Danny Rand’s introduction to the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a critical misfire. Repetitive, uninspired writing, uneven characters, and unconvincing fight choreography plagued the series from the start, suggesting the whole endeavor could have benefitted from some serious revisions. But while throwing the baby out with the bathwater is one approach, Marvel and Netflix could have better served the character and his comic book history by going a much different route, and perhaps delivering a series that felt more essential than season 1 of Iron Fist wound up feeling.
Though not without his fans, Iron Fist is by no means the sort of comic book character whose origin and identity are beyond a page-one rewrite. But as Marvel demonstrated with the casting of Finn Jones in the lead role, and the decision to turn Iron Fist into a repeat of an already familiar origin story, that’s not how things were going to play out. Opting to adapt the character mostly as he is from the comics was a missed opportunity, one that turned the series into a discernible blunder for the mostly well-regarded coalition of Netflix street-level heroes. Marvel Television gave a third-tier character his very own meandering 13-episode introduction when a more enticing premise was there all along: Iron Fist season 1 should have been Heroes For Hire.
Although they’ve only been around a few years, Netflix’s Marvel shows have a well-established history of using the solo adventures of one character as the backdoor pilot for spinoffs and other new series. The first half of Daredevil season 2 functioned more as a proof-of-concept case for Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, while Jessica Jones season 1 introduced Luke Cage to the benefit of both shows. After his successful debut as a supporting character in Jones and his server-breaking solo series premiere, Cage should have paid that forward to the floppy-haired orphan running around NYC without any shoes. Instead of emulating the first season of Daredevil, Iron Fist would have been wise to follow in Ms. Jones’s footsteps, skipping a solo introduction and familiarizing Danny to audiences through the eyes of his future best pal Luke Cage. This would likely alter Marvel’s plans for The Defenders crossover – or at least a part of Luke’s narrative trajectory, considering where he was headed at the end of Luke Cage season 1 – but it would be a small price to pay to avoid a blemish on an otherwise impressive run of television.
As much as Iron Fist toyed with the idea of presenting its main character as a naïf, a man who was still very much a boy in search of an identity, it didn’t work. The narrative routinely stumbled around the idea that its protagonist is both a living weapon and a dewy-eyed innocent trapped in an endless spiral of his own tedious origin story. But whether he’s throwing a magic punch through steel doors or reciprocating the delivery of a dumpster-liberated chicken parm by half-assedly reciting some Buddhist teachings, neither side of the Iron Fist is all that interesting on his own. Here, Marvel’s martial arts master is as limited by his glowing hand as he is defined by it.
The series underlines its shortage of narrative options by spending a considerable amount of time putting the Iron Fist on the fritz. Normally, this presents an opportunity for the character to show what he’s really made of, that an innate sense of decency and humanity drives him to be a hero, rather than simply possessing the power to be one (e.g., Peter Parker’s journey in the high-water mark of cinematic superheroism, Spider-Man 2). But Iron Fist never discovers what defines Danny. He’s his own worst enemy in a way; he needs an authority figure, someone he can look up to and aspire to be, someone who is already an established presence within the MCU and can decide when the nascent hero needs to be pushed in the right direction, and when he needs to learn from his mistakes. Helping Danny find and express who he is as a person would have gone a long way in making the hero more engaging, and it’s a role that would have been perfect for someone like Luke Cage.
Balancing a headstrong Danny – convinced of his status as the Iron Fist and a living weapon – against the reluctant heroism of Cage is both a natural starting point for the displaced billionaire man-child and a terrific third act for the man with unbreakable skin. Besides, what better way to undercut some of the more unlikeable aspects of Danny’s persona than to have an authority figure on hand to call him out on them?
Really, though, turning Iron Fist into Heroes For Hire would have been good for Danny Rand, Luke Cage, and Netflix. A 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon-like buddy cop formula would come closest to justifying the 13-episode model for the first time. The typical structure of any story in the buddy cop subgenre spends a good chunk of the first half defining its characters by way of their many differences before finding the co-leads’ dissimilarities a virtue in defeating a common foe. In its early going, Iron Fist struggled to be more than a derivative rehash of the origins of Batman, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, or Green Arrow. The first few hours tasked Danny with proving he was, in fact, Danny Rand, but the character’s repeated attempts to do so just put him and the show on the slow train to nowheresville (let us all recall the great gaslighting of episode 2). With Cage as its foundation, Marvel and Netflix could have built an Iron Fist worth crowing about, one that would have offered a fascinating contrast to the much more hostile dynamic of Matt Murdock and Frank Castle during Daredevil season 2.
While Iron Fist and Luke Cage will likely get to play Heroes for Hire to a certain degree in the upcoming Avengers-like crossover The Defenders, it’s hard to say whether or not the constraints of the upcoming miniseries will allow that dynamic to play out to its fullest. The group dynamic will likely go a long way in mending Danny Rand’s live-action reputation, and it may well serve as a course correction that will justify future televised tales of the Iron Fist. Until the future makes itself clear, however, viewers will be left pondering what could have been with Marvel’s martial arts series.
Iron Fist season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.