Marvel has pretty much taken over the entertainment world these days. Their cinematic universe is the most successful continuing franchise in history, adored by both critics and fans. Marvel’s Netflix foray has attempted a similar approach into TV Land, bringing a shared universe across multiple shows to tell an ongoing plot.
Unfortunately, the Netflix shows have yet to achieve the resounding success of their big screen brother. Each and every Marvel Netflix jam is plagued with problems, such as being overly long, excessively dour, or poorly lit with a penchant for hallway fights. After a couple of years of buildup, along comes Iron Fist, the final member of The Defenders. The last puzzle piece needed to kickstart the shared TV show coming later this year.
Somehow, inexplicably, Iron Fist manages to take every single complaint logged against previous Marvel Netlflix efforts and combine them into one unholy mess of a television show. Iron Fist isn’t just bad, it’s the worst thing to have carried the Marvel name since the Amazing Spider-Man films.
The show centers around Danny Rand (Finn Jones, aka that guy you recognize from Game of Thrones but don’t remember which part he played), son of the billionaire owner of Rand Enterprises. At 10 years old, Danny witnesses his parents killed in a terrible plane crash, forcing him to spend the next 15 years training with monks in the Himalayan mountains.
Danny returns to New York, now equipped with kung fu training and the power of the Iron Fist, a glowy smashy hand thing, to both defeat an evil group of martial artists called The Hand, as well as confront the emotional and psychological issues caused by his parents’ death.
This setup, though embarrassingly unoriginal (replace “airplane crash” and “mystic fist” with with “alleyway mugging” and“utility belt” and you’ve got Batman), is still ripe for interesting storytelling. So it’s a shame that Iron Fist just doesn’t do much with it. The plot meanders along for hours, seemingly unsure of what to do or say.
This is a show in which the entire first episode, or half the length of a modern movie, is spent watching Danny figure out how to get to the top floor of a building that has his name on it. Marvel has taken what should be a tight two-hour drama and stretched it out into a thirteen-hour snooze fest.
What’s worse, Danny Rand might just be the least interesting lead character in Marvel’s live-action history. Putting aside the bland origin story, it seems the writers couldn’t decide exactly who they wanted Danny to be. In one scene he’s dangerously naive; in the next he’s astonishingly clever. Calm and collected one moment, suffering from severe rage issues the next.
Corporate kung fu
It would be fine if these character trait reversals marked some sort of change in Danny as the story winds on, but that doesn’t happen. Just who Danny is is the central question of the show, but the answer changes from moment to moment, depending on the requirements of a given scene.Nor does Finn Jones bring either charisma or martial arts prowess to the table. The result is a main character that falls completely flat. Danny Rand is boring and so is Iron Fist.
To pad the show’s run time, it was decided to insert a corporate boardroom drama into the kung fu action show. Danny’s childhood friends Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward (Tom Pelphrey) Meachum have taken over running Rand Enterprises after their father’s death, so when the presumed dead Danny suddenly shows up, a power struggle over the ownership of the company ensues. Add to this the fact that papa Harold Meachum (David Wenham) isn’t actually dead, and the power struggle goes even deeper.
Unfortunately, all this means is we watch four billionaires we don’t really care about argue over the correct ownership of a billion-dollar company we don’t really care about… for like nine hours. Imagine the scene from Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne takes back his company, but stretched out over the length of an entire 13-episode series.
Worse, the corporate drama, only tangentially related to the overall plot of the show, is shot in the least interesting way possible. Mostly just people in suits sitting down at a large table arguing at each other. Remember that this is supposed to be a kung fu superhero TV show.
Even if Marvel’s Boardroom Drama misses the mark, then surely the kung fu elements of the show must work? Sadly, no. It’s clear that Iron Fist wanted to distance itself from the bare-knuckle brawling of earlier Marvel efforts by establishing kung fu as a floatier, more deliberate style of fighting. But it’s too floaty and too deliberate. It never looks as if people are actually fighting each other, just moving from one overly choreographed dance move to the next.
The cutting and direction of these scenes only exacerbate the problem. Shots are either too long (to hide stunt doubles) or too close up (to hide the actor’s inability to learn choreography). Cuts happen too abruptly and too often. Gone are the one-take beauties of Daredevil season one. Iron Fist fights more closely resemble a Michael Bay Transformers brawl than a Raid-like display of martial arts prowess. It’s messy, boring action to go along with a messy, boring plot.
The bottom line is that Iron Fist probably just shouldn’t exist. All 13 hours feel like a show that’s begging to find its relevance… Begging to find something to say. Marvel clearly moved on this show not because they had a story to tell, but merely because they wanted a fourth character in The Defenders and felt he needed some set up first.
The biggest crime is just how much of a missed opportunity this is. The original 1970s Iron Fist comic revolved around the “white savior” trope. A white man enters an Asian land as their prophesized hero, adopts their culture, and becomes better then them at all of it. Later comic interpretations downplayed these problematic elements, but the original premise has become dated by today’s standards.
Marvel Netflix had a chance to update this story for modern sensibilities and repair those cultural issues. They could have recast Danny Rand as an Asian American and told a story of a man struggling to discover a cultural heritage that he knew nothing about. Or they could have left Danny white (as they have done), but deconstructed the white savior mythos, turning it on its head and exploring exactly why it is so problematic in today’s world. That the show has chosen to do neither and plow on regardless is telling.
At the end of the day, Iron Fist is a show content to do and say nothing. It doesn’t even bother to reach for anything, resulting in a supremely skippable entry in the Marvel Netflix canon.