A disheveled young man walks into the lobby of a skyscraper and makes small talk with the receptionist. He’s Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir to the Rand fortune and co-owner of the building they’re all standing in. We know this because that’s who he says he is, but all he gets for his trouble are weird looks and calls to security from his childhood friends Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup). When his words fail to convince, he literally tries to knock sense into people. Neither of those strategies is effective in establishing his identity, possibly because he left out the most interesting part: that he’s the Iron Fist, the latest in a long line of ultimate mystical warriors. On second thought, maybe introducing yourself as the Living Weapon would have done more harm than good. But it certainly would have made for a more interesting opening.
As it stands, Scott Buck’s Iron Fist series shares its protagonist’s name and struggle; it’s also the newest addition to a group of hard-hitters, and it, too, has a devil of a time distinguishing itself from the other players in Hell’s Kitchen. We’ve already met Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, so it was just a matter of time until Iron Fist joined their ranks. And with little time to spare, too, what with The Defenders scheduled to arrive this summer. Having such a foundation in place does little to steady Iron Fist, though, which spends a curious amount of time in a boardroom for a show about a guy who obtained his powers by sticking his fist into the heart of a dragon. But, please, tell us more about how important your real estate holdings are, Rand executives.
The first half of the season is full of similar “what if?” moments, glimpses at paths not taken in an effort to stay the course toward the next chapter in this story. Land deals actually do play a significant part here, for better or worse, and the Meachums’ usurpation is indeed a source of conflict between Danny and his former friends. But the drama, such as it is, plays out in a punishingly dull manner; the corporate intrigue is telegraphed instead of hinted at, and the hostile takeovers are literal. Again, this storyline is important to Danny’s development—as an orphan, this company is all he has left of his family. There’s also the small matter of it being worth billions of dollars, which would set Danny up for life and allow him to battle the Hand instead of carpooling to work. And yet there’s very little urgency to any of it, though Joy does show off some inspired negotiation tactics.
This isn’t Iron Fist, MBA, though, so while the office politics are important, they’re not the main draw. If you’re actually familiar with and/or interested in this third-tier hero, then you’ve come for the high-flying action and heroic feats. And the scripts certainly call for them, but when the fights do unfold, they don’t pack much of a punch. They’re by-the-numbers brawls full of mostly interchangeable and unworthy adversaries. But if the Iron Fist is seen as formidable, it’s thanks to the writing, which is another case of this show telling rather than, well, showing. Danny regularly informs anyone who will listen of his standing, a choice that would have greater impact if it were meant to evoke the boastful speech bubbles of so many comic book heroes. Instead, it just creates an unfortunate mantra. The constant rattling off of his “résumé”—which is to be expected early on, as Buck and his writers build this particular corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s crime-fighting world—becomes an act of desperation: “I’m the Iron Fist—look at me!”
A more charismatic lead might have been able to buoy the leaden characterization, but Jones’ presence here is so bland that it does little to perk up the often workmanlike proceedings. The Game Of Thrones alum doesn’t have a handle on the role; he summons the same hurt, confused look when dealing with Ward and Joy as well as the show’s heavy, Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho). His co-stars are similarly sold short by the script, but Pelphrey and Stroup acquit themselves nicely as scions. As Colleen Wing, Jessica Henwick runs roughshod over Jones, showing more humor and depth in a single interaction than he displays throughout. Serves him right for walking into her dojo to correct her kung fu (which, of course, isn’t even the martial art she’s mastered).
If the Marvel shows each have their own language, then Daredevil’s is the most plaintive, Luke Cage’s the most lyrical, and Jessica Jones’ the tersest. Iron Fist is the most plainspoken voice in that chorus; the series does little to transcend the halfhearted rock-’em-sock-’em action. The preceding shows deal with larger themes: guilt (DD), trauma recovery (JJ), and reclamation (LC). But IF—see, even the show’s initials are a supposition—just adheres to the formula, hitting familiar beats and telling the all-too-familiar story of the prodigal, presumed dead son. Even the choice to cast Jones, in spite of the furor over Hollywood’s ongoing erasure of Asians and Asian-Americans, was par for the course. Having an Asian character proudly proclaiming their heritage the way Danny frequently does could have made the show a platform instead of a mere building block. But, the road less traveled, and all that.
Had Netflix rolled out Iron Fist first, its unsteadiness would be forgivable; this is a process, after all. But it’s actually the final step before a huge showdown, so it can’t afford to buckle under the pressure. And yet, with all that riding on it, the first half of the season is just a checked box. Filler episodes are one thing, but right now Iron Fist looks like a filler season.
Reviews by Caroline Siede will run daily from Friday, March 17, through Wednesday, March 29.