This past weekend saw the release of Marvel’s Iron Fist, the fourth series from Marvel Studios and ABC Television. Created by Scott Buck and executive produced by Allie Goss and Jeph Loeb, the series did not get rave reviews from the critics and there’s been a mixed response from the fans so far. Much like his predecessor, Luke Cage, Iron Fist is a product of the 70s; a reaction to the popularity of martial arts films of the time. While the character has existed for over 4 decades, it’s only been in the past 11 years that we’ve seen attempts to update the character for the modern era. Also like Cage, the character has had fits and starts of popularity in comics, but nothing long lasting. His cult status has always been a part of the character’s charm and on paper, he looked like the perfect choice to join Marvel’s collection of Netflix heroes. After seeing the finished product, it’s hard to see if his potential was truly realized for the t.v. screen.
The series begins with Danny Rand, age 25, returning to New York after being presumed dead for 15 years. He went missing along with his parents, Wendell and Heather Ran, when their plane disappeared over the Himalayan mountains. Danny has come home mysteriously, claiming to have been living in a monastery in a place called K’un Lun for the duration, and now would like to return to his life as one of the heads of his father’s old company. The company is now run by the children of his father’s former business partner, Harold Meachum: Ward and Joy. They don’t believe that it’s Danny when he arrives, but eventually he’s welcomed back into the company. The real story is that The Hand, a ninja clan that was introduced to the Marvel Netflix Universe in the second season of Daredevil, has infiltrated the Rand corporation and is using it for illegal activities. Danny has trained his whole life to become the Iron Fist, the protector of K’un Lun and sworn enemy of The Hand. He must now use his gifts to challenge them and take them out. But not everything is as it seems.
Unlike other Marvel Netflix series, Iron Fist takes a strange approach in it’s inclusion of elements from the comics. The basic pieces are there: the young man who trained to be a living weapon coming back to New York after living in a mystical city for over a decade. There is also the inclusion of Colleen Wing, one of the Daughters of the Dragon, as his side kick and love interest. The other supporting players are there as well. Joy, Ward and even Harold Meachum are all present. Jerry Hogarth, who we first saw in Jessica Jones, appears as Danny’s Lawyer. All this lines up with the comics. Where it takes a turn is the intentions of these characters. In the first Iron Fist story back in 1975, Danny returns to New York for one reason and one reason only. He wants revenge for the death of his parents and he’s come to collect from the man that caused it, Harold Meachum. His motives are clear and concise.
In the television series, Danny just shows up without a plan or real reason for being. This causes the series to meander for most of the first half of episodes. The Hand is eventually introduced as an adversary and thus begins Danny’s quest. But Danny didn’t choose this path. It’s chosen for him and he never really makes a choice for himself throughout the series. This makes it very difficult to get behind your lead character. If the protagonist doesn’t know what he wants, it’s hard for the audience to root for him.
This lack of direction greatly affects the performance by lead actor, Finn Jones. While not a terrible showing, Jones never fully grasps the character he is playing. (I think the same can be said about showrunner Scott Buck, who never utilizes the potential comedy that Danny Rand and his “fish out of water” position presents countless times in the comics.) There are glimmers of the character that shine through in brief moments, most notably with co-star Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. They don’t last. For most of the series, Jones appears lost on what he should actually be doing, a fault of the script and direction. Thankfully, the supporting cast of the piece do a lot of the heavy lifting with solid performances all around.
The general consensus, one that I agree with, is that the most valuable performer of the entire series would have to be Jessica Henwick. Her story as Colleen Wing, the struggling martial artist who’s trying to keep her dojo open is more compelling than Danny’s story. Her scenes as a cage fighter are the first real moments of excitement in the series. Her attempts to understand Danny feel genuine and the reveals about her character affect the viewer. As mentioned above, the only times that Jones feels like Danny Rand are in the scenes with Henwick. Their chemistry is noticeable instantly. She steals almost every scene she’s in.
Other strong performances include Rosario Dawson reprising her role as Claire Temple, David Wenham as Harold Meachum and the returning Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao. No one is more comfortable in their character than Dawson, now playing Temple in her fourth series. She knows the character so well now and it shows with every line she gives. She’s the only character in the entire run of Iron Fist who gets to be funny on a consistent basis. Wenham chews the scenery as Meachum and gives a bit of flare to his performance, making him stand out in comparison to the very drab characters around him. Gao is also well used and enjoyable for the episodes she’s in. Wai Ching Ho brings a level of confidence to her performance that makes Gao always appear in control even when she isn’t.
With a show about martial arts, one would expect some stellar fights throughout the series. This cannot be said of the first few episodes. Much like the story structure, the martial arts action is doled out in a slow burn and doesn’t really ramp up until episode 6 when Danny is challenged by the Hand. The fights progress from there but not to the levels one would hope for.
While the series did not live up to the previous shows released by Marvel on the streaming service, Marvel’s Iron Fist is still enjoyable at points. It’s nowhere near the level of Daredevil when it comes to characterization or action, but there is promise in moments throughout. If you’re a fan of the Marvel Netflix series, this show is still worth checking out for Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing alone. It’s not a great series, but I still recommend watching it to the very end….if you can get past the first couple of episodes, that is.
Marvel’s Iron Fist is currently streaming on Netflix.
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