Iron Fist: Season 1 Review (Part 2)
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Warning: This review contains detailed spoilers for episodes 7-13 of Iron Fist season one (“Felling Tree with Roots” through to “Dragon Plays with Fire”).
Halfway through its first season, Iron Fist still has plenty to prove. Its first six episodes weren’t without their strengths, such a strong cast and some interesting characters, but suffered from a lack of creative inspiration and a lousy lead character, making for comfortably the weakest starts of the Marvel-Netflix series so far. Did the season’s back half capitalise upon that potential?
Iron Fist’s back half is better than its first. In of itself, that’s not surprising. The season was pointing in the right direction when the first half left off, and with so much groundwork laid, it was inevitable that the season would finish with a greater sense of urgency than when it began. That being said, it’s not a substantial improvement, failing to fix the core issues that prevent Iron Fist from qualifying as a genuinely good show. It’s difficult to feel all that differently about Iron Fist now that the season has been completed; that it’s a promising, occasionally compelling show that nonetheless feels like it is fundamentally misconceived.
The fight scenes in the front half were one of Iron Fist’s greatest initial disappointments; choppily directed and lacking ambition considering how frequently Danny touts his superior skills in martial arts. On the bright side, they’re improved considerably in the back half. There seems to be a conscious effort to lean into the weird action that the sixth episode delivered in spades, resulting in fight scenes that are far more creative, such as Danny’s brawl with Zhou Cheng in episode eight that has an unexpectedly quirky flow to it thanks to the idiosyncratic characterisation of Danny’s opponent, or simply have more scope to them, such as the mass brawl in the Hand compound in episode ten.
The final battle in episode thirteen, a briefly impressive money shot illustrating the Iron Fist’s power aside, fizzles out quickly and results in a silly punch-up that tries to make Harold Meachum a powerful fighter, and there’s no set-piece in the lot that really sticks out in the same way Daredevil’s hallway fights did. That’s partly due to the way in which the show can’t do big stunts for Danny as his unmasked appearance requires Finn Jones to be heavily involved – and while Jones does his best, it’s still pretty clear that he’s not a trained stunt artist. Yet the fight scenes in the back half are still an area that reflects a greater effort to deliver on the premise established of Danny Rand as a master fighter, and that can only be a good thing.
Another area of improvement, for the most part, is the villains. Iron Fist continues to diverge from the template of a singular antagonist set up by the previous shows, but that creative choice feels more justified here due to a surplus of interesting foes. Madame Gao makes for an appropriately sinister antagonist for Danny in the short time that she occupies the central villainous role, with Wai Ching Ho excelling in her unnervingly calm performance that stays unwavering no matter what Danny throws at her. Bakuto, the leader of the other Hand faction, is another fun villain who brings a bit of charisma and levity to Danny’s endlessly grim world, and his personal attachment to Colleen allows him to pose a very personal kind of threat that becomes more compelling as we see his animosity towards his former protégée slowly grow.
And while Davos, Danny’s old friend from K’un L’un, is evidently a walking advertisement for season two in how his arc is unfulfilled by the end, his appearance finally clarifies a great deal of the amorphous world of K’un L’un and re-energises Danny’s character arc by serving as an embodiment of the destructive consequences of Danny’s impetuous decision-making. Sacha Dhawan is an actor I’m happy to see in anything (I’m still rooting for him as the Thirteenth Doctor personally), and he brings the right amount of intensity to make a legion of deeply silly lines about the importance of chi and the sacrifice of Shou Lao seem genuinely convincing, as well as conveying the wounded pride and thwarted hopes that defines Davos in a way that’s both sympathetic and unsettling. There is one antagonist who doesn’t work, and we’ll get to him later. Yet the variety of threats ultimately pays off, with careful time taken to establish the nuances of each of these villains.
It’s rewarding to see Iron Fist make these improvements, but every step forward taken is inhibited by some fundamental problems in this show’s storytelling. A pretty big flaw is Iron Fist’s useless main character, who remains a mess right until the bitter end. Danny Rand doesn’t work. He was uninteresting in the front half when he sauntered around the city assuming he would be welcomed back with open arms into his empire, and he’s worse here. The back half is deeply concerned with showing off Danny’s flaws, and to be sure, there are flaws aplenty to be found. He’s hypocritical, condemning Colleen for joining a cult despite his constant spouting of the ‘must kill Hand’ rhetoric, and Iron Fist’s conclusion to this is… to prove Danny right by making Colleen’s faction of the Hand just as bad as the other one. He’s hopelessly gullible, somehow believing that Harold is trustworthy despite the endless array of red flags that indicate his father figure is up to no good, which leads him to stumble into a frame job as soon as Harold loses interest in him.
He’s also suffering from severe anger issues – something which Iron Fist tries to portray as deep psychological trauma, but instead, thanks to Finn Jones’ unconvincing attempts at fury that seem a second away from making Danny spout steam from his ears and some laughably obvious visual effects with his flashes to the past, he just seems like a very angry boy on the edge of a tantrum. The other three Marvel-Netflix series created rich and layered central characters who were beset by tangible flaws and anxieties, but you still rooted for them because they were established as good people at their core. Iron Fist angles for the same thing, but its perennial lack of nuance ensures that Danny remains an annoying mess of a character right to the very end. I hope Luke Cage has a few lessons to teach him when they team up.
For all the villains that Iron Fist throws into the mix, his real counterparts are the Meachums, part surrogate family and part hive of enemies. The Meachums’ storylines become absurdly convoluted by the end of the season, but there’s enjoyment to be had in the intricate power struggles when Iron Fist finds the emotional logic underlying it all. For instance, in the penultimate episode where Ward calls in a hit on his father, only for his efforts to blow up in his face as Joy is shot and Harold nearly executed, Iron Fist finds room to illustrate how each emotional attachment – father and daughter, brother and sister, father and son – is irrevocably altered by the encounter. At its best, Iron Fist can find rewarding character moments like Harold’s utter condemnation of Ward or Joy’s horrified shock at her brother betraying her beloved father, within the messy chaos of its storylines. The problems come when their storylines are scrutinised in the longer run, where some serious inconsistencies begin to crop up.
Ward and Joy begin the season as antagonists to Danny, and Iron Fist is evidently fascinated at moving them around on the chess board to evoke feelings of both sympathy and loathing in the viewer. The problems come when that constant manoeuvring begins to contradict what came before. Joy, as someone who perpetually suffered from a feeling that there was something off about her life, has a good arc in which she discovers her father’s resurrection and joins up with his plans. It’s believable that she trusts him because she’s been starved of this emotional attachment for so long, and it’s roughly believable when she turns on him and affirms her faith in Danny. It is not believable at all, however that she would, by the end of the same episode, express interest in a plan to kill Danny.
Ward’s own character arc is even messier. Given his brash demeanour and addictive tendencies, we’re predisposed to mistrust him within this back half, and Iron Fist appears to follow through on that with his impulsive, cathartic murder (temporarily) of his own father and descent into heroin addiction that finds him chained up in a mental asylum. By the season’s conclusion, however, he U-turns, and it turns out that we were meant to like him all along, as he’s ultimately responsible for disposing of Harold and of clearing Danny’s name. Like Joy, his about-face has potential, but Iron Fist fails to put in the basic building blocks of their motivations to change their minds this violently. It’s just abrupt lunges in characterisation in order to create surprise – the kind of storytelling where the characters come across quite transparently as puppets subject to the whims of the writers, regardless of whether each moment connects to the last.
And then there’s Harold. Admittedly, the elder Meachum is fascinating in his own way. I can’t quite remember such a bizarre character arc on television as Harold’s journey in episode nine, in which he emerges resurrected from a swamp, wanders around New York mumbling and walking through water fountains like a curious toddler, eventually returns to his right mind, and then bludgeons his employee to death with an ice cream scoop after the employee dared to ask for vanilla. At times like this, Harold is weirdly mesmerising – a grotesque parody of a cable-drama villain who definitely wasn’t intended to be like that. David Wenham is excellent to the end as the snarling, sinister patriarch who views everyone as a pawn in his own game and seems medically incapable of hiding that fact, and he can’t help the fact that his character is interesting for all the wrong reasons. By the end, though, he’s outlived his welcome, and the late-game revelation that he killed Danny’s parents is an eye-roller of a revelation that Iron Fist tries to sell with utter solemnness (surprise! It was the first guy you’d expect!), while his return to public life is fraught with corner-cutting as the episode seems disinterested in actually exploring its myriad repercussions. Both Danny and his arch-nemesis are poorly thought-out characters, as it turns out. But at least one of them is fun to watch.
Iron Fist’s first season, on the whole, was the result of a show uncertain of a reason for its own existence. If it’s to set up Danny Rand as a pivotal force in this corner of the MCU, then that didn’t work. We still barely know him by the end of the season, let alone like him, and he seems to have learned profoundly little about heroism in his travels given how his decisions become contradictory and haphazard towards the end of the season. If it’s to deepen the Hand as a villain in time for their bigger role in The Defenders, then that’s a more convincing case for its existence as the ideas of the competing factions adds some texture to their threat – although the logic of a thirteen-hour season existing to flesh out a villain is very questionable indeed. And… well, if it’s simply to tell a good story, then the result was complicated.
Put it this way: there are the bones of something compelling in Iron Fist. The show has a knack for intricate and morally complex character arcs for its supporting characters, and a cast good enough to support it. And its grab-bag approach to villains is actually one of the most refreshing parts about the season’s back half, offering a thematically broad range of challenges for both Danny and Colleen that dig into every corner of the ideas this show aims to explore. The set up for a second season is surprisingly intriguing, with Davos, perhaps the best-rounded villain of the lot, now on the warpath and K’un L’un mysteriously vanished into the ether after an attack by the Hand. If Iron Fist is renewed, it’ll be a good two years at least until it returns, and it would do well to use that time to creatively refresh itself and re-orient its vision of Danny Rand’s world,– perhaps even find a new showrunner with a better grasp of the social context of the character and of the uniqueness of his mythos. This might have been a critically flawed introduction to the Iron Fist, but there’s real, tangible room to improve.
Before that, though, there’s a city to defend. Danny Rand is going to need to make some new friends…
Verdict for Episodes 7-13: 6.5/10
Full Season Verdict: 6/10