This spoiler-free Iron Fist review is based on the first six episodes.
With three shows and four total seasons under their belt, the Marvel Studios/Netflix partnership now comes with a fairly concrete set of expectations. You know you’re going to get something a cut above the average network superhero TV show in terms of production value, and there are places they can go that their broadcast counterparts can’t. Like its predecessors, Iron Fist establishes a slightly different tone (this one comes from Dexter showrunner Scott Buck) and is mostly self contained, with few connections to previous series that might put off a new viewer.
Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has been presumed dead for 15 years, after the plane carrying him and his parents vanished over the Himalayas. When he suddenly returns to New York City and arrives on the doorstep of the company he would have been heir to, he finds his childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum (Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey) running the show. Their father Harold (David Wenham) was the elder Rand’s business partner, and Rand Enterprises has been run by the Meachum family since the incident. They aren’t exactly thrilled to see Danny, although they have little reason to believe he is who he says he is, and his strange claims about where he’s been don’t exactly help his case. After all, would you believe someone who said they survived a plane crash only to spend the next 15 years in a city not on any map while being trained by monks?
It’s more complicated than it sounds, and weaving in Danny’s backstory proves a little trickier than it did in earlier Marvel/Netflix efforts. As usual, our main character’s origin is only hinted at and glimpsed in flashbacks and exposition. This worked well with the “accident of science” superhero origin stories we’ve seen on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, but when there’s an entire secret civilization being alluded to, and Danny’s actual motivations and the nature of his powers remain pretty obscure, it’s a tougher sell. If the show would commit to whether the audience is supposed to believe Danny’s outlandish story or not, that would be one thing, but it tries to have it both ways, particularly in its earliest episodes. It’s a shame, as this might have been a risk worth taking.
Finn Jones’ casting raised some eyebrows, but he brings a particular everyman quality to the role, and he alternates between an almost childlike serenity and the kind of irrational outbursts you might expect from someone who has had no knowledge of the modern world since he was ten years old. While the “rich white guy returns home after years abroad/in training” similarities are unavoidable, Danny’s characterisation is unique enough to prevent any of this from feeling like an echo of Batman Begins or Arrow. It’s easy to see where Danny’s personality will fit in with the rest of the team once The Defenders rolls around. He’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast, and the Meachum family (Stroup, Pelphrey, and Wenham) provide a good balancing act of warmth and skepticism with their possibly sinister motives.
Every one of these Marvel Netflix efforts has a breakout supporting character, and in this case, it’s unquestionably Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. Like Simone Messick’s Misty Knight on Luke Cage, Henwick immediately gives the impression that she could carry her own show (and depending on how far Marvel and Netflix are willing to take their partnership, she may get her chance). In fact, the most spectacular fight scene in Iron Fist (so far) doesn’t even belong to the title character, but rather to Colleen Wing.
But there’s something missing from Iron Fist. Visually, it’s a little bland for many of these early episodes, often lacking the cinematic pop that made Daredevil or Luke Cage such visual standouts. While every Marvel Netflix series has pacing problems, and many feel like they spread eight to ten episodes’ worth of story over thirteen chapters, it usually takes a few instalments before you feel the show begin to spin its wheels. But Iron Fist is a particularly slow starter, and it takes nearly three before you get a sense of why anyone behaves the way they do. Flashbacks are awkwardly placed, characters make baffling decisions, and the general impression is sometimes that the show is filling time.
Part of the problem might be that Iron Fist has something of an identity crisis. So much time is spent at Rand Enterprises that you almost feel like the show is trying to fool viewers into thinking it’s a corporate drama as it sidelines its mystical/martial arts elements. That’s actually a cool pitch, but none of the corporate stuff is intriguing enough to hang the show’s hat on. I’m certainly not a viewer who needs constant action or references to Marvel mythology to hold my attention (it’s admirable how much these shows play in their own sandbox rather than rely on Marvel’s increasing interconnectivity), but you need to give us a little more to buy Danny’s story and that he’s the king badass he’s expected to be.
Things take a better turn in episode six, directed by none other than Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA, no stranger to the highs and lows of martial arts movies. This is the first time you start to feel the show really find its feet, and it’s no coincidence that there’s a stronger visual identity and more obvious martial arts connections on display here. It’s certainly the most action packed, but it’s also the first one that revels in the mystical weirdness of Danny’s world, and it works beautifully.
I kept waiting for Iron Fist to kick it into another gear, and that sixth episode aside, it never quite did. If nothing else, Marvel’s Netflix efforts have earned the benefit of the doubt, and I’m willing to believe that the next seven episodes make up for lost time. But it’s worth pointing out that both Daredevil Season 2 and Luke Cage took noticeably different turns in their second halves. Hopefully Iron Fist is just a slow burn, and the steady build that begins in episode three and blossoms in episode six continues for the rest of the series. Iron Fist might just be the unfortunate victim of the raised expectations that come with these projects.
We’ll find out when all 13 episodes of Iron Fist arrive on Netflix on March 17th.