There has been a lot of pre-release controversy surrounding Marvel’s Iron Fist. From allegations that the casting of Finn Jones perpetuated the “white saviour” mentality to the harsh reactions of critics to its first six episodes, things were not looking good for the immortal weapon’s debut outing. Fans of the character and the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe will be glad to hear that rumours of Danny Rand’s flopping have been greatly exaggerated, but only just.
Danny Rand, heir to a global conglomerate, returns to New York having been assumed dead following an airplane disaster that took the lives of his mother and father. The years abroad have changed Danny from a timid child to a fierce warrior trained in ancient martial arts. The current holder of the Iron Fist mantle seeks answers about the nature of his parents deaths and what became of his father’s company. If you’ve seen Arrow or Batman Begins, then Iron Fist‘s general premise won’t shock or surprise you and the initial outing does little to change up the formula. The sole twist to this classic origin is that Danny’s childhood friends and current heads of Rand Corporation: Ward and Joy Meachum, do not believe that this mysterious man could be who he says he is. As you may have guessed, there is more to the Meachums than meets the eye and it is heavily implied that their father had something to do with the Rands’ untimely demise.
From the start Finn Jone’s take on the character comes across as likable, if a bit naive. For someone who has not had the best childhood, Danny is facing surprisingly taken aback by people’s unwillingness to take his story on face value. He seems oblivious to how crazy his situation is and gets easily frustrated as a result. It is often frustrating for the viewer as well, but there is a charm to this kind of sincerity which tells us that this is a man who is trying to do right by everyone, but is unable to adapt to the brave new world he now finds himself in. It is that earnestness which makes his budding friendship with a fellow homeless man quite touching. Most of the people who encounter this man would have ignored him, but Danny, seeing the value in everyone, takes the time to talk with him about life and what their respective futures hold. We see the signs of someone who could be a hero, a symbol for others to look up to, but isn’t quite there yet.
The Meachums have yet to establish themselves as two-dimensional corporate villains, concerned primarily with their bottom-line. The Netflix Marvel properties have until now managed to avoid the villain problem that has plagued their big screen siblings. Unfortunately, Iron Fist‘s antagonists are, at first glance, uncompelling and show little evidence of the depth that has fueled the other shows in The Defenders sub-series. There is simply nothing remarkable about them. Even their apparent role in the death of Danny’s parents seems cliched and par for the course. In a universe where characters like Kilgrave, Diamondback and the Kingpin all challenge our expectations, being average isn’t good enough.
Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick, has the potential to become a scene-stealer. She is a fighter in body, mind and spirit. Everything the character does, merely emphasises that fact. The seeds of her future relationship with Danny are firmly planted in this inaugural outing with what begins as an awkward, borderline creepy attempt at getting a job by one turns into a fascination for the other.
Some critics have complained that for a show ostensibly about a master martial artist, it feels oddly like an episode of Days of Our Lives. There is no denying that the series relies heavily on tropes of the comic book and soap opera genres, but to say this is inherently a bad thing is misguided and smacks of lazy writing. There is a risk in all superhero and comic book properties that they turn into mere slug fest. Iron Fist attempts to effectively blend its melodrama with its elegantly choreographed fight scenes.
The fight scenes have been the subject of much discussion. Whereas the other Netflix Marvel shows featured raw, striking fight scenes that highlighted the underlying brutality and strength of their respective characters, Iron Fist understands that its protagonist isn’t a brawler. Danny Rand is first and foremost a martial artist and the fight scenes reflect that, channeling a mixture of kung-fu, karate and aikido. Other writers have suggested that they are to fluid and dance-like for their liking, but anyone with a passing knowledge of martial arts will understand that mastery brings with it elegance. Daredevil may have been trained by Stick, but he still fights with the soul of a boxer and this is what distinguishes him from Iron Fist. Danny’s fights are an exercise in using minimal force, but maximising his personal outcomes. No doubt they will maintain their beauty, but increase their stakes as more skilled fighters come to challenge our favourite immortal weapon.
Unfortunately, despite impressive performances by the cast and a hypnotic opening title sequence, this is the weakest first outing for a Defender to date. This will come as a disappointment for many. Iron Fist was after all, thanks to the work of Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja, the star of one of the greatest runs in modern comic history. The look and feel of The Immortal Iron Fist, if not the story, could have been easily translated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and for it to fall short of that aspiration is devastating. None of this is to say that Iron Fist is a bad show, but it is not a unique show. At best, it is a good show that has the potential to be a great show. In many ways, this potential to be better is something that the comic incarnation of Danny Rand has struggled with his entire life. If the show can follow that progression, then it truly will become immortalised.