Warning: SPOILERS for Iron Fist ahead
Marvel's Iron Fist has finally arrived on Netflix, introducing the final Marvel hero poised to become a part of the upcoming team-up series The Defenders, and Marvel finds itself in a rare position of having to defend its newest series from a medley of unflattering reviews and reactions. Many fans have argued since Iron Fist's began production that comic book canon should have been eschewed and an Asian-American actor should have been cast as its titular hero Danny Rand instead of former Game of Thrones' actor Finn Jones, to avoid dragging the source material's outdated tropes into the 21st century. The reviews for the first six episodes critics were allowed to see early were even more damning: a 17% Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a sweeping consensus that Iron Fist is just not a good show, ironically packing the weakest punch of Marvel's Netflix series.
Is Iron Fist really the worst of the Marvel shows found on Netflix thus far? Perhaps it was unfair to make such a declaration based on 6 out of 13 hours of the series without fully understanding the full scope of the story and witnessing what surprises the latter half of the season had in store. With that in mind, binging the complete series is the only way to properly absorb Iron Fist and gauge its worthiness, especially judged against its predecessors - Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Iron Fist centers around Danny Rand, a billionaire who was presumed killed in a plane crash in the Himalayas. Fifteen years later, Danny returns to New York City to claim his place in his family's company, Rand Enterprises, which is now run by his childhood friends Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup). Danny must prove his identity as the heir to the Rand corporation, and explain where he's been - not an easy task, since it's a pretty strange story.
Following the plane crash, Danny was taken in by a cabal of warrior monks to live in an other-dimensional monastery named K'un-Lun, where he was trained in martial arts. Danny eventually claimed the mantle of the Immortal Iron Fist, becoming the Living Weapon charged with protecting K'un-Lun, but he abandoned his duties and returned to New York. As the series progresses, Danny encounters the machinations of the Hand, the ancient enemy of K'un-Lun, in New York City. Danny makes new friends, like Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), and gains a partner and a lover in Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) - a martial arts teacher harboring a secret.
WHAT DOES IRON FIST BRING TO THE TABLE THAT'S NEW?
Those with even a cursory amount of knowledge about the comic book hero expect that Iron Fist would be a kung fu show. Daredevil was a street-level superhero show steeped in Matt Murdock's Catholic guilt through and through, Jessica Jones was essentially a show about a hard-boiled private investigator, and Luke Cage was a show about a black hero protecting Harlem - they all hold true to their comic book roots. Therefore, it's shocking how relatively little kung fu there is in Iron Fist. Instead of an exciting superhero kung fu spectacle, the series is much more concerned with the sordid family drama of the Meachums, especially how son Ward has been under the thrall of his father Harold Meachum (David Wenham), who died from cancer 15 years ago but is now very much alive and secretly running the Rand Corporation.
Danny's quest in the first half of the season is to reclaim his company and his seat on the Rand corporate board - despite the fact that he was 10 when he was taken to K'un-Lun, he has a middle school education at best, and has no real knowledge or apparent desire to run a Fortune 500 company. When he does become part of Rand, Iron First strives to make him "the face of the company" and some sort of corporate folk hero for essentially undermining his company's business by "doing the right thing" - like Tony Stark did when he decided Stark Industries would no longer sell weapons in Iron Man. In the meantime, when some kung fu fight scenes do occur so that Iron Fist can have some action, the fight scenes are brief, arbitrary and not very impressive. Iron Fist seems to find being a kung fu superhero show a bother, putting little effort into either aspect.
The best action in the first half of the series comes not from Danny but from Colleen Wing. In dire financial straits to support her Chinatown dojo, Colleen does what many Marvel heroes like Wolverine, Angel, and Nightcrawler have done before her: she enters an underground fight club. Taking on bruisers twice her size, Colleen's cage matches are exciting and visceral. She comes off as braver and more impressive than Danny Rand does in his fights. This is also thanks to the performance of Jessica Henwick, who makes Colleen sympathetic and intriguing, even when the scripts don't service her character with more than basic motivations and relatively little dialogue. Colleen Wing is the standout character in Iron Fist, with some viewers already interested in her getting her own Netflix show, perhaps titled Daughter of the Dragon.
The second half of Iron Fist concerns Danny's attempts to fight the Hand, which we learn had long infiltrated Rand Enterprises, and is using it as a front for its heroin dealing operations. The Hand has been the villain in both seasons of Daredevil, and it is the Big Bad once again in Iron Fist, with the ancient evil Madam Gao (Wai Ching Ho), returning as its leader. We do learn there are different branches of the Hand, with its leaders disagreeing with each other's methods. A different group of the Hand is lead by Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez), Collen Wing's sensei, who recruits wayward teens, trains them to be part of the Hand, and empowers them into society as doctors, lawyers and businessmen who will secretly further the Hand's ambitions. While Iron Fist is at least not inundated with ninjas as Daredevil's second season was, the Hand being the primary villain for the third time in a Netflix series - only this time a group of teenage martial arts trainees like the Cobra Kai - is ground that has been tread ad nauseam.
IS DANNY RAND THE HERO WE DESERVE?
Whichever side the viewer falls on in the 'Danny Rand should have been Asian-American' debate, what would have certainly helped Iron Fist is a lead actor with more martial arts experience. Danny's fight scenes are often a mess of quick cuts as they switch between Jones and his stunt double, and Jones himself just isn't convincing as a martial artist - never mind one of the best hand-to-hand fighters in the Marvel Universe, and a warrior so great he earned the power of the Iron Fist. Colleen praises Danny's fighting style to Claire Temple at one point, but her praise doesn't track with what we see. There is no action scene in Iron Fist as memorable or brutal and visceral as the famed hallway fight in Daredevil season 1, and Colleen actually comes across as a more convincing fighter than Danny does.
Danny's character arc seems to worsen as the series continues. When he arrives in New York City, homeless and barefoot, he is very soft-spoken and Zen. Even after Ward Meachum has him incarcerated in a mental hospital, Danny is centered and reasonable. After he gains his seat on the Rand board, however Danny's emotional state deterioriates throughout the series, and in the final few episodes, he is irrational and irritable, constantly making rash and poor decisions. When he realizes the scope of the Hand's plans - and later when Davos, his best friend from K'un-Lun, arrives to try to bring him back to fulfill his duties - Danny seems to crumble under the pressure. The show includes the dialogue "This is all my fault!" more than once, and it's true. Danny constantly takes action despite having no plan and not seeing the bigger picture, and makes matters worse for himself and others.
Iron Fist explains that as Danny's emotional state worsens, his chi becomes corrupted, leaving him often unable to access the power of the Iron Fist. But we also learn that despite Danny saying he mastered all the disciplines to become the Iron Fist, that isn't the case at all. There are several aspects of the Iron Fist's power, like using his chi to heal others, that Danny didn't know how to do. So how and why does Danny have the Iron Fist in the first place? There is a point later in the series where Bakuto, trying to tempt Danny into joining the Hand, shows him footage of the Iron Fist in 1948. This Iron Fist, wearing a version of the classic comic book costume, has two glowing hands, and impressively dispatches soldiers attempting to breach the gate of K'un-Lun. It's hard not to wish that the show was about that Iron Fist, and not Danny Rand.
IS IRON FIST THE WORST OF THE DEFENDERS?
"You're the worst Iron Fist ever!" Davos tells Danny. It's as if the series came to this conclusion even before the viewer does. Danny never comes off as more than a pale copy of the other billionaire superheroes in movies and TV we've seen in the last decade who have traveled to the East to learn superhero skills and returns to America to fight evil. Danny comes in at the bottom of a list that includes Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Oliver Queen, and Dr. Stephen Strange. Danny spends much of the series being manipulated in various ways by Harold Meachum, by Madam Gao, and by Bakuto.
It's also worth noting that Danny never actually beats any of the main villains in the series. It's Colleen who kills Bakuto in single combat, and it's Ward who finally escapes the torment of his father Harold and kills him. Danny is on the sidelines for both of those. Danny's first great challenge is to win a tournament set up by Madam Gao, but he forfeits at the end to save the life of a woman held prisoner. The one big fight Danny does win is against Davos, who is arguably justified in thinking that Danny was wrong to steal the power of the Iron Fist from K'un-Lun. All Davos wants is for Danny to return to fulfill his sworn duty and guard the gate of the ancient city - but Danny wanted to be Danny Rand, New York billionaire, instead. As we find out in the very last scene of season 1, Davos was right and K'un-Lun paid the price. As such, it's hard to believe in Danny Rand.
This isn't to say there aren't bright spots to Iron Fist. Jessica Henwick does a fine job crafting a kick-ass female hero in Colleen Wing, and she imbues the character with a palpable confusion and inner conflict as she must choose between her loyalty to the Hand and her growing affection for Danny. Rosario Dawson continues to be a delight as Claire Temple, more exasperated than ever with this fourth superhero she's had the privilege of meeting and stitching up when he's injured. Jessica Stroup also does excellent work trying to balance her own loyalty to the three men in her life, her father, her brother, and Danny, as they constantly wage war on each other. Ramon Rodriguez makes Bakuto a reasonably compelling and understated villain. Sacha Dhawan has real moments of torment as Davos, and we can buy into just why he feels such animosity towards Danny, his former best friend. Unfortunately, Finn Jones is an uninspiring negative zone as the centerpiece hero of Iron Fist, though he's eclipsed by the bizarre, relentlessly cartoonish performance given by David Wenham as Harold Meachum.
None of the Marvel Netflix series can claim to be perfect television shows. All have suffered from pacing issues from having to stretch their stories to fill the 13 episodes mandated by Netflix (The Defenders will only be eight episodes, which will hopefully keep everything at an exciting pace). Daredevil season 2, while making comic book team up dreams come true by introducing the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), drew fire for changing Elektra's origin story and for the nonsensical plot involving the Hand. Jessica Jones' weakest points were some irritating supporting characters, and Luke Cage mistakenly traded the more compelling villains played by Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard for the cartoonish Diamondback played by Erik LaRay Harvey. Yet they all succeeded as superhero shows while exploring their different genres.
The decision was made that Iron Fist must become the fourth member of The Defenders, therefore, he must have his own Netflix series, but that series makes a poor case for Iron Fist's importance. In Danny Rand, Iron Fist delivers the least likeable protagonist and the least convincing superhero of the four Defenders. The series was charged with introducing the more mystical elements of kung fu and K'un-Lun to the Netflix side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it did so haphazardly and almost reluctantly - never even showing the viewers K'un-lun. Iron Fist chose instead to spend much of its glacially-paced plot dealing with the corporate shenanigans of Rand Enterprises and the least interesting iteration of the Hand yet.
While Iron Fist will have its share of defenders who are bound to enjoy the series regardless, it's difficult to reach any other conclusion than Iron Fist is the worst of the Marvel-Netflix series so far. Iron Fist is the final Defender we are introduced to and, compared to his superhero future partners, he also seems to be the least of them.