Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. At this point, we know that Marvel’s continued success is almost equal parts casting and production. When they align like with Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Chris Pratt/James Gunn combo, it’s beautiful. When things fall apart from a coupling made in heaven and descend into passability like with Ant-Man‘s Edgar Wright/Peyton Reed swap meet, it’s painful to know what could have been.
Thus we arrive at Iron Fist, the last of the Netflix series required for the upcoming The Defenders miniseries. Netflix’s MCU contributions have been subject to the same foundational successes. Putting Melissa Rosenberg behind Jessica Jones and Cheo Hodari Coker with Luke Cage were masterful moves given each showrunner’s predilections for particular themes and motifs. (We’ll get to the point soon, I promise.)
But consider Scott Buck as the man behind the scenes for Iron Fist. He found obvious acclaim with his work on Six Feet Under and Dexter. The former honed in on the complexities of an entire family growing up all at once in whatever way “growing up” meant to each person while the latter highlighted the contrasting lives and ambitions within a single man. If anything, the clear inspiration Marvel would hope Buck could bring would be from that.
Unfortunately, once he rose to showrunner for Dexter, the show’s quality took a dive. The crux of what made the story and the titular character fascinating seemed to have been removed with the surgical precision and expediency of a shotgun blast. To that end, we have the overall sensation of watching the first season of Iron Fist, a confused, messy, boring pile of missteps and meandering performances.
The story supposedly centers around Danny Rand (Finn Jones) returning to New York after missing for 15 years following a plane crash that resulted in the deaths of his parents. In that intervening time, his childhood friends Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) have taken over running his family’s hugely successful company, the world marching on as it quickly forgets his brief and unremarkable existence. What the world doesn’t know, though, is that he wasn’t just missing; he was training to become the Immortal Weapon known as the Iron Fist.
Pretty interesting, right? Too bad the show then decides to spend half the show mired in the Meachum family and their Shakespearean drama while still trying to find purchase in the story of Danny. It should all be inextricably tied together throughout the season, but it instead plays out as if Danny is a side character while being given equal time to their various and numerous plights. You never quite know what to pay attention to since anything at any point could be worth nothing or everything to the plot.
It seems as if it would have been the smart move making it more about the familial conflicts and what it’s like to be a doubly fish-out-of-water as this story is far from original. A billionaire child goes missing to learn martial arts with some sort of oriental and mystical backing only to return home to dish out justice? Someone get Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, and Stephen Strange on the horn, we’ve got some lawyers that want to talk to you.
The show never fully commits to this perspective, though, despite it being a fresh take on a tired narrative. As a consequence, every major story beat and character change is a surprise that somehow also fails to be startling, let alone invigorating. Danny, for instance, goes from being the master of zen to being 100% fueled by emotion for inconsistent—sometimes nonexistent—reasons. He’s not ever completely the child that left the modern world nor is he the finely hewn warrior monk he was shaped to be while he was gone. He’s just whatever the scene needs him to be.
He starts out unaware and somehow picks up along the way the attributes of charmless and petulant despite showing up charming and breezily noble. This so-called growth or revelation or whatever you want to sell it as is especially troubling when he should be the overt protagonist yet the various and myriad antagonists have more relatable goals than him. (This development also has the unfortunate effect of highlighting the racial problems of the source material where all the bad guys are nonwhite but the hero is the hero because, well, he is white.)
A good amount of this could have been fixed with better writing, namely dialogue that doesn’t insult the audience. The entirety of any given scene could be summed up thusly: “I did a thing and now I feel like this.” The number of times you hear why Danny is broken up about being home is uncountable. It doesn’t seem to trust either the viewer or the character to remember what is happening or why it’s happening. It stops coming across as dialogue and more like a threat firing hot from the writers themselves, constantly violating perhaps the only rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell.
In some ways, though, it’s hard to blame them for repeating these motivations ad nauseam. These characters have a tendency to embark of wholly conflicting and incongruous actions. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a martial arts instructor for troubled youths, is especially bad at this. She goes vacillates between espousing the virtues of the samurai and then immediately breaking them several times, none of which come with any particularly good reason other than “yo dawg it pays.” Or maybe it was to protect Danny. Or maybe it was because she wanted to try it. Scratch that: there were no good reasons.
That’s a shame, too, because the characters that flipflop the worst are also the best. Henwick is terrific at both kicking an incredible amount of ass and fully embodying the precise emotions necessary for whatever inexplicable turn is written for her. It’s a flexibility shared with Stroup as Joy, a fascinating character turned plot midwife that is only marginally saved by Stroup’s ability to be entirely and exceptionally that thing.
Perhaps some of this could have been excused if the show went hard in the other direction and was singularly focused on being the MCU’s kung fu action series. Too bad these are some of the most harried, indigestible, uninformed, and boring fight sequences I’ve ever seen. You don’t even have to go far to see how story can inform action; just go look at Daredevil and how each character fits well within their own role within each fight.
But with Iron Fist, the action feels superficial—perfunctory, really. Aside from one fight in the latter parts of the show with a drunken master Zhou Cheng (Lewis Tan), everyone fights in the same style with the same effectivity. Danny should be the peak of martial arts as the Iron Fist but he seems to fall to various henchmen for no reason other than to gin up artificial drama in the moment. Worse than that, it perpetually confuses the idea that fast cuts results in excitement (with this scene being the worst offender of them all).
Even in the aforementioned fight with Zhou, it may be the best-looking of the show, but it’s just as poorly constructed. Impacts fail to feel real and cause and effect appear to be in a long distance relationship. There are no moments to breathe in and comprehend the geography, making the entire interaction play out as poorly and confusing as anything in Colombiana despite taking place in a mostly empty and perfectly square courtyard with just two combatants.
While not the sole reason these fight scenes would be so underwhelming, it appears that a contributing factor was that production was rushed to the point Jones was learning choreography minutes before filming it. And honestly, I’d like to attribute that to every problem the show has. It has a lot to deal with. Setting up the entire premise for The Defenders, updating the racial insensitivities of the source material, finding itself in the midst of a tired and uninteresting protagonist.
That, of course, doesn’t excuse any of the show’s plethora of problems. For every one good thing, there seems to be a deluge of bad things behind it. For every solid performance by Henwick or Stroup, there’s another look at Pelphrey’s contradictory underwhelming overacting delivered at a glacial pace. For every time Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) or Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) do, like, anything (seriously, they are the highlights of the season), you have Danny being a painfully unaware and terrible person.
Jones is half right in his defense of this show; it’s not for critics. In fact, it’s not for anyone. Iron Fist fails to do a lot of things. It’s sloppy, it’s often incomprehensible, and it’s wasteful of what it does manage to get right. But worst of all, it commits the cardinal sin of just being boring.
Final Score: 5 out of 10