Iron Fist: Season 1 Review (Part 1)
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Warning: This review contains detailed spoilers for episodes 1-6 of Iron Fist season one (“Snow Gives Way” through to “Immortal Emerges from Cave”), but contains no plot spoilers for subsequent episodes.
Marvel’s ambitious Netflix project has almost reached its conclusion. We’ve been introduced to the first three Defenders in Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, which have cumulatively sketched out a rich and compelling underworld of violence and mystery within the Marvel Universe’s iteration of New York City. Not every Netflix show has hit the mark, but each of the three seasons has put forwards its own confident and idiosyncratic vision for superheroics with more depth than the typical spandex fare. Yet Iron Fist has faced some unique challenges. Beset from the start with controversies about its portrayal of race and reported development problems regarding its supernatural subject matter in a franchise predicated on gritty realism, Iron Fist has always felt like the prospective black sheep of the four, a suggestion that was hammered home with the dire critical reception on arrival. With all that in mind, how does the final Defender’s debut season fare in its first half?
Considering the sheer amount of noise that’s marked the discourse around Iron Fist, it’s surprising that its first six episodes are quiet and unassuming. It’s rare to have a scene that’s genuinely, unquestionably bad, although there are a few nadirs dotted about (the cliffhanger of episode three where Danny is kicked out of a window, resolved by him catching a weathervane, is one of the worst cliffhangers I can remember seeing). It’s even rarer to have a moment of operatic greatness where intent perfectly meets execution – the kind of moment that the other three series contain plenty of. For the most part, Iron Fist just kind of exists. It dutifully progresses through plot points with a few stopovers for character development, slowly unfurling the bigger picture at a rigidly mechanical pace. For want of a better word, it’s fine. Whether ‘fine’ is acceptable in a world with well over a dozen competing superhero shows is a question well worth asking, as is the impact of that bland, middle-of-the-road execution on a concept that arguably requires some kind of risk.
Perhaps the best way of summarising Iron Fist’s attitude towards storytelling is the way in which it deals with the racial issues inherent in a comic book character who’s faced criticism for perpetuating the ‘white saviour’ cliché with Danny Rand’s story of rising to the summit of a foreign society, K’un L’un. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on the choice to follow the comics and cast a white actor in the role of Danny as opposed to casting an Asian actor, so I won’t delve into the shoulds or shouldn’t haves of Finn Jones’ casting. Regardless of your stance on that issue, it’s clear that Iron Fist had an albatross around its neck that could have spelled disaster if played wrong. To its credit, Iron Fist never oversteps a red line in this regard. Yet that’s mostly because the show seems terrified of engaging with K’un L’un at all. We barely see the place, its cultural characteristics aren’t dissected in any way, and Danny’s race is never mentioned. And in 2017, with issues of representation finding their way into mainstream discourse, ducking and running from race creates problems of its own, making the show come across as toothless where it has the greatest opportunity to really carve out its own unique voice. It indicates a wider problem with Iron Fist, which is its paralysing fear of risk in pursuit of inoffensiveness. The issue with trying to offend no-one and please everyone, however, is that it can very often have the reverse effect.
Moving on from that controversy to the creator of the controversy, then. Danny Rand is at the core of Iron Fist, touted as ‘the final Defender’ in the trailer as he’s set to join up with Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in the summer. Iron Fist tries a different tack with Danny as opposed to the other three leads. Matt, Jessica and Luke had their mysteries, but for the most part, we knew how their lives worked and what they fought for within the first episode. With Danny, that defining information takes a longer time to unspool, particularly as he’s beset by accusations from former friends that he’s not really Danny Rand. Every aspect of his backstory is questioned and interrogated at every turn for its authenticity, and there’s still a major gap in our understanding of his motivations at the end of episode six – why he left K’un L’un to return to New York. In some ways, that’s refreshing. It’s the shroud of mystery around Danny that propels the otherwise listless opening two episodes, creating the interestingly disorientating experience of trying to figure out the guy who functions as our way into this specific corner of the MCU. Iron Fist is loyal to the Marvel-Netflix formula to a fault in places, so this attempt to deviate and to create a new kind of leading man in the early going is a pleasingly risky bit of storytelling.
The problems set in when we get to know Danny a little better. With most of his mysteries are cleared up, there’s not a lot left to him. His monologues on kung-fu and philosophy learned in K’un L’un are some of those rare moments of unequivocally poor writing in how they portray his expertise by having him desperately prove his intellectual or physical superiority over others. Too often, he comes across as unlikeable in his entitled attitudes to characters whose reasoning is better fleshed-out than his, such as Colleen Wing (why does he drag her so deep into something that has nothing to do with her?) or Joy Meachum (why on Earth does he break into her house and then tell her as if it’s not a problem?). The thread of Danny trying to reclaim his company’s identity through a more compassionate practice is much more informative about Danny’s struggles to keep the Rand name alive, and his brief interactions with Jeri Hogarth as he claims his business back are fun and thematically interesting. Ultimately, though it’s strange that the character works better in a business suit than in his (incredibly dull) fighting outfits. Finn Jones is good enough as Danny, playing him with a laidback charm that distinguishes Danny nicely from his more intense counterparts such as Matt Murdock, but the material he’s given is undemanding and fails to really dig deep into Danny’s potentially fascinating psychology as someone re-entering society as a man after he exited as a child.
Strangely enough, the genuinely interesting characters in Iron Fist are found in the supporting cast. Colleen Wing is perhaps the best example of this unusual trend, in that she’s essentially a protagonist from a more interesting show. Her arc dovetails with Danny, but her own individual struggles as a working-class woman running her own tiny community, weighing up whether saving poor folk from the streets is worth compromising her own ethics by funding her dojo in cage fights, are genuinely compelling. We feel every beat of Colleen’s decision making from shame to temptation to addiction to shame, and Jessica Henwick is able to augment the strong scripting with a great performance that keeps her loneliness and vulnerability front and centre despite Colleen’s evident steeliness.
Joy Meachum is another character who’s granted a psychological realism that’s not afforded to Danny. Iron Fist takes time to establish the push and pull between corporate responsibility and familial loyalty that dominates her life and how each option bears its own temptations, so Joy’s flip-flopping from ally to antagonist plays as the realistic conflict of someone with no concrete identity as opposed to inconsistency. And although he’s undeserved hugely by the script, Harold Meachum is an engaging oddball of a character. He doesn’t do a whole lot in these early episodes, particularly as he disappears just as the general arc with the Hand begins to heat up, but the sheer weirdness of his circumstances as an omniscient, presumed-dead captive of ninjas with a subservient assistant and a secret kept from his daughter is enough to create intrigue, and David Wenham imbues his thin persona with tangible menace. Generally speaking, Iron Fist succeeds with these more conflicted characters torn between impulses as opposed to Danny, whose straight-arrow behaviour and utter focus in his task makes him a frankly boring presence.
Viewers have flocked to the Marvel-Netflix shows for many reasons – the uniquely dark tone, the ability to really spend time with these characters at 13 hours a pop – but they’ve certainly earned a reputation for quality action sequences, especially with Daredevil. Given Danny’s expertise in martial arts and the involvement of Colleen Wing, you’d expect Iron Fist to contribute heartily to this tradition. Except, like in many other aspects, it’s too risk-averse to really bite. The action is fine enough, but it lacks the visceral snap of Daredevil or the effortless cool of Luke Cage, and it’s rarely elaborate in a way you’d expect it to be as it unfurls with a mechanical functionality (even episode four’s big hall fight falls a little short). A sign of encouraging progress, however, comes with episode six, which is easily the most action-heavy of the season’s front half. Helmed by RZA, the episode goes bigger and weirder with its action and carves a more distinctive niche for Iron Fist that takes advantage of the intricate mythology at play. If the show can channel that off-kilter spirit into the big brawls teased in the trailer for the back half, then it’ll have gone some way to redeeming itself.
Another defining aspect of these shows have been the villains. Whether it’s Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, or Cottonmouth, it’s clear that the Marvel-Netflix shows are at their best with a singular threat pitted against the hero. In this respect, Iron Fist falls short as it fumbles about for a concrete antagonist. Harold Meachum fills the role briefly, but he’s too insular a character to feel scary. That leaves the Hand, who played a major role in Daredevil season two’s eventual decline into incoherence. Granted, they’re more interesting here as their shadowy influence over the corporate and criminal worlds is well-defined, and by episode six, there’s a face to the name in the form of Madame Gao, who was always a fascinating foe on Daredevil. For the most part, though, the Hand still play as generic cannon fodder for Danny, and the suffocating focus of the corporate drama as a source of intrigue and threat, especially as Ward Meachum (easily the least interesting supporting character) becomes an impulsive, drug-addicted antagonistic figure, ensures that Iron Fist can’t even focus properly on the group as a central enemy. There’s potential in Madame Gao, but Iron Fist’s struggle to replicate the success of its predecessors can be seen all too clearly in its failure to find an engaging villainous counterpart for Danny.
Iron Fist’s first salvo of episodes is not a disaster. There’s encouragement to be taken in the upward curve in quality the show takes with every episode, even if the improvements are sometimes incremental. By episode five, it’s found a rhythm for its storytelling and a clearer roadmap for the rest of the season, and the show capitalises on that momentum well with a sixth episode that’s flawed, but genuinely engaging in how it offers heaps of action and a greater thematic focus wrapped in a story that begins to tap into the fantastical side of the Iron Fist mythology. There is a real sense that Iron Fist is gearing up for something big when its first half comes to a close, and from the looks of the trailers, which display several intriguing action sequences from the back half, there’s something more exciting around the corner.
All that’s for the back half, however, and a show can’t just ride on intrigue all the way through a full six hours of television. What we’re left with is basically serviceable but aspires to be no greater than that. It’s a disappointingly vanilla take on a hero with so much potential for enjoyable experimentation, wherein the weirdest thing is that Scott Buck, the showrunner, seems more interested in spending time in corporate boardrooms dealing with business ethics rather than out on the streets. Some good characterisation, a generally strong cast and the general intent that this season has been frontloaded with set-up buys Iron Fist enough intrigue to carry it through into the back half. Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that Iron Fist seems to exist solely because it was mandated in a deal signed three years ago, and the result is that these first six episodes feel all too often like homework for The Defenders.
Rating for Episodes 1-6: 6/10