“Why does this story need to be told?” That’s the question all writers and directors need to (or at least should) ask themselves before they put pen to paper or shoot a single frame of film. Iron Fist is fighting an uphill battle in that regard, solely because there have been so many similar stories explored in entertainment over the past decade or so. Wealthy white man falls into bad luck, learns impressive skills in a mysterious place (more often than not somewhere in Asia), then returns as a hero is the basic premise of Batman Begins, Iron Man, Arrow, Doctor Strange, and to some extent The Wolverine. So without an inherently original premise (which isn’t the worst sin in Hollywood), Iron Fist needs to find another hook—any hook—to justify why viewers should stick with it for 13 episodes. So does it? Well let’s break it down:
The action: If there’s one thing you’d expect from a series about a superhuman martial arts master, it’s compelling action. But this premiere features some shockingly lackluster action scenes. The show is clearly holding back on the full extent of Danny Rand’s Iron Fist powers, which makes sense, but the short action scenes that do exist lack any of the visceral pizzazz of Daredevil or even Luke Cage. Hell, Agents Of S.H.I.EL.D. is regularly pulling off better hand-to-hand combat scenes than this premiere. It’s hard to tell if the issue is with the fight choreography, the editing, or Finn Jones himself, but his opening brawl with the Rand Enterprises security guards looks like a rehearsal at half speed, not the world’s greatest martial arts expert opening a can of highly trained whoop-ass.
The characters: On the other hand, Jessica Jones was never great at action either and still managed to tell a compelling story, so lackluster fight choreography alone isn’t enough to earn Iron Fist a failing grade. The show just needs something else to recommend it, like the compelling central characters of its sister series. Superhero properties are more often than not going to trade in archetypes, but the best ones either find a unique spin on that archetype or at least present it with a whole lot of conviction. Unfortunately, Iron Fist does neither. Mysteriously returned Rand Enterprises heir Danny Rand (a.k.a. Shoeless Joe Jet Li) is as bland a hero as they come, with only an occasional mysterious flashback to offer any sort of interest to his story. And the show’s villains aren’t much better. Brother/sister duo Ward and Joy Meachum are stock corporate baddies with no specificity to ground their personalities, at least not yet.
The performances: But good performances can often elevate so-so characters so how does Iron Fist do on that front? Again, not so good. Finn Jones is a vortex at the center of this premiere, sucking in the show’s energy with a performance that I think is aiming for sheepishly charming but just comes across as naïve at best and disinterested at worst. He spouts Danny’s platitudes with neither conviction nor ironic detachment, one of which would be needed to make his frequent mantras interesting. And none of his co-stars make much of an impression yet either, save for one exception that we’ll get to in a second.
The style: Even at their schlockiest moments, the one thing these Netflix Defenders shows have going for them is a lush visual style. And I’ll give Iron Fist credit for looking better than your average network procedural. But unlike Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, it doesn’t deploy its prestige-aesthetic to any real purpose. It has visual gloss, but there’s nothing thoughtful about its eye-candy (or eye-protein if you prefer) to make that a major selling point for the series either.
The writing: And in our fifth and final category, Iron Fist once again comes up short. Even by Defenders standards, this is a slow premiere. At one point we spend a solid minute watching Danny look at a door. He wanders doe-eyed into his family’s old company then proceeds to make zero logical choices about proving his identity. It takes him forever to think of telling personal stories from their childhood to convince Ward and Joy that he is who he says he is, even though that seems like the most obvious course of action. And the dialogue throughout is incredibly uninspired, particularly between Ward and Joy as well as in the flashbacks to Danny’s childhood, which feel like they come from a made-for-TV movie from the ’90s. Plus I’m not convinced even Meryl Streep herself could find a way to effectively deliver clunky lines like, “I’m texting my driver right now, which means he’s going to be pulling around the corner any second, and if you’re still with me when he gets here I’m going to ask him to detain you because he’s not just my driver, he’s also my guard. My armed guard.” And it certainly doesn’t help that rather than find any humor in its heightened material, Iron Fist takes a particularly po-faced approach to its storytelling.
In fact, the one scene that stands out in “Snow Gives Way” is the one that does have its own unique sense of humor. It turns out that seemingly dead corporate head-honcho/Rand family friend Harold Meachum is actually very much alive and living in an impeccably decorated underground bunker. In a premiere full of things I’ve seen before, this scene at least offers something different, like Harold toying with his loyal employee who apparently regularly works with him in said bunker until way past midnight. There’s a personality and specificity to the Harold/Ward confrontation that the rest of the episode is sorely missing. And as I alluded to before, the most interesting performance comes from David Wenham (a.k.a. Faramir “always a bridesmaid never a bride” Of Gondor) as the Kennedy-esque recluse who apparently faked his own death for reasons yet unknown.
But one interesting scene aside, what we’re left with is the fact that Iron Fist exists not because it has a unique story to tell, unique visuals to present, or unique characters to explore. It exists because it needs to set up the Defenders crossover event. And, unfortunately, “corporate mandate” just isn’t a great answer to the question of why this story needs to be told.
Of course, this is just the premiere and Iron Fist still has more time to finds its feet. And to be fair, these Netflix Defenders shows all tend to start out a little slow because they’re assuming the binge-watch model will entice viewers through at least a few episodes before they make up their minds about it. That means their premieres aren‘t as top-heavy as traditional TV pilots (Daredevil’s much-hyped hallway fight came in its second episode, not its first). There’s every chance Iron Fist could turn itself around over the course of the next few episodes. But as it stands, this is the weakest Defenders intro yet. And that’s not the greatest thing to feel while starring down 12 more hours of a TV show.
- Welcome to Iron Fist coverage! Reviews will drop daily at 11 a.m. EST. I won’t be watching ahead, so my reviews will be spoiler-free for upcoming episodes. On that note, if you have watched ahead, please make sure to mark spoilers in the comments section. Or better yet, reserve conversation about the series as a whole to the first comment thread. That way people who haven’t seen the whole show yet can just collapse that thread.
- If you’d like to read more about the campaign for an Asian-American Iron Fist that took place when the series was first announced, I highly recommend this piece from Keith Chow over at Nerds Of Color.
- You’d think Rand Enterprises would have some lockdown procedure for when someone beats up their guards and breaks into the building, but, nope. The guards don’t even think to call the police.
- The casting directors did a good job finding a teenaged version of Ward who looks like he’d grow up to be Tom Pelphrey.
- I liked the warmth Craig Walker brought to his portrayal of Danny’s newfound friend Big Al, although the character did feel a bit like a collection of stereotypes about homeless people.
- There are so many times in this premiere where people act weirdly illogically. For one thing, why does Ward get into his car when Danny hijacks it? No car is worth your life, dude. And for another, it was strange that after beating up the Rand Enterprises guards who came after him during the parade, Danny screams, “Who sent you?!?”. I guess he was trying to figure out if it was Ward or Joy who specifically issued the order, but it felt like the sort of thing you’d ask an anonymous henchmen, not the person who clearly works for the corporation you’re currently butting heads with.