(This review may contain spoilers for Iron Fist, as well as all other Marvel/Netflix shows. You have been warned.)
Netflix’s Iron Fist is fine. It isn’t great, though you could argue that it’s good. It isn’t terrible, though you could argue that it’s bad. At times, it feels as though it is thoroughly and completely wasting your time, and at other points, it moves at warp speed. It has cool moments, obvious plot holes, fun ideas, characterization missteps – for every one thing that is good about it, there is something equally bad, and vice versa. This, in my opinion, makes Iron Fist the definition of “just fine”. And that’s really the big problem at this point.
Netflix’s series of Marvel shows have had five seasons, overall. While no main character has had more than two seasons on their own, the studio has had 65 hour-long episodes to build a world, establish characters and rules, and begin to shape something around that. And what’s frustrating is that ever since starting this portion of the Marvel universe off on excellent footing, things have started to feel a bit…fine. Not bad, but repetitive and inconsistent. Not excellent, but with fun and interesting characters and stories that merit your time and attention. But what’s troubling is that Netflix has the blueprint to make these shows and this universe much better than fine, and yet after showing that off through season one of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, everything after has started to miss the mark.
Luke Cage had pacing issues. While starting off with a strong first half, the series faded down the stretch and felt a bit forced and unnecessary. Season two of Daredevil had far too much going on; I maintain that Marvel tried way too hard to get the Punisher involved so early on, and the main story and pacing of the second season suffered as a result. Luke Cage played a weird game of “Guess who the villain is” after, it had seemed, establishing a clear bad guy that was compelling and made for a unique challenge to the protagonist. Season two of Daredevil had some weird characterization concepts that came up – specifically with the main character – and starkly contrasted with the first season, not always in the best way. I bring these up not only because Jessica Jones and season one of Daredevil didn’t have these things, but also because Iron Fist does, and if this is a sign that Marvel is learning the wrong lessons and taking this series of shows in the wrong direction, then we should pay attention.
The first four episodes of Iron Fist are a mess. Danny Rand, son of deceased billionaire Wendall Rand, returns to New York City after having seemingly died in a plane crash with his parents 15 years ago while flying over the Himalayas. However, Danny survived the plane crash and was found by two immortal monks belonging to the city of Ku’n-Lun, a magical realm that only appears on Earth for a brief period every 15 years and where the citizens spend their free time fighting each other for the chance to fight a dragon and potentially plunge their hands into his heart and gain the power of the Iron Fist. If that all has your head spinning and wondering if you could wrap your head around this series then you’re in luck, because throughout 13 hours of the show Ku’n-Lun, dragons, and virtually anything to do with any of what I just wrote at all is barely seen. Instead we get about four-dozen flashbacks to a (very poorly made) plane crash scene involving a young Danny and his parents and about another dozen shots of an Eagle flying over either mountains or buildings of New York.
Upon his return, Danny sees fit to tell everyone that he is both the Danny Rand, and also an immortal weapon that trained and got his powers from a mystical realm of immortal monks and dragons, presumably with the assumption that both wildly unbelievable things would somehow combine into something a rational person could process as fact. This, naturally, is not how that plays out, and we get four hours of the main character bumbling around New York harassing the other characters to take him seriously and wondering why he eventually gets thrown into a mental hospital. And when he finally does convince someone that he is actually Danny Rand, he loses them when he tells them about being the Iron Fist, only because he can’t prove it because of a contrived plot device.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s only because when the show finally does hit its stride around episode five and starts to move at a comfortably brisk pace, I couldn’t help but feel like all of the character arcs would’ve benefitted from a few extra episodes of depth and exposition as opposed to the same problem and flashbacks being stretched over a period of four hours. For example, we aren’t introduced to two key characters until we’re beyond the half-way point in the first season, and one of them was the single best character in the show. But it would have been so much better if instead of having that character for only four and a half episodes, we got to see them develop over six or seven. This is a problem all of the Netflix/Marvel shows have had of late, which is to say that they’re starting to feel like a nine episode story that has to be stretched over the course of 13. This causes the writers to generate problems and story rather than create an organic, 13-hour story that doesn’t rehash moments and plot-points and focuses instead on character development and exploring the universe.
This is never more apparent than in the main character of Danny Rand. While I think Finn Jones is great at playing the role they’ve given him, I feel his character isn’t great because the role they’ve given him isn’t all that good. Danny’s first four episodes are spent as, if you’ll excuse my lack of more eloquent words here, kind of an idiot. He shows up after being gone for 15 years, and decides the best course of action is to walk into his father’s old company and say, “Hey, I’m Danny Rand. I didn’t die in a plane crash and actually have this mystical energy that I can transfer into my fist”, and then frustratingly never shows off the ability to do that until four episodes in. How hard would it be to just say, “Hi, I know this will seem crazy, but I’m Danny Rand. I survived the plane crash 15 years ago and was found by some monks who took me to a monastery and that’s where I’ve been.” And as the show goes on he seems to get a bit more fleshed out and interesting, but I can’t help but feel his characterization is, at best, inconsistent. He’s sometimes a martial arts master fighting three or four guys at once, and other times he has trouble with one or two. He’ll have moments of being cool under pressure and controlling his emotions, and then not five minutes later he’ll be throwing a tantrum for some reason. I get that this show is more of an origin story, but it’s hard to get adjusted to a character when it’s impossible to tell what he’s supposed to be like. If you want your character to be whiny and earnest and not that good at fighting, then fine, but don’t make him calm, intense, and a kung-fu master who trained for 15 years the next.
And that’s another thing – as an origin story, this shows about 15% of an origin. We see about six or seven actually detailed flashbacks of Ku’n-Lun (which is mostly forest/a cave or Danny getting hit with sticks) and like a million flashbacks to eagles and plane crashes. And if you want to make the creative decision to keep Ku’n-Lun and its inhabitants a mystery I think that’s just fine, but make sure the stuff you replace it with is actually interesting. I couldn’t help but feel that, as we get a few brand new flashbacks toward the end of the series, that some of the time at the beginning would’ve been better suited to building toward these moments, rather than having them appear for the first time in the final episodes. There’s also a lack of mysticism in general, a surprise considering Marvel just released a film that showed so much in Doctor Strange. But outside of Danny’s hand glowing and punching down walls and doors, we see very little other magic or special kung-fu. We get some in the sixth episode (directed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and, in my opinion, the best episode of the show) and a little later on, and I couldn’t help but feel like the show should’ve heavily featured more moments like them. If you added in Danny’s origin on Ku’n-Lun of him fighting these immortal beings, or had him fighting special fighters later on as opposed to random bodyguards in hallways, it would’ve helped add to the fascination and mystery of the show.
The other characters aren’t much better. The only two that felt as though their arcs made total sense were those that the show started developing in episode one. Most others felt rushed, either for the need to add other stuff in, or because the character was added so late in the game. This also creates another game of “Guess who the villain is” throughout the show, and bounces between five different characters before finally settling on one. This is so frustrating because the best villains in the MCU were those that were established as clear-cut villains early on and given the chance to be expanded on. Wilson Fisk and Killgrave were fascinating because you knew as soon as they were dropped into the show that they were the villain, and you spent the rest of the time learning about them, hating them, and at times, relating with and empathizing them. Instead, Iron Fist takes you in all sorts of directions, and leaves you guessing as to who the real villain is until about episode 11, which is a frustratingly long time to wait for Danny Rand to finally get to fight the bad guy.
And that’s the other other problem I had with the show: the fight scenes were mediocre. Part of this is because apparently Finn Jones had to learn the fight choreography not long before filming (15 minutes prior!!!), and was then expected to perform them. And if this is the case, then get Iron Fist in a mask ASAP. Daredevil heavily benefitted from being able to use stunt men due to Matthew Murdock wearing a mask, and it has the smoothest, most brutal, and most well done fight scenes. In contrast, almost all of the fights in Iron Fist feel like there are no stakes and even less weight to them. There’s only one really great fight in the entire series, and about three or four good ones. When you consider that there are quite a few fight scenes throughout, it’s really disappointing that Marvel and Netflix couldn’t bring a lot more to the table in this regard, choosing instead to fast-track everything with very poor planning. I came away from the show with a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, because I felt like it should have had so much more to offer in terms of memorable fight scenes and moments.
The positive for all of this though, is that it’s very fixable. While Marvel has started to waiver in terms of their quality of product, I think they’ve earned the right to try and make them better over time. And as I said before, they’ve shown that they can create well-crafted characters with compelling villains and interesting stories through season one of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and several of their movies. I now ask that they just go back to that formula instead of trying to make this current one work. Iron out the characters, establish a clear villain that we can learn about and learn to hate, and improve the fight scenes. Doing those things would bring ‘Defenders’ and season two of Iron Fist up to the pedestal it deserves alongside their other top-tier properties.
So, for those asking, “Should I watch Iron Fist?” I would respond with my own questions: “Do you like Marvel stuff? Superhero stuff? Are you interested in the direction of the Marvel universe?” If so, then yes, go ahead and watch it. You’ll come away somewhat disappointed and maybe confused, but the show does enough neat things and creates enough cool ideas that could be great if done correctly in future seasons to leave you hopeful for what’s to come. But if you’re not interested in any of that, then no, do not watch Iron Fist. At worst you’ll quit after episode four, frustrated and annoyed at everything the show presents. At best, you’ll sit as the credits roll and think, “Huh…well I guess that was fine.”