke Cage did a great job of subtly making music a part of the series; and to make a non-Marvel comparison, the less than three-minute trailer for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver also appears to nail this). You can almost picture a perfectly choreographed kung fu fight with every punch, kick, and flip in rhythm to A Tribe Called Quest…but no, perfect choreography and good kung fu are another area in which Iron Fist falls short. The action scenes do improve over the course of the season, but some of the early episodes…wow, it’s some slowed down Steven Seagal-level action. Nonetheless, well-choreographed action seemed like the one thing they should have gotten right.
Given that Iron Fist was a series that had so much opportunity to explore new territory while able to leverage the foundation established by previous Marvel Netflix shows, it’s disappointing to see it fall so short of what it could have been. For now, all eyes are on The Defenders, but the last minutes of the season finale did hint at a few places a second season might go. I think Marvel recognizes that this was a pretty big misstep, and hopefully, if we do get a second season, it can be everything the first season should’ve been. If not, well, they can always take a page from the comics and put out a Power Man and Iron Fist team-up series.