Throughout season 1, Marvel’s Iron Fist presented viewers with a number of pressing questions. Few of those questions are actually about the future of Danny Rand, K’un-Lun, or even Madam Gao. And fewer still are about the subtle intricacies of the ability known as the Iron Fist. Instead, the most pressing questions have to do with the show itself. Everything from plot to pacing to payoff earns its own special brand of scrutiny at one point or another. But perhaps the most questionable element of the series is that, rather than build to a thematically appropriate climax, season 1 winds down to an inevitable confrontation between Harold Meachum and Danny Rand. That’s right; a show about a superhero kung fu master culminates in a rooftop battle between an undead businessman and the floppy-haired kid he thought died 15 years ago.
There is a story in Harold’s ongoing duplicity, and especially in the role he played in the death of Danny’s parents. The problem is that Iron Fist only half-heartedly searches for anything more than surface-level villainy in the character or his story. This reduces the elder Meachum into an emotionally abusive businessman archetype who lords fatherly approval over three young men so captivated by his parental authority they seem truly shocked when he tries to kill them to further his own agenda or, you know, because one of them preferred vanilla ice cream over hibiscus gelato (or whatever it was).
But it wasn’t all bad; Harold’s deficiencies as a character are in no way the fault of David Wenham, who launches himself into the role with such force one might think Iron Fist was pitched to him as an actual action-adventure series. Wenham works every scene like Harold does that punching bag in his secret penthouse apartment. He does his best to have fun in the role, and works hard to liven things up – take for instance the scene were Harold uses a hammer to relieve two corpses of their teeth – but the script doesn’t give the actor much to work with. Instead, Iron Fist is content to have its secondary villain be a lukewarm embodiment of the show’s equally unenthusiastic censure of corporate greed. He’s Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane crossed with Rutger Hauer’s Richard Earle; but increasingly, it becomes obvious Harold’s presence is little more than a tool to reconnect Danny with the Hand, even though fighting the shadowy group is the sole purpose of his role as the Iron Fist.
Like his character, Harold’s association with the Hand is thin at best. And like Joy, Ward, and Rand Enterprises as a whole, Harold feels shoehorned into a vaguely drawn plot that, like too many shared-universe products, ultimately acts as table setting for an upcoming event rather than a vehicle for the immediate needs of the story. In the case of Iron Fist, the plot is more concerned with illustrating how the Hand will likely act as the primary antagonist of Marvel and Netflix’s upcoming miniseries The Defenders. So, when Danny and Colleen’s fight with the Hand is taken as far as it can go, before a resolution clearly intended for a higher-profile project presents itself, Iron Fist places the Hand on the backburner (it’s fine, they don’t feel a thing) and refocuses its attention on Harold.
Back in that mode, then, Harold is business as usual, and Danny, his younger, inexperienced, and idealistic adversary, who should, by comparison, represent the sort of anarchic chaos a fading generation sees in the youths coming to steal their seat at the table, is just business as it should be. Even when he’s disrupting the business ventures of a greedy capitalist in bed with a league of heroin-dealing ninjas, the best Iron Fist can muster for Danny to do is some earnest finger-wagging about doing the bare minimum, like not polluting entire communities and then denying responsibility. As with the bland fight scenes, even the corporate battles in Danny Rand’s world are tepid and uninspired. Even when he’s falling ass backwards into doing the right thing, Danny somehow manages to do it with all the flair and intrigue of dry toast.
Time and again, the series feels like it’s trying to convince the audience how Danny’s mastery of kung fu isn’t nearly as interesting as watching a naïf with zero formal business training make high-level decisions about the future of a presumably multi-national corporation. That would be fine if this were a show about unscrupulous businessmen and women doing dubious things in service to the almighty dollar. But this is a superhero show, and one specifically about kung fu to boot, a fact that, again, raises more questions than it answers. Questions like: How is Iron Fist – a show about an orphaned kung fu master who beat up a dragon to get magical punching abilities – not the craziest martial arts epic since Kill Bill? Why is RZA, the only person who seems to understand the importance of kung fu in a kung fu series, not asked to make more creative decisions on this show? And why does the series position a collision between an orphaned child and his surrogate father as the series’ climax, when the only character arc that benefits is that of Ward Meachum – a secondary character who is also a drug-addled murderer?
Such questions point to a lack of vision for the series, but even then the biggest failure of Iron Fist is its refusal to innovate. The show is fine being next in a long line of stories about rich white men returning from far-off places, ready to beat up bad guys and exact revenge on those who did their parents wrong. But there’s nothing sacrosanct about the story of Iron Fist, so why put the audience through another routine origin? The decision to focus on Harold and Rand Enterprises becomes even more curious when you stop to consider how far away both are from the genre Iron Fist ostensibly fits into. This is the story of a young man who knows kung fu and is in possession of some nebulously defined magical powers that make his martial arts skills more exciting than everyone else’s. For whatever reason, season 1 of Iron Fist wants to be about anything else.
Iron Fist season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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