Showrunner: Scott Buck
Starring: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, Tom Pelphrey, Jessica Stroup, David Wenham, Rosario Dawson, Ramon Rodriguez, Sacha Dhawan; with Carrie-Anne Moss & Wai Ching Ho
A philosopher once said, “it’s a game of two halves,” and while it’s commonly believed they were talking about association football, they were actually predicting the release of the latest Netflix-Marvel TV series, Iron Fist.
Presumed dead in a plane crash fifteen years ago, Danny Rand (Jones) returns to New York to try and reclaim the giant corporation his father built up from the Meachum family (Wenham, Stroup & Pelphrey) who have been running it in his absence. In his time away he has been training in the mystical city of K’un-Lun, learning martial arts and earning the power of the Iron Fist – the city’s protector.
The early going is tough. Danny Rand is a hard character to like – a multimillionaire fighting for control of a corporation he doesn’t really want, who is then offered a ridiculous sum of money to go away – these aren’t relatable issues for the majority. In the comics writers get around having a character who is initially hard to engage with by tapping into the pulpy, lurid outlandish seventies kung-fu films that inspired the character: Iron Fist fighting dragons, Iron Fist in a kung-fu tournament against representatives from other mystical cities, fighting an immortal beast that feeds off the Iron Fist energies, Iron Fist imprisoned in and having to fight his way out of hell; all the while establishing a often carefree, generally happy-go-lucky sort of personality. This doesn’t fit in with the ‘realistic’ tone of the MCU, but he can’t be another Manhattan vigilante because they already have Daredevil and Luke Cage got in there first with the retro vibe so this Iron Fist series feels hamstrung from the start. It lacks its own personality and tone and vibe.
Curiously creator and show runner Scott Buck then chooses to ground Iron Fist for the first few episodes: only giving us very brief (and very ho-hum) fight scenes and only one use of the Iron Fist power in the first three episodes. With the other issues the show has, Buck simply cannot afford this cocktease. Later on he has Danny temporarily lose the power, seemingly obsessed as he is with giving us a superhero who never uses his superpowers.
It doesn’t help that the first few episodes are largely uneventful and badly written. Joy Meachum seems to be written by a rotating series of writers, changing scene-by-scene with no notion what the previous writer has done and it is a credit to Jessica Stroup that she more or less holds it together until the writing settles down – and even then later episodes have her making some quite sudden and underdeveloped leaps. The other supports are also badly drawn and the series early on feels like a collection of random scenes thrown together with no flow; worse it just doesn’t seem to be about anything and the minimal sequences aren’t a patch on anything left on the cutting room floor of Daredevil.
The acting is mixed. Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing is the stand out from the regulars. Finn Jones has the potential to grow into the role but comes across as flat about as often as he truly convinces and he lacks the screen presence of the other Netflix-Marvel leads.
Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meachum is, like the series, a mixed bag. Early on his smarmy corporate tycoon has more wood then a Viagra fuelled sailor on shore leave, but later on when he is allowed to loosen up he becomes a quite entertaining cartoon villain, if one a little too influenced by Patrick Bateman – presumably there is an out-take of him feeding cats to an A.T.M – before, as is Buck’s want, he reigns in the fun and Ward becomes (a better version of) his earlier persona.
The real highlights are the Netflix-Marvel veterans: Rosario Dawson and Carrie-Anne Moss are terrific, while Wai Ching Ho’s turn as Madame Gao firmly establishes her in the upper echelons of Marvel villains.
I did say it was a game of two halves, and the second half is much improved. Episode Six is the season highlight. Directed by RZA (maker of the unrelated film The Man with the Iron Fists) is a much deeper, more nuanced piece and it manages to make Rand a more relatable and complex character then he’s been allowed to be until that point; as it sees Rand caught between his responsibilities as the Iron Fist and his own moral code. He also taps into some of the more pulpy elements of the Iron Fist comics and showcases the series best fight sequences so far. He seems to have been the only member of the production team to truly “get it.”
The following episode is up there with it, as Buck now seems more sure of how to make Rand a conflicted and engaging individual; positioning him between his duty of the mystical City of K’un-Lun and protecting his friends and his father’s legacy on Earth. Which brings me onto address the only criticism of the show to hold zero weight whatsoever: the ‘white saviour’ nonsense that sprung up around the announcement of and casting for the show and which has dominated press coverage since the show was released. It misses the whole point that Rand is a spoilt brat western rich kid who is brought up in the Eastern traditions; a character caught between two cultures (exactly how the show portrays him following the RZA episode); and the character has existed since 1974 – where have the protestors been since then? Perhaps some critics would be better served getting down off a trendy high horse and actually attempting to understand the source material.
The final few episodes are largely fine, always at least interesting, if pitted with logic gaps, occasional insults as to the audiences intelligence and the feeling that 13 episodes was too many for the story they wanted to tell. The fight sequences are better (but we’re still spoiled by the amazing choreography, direction and editing in Daredevil) the writing more consistent, the overall arc for Harold Meachum (Wenham) is better than the comic origins and Rand’s character explored in more interesting ways. It also serves up some tantalising threads for future seasons – but they need to be much better than this.
The Verdict: After a catatonic start, Iron Fist glows in the middle then settles for a watchable if unspectacular close. It’s a shame the first few episodes will probably put off all but the biggest Marvel fanboys as there are some good things to be found here. For Season Two? Get RZA in here, quickly.