After a string of hits with their previous superhero TV series, Iron Fist is Marvel and Netflix’s first genuine misfire.
Showrunner: Scott Buck
Starring: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, David Wenham, Tom Pelphrey, Jessica Stroup, Rosario Dawson
Released: 17th March 2017
Since Netflix launched their first Marvel TV series with Daredevil in 2015, they’ve seen continuous success. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were both distinct from each other, and all three series offered a take on their eponymous character that was distinct from, but nevertheless inspired by, their comic book origins.
Where Iron Fist, the fourth character in Netflix’s forthcoming Defenders line-up, falls short, is that it feels neither inspired by the comics nor inspired as a TV series. From the off, it feels like a hollowed-out version of what could have been Marvel’s most inventive series to date. Instead, Legion bears that honour.
The titular hero is Danny Rand, played by Finn Jones (Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones). Presumed dead for the last 15 years since a plane crash killed his parents and left him stranded in the Himalayas, Rand returns to New York to reclaim his family’s business empire and immense fortune. Unfortunately, his father’s former business partner, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), has wrestled control of the company for himself and his heirs, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup), both of whom were childhood friends of Danny’s and refuse to believe he has returned.
Danny spent his missing years in the mystical city of K’un Lun, where he was trained in martial arts to becoming a “living weapon” known as the Immortal Iron Fist. Historically, the Iron Fist is charged with protecting K’un Lun from outside forces, namely The Hand, an underground militia of similarly mysterious origins that Daredevil fights in his series.
Understandably, terms like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘white saviour’ have been applied to the Iron Fist character in the past, and the same is no less true for this adaptation. In casting a straight, white male who adopts Asian culture only to become the one person who can save the people, showrunner Scott Buck is effectively recreating Tom Cruise’s role in The Last Samurai. Why should we care when there are people far better suited to the Iron Fist mantle, and indeed, far more talented actors who could have taken Jones’ place? Ideally someone non-white.
This ineptitude runs deep through Iron Fist, both in front and behind the camera. Characters lack motivation and conviction; Danny never seems sure of whether he should stay in New York or return to K’un Lun, others appear to have no real desires of their own. Without a clear villain for Danny to go up against – Harold? Madame Gao of the Hand? – it never feels as if he’s fighting for a major goal.
The dialogue is clunky, unconvincing and riddled with cliché. Danny will wax philosophical about his “chi” at moments where it feels extremely out of place. It’s almost as if, in his time away from New York, he’s forgotten how to talk to people. Jones is horribly miscast, and the same could apply to the rest, who are almost unanimously bereft of charisma.
In terms of writing and direction, Iron Fist lacks the structure of its predecessors. It takes around six episodes before the plot arrives and the pace afterwards is almost glacial. Danny is in near-constant turmoil about the death of his parents, but instead of using dialogue and characterisation to convey his emotions, the writers use a combination of flashing lights and grimaces. It looks amateurish and contrived.
For a superhero who is supposed to be the best martial artist in the Marvel universe, Danny’s powers are inconsistent and rarely tested. The fight choreography and editing in these scenes lack the finesse and expertise of those in Daredevil. If Matt Murdock and Danny end up fighting each other in The Defenders, it would be unsurprising if the former emerged the victor.
When compared more generally to the other Netflix series, Iron Fist has very little depth. Daredevil showed Murdock grappling with questions of faith, guilt and morality. Jessica Jones explores trauma, rape culture and gender roles. Luke Cage gave American audiences a bulletproof black man at a time when black people are still marginalised by authority.
Iron Fist’s sole positive is Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. Physically strong, self-assured, multi-dimensional and more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Danny and his enemies, Wing is by far the best thing about the show. After this dismal season, she deserves a solo-series – or better yet, a team-up with Luke Cage’s no-nonsense cop, Misty Knight.
Perhaps the problem is, at its core, Iron Fist doesn’t believe in itself; or the people behind it were unsure of how to successfully adapt the comics. With the release of Doctor Strange last year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) introduced the mystical and fantastical elements that would befit a character like Iron Fist well. Ideally, we should have seen more from Danny’s time in K’un Lun and explored the source of his powers.
It’s hard for the series to shake its problematic whitewashing and cultural appropriation. But these problems extend to its source material as well. Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s brief run on The Immortal Iron Fist tried to mitigate this by showing previous incarnations of the character throughout the ages, the majority of whom are Asian protagonists.
With its controversial roots, Buck and his team of writers would have had to take major steps to adapt the Iron Fist canon to make the character palatable for more modern, progressive audiences. But they didn’t. The creators of Marvel’s other Netflix shows diverged from their respective source materials significantly, imbuing each character with real personality. Iron Fist lacks any at all.