If a man walking barefoot on the streets of New York City told you he was the long-presumed-dead heir of a multibillion dollar corporation; that he was gone for 15 years training at a monastery and became a legendary warrior called the "Iron Fist," would you believe him? Or would you presume he was an unstable vagabond?
Danny Rand's story is a pretty tough sell in Netflix's latest Marvel superhero series Iron Fist, which at least acknowledges the absurdity of its titular character and his superpower. The first season of this new show is the final piece of Netflix's Avengers-esque team of heroes based in New York making up The Defenders, another new show featuring Iron Fist, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, coming later this year.
However, unlike his fellow Defenders' Netflix originals, which received glowing reviews for their maturity and darker tone compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Fist comes to the streaming service as the proverbial, potentially problematic black sheep. The character, whitewashed in the martial arts boom of the 1970s, is played by a white guy: Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones. When the casting news was first announced, people were justifiably upset.
If Iron Fist's only blemish was its casting choice, it could possibly overcome that to be another home run for Marvel and Netflix. However, the show's controversial casting choice is just one in a laundry list of problems for Iron Fist. Each item on the list is fine individually, but are alarming in sum, leading to a flawed, clichéd series.
Iron Fist shares too much DNA with Batman Begins.
Danny's reappearance in New York, around 15 years after his family's jet crashed in the Himalayas and they were presumed dead, arouses plenty of suspicion. The show slowly builds out what happened to Danny in the Himalayas, but suffice it to say he has survived the crash and trained at K'un-Lun, a mystical monastery that appears once every 15 years. His primary objective in coming back to New York is retaking his spot as the primary shareholder of his family's company, Rand Enterprises.
If Danny's riches-to-rags-then-back-to-riches story feels a touch familiar, well, you might as well be looking at Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Obviously the circumstances are a bit different — we all know how Batman's parents die — but Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is presumed dead after abruptly leaving Gotham in the night, and takes up the training that was key to him becoming the Batman in a secluded monastery. Once Wayne returns to Gotham, he too returns to his company, Wayne Enterprises.
Where Iron Fist and Batman Begins differ is in their characters' intent with their companies. Bruce Wayne is more interested in putting up a billionaire playboy facade so he can moonlight as a caped crusader. Danny, meanwhile, is open about his identity as the Iron Fist (though few believe what he's saying), and holds a genuine interest in Rand Enterprises' finances. It's a curious choice for the show, focusing much of its early story on whether Danny can legally lay claim to his vast inheritance, and if he can prove who he says he is. It feels antithetical to what makes Iron Fist an entertaining superhero.
To put it another way: Would you want a show about a martial arts master with a super-powered punch to focus on his company shares and financial future, or do you want to see him, well, punch people? If you — inexplicably — chose the former, you'll enjoy the early episodes of Iron Fist.
Iron Fist has the same villain problem that plagues the MCU
Another hallmark of Netflix's original Marvel series is their terrific villains. Jessica Jones might've had the best on-screen Marvel villain to date in the monstrous Kilgrave. Daredevil season one's success was buoyed by the intimidating Wilson Fisk. Luke Cage had two compelling antagonists in Cottonmouth and Black Mariah (sorry, Diamondback). This is where the MCU should be taking notes, save Loki.
Unfortunately, Iron Fist bucks this trend with more villains than any previous Netflix entry — and none of them carry their weight. There's the Meachum family, the corporate partners of the Rand's who take over Rand Enterprises while Danny is gone. Ward Meachum, the eldest son who bullied Danny as a kid, is in charge of the company and spends most of the six episodes provided to critics undermining Danny. Meanwhile, Ward's sister Joy, who's closest in age to Danny, grapples with supporting her brother and the company over her adoration of Danny. Again, unless your idea of a good time on Iron Fist is corporate politics, the Meachums take up far too much screen time.
There's also the return of the Hand, the shadowy Illuminati-like organization from Daredevil. The problem with the Hand — and one that stems from Daredevil season two — is that they're little on exposition and big on providing hordes of ninjas for extravagant fight sequences. That makes for entertaining TV, sure, but it ultimately hurts the narrative; take that literal plot hole in Daredevil season two for which fans still don't have any answers.
The Hand should act as a bridge between several of Netflix's heroes for the forthcoming Defenders team-up, but it adds little to Iron Fist aside from Red Shirts that Danny will inevitably defeat with a chi-powered super-punch.
Despite its issues, the fight choreography is terrific.
All that said, whenever Danny does fight, it's a ton of fun. The fight choreography on Iron Fist is some of the best you'll see on TV, which is buoyed by the fact that you're going to see a lot of the action on the screen, instead of frenetic quick-cuts that turns everything into a convoluted blur.
One fight, in particular, seamlessly moves between an apartment building's narrow hallways into a claustrophobic elevator, soundtracked by some undeniably catchy drum and bass. While nothing on Iron Fist gets to the level of Daredevil's iconic hallway scene, Iron Fist can hold its hat to some terrific choreography that's true to the martial arts prowess of its hero.
However, a good superhero series needs to be more than the sum of its fight scenes. Iron Fist isn't a terrible show by any means; if it aired on the CW, it might have even felt like a revelation. But Netflix has earned high expectations for its superhero shows, ones that have been able to effectively tackle heavy topics like sexual assault. When it comes to The Defenders, Iron Fist just doesn't pack enough of a punch.
The first season of Iron Fist premieres March 17 on Netflix.
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