Building upon the previous successes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, the fourth Defender premieres in a series of his own. While a few good ideas are spread throughout the 13 episode series, they are underused and easily sacrificed to make room for uninteresting sub-plots and pointless character arcs. Through poor writing and questionable direction, IRON FIST fails to live up to the promise of quality laid out by it’s predecessors, and squanders the chance to give the character the introduction he deserved.
As a boy, protagonist and billionaire heir Danny Rand (played in adulthood by Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones) is lost in the Himalayas after a plane crash that killed both of his parents. He is saved from any number of possible deaths – starvation, freezing, falling, wolves – by a pair of monks who take him back to K’un Lun, a mysterious city hidden deep in the mountains. Fifteen years later, a grown up, homeless looking Danny returns to New York to reclaim his life, trained in martial arts and armed with a mystical power that make his hand glow and his punches super-strong, known as the Iron Fist.
With the naivety of that young boy who went missing in the mountains, Danny walks into his family company, Rand Enterprises, with no ID and no way of proving he’s not a crazy person, and asks to speak to his parents’ old business partner Harold Meachum (David Wenham). After evading security, who of course don’t want some random guy wandering around the building, Danny is surprised to find Harold’s kids Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) running the show instead. When they refuse to believe he is who he says he is, Danny has to figure out a way to reclaim his old life, while also dealing with an old enemy of the Iron Fist who are lurking in the shadows of New York.
Interesting threads set up in the first few episodes are overshadowed by the unbearably drawn out sequences involving the Meachum family.
As a story about a white billionaire who was presumed dead while he was off mastering martial arts in the middle of nowhere, comparisons to recent superhero origin stories like Batman Begins and Arrow are inevitable. While both of those examples did great jobs of creating an interesting, compelling backdrop for their protagonist’s exile, there is a frustrating sense of flippancy that is present whenever IRON FIST flashes back to fill in the blanks. What these sections should create is an engaging sub-plot that explains how Danny came to be the Iron Fist, introduces a few supporting characters and, most importantly, establishes a strong motivation for him to return to New York. Instead, very little time is spent in this setting (most likely due to how expensive it would be to make a K’un Lun set), and nowhere near enough to present a believable reason for Danny to want to leave. As a result, any elements of the plot that hang on his choice to abandon his post (of which there are several) don’t carry as much weight as they could have, leaving a protagonist who feels incredibly selfish and irresponsible.
Unfortunately, the present day narrative doesn’t fare much better. Some interesting threads are set up in the first few episodes, particularly when Danny meets local dojo owner Colleen Wing (played by Jones’ fellow Thrones alum, Jessica Henwick), but these are overshadowed by the unbearably drawn out sequences involving the Meachum family. The initial problem of how a billionaire with no proof of his identity is supposed to reclaim his kingdom has plenty of engaging moments, and seeing Danny wander around New York making friends with the local homeless community is easily one of the best elements of the series.
While Danny’s struggle to prove his legitimacy could have (and probably should have for the sake of pacing) been covered in just the first episode, the extended introduction does allow Jones to make the most of his goofy fish-out-of-water take on Danny. Seeing as he quickly turns into a petulant child who ignores sound advice and makes bad decisions, seemingly for no reason other than arrogance, these moments are a tantalising glimpse at the more whimsical direction that the show could have gone. As the person who most readily tells Danny that his irrational, oftentimes illogical, actions are not the right thing to do, Colleen Wing is easily the most relatable character in the entire series. Despite regularly having to deal with her characters tendency to abandon any reasonable sense of agency for the sake of the plot, Jessica Henwick manages to infuse Colleen with a strong sense of warmth and tenacity that particularly stands out when compared to Jones’ whiny, unstable man-child.
As the first antagonistic figures that Danny encounters, the Meachums are an inexcusably bland presence in what should have been the most light-hearted entry in the Netflix MCU. Ward’s distinct lack of personality and perpetual scowl make it very difficult to like (or even love to hate) him, and attempts to flesh him out later in the season simply aren’t enough to make him interesting. His father Harold shows promise in the beginning, but consistently laughable dialogue makes it increasingly difficult to take him seriously and ruins any chance he had at being a formidable threat. Of the Meachum clan, only Joy has any semblance of depth, but even that is squandered with some truly perplexing character decisions that remove any credibility she builds up in her better scenes.
For a show that revolves around a master of mystical martial arts, it is astounding that the central character isn’t better at fighting.
Given that the premise of IRON FIST is a white man learning kung fu from a bunch of Asian monks and eventually becoming their champion, there was always going to be a degree of controversy surrounding the development. The concerns of continued cultural appropriation (these problems have surrounded the Iron Fist comic books pretty much since day 1) are far from unfounded, and despite pledges from the creators that the show would subvert those old fashioned tropes, the same old problems creep into scenes again and again. When Danny is first getting to know Colleen, he deems it necessary to mansplain kung fu to her, a master fighter herself, while standing in her own dojo. Danny’s arrogance and condescension are magnified to cartoonish proportions when it quickly becomes apparent that Jessica Henwick (along with almost everyone else) is just plain better at kung fu that Finn Jones is.
For a show that revolves around a master of mystical martial arts, it is astounding that the central character isn’t better at fighting. Of the many fight scenes that Danny takes part in, very few are visually interesting, and none offer any evidence that Finn Jones could realistically defeat his opponent. This problem is most prevalent when Danny fights Zhou Cheng (Lewis Tan, who actually auditioned for the title role) in what is easily the most engaging battle of the series. Cheng is a master of the drunken fist style of kung fu, and watching him flop and stumble around is vastly entertaining. Despite his seemingly buffoonish personality, Cheng is a force to be reckoned with, thanks to Tan’s own skills, and this makes it all the more frustrating when the action is forced to slow down, or some shoddy editing is employed, just to make it semi-believable that Danny actually has a chance of winning. The most irritating facet of this problem is that it would have been very easy to avoid, if the show-runner had decided to take a leaf out of Daredevil’s playbook. Using the characters comic book costume – or a low budget version of it to begin with – allows the actor to be swapped out for a stunt double, making the fight scenes that much more impactful.
Despite showing a lot of potential in the opening episodes, IRON FIST’s better qualities are too hindered by it’s amateurish writing and directorial misfires to stand alongside the other Defenders in a meaningful way. Daredevil played on it’s religious undertones to present a hero wracked with Catholic guilt, Jessica Jones is a strong feminist anthem that shows a deeply troubled woman dealing with the effects of a man messing with her mind, and Luke Cage is a bulletproof black man in a hoodie – an image that is more relevant to society with each day that passes. IRON FIST has no such voice to match the others, and it certainly doesn’t carry the same representative qualities that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage do, rather it openly flaunts a disturbing lack of racial sensitivity. There is hope for the character to improve when he debuts in The Defenders this August, but as far as first impressions go, Danny’s got a lot of catching up to do.
Verdict: 2/5 Paddles