DISCLAIMER: This review only covers the first six episodes. A full series of ‘Iron Fist’ will be coming soon, and may already be out when you read this. If so, you can find it linked here.
There’s been a lot of controversy around Marvel’s latest foray into television. Iron Fist, one of the final Defenders series, came to Netflix this week. Ahead of its release, critical reviews around the first few episodes were largely negative. In this reviewer’s opinion, these super bad reviews seem overly dramatic. The series is far from the worst superhero tale on television – but it certainly is formulaic. Iron Fist is, by far, the weakest Defenders tale, but it isn’t super terrible. In fact, it isn’t super-ANYTHING. Iron Fist is, by all accounts, a purely run-of-the-mill superhero series.
Danny Rand isn’t exactly the most unique hero of Marvel’s many properties. He’s got the same basic origin as CW’ Arrow – rich boy, presumed dead, comes back after several years with new badass abilities. It’s not the only element that superhero fans might recognize. He’s got Daredevil’s martial arts, Iron Man’s money, Doctor Strange’s mystic roots, Star-Lord’s childhood tunes, and even some strange variation on Falcon’s bird sidekick. However, these comparisons don’t determine the quality of the show.Lots of superhero origins are comparable, and it’s an easy critique. What matters isn’t how Iron Fist mirrors other series.
What matters is that it fails to properly utilize its uniqueness. Much of the series plays to standard television fare, not just with superhero shows. You have the optimistic & naive lost sheep, the cruel father, the jealous infighting siblings – common TV tropes. All of the cast feel like a rehash of other television characters, superhero and otherwise. It’s not the “white savior” trope that many critics had skewered the series for. However, it’s a host of other tropes wrapped into a superhero series. Perhaps for diehard Mavel fans, Iron Fist delivers. But for the more casual television viewer, there’s little to make it stand out.
The closest we get to a unique character is Colleen Wing. Much like Misty Knight in Luke Cage, Colleen gets to spend time being badass in her own right. Her scenes fighting in the underground league, and training her students, is a compelling side story. However, as the romance between her and Danny two blossoms, Colleen falls into common sidekick-romantic tropes. She devolves into a shy, smitten love interest in episode five, seemingly out of the blue. It’s like her character morphs into tropes as the writers hit each standard beat.
The villain doesn’t break much ground for Marvel either. Villains in Marvel movies are almost always disappointing, failing to inspire true fear. For Iron Fist, it takes a while to decipher who the villain even is. Harold Meachum’s evil businessman is common fare – and we’ve seen thousands of foul father figures. It’s also hard to distinguish how much more villainous he is compared to his offspring. Likewise, there’s little Iron Fist does with The Hand that Daredevil’s second season hasn’t covered. Outside of busting heroin dealers and rogue mental patients, Iron Fist doesn’t have a super compelling crusade.
While the characters may be bland, the performances are certainly admirable. All of the actors are clearly putting their best foot forward. It’s just that the material they are given doesn’t make them stand out from Marvel characters of the past. Finn Jones is charming and charismatic, but Danny Rand is only so interesting. Jessica Stroup gives Iron Fist great emotional moments, but her motivations are inconsistent. Tom Pelphrey’s cold, jealous routine is a solid take on material we’ve seen a thousand times over. And Rosario Dawson’s performance does just as well as she does in any other Marvel series. Nothing makes a good case for why it should be held in higher regard than other Netflix shows.
By the time Iron Fist‘s action picks up, it feels like a different show entirely. Episode six brings about the high stakes martial arts madness we craved. The episode is directed by RZA, who’s more than qualified for telling tales of men with iron fists. It has solid action, with opponents capable of matching Rand’s combat skills. It gives insight into Rand’s past, with flashes of a mysterious and unkind master. There’s even a fun side-quest with Colleen and Claire. But the fact that it is both compelling and different highlights the problem of Iron Fist. It shouldn’t take a show six episodes to draw viewers in.
Iron Fist seems to suffer from the same problem as his fellow hero for hire. Luke Cage, another Defender, had a phenomenal first half of a season. However, upon the introduction of Diamondback, things quickly went south. Now many early review of Iron Fist, which were overly negative, were based around only the first few episodes. Perhaps the latter half of Iron Fist will mirror the quality of “Immortal Emerges from Cave.” I certainly hope that is the case. But if half of a show is utterly bland, why shouldn’t it be held accountable?
You can compare Iron Fist to similar superhero origins all you like. Yes, it hits the same beats as the shows that have come before. But the most accurate comparison one could make is to Thor. It’s a solo outing Marvel had to slog through for team-building. As Marvel sets up Defenders to mirror The Avengers, they need to make sure every viewer knows the key players. Iron Fist does a good job of introducing who Iron Fist is, and it will be interesting to see how he functions on the team. But as a protagonist, driving his own independent series, Iron Fist doesn’t inspire much intrigue.