Where to start with Marvel’s“Iron Fist” on Netflix, a lifeless, irritating, often laughable show that doesn’t encourage bingewatching of any kind? Perhaps a good point to kick off is with the ridiculous plot. The story centers on Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a billionaire Buddhist monk (yes, you read that right) who eventually fights crime with his martial-arts expertise. Long presumed dead after the family plane crashes in the Himalayas, he metaphorically returns from the grave to reclaim his throne of affluence and privilege, armed with the skills he learned from 15 years of training from the kung-fu fighting monks who took him in following the accident. Rand becomes The Iron Fist, a one-of-a-kind fighter who has achieved a remarkable level of kung-fu-dom and can create a fist of power…but only at convenient times and never when he never really needs it. And he’s also sworn to defend against The Hand, a mythical group of ninjas who may or may not just exist as legend (conveniently, they were already introduced in “Daredevil”).
Somewhat echoing “Batman Begins” but not even remotely close in quality — a man of privilege learning sacred martial arts and then returns to the U.S. to fight crime — the show doesn’t bother with depicting the years of training. “Iron Fist,” replete with expository dialogue at every turn, tells us quickly that Rand trains for years to become the superhuman weapon that doesn’t need swords or blades of any kind. And suddenly, for reasons currently unknown in the first six episodes given to critics, Rand returns to New York. Everything has changed at the Rand corporation, which is now run by Ward Meachum (hammy actor Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (marginally better Jessica Stroup), the children of Harold Meachum (David Wenham), who partnered with the Rands to co-run the company back in the day. Desperate to be back with his remaining “family”— the Wards and Meachums were two adjoining dynasties — Joy and Ward are spooked by Danny, disbelieving his claims of identity after all these years. The show spends several episodes with an extremely petulant Rand expressing thoughts akin to, “BUT GUYS, IT’S ME, REMEMBER WE WERE FRIENDS? PLEASE BE MY FRIENDS AGAIN??!? IT’S ALL I ASK, GOD-FUCKING-DAMMIT.” Showrunner Scott Buck and his team of writers want the viewer to believe that 15 years later, Rand is still suffering from some form of psychological PTSD from losing his parents (he gets headaches when he thinks of them!). But none of this has an iota of emotion to it.
The show takes a slight turn for the better when it includes Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a loner marital-arts expert who owns her own dojo in New York and trains students to fight and defend themselves. The chemistry between Jones and Wing, while still lacking, is at least an improvement from the rest of the cast. Rand spends half the season claiming he doesn’t care for money and just wants best friends, and then the back half of the six episodes attempting to return to his billionaire roots and achieving CEO heirdom. As the character in the comics was never remotely wealthy and privileged to this degree, it appears as if the Marvel/Netflix team created the character as a 1%-er so he could essentially be the money man who will eventually bankroll The Defenders team.
As banal as the story is, the storytelling, plot blocking, tin-eared dialogue and acting are much worse. “Iron Fist” has been accused often of lacking diversity, and “Iron Fist” in particular featuring a white man savior who appropriates another culture. And it’s true, these issues are problematic, but perhaps the least of the show’s obstacles given its mediocre quality (replacing bad actors for bad actors of any color is not the solution).
Casting has always been a central problem with Netflix shows and “Iron Fist” is no exception. Jones is broad and sulky and the character is a bit of a moody tool who acts like a rebellious teenager (the less said about his naïve corporate morality, “Hey, that’s not nice, let’s never exploit anyone ever!,” the better). Whoever decided Jones was leading-man material should maybe reconsider their casting career. None of the supporting actors help other than Henwick, but her dialogue, like nearly every other character, is atrocious.
“I’m not good at this stuff,” she tells Rand sheepishly “What stuff?” he replies. “Talking,” she says with a straight face. She’s the strong silent type, even though she hasn’t had much of a hard time communicating thus far. But wait, isn’t every Marvel character on Netflix the strong silent type? And it’s the central problem of these shows. This collision of hackneyed clichés will of course collide in “The Defenders,” which will feature a lot of pouty superheroes trying to overcome their egos and collectively fight foes. Hey, lots of narratives pull off this dynamic, but if Marvel’s Netflix shows thus far are any indication of the storytelling, we’re all in trouble. Even strong directors like John Dahl (“Red Rock West“), Miguel Sapochnik (“Game Of Thrones“), and Wu-Tang Clan‘s The RZA (“The Man With The Iron Fists”) cannot elevate this subpar material, and to be honest, by this anonymous directing, it’s hard to tell if there’s anything but a indistinct gun-for-hire behind the camera. The editing is clunky, and the action is a mess.
Of course there’s connective tissue. Rosario Dawson shows up yet again as Claire Temple, the former Hell’s Kitchen nurse who mysteriously becomes a super magnet for anyone north of 39th Street (she’s coincidentally figured as a recurring character in all these shows and seems poised to join The Defenders as their in-house doctor or some such nonsense). Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth (the Defender’s attorney at large?) also returns. And of course, the show is thirsty for connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (there’s an allusion to The Hulk and “the incident” from “The Avengers” which is referenced ad nauseam in these shows). Do you see the pattern?
Actually, critics have unduly brutalized “Iron Fist,” not because the show doesn’t deserve the barbs (it certainly does), but because the quality of the show isn’t exactly higher than previous Marvel shows. In this regard, the response to Marvel Netflix shows has been puzzling and frustrating. In fact, I’d argue “Luke Cage,” despite its welcome diversity, is equally terrible. Marvel’s Netflix shows are all essentially bad soap operas with some ass kicking sandwiched in between the corny melodrama.
“Jessica Jones” certainly had some compelling ideas of abusive gaslighting and traumatic syndromes, but incessant plot blocking was beyond irritating (a Marvel/Netflix trait). Marvel on Netflix also has this suspension-of-disbelief-breaking problem with power consistency. One scene, you’ll see Jessica Jones or Iron Fist demonstrate their power and prowess, essentially communicating to the viewer how skilled, agile, badass and efficient they are. But frequently, bumbling no-nothings get the drop on these supposed super-characters (there’s one pathetic scene in “Jessica Jones” where Krysten Ritter takes blows from the Luke Cage behemoth and survives, but then is bested by a random crazy girl who takes her out with with a 2×4 piece of wood). Incidents like these occur and over again on the shows. Iron Fist outmaneuvers Colleen Wing with graceful ease, and two scenes later, some goon with brass knuckles sucker-punches Rand when he’s not paying attention.
Moreover, the narratives are hardly deserving of 13 episodes, so half of the shows are streeeeeetched out with handy obstacles thrown at the characters just as they’re about to achieve their goal (right around midway of the season). The shows then reboot and start over again with the heroes finding and defeating their antagonists. “Iron Fist” essentially follows this formula to a tee.
Lacking depth, character substance and any emotional dimension beyond morose angst, “Iron Fist” is simply the fourth in a series of shows that centers on similarly disaffected, emo superheroes with daddy issues and other forms of melodramatic baggage. Sophomoric and tedious, most critics would rightly rather take a conscious-stomping roundhouse kick to the face then rewatch this show. BTW, good luck convincing Marvel’s Kevin Feige to feature this tepid universe crossing over with his. [D]