*Spoiler warning for the first six episodes of Iron Fist*
Iron Fist is the strangest beast among the four Netflix Marvel shows, as it takes the magic and mysticism hinted at the end of Daredevil Season 2, throws in the existence of the multiverse from Doctor Strange, and even dragons to boot, culminating in a RZA-directed Enter the Dragon homage in its sixth episode. However, it frustratingly reuses a ton of tropes and images from other superhero movies and shows that detract from what could be a compelling mash-up of corporate intrigue and old school kung fu action. The series, which was created by Dexter and Six Feet Under‘s Scott Buck, chronicles the return of billionaire orphan Danny Rand (Finn Jones) to New York after 15 years of training to be the Iron Fist, a Chosen One warrior type in the city of K’un-Lun, which happens to be in another dimension (my friend Scott pointed out that his abilities are similar to “the Glow” in the 1985 martial arts comedy The Last Dragon). Immediately he is thrown into a web of intrigue that includes his childhood friends Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey), who run his family’s company, the Rand Corporation, with their supposedly dead father Harold (an excellent David Wenham), the Hand, the Triad, and multitude of other foes. He has to adjust to the “real world” of corner offices and legal battles, and strikes up a kind of awkward friendship with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who runs a dojo in the city, and is easily the show’s most likable character in the early going, with her take-no-shit attitude and hints of rage buried beneath her outward demeanor of being a serene self-defense class teacher.
Before burying Iron Fist for borrowing a little too much from Arrow, the Daredevil film and show, Batman Begins, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the underground fight club episodes of Birds of Prey and Supergirl, I have come to praise it for its sequences involving outlandish kung fu mythology and tense corporate boardroom showdowns, especially the ones with a toe in the real world. Finn Jones isn’t believable as the world’s greatest martial artist, and the lack of prep time he had is partially to blame. This is why the action scenes featuring him have lots of cuts and overhead shots instead of the smooth, brutal long takes of Daredevil, and are more Taken or Bourne than John Wick (although Jones doesn’t have the presence of Liam Neeson or Matt Damon). However, tales of warrior monks, dragons, and kung fu crashing sidelong with the reality of New York in 2017 makes for some world-building fun, as Iron Fist‘s writers start to unravel why Danny left what is either heaven or an abusive relationship, Shaolin-style. They also give the Hand a prominent place in the Marvel Netflix universe, making them more menacing than the ninjas that popped up at the end of Daredevil Season 2, with even powerful men and companies, like Harold Meachum and the Rand Corporation, acting as their lapdogs.
Yes, far too much of Iron Fist happens in tall buildings, offices, and boardrooms instead of cool villain lairs and definitely K’un-Lun, but writer Scott Reynolds connects these meetings and lawsuits to the real world of drug prices and Pharma bros in Episode 4, “Eight Diagram Dragon Palm.” After Danny gets his position as the primary shareholder back, he immediately sashays into a board meeting about the pricing for a drug to treat leishmaniasis, an infectious disease caused by parasites. The Rand board wants to hike up the price for the drug to make a profit, and then use that profit to fund research. This is similar to former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO and general douchebag Martin Shkreli, who increased the price of the AIDS-fighting drug Daraprim 5,500% from $13.50 to $750 per pill, earning loads of criticism in the process. Unlike Shkreli, Danny wants everyone to be able to access this life-saving drug, and uses his position as majority shareholder to sell it at cost, which earns him the wrath of the board, especially Ward Meachum, who runs the business side of Rand. He trashes him to a New York Bulletin reporter in the next episode, which actually earns Danny good press as some kind of a good guy in the midst of corporate America. For one shining moment before it decides to let Danny go off on ninja fighting missions and shun the corporate life, Iron Fist critiques the practice of price gouging life saving drugs, and even uses it as a crisis of conscience for Joy Meachum, who must wrestle between making money for her company or being perceived as a good person.
Iron Fist has solid supporting cast with characters who have complex motivations, like Ward Meachum trying to make his father proud in a job he hates and pops pills to cope with, Colleen Wing trying to make a safe space for the young people of New York and living by the samurai code of bushido, and Joy Meachum attempting to reconcile her friendship with Danny while turning a profit at Rand Corporation. The show’s writing sparkles when Jessica Jones‘ Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss) shows up to get Danny his life back, and when Marvel Netflix veteran Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) gives him a harsh dose of reality about the Hand, who were just a fairy tale to Danny back in K’un-Lun. Unfortunately, Danny’s character and motivation changes as the plot dictates, and he comes off as a patchwork of other billionaire and street level vigilantes, including Oliver Queen, Batman, a touch of Iron Man, and his future Defender teammate, Daredevil – except he entirely lacks charm and spends the first episode of the show walking around dirty and barefoot and getting into people’s (including women’s) personal space. He even closes Joy Meachum’s dog in her study.
Like the constant flashbacks to the Wayne family getting shot in various Batman films, the first few episodes of Iron Fist are loaded with flashbacks to the plane crash, almost reusing the same shot ad nauseam, and hinting at the wonders of K’un-Lun to rub in that man-pain a little bit more. Luckily, the show moves on to to his actual training and life there, and his sensei, Lei-Kung the Thunderer, makes an appearance (though mostly voiceover) in episode six. Danny has trouble getting acclimated to society, and has mysterious fighting skills sort of like Arrow‘s Oliver Queen in Season One. He makes waves at his company much like Tony Stark in Iron Man, who famously ended weapons production at an arms company to the chagrin of the Mad Money guy. He does, however, stick to the cue cards in the press conference, which is smart for a guy who apparently has never been kissed, had sex, or graduated high school. I sometimes got a feeling while watching Iron Fist that I should be watching Robert Downey Jr, Charlie Cox, or even the underrated Stephen Amell in these other superhero stories (or some kind of prequel series set in K’un-Lun with the Iron Fists of the past, like the pirate queen Wu Ao-Shi from the Immortal Iron Fist comic).
Even in smaller moments, the first half of Iron Fist Season One reminded me of its super-powered predecessors. For example, Colleen Wing gets her “comic book” name, “Daughter of the Dragon,” while fighting with a hammy announcer that reminded me a lot of Bruce Campbell’s character in the Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film (the guy who dubs the hoodie sporting Peter Parker “the amazing Spider-Man”). The fact that Colleen beats opponents bigger than herself, is locked in the cage, and gets non-stop taunts from her fellow fighters and audience are also found here, but unlike the cage fight scene in Spider-Man, which was an homage, Colleen’s establishes a key character trait: that she enjoys inflicting pain in combat. Beneath her tenets of honor and her code, she just wants to beat people up, and the fight club gives her this opportunity, along with helping her pay the rent for the dojo until Danny, of course, buys the building. Secret fighting rings have been a big part of superhero stories (as costumes were originally patterned after wrestlers or strong men), from TV shows like Supergirl, to even the most recent Iron Fist comic, but episode writer Quinton Peeples and director Tom Shankland put their own spin on the plotline by using the fights to flesh out her character and showcase some of the best martial arts of the season so far.
A big reason why the superhero tropes stand out so much in Iron Fist versus Daredevil, Luke Cage, and especially Jessica Jones (which is a straight up psychological thriller) is that its protagonist, Finn Jones, isn’t as magnetic an actor as Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, or Mike Colter. The fights are shot around him, and he comes across as creepy in many of the episodes breaking social norms, flaunting his privilege from the opening scene of the pilot where he tells a random guy on the street that the Rand Building is “his.” Danny’s personality changes so often that he seems like the other Marvel superhero, Moon Knight, who has dissociative identity disorder and has questioned the reality around him in a mental hospital, just like Danny did in “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight.” He shines best when interacting with characters like Colleen, Claire, and Jeri, who are quick to cut him down to size when he goes on about being some kind of fire-wielding Chosen One, forgets to take shower, or gets “takeout” that comes with tablecloths and candles. He can pull off the quirky oddball, but not the martial arts master, and his “dark” and “serious” monologue scenes nearly left me pining for the Old Vic-trained Cox, who pulled off the intoxicating blend of Catholic guilt and self-flagellation that is Matt Murdock, making you forget that the story is telling, not showing with his line delivery. Later episodes give Danny a more single-minded focus, as he wants to save human lives and take out the Hand at all costs, pulling a Bruce Wayne and never showing up at board meetings. Iron Fist is better for it, because it means more fun team-ups with Colleen Wing.
Iron Fist is definitely better than a 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating. However, it is the weak link of the Marvel Netflix shows because it relies too heavily on reused plot points and ideas from other superhero movies and shows (there’s even a hallway fight a la Daredevil, but it’s not a one take). The show flashes potential when it deals with questions of morality on a corporate level, or just embraces its inner Enter the Dragon along with as the crazy comic book mythology of K’un-Lun and the immortal dragon Shou-Lao for comedic and dramatic purposes. Still, for the most part I was wondering how awesome this show would have been if it had been made with Keanu Reeves circa 1999…