[WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME VERY MINOR SPOILERS]
In the eternal argument between fanboys about which is better, adaptations of Marvel or DC Comics, the Marvel acolytes always had one trump card up their sleeves. When it came to adapting their properties, the comic book film studio had this incredible knack of making their characters fit into the modern context while still staying true to what made them so appealing in the first place. That was up until Iron Fist.
Following on from Marvel’s previous Netflix series – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage – Iron Fist is the final step in the build-up to their crossover miniseries The Defenders, but its a misstep of note. At its core, the Iron Fist comic book is a shlocky 1970s Shaw Brothers kung fu fantasy epic – think The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter – where Danny Rand, an outsider orphaned by a plane crash in the Himalayas, is raised in K’un-L’un, a magical City of Heaven, trained in the many ways of kung fu, and is eventually chosen to fight an immortal dragon and claim its power by literally punching into its heart to become the Iron Fist, the latest in a long line of fabled warriors with a grim destiny. The 13-episode series we get from Marvel/Netflix and showrunner Scott Buck though is basically Arrow-lite, only with less punching and more corporate litigation.
In the comics, once Danny claims the mantle and power of the Iron Fist – which allows him to focus his chi in his hand, essentially turning it into a bulletproof cannon – he returns home, once again an outsider as more than a decade has passed and the billion dollar corporation once run by his family now has somebody else at the helm. It’s this footnote in the comic book story, instead of the much bigger arc about dragon punching and becoming a costumed hero, that Marvel have inexplicably decided to focus on, and then to make matters worse, tell in the clumsiest way.
The series opens as a ratty, barefoot Danny (Finn Jones) shows up in New York looking hobo-chic and spouting fortune cookie platitudes and claims of magical pugilist abilities and is somehow dumbstruck that he can’t make it past the lobby of the office building where just about nobody working there actually knows who he is. Luckily, Danny’s childhood friends, Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), the children of Danny’s late father’s business partner and best friend Harold Meachum (David Wenham), are now running things. But due to the fact that it takes three episodes for somebody to think to ask Danny something only he would know, we are expected, like the Meachums, to spend the early part of the show also wondering if this is the real Danny Rand/Iron Fist or if he’s not just a crazy guy off the street.
It’s an utterly aggravating bit of narrative wheelspinning that leads nowhere. And even when it’s done, it still takes about half the series before any real central plot emerges. A plot that involves the Hand, that mystical ninja organization that plagued Daredevil so violently in his second season. To its credit, Iron Fist shows how the Hand can be a Hydra-like organization with resources everywhere, and even the extent of its mystical abilities as demonstrated through Harold Meachum’s dealings with them. But in many ways it feels like this is nothing more than Marvel putting the pieces in place for The Defenders – which Scott Buck is also the showrunner of – rather than giving us an engaging Iron Fist story.
Or an engaging Iron Fist, to be perfectly frank. Prior to the release of the show, the casting of Jones as Danny Rand was steeped in controversy, as many groups, spurred by the diversity crisis currently gripping Hollywood, lobbied for Marvel to cast an Asian-American actor as the traditionally white hero instead of depicting yet another rich white guy using abilities he gained from Asian culture to become awesome (see: Batman, Green Arrow, Doctor Strange). While I defended Jones’ casting initially, I will actually now concede that he is indeed horribly miscast. Not because of any racial insensitivity though (though there is that), but rather because he does such a piss poor job of things.
Jones shows an utter lack of charisma or screen presence, and seems to confuse scrounging up his face, holding the sides of his head and speaking in a low register with actual emotion. It doesn’t help that the writing in Iron Fist is particularly clunky, and Danny is victim to some of the worst of it. The result is a hard-to-like hero who often comes off as petulant and entitled, and who has no clear motivations about what he wants (“I haven’t returned to take back the company”… two episodes later… “Give me back the company!”).
At least he has a mostly better support cast around him. The Meachum siblings both have intriguing arcs, particularly that of Stroup’s Joy Meachum, but this is undermined by constant flip-flopping developments that have them perform actions contradictory to what they just did earlier. Harold Meachum has the most complex story of the lot (the details of which I won’t spoil here), and David Wenham certainly gives a spirited performance in bringing it to life. So too Marvel Neflix veterans Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Jerri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss) show up to add a spark of vitality with every scene they’re in. The real standout though is Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, a Japanese martial arts instructor who reluctantly gets caught up in Danny Rand’s world, and eventually even gets into a relationship with him. She has all the energy and character that Jones’ Danny lacks so badly. And also the martial arts prowess.
That last point is a salient one as you’ve probably noticed that I’m nearly 1000 words into this review and I’ve yet to mention the fighting. After all this is a show about a kung fu master, so irrespective of whether it flubs its characters, has horribly stiff dialogue, and nonsensical plotting, at least we’ll get some good action. Except we often don’t. The very first fight in the show is simply embarrassing in its oafish clumsiness, and it’s only around the halfway mark of the series – in a episode directed by The RZA – where things genuinely improve. And while these later fights are definitely better in every way, they still lack both the physically acrobatic and cinematographical flair you would expect from a show of this nature.
Not to mention that the writers somehow feel the need for Danny to use the powerful Iron Fist as little as possible, leaving most fights to be rather straightforward affairs. But not straightforward to Danny though, as across the show’s running time there’s a huge inconsistency to his actual skill level. Other characters are always telling us how great a fighter he is, and he does sometimes pull off some impressive pirouetting techniques, but then he barely survives a fight with a single lowly lackey armed with nothing more than small knife and a tailored suit.
After the action choreography brilliance of Daredevil, this is immensely disappointing, especially when combined with the show’s insistence on rather focusing on Danny trying to win back his corporate inheritance. Instead of constant high-flying kung fu action, we get boardroom shenanigans occasionally interspersed with David Carradine’s Kung Fu. And I didn’t choose that very outdated pop culture reference offhand. With Buck and co deciding to ditch Iron Fist’s (admittedly goofy) costume, it means that Jones has nothing to cover his face and thus the young actor has to perform the majority of his own fighting. While I applaud this dedication, its very evident in many scenes that Jones is just not a natural martial artist.
Some of you may not have read that previous sentence, because you’re still stuck on the fact that Iron Fist has no costume. If that is the case, prepare for way bigger disappointment as Buck and co go out of their way, writing the plot into circles, all to showcase as little of the retro Eastern mysticism aspect of Danny Rand’s story as humanly possible. The previously mentioned RZA directed episode gets the closest to its charmingly hokey kung fu roots with a brief martial arts tournament featuring some colourful characters. A later episode even has Danny facing down against a master of that most ludicrous of martial arts, drunken boxing, to fantastically entertaining effect.
But these highlights though are only hints at the utterly unique-to-the-Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero show that could have been. Daredevil has its violent grit and jaw-dropping action, Jessica Jones has a tortured lead in an allegorical indictment of rape culture, while Luke Cage subverts genre motifs to tackle topical racial issues in America. Iron Fist wants to stay true to its source by keeping Danny Rand white, but then is completely unwilling to fully embraced its source material’s Asian charms, so the result is a sub-par pastiche of so many other rich vigilante shows already. Danny Rand may possess a punch like a bazooka, but this blandly familar telling won’t knock anybody’s socks off.