They can’t all be masterpieces.
Netflix and Marvel have had an almost unfathomable string of hits the past few years. Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all dropped to critical acclaim. But Iron Fist, the last member of the upcoming Defenders miniseries, stumbles out of the gate—and even, at times, falls flat on its face.
The first six episodes of Iron Fist are average at best, middling most of the time and outright bad on occasion. The series follows Danny Rand (Finn Jones), the twenty-something heir to a massive corporation. In the pilot episode, he returns to New York, 15 years after being presumed dead in a plane crash over the Himalayas. Danny spent those 15 years being raised by a mysterious group of monks, who’ve trained him to become a living weapon known as the Iron Fist. Danny’s sole mission is to battle the Hand, a familiar group of Marvel comics villains introduced in Daredevil. But Iron Fist isn’t really about any of that, at least not for the first half of the season.
Instead, the series spends an inordinate amount of time in the executive suites of Rand Industries, tracking Danny’s attempts to return to work at the family company as he butts heads with his childhood friends, Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey). This story isn’t all that interesting or original, and its execution feels more like a corporate drama on basic cable than a genre-busting superhero series. There are several scenes in which the characters debate corporate decisions in a boardroom, with no clear purpose except to remind us that Rand Industries exists. Joy and Ward are about as one-note as they come, and the first half of the season spends far too much time with them. Early on, they function almost solely as an impediment to Danny’s (for petty business reasons); when he starts to prove his identity, we get a few episodes of Ward trying to keep him out because… he’s just kind of a jerk? Danny bumbles his way through a few board meetings and accidentally mishandles some of the company’s dealings, which are juxtaposed against his burgeoning adventures as a mystical hero. But why is he superhero-ing? The series seems to be setting up Danny’s reason for coming to New York as a grand mystery, but without knowing why he’s there in the first place, it makes his journey feel like a jumble of scenes strung together in the hope that a coherent story will eventually appear.
There’s also the fact that Iron Fist seems to be borrowing (stealing?) from more than a few comparable genre properties—most notably The CW’s Arrow and Netflix compatriot Daredevil—which only serves to underline Iron Fist’s shortcomings. The initial episodes hit many of the same beats as the first season of Arrow, showing Danny’s return to the family business and his issues with the bustle of city life, all while moonlighting on the streets. Some of Danny’s early adventures also seem to draw heavily from Daredevil’s mission roster. Kidnapping case? Check. Mystery drug hitting the streets? Double check. The Daredevil comparisons are all the more glaring when the Hand emerges as the main villain, complete with a few familiar faces, such as Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple and Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jeri Hogarth. If you’ve been watching the Marvel shows, you’ve seen much of this before. Iron Fist does feature a few additional intrigues on the margins—Harold Meachum’s mystery role, why Danny left K’un-Lun—though they flit in and out of the overarching narrative at random, and with no real urgency.
Jones might as well be playing Danny Bland (an easy joke, but a true one): This version of the character doesn’t come off as particularly smart or savvy, and though Iron Fist tells us again and again that he’s an ultra-powerful weapon, he swings from heroics to an almost child-like demeanor on a whim. His moral dilemmas—deciding whom to save when a situation isn’t black and white, for instance—are thuddingly transparent, and mantras about what it means to be a hero seem to have come from the nearest fortune cookie. Six episodes in, Danny’s motivations are still an enigma, and not one interesting enough to actually want to unpack.
Then, there’s the look of the show, in particular its action sequences—typically a strength for Marvel’s Netflix series. Where the studio’s other shows have an almost cinematic style, Iron Fist has more in common with broadcast dramas of the same ilk. The cinematography and choreography are not unlike what you’d find in a typical genre entry, with their speedier production schedules, on one of the major networks—Arrow, perhaps, or ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. That’s not to say it’s bad, exactly. It just feels rushed when compared to the attention to detail we’re used to from Netflix and Marvel’s prior collaborations. The fight scenes are also forgettable, which is not a good thing when your hero is supposed to be a kung-fu master. Oh, and the “Iron Fist” at the heart of it all? It’s… not great. Basically, it’s a glowing yellow fist that looks like it’d be more at home in a B-level sci-fi movie.
There’s one bright spot. Jessica Henwick’s live-action take on comic character Colleen Wing positively steals every scene she’s in, and she easily has the most interesting character trajectory of anyone on the show. Seriously, she’s great: Henwick brings both nuance and glorious badassery to the role, and Iron Fist is almost worth checking out just to see her performance—and to wonder where Wing might end up by the end.
Iron Fist is far from the worst thing out there, and it will certainly find some fans among those fully invested in the Marvel universe. But for viewers who’ve grown accustomed to the genre-defying tales of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Iron Fist feels like a paint-by- numbers project, trying to check the right boxes in time for The Defenders. And that’s just not good enough, not anymore.
Iron Fist premieres Friday, March 17 on Netflix.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.