Netflix’s Marvel shows came out strong from the gate, with the one-two punch of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Both of those first two seasons were extraordinary, with adult, sophisticated story-telling brought to life by a phenomenal cast of actors. Both shows looked gorgeous, and were fun and action-packed. Things started to slip a little with the next two Netflix shows, though. I liked Daredevil season two more than many people did, but I freely admit the season ended in an anticlimactic whimper rather than the epic finale I’d been hoping for. As for Luke Cage, I loved the cast and I loved the look and feel and music of the show, but narratively it was a bore. Things have gotten worse, not better, with Iron Fist, which is huge misfire and Netflix’s first big disappointment of a Marvel show.
As the show opens, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has returned to New York City after 15 years away. As a child, his parents were killed in a plane crash. The world thought that Danny, too, was dead, but Danny survived and was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun. There, he trained to become a living weapon, the Iron Fist. Returning to New York, Danny expects a joyous reunion with childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum, but in Danny’s absence Joy and Ward have turned their parents’ company, Rand Corporation, into a global behemoth and they are not eager for Danny to come in and mess things up. Danny is also shocked to discover that the Hand, the ancient enemy of K’un-Lun, is operating in New York, and that the Hand is using the Rand Corporation as their tool. With enemies all around him, Danny’s only ally is his new friend, the martial arts instructor Colleen Wing. But even Colleen has a secret that she is hiding from Danny.
That plot description sounds like the basis of a cool TV show. Unfortunately, Iron Fist does not deliver on that promise.
The biggest problem with the show is Finn Jones as Danny. The biggest strength of both the Marvel Studios movies, as well as the Marvel Netflix shows, has been their perfect casting of their lead characters. But they’ve stumbled here with Danny. I am sure Finn Jones is a great actor and a fine human being, but to me he seems totally miscast as Danny. I also have to put a lot of fault on the show’s writing, which failed to craft a story for Danny that a) makes much sense and b) allows the audience to engage with his character. Together, this proves to be a problem the show is unable to overcome.
Let’s start with the miscasting: Mr. Jones just seems totally wrong to me for this character. First off, he wildly overplays Danny’s naivete/innocence. I can understand what the show was going for here, the notion that Danny, who was raised in a hidden monastery with the sole goal of becoming the ultimate weapon, would have no idea how to exist in the modern world or even how to interact with other, normal, non-warrior-monk-type people. But as executed on the show, Danny just comes off as a complete idiot, time and time again. His innocence becomes stupidity as Danny again and again trusts the wrong people and stumbles into danger. He talks to everyone about K’un-Lun and is baffled when they have no idea what he’s talking about, which also makes him look stupid (and left me scratching my head, because isn’t K’un-Lun supposed to be a SECRET?). The show tries to develop the idea that Danny has a growing problem dealing with his anger, because he was trained to bottle his feelings up rather than dealing with them, and eventually this unbalances Danny’s chi and prevents him from accessing his Iron Fist super-power, because he needs to be spiritually centered in order to do so. Again, that is an interesting idea, but as executed, Danny comes off like a whiny, impulsive baby, who the smarter women on the show (Colleen and Claire) have to continually try to calm down and redirect away from his terrible, impulsive ideas. This is a combination of bad writing and bad acting and it is painful.
Most problematically, Mr. Jones is completely unconvincing as the ultimate weapon. As a whole, the show completely drops the ball on the fight sequences. Daredevil had incredible fight sequences, so I had high hopes that at the very least Iron Fist would give us some super-cool action. But the fights, what few they are, are totally lame! With the exception of one good extended fight in the penultimate episode (in which Danny, Colleen, and Davos fight Bakuto and a bunch of his men), I found the fights to be disappointing — too short, too unoriginal, and too choppily edited (presumably to disguise the use of stunt doubles). But the central problem is Mr. Jones himself, who isn’t remotely able to sell the idea that he is the greatest martial artist on the planet. Every time he’s referred to as the “ultimate weapon,” I found that laughable rather than cool.
What’s interesting, and sort of a shame, is that Iron Fist has the exact opposite problem that Luke Cage did. That show had a cool vibe, and great characters played by a wonderful ensemble of actors. But the story-telling was a mess. Very little actually happened over the course of the show, and what little did happen didn’t make much sense. By the second half of Luke Cage’s season, I was bored. Iron Fist, on the other hand, has a LOT of plot and most of it is actually pretty interesting. I like the structure of the season. On-paper, at least, the way events gradually build to the climax of the final episodes and the realignment of the loyalty of various characters all works. (Outside of the ludicrous side-trip to China.) The problem is, without a strong central character to take us through this story, all of that narrative is mostly meaningless, because we just don’t care what happens to Danny. So it all falls apart.
The cast of the show, outside of Mr. Jones, is actually pretty good. The standout are the women. The best character in the show is Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. I loved the character of Colleen from the comics, and I never ever expected to see her on-screen. Ms. Henwick is terrific, bringing to Colleen a fierce intelligence and a fierce loyalty. She’s also, unlike Mr. Jones, a convincingly badass fighter. I loved this character and wish she’d been in a better TV show. I also really enjoyed Jessica Stroup as Joy Meachum. Ms. Stroup takes Joy through a range of emotions over the course of the series, allowing us to see her toughness and her business savvy, but also her honesty and the core of her friendship with Danny that is still inside of her. The show sometimes wasn’t sure what to do with Joy (they veered into Lady Macbeth territory early on, in which we see her win a business arrangement by holding the offer of an organ transplant for the son of a fellow businessman over his head, but we never saw such dastardly behavior again from her after that), but Ms. Stroup was able to take everything the show gave her and make it feel honest and real.
There were also two great female characters who returned from previous shows. Rosario Dawson again played Claire Temple, who has appeared in every one of the Marvel Netflix shows. As always, Ms. Dawson is great. I love how her character seems to be able to fit right into the world of every one of these Netflix shows, even though they’ve all been quite different from one another. As with Ms. Stroup, Ms. Dawson is able to take any moment and make it feel real. She helps ground these shows in a reality that is helpful for making the fantastical elements convincing. We also get to see Carrie-Ann Moss return (she was in Jessica Jones) as tough lawyer Jeri Hogarth. She’s great in her few scenes. (Though wasn’t she ruined as a lawyer at the end of Jessica Jones???)
I took an immediate dislike to Tom Pelphrey as Ward Meachum in the first episode. His look and performance screamed bad guy in an over-the-top obvious way. Thankfully, though, the show was able to develop and humanize Ward to the point that he became a very interesting, and sympathetic, character by the end. I grew to really like Mr. Pelphrey’s performance. I guess the way he was portrayed at first was intended as misdirection, but I think the show would have been better off had Mr. Pelphrey played Ward a bit less “evil” at first. (I fault the director and show-runners as much as I do Mr. Pelphrey for that initial choice.)
David Wenham (Faramir from The Lord of the Rings) is a hoot as the evil, back-from the dead patriarch of the Meachum clam, Harold. There is absolutely zero subtlety to the performance, in that Harold is clearly evil and crazy right from the first moment we see him. On the other hand, Mr. Wenham is terrific at chewing the scenery, and he certainly makes a fearsome villain. He was fun to watch.
I was excited when the Hand started to get involved in Daredevil, and at first I was glad the Hand was a big part of the story here in Iron Fist. But whoo boy was I disappointed in this show’s depiction of the Hand. Come on, the Hand is supposed to be a fearsome group of unstoppable ninjas! OK, the ninjas seen in Daredevil season 2 were disappointingly easy to beat, but at least they looked like ninjas! Why did none of the Hand warriors in Iron Fist dress like the dark-clad warriors from the comics? And what the heck was up with the three weirdos who Madame Gao had as the Hand’s greatest warriors in the mid-season fight with Danny? All three were more silly that scary (especially the woman seductress). I was happy to see Gao back from Daredevil, but it had been implied in Daredevil that Gao was ancient and powerful. Here, she’s just played as an old woman. Why does she allow herself to be captured by Danny and his friends (and how the heck did they get her back to Colleen’s dojo from China???), and later by Bakuto? Speaking of Bakuto, I actually liked Ramón Rodríguez’s performance as the smooth-talking Bakuto, but I don’t like the show’s choice to portray the members of the Hand as pretty much normal people.
* It was great seeing Claire again, but how can they go from Luke and Claire walking off into the sunset together at the end of Luke Cage to having her being alone at the start of Iron Fist, with just a passing mention to a mysterious letter from Luke as explanation? If these shows are meant to fit together, then the writers have got to do a better job at making them actually fit together. Speaking of which, once things really start getting hot and heavy with the Hand, to the point that Danny, Colleen and Claire actually travel to China (looking very much like New Jersey) to try to stop them, why on earth wouldn’t Claire mention, hey, I know a couple of other super-powered people who might be helpful?? Remember, she knows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, AND Luke Cage. There’s no story reason why Claire wouldn’t bring them into things here, which undercuts everything that’s happening because Claire just seems stupid not to get any other superheroes involved.
* I can understand that the show didn’t have the budget to show us much of K’un-Lun. But I really expected to get some sort of coherent flashback episode, or at least, an extended sequence, showing us more of what happened to Danny after the plane crash. Why did the monks rescue him? Why did they think he could be trained? What was his life like there, all those years? What was involved in his becoming the Iron Fist? What does that even mean? By leaving all of this vague, the show weakened Danny’s story because I didn’t really understand what he had been through and what was happening to him now. Also, I can’t possibly believe that the Danny Rand we see in this show could have possibly won the mantle of the Iron Fist over all the other warriors at K’un-Lun. How is that possible??
* Could the show possibly show us that shot of Danny’s mom being sucked out the roof of the airplane one more time?
* What was up with the weird, golden transporter-like effect every time Danny has a flashback? I legitimately thought that something was going on and Danny’s body or mind was literally being transported to another place/time. I can understand trying to do something stylistically different with a flashback, but this was hugely distracting.
* Because Danny’s Iron Fist powers are supposed to make him the ultimate weapon, the show had to continually find reasons why Danny’s Iron Fist wouldn’t work, because otherwise he’d be unstoppable and there’d be no danger. (It’s the same problem the X-Men movies and comics constantly had with Professor X.) But I quickly grew frustrated at how Danny’s Iron Fist never worked when it was supposed to. And all the talk of Danny’s chi — blech. I am no Buddist, but what we got in this show felt like a wildly over-simplified, child-like version that did not hold my interest.
* The show’s final scene had me rolling my eyes. Why is Davos still in New York? How does he know of Joy, and why would he want anything to do with her? And Gao just happens to be there too? Sigh.
So, unfortunately this was a big swing and a miss for Marvel and Netflix. Nevertheless, I remain excited for the big crossover show, The Defenders, coming this summer. I hope that pulls these Marvel Netflix shows out of their slump. I really want these shows to be great!