Recurring Cast: Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, Tom Pelphery, Jessica Stroup, Rosario Dawson and David Wenham
Let’s be honest, poor Netflix have been lumped with all the terrible heroes. Daredevil has the standing audience to be explored, but after a shoddy movie and superpowers that were the cause of much ridicule, he became Marvel’s Aquaman. Even Marvel Cinema, who treat superheroes like squares on a Monopoly board, decided to pass over poor Matt Murdock. Jessica Jones was a total unknown, a fairly generic female PI with no fanbase to speak of. Luke Cage was a bit of an embarrassment, a racist caricature that took some serious reworking to right in time for a Netflix series. Poor Iron Fist isn’t much better. Just as peripheral as Jessica Jones and like Cage, a shameless cash-in of a new audience, Danny Rand was Marvel Comic’s attempt to bring some Eastern martial arts into the superhero world. Rand is a young American boy, the heir of a rich business empire, who ends up being the sole survivor of a plane crash. His broken body is discovered by some monks, who whisk him away to a mythical place called K’un Lun, a monastery that can only be accessed at certain points in time. When Danny, now a powerful warrior monk called the Iron Fist, reaches adulthood, he finds a way back to the mortal world to see how the world around him has changed. Right from the off, Netflix are struggling with a pretty daft premise. Netflix tries to ground itself in some of reality and while it does occasionally embrace the absurd, it usually tries to keep its feet planted on the ground. How to do that with Iron Fist? In a rather clever move, this series opens up with Danny returning to New York, heading to the business his family left behind with their business partners, the Meachums, to reclaim back his life. Netflix uses the madness of his origin story as a way in. Rand has to convince his two childhood friends, Ward and Joy Meachum, that he did not actually die, but was given a magical power by a hidden monastery. Of course, no one believes him and this side of the story fuels most of the opening episodes. Danny comes home to a world he expects to greet him with open arms, but his friends meet him with hostility and the world treats him like a rambling homeless person. Netflix has once again made a nightmare origin story into something thought-provoking and real.
Of course, all eyes are on the title character himself. How does Danny Rand fare against the heroic Matt Murdock, the well-meaning Luke Cage and the incredible Jessica Jones? Like all good ensembles-to-be, Rand is different enough from his counterparts to make any future team-up an interesting prospect. He is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to how he approaches the task of being a hero. In many regards, he is the most experienced hero yet. Cage and Jones’ series were about embracing their destiny as a hero rather than running from it. Daredevil was ready to become a hero, he just needed to learn how to fight like one. Rand drops onto our television screens like a pre-packaged hero. He has fifteen years worth of kung fu up his sleeve, has the inner chi of a devout Gandhi and knows exactly what he needs to do. It means that this show can kick off quite quickly, throwing us right into some sharp-paced fight scenes as quickly as ten minutes in. But at the same time, Rand is the youngest of the four Defenders and probably the most naïve. Jones, Murdock and Cage are world-weary, exhausted from being aware of how shit the world can be. Jessica Jones needs to drag herself out of bed each morning to save New York. Danny Rand has never actually been a hero, just taught how to be one. He shows up in the real world with the intent of doing right and the know-how to take on the villains here, but he is constantly questioning how to go about doing things. This series shows Danny that there is not such things as black and white, as he was taught in K’un Lun and in some fine Netflix story-telling, he quickly discovers that friends can quite easily turn into enemies and perhaps the villains he is chasing down are actually firmly in some sort of grey area. Danny is the show’s strong point, a three-dimensional hero that is fun to actually spend time with over the course of these thirteen episodes, wondering just how each twist and story beat will affect the young hero.
There’s plenty else to like about Iron Fist too. The supporting cast are given some great characters to explore over the course of this season. Netflix use the series format to their advantage, giving the audiences complex figures that can slowly unravel in front of us, rather than being handed to a Hollywood actor who strives to make their paper copy stereotype memorable. Colleen Wing is played admirably well by Jessica Henwick and her chemistry with love interest, Danny Rand, boasts the most charismatic love story Netflix’s Marvel has had yet. Danny’s youthful sincerity helps, but when Rand and Wing are together, it is less a story putting two leads into each other’s arms, but a genuine, beating love story that is great to watch evolve throughout the course of the show. Tom Pelphery is also worth mentioning, the actor getting the weakest character and turning in a show-stealing, jaw-dropping performance. He starts the show as the snaky businessman, but his character opens up in remarkable ways. The fight scenes are also worth tuning in for each week. Rand’s fights have a certain style to them, setting his technique apart from the other heroes. Daredevil fights using his ears, Luke Cage fights without fear of damaging his skin… we can tell that from their fight moves, each punch reaffirming their characters. Here, we see Danny fight with internal strength rather than force. He is best when fighting someone he doesn’t want to hurt, using his body to tire them out and move away from their blows. It is directed with a magical energy, quietly mesmerising in its intensity. And there’s plenty of fights to marvel at: Iron Fist boasts more punch-ups than any of the other three seasons, the entire series littered with agonisingly violent and glorious punch-ups. While Daredevil’s ‘less is more’ approach makes its fight scenes the better quality, Iron Fist’s desire to constantly entertain does make it far more appealing to sit down, even during a weak episode.
Which is all very well and good, because the story here just doesn’t quite have the same punch as the other stories. Much like Luke Cage, Netflix’s Marvel stories appear to be running out of steam. Iron Fist boasts plenty to like, from deep character discussions, interesting plot twists and villains that make for decent viewing. But the problem Iron Fist faces is that there isn’t quite enough story to tie them together. There is a lack of identity here. Luke Cage was weak in its own way, but at least, its narrative told a clear story. Jessica Jones was incredible, due to its wider reading. Daredevil’s script is what made us fall in love with Netflix in the first place. Iron Fist seems to have forgotten that. The story never quite settles down into a tone, jumping from a story about Danny homeless and trying to do good from the lowest position in the rat race. Then he is a businessman trying to use his corporation as a weapon for good. And then he is solid superhero territory taking on an evil organisation as often as he can. The season ends an episode early and the finale picks the more interesting villain, but sadly one that offers the lesser climax. Iron Fist never finds a landing place. You are impressed with the course of the story, but you never quite get comfortable with it. There is one truly brilliant twist that should have been the moment when Iron Fist finally finds a place to rest, as late as Episode Ten, but the very next episode, the reveal is watered down slightly by back-tracking on the point it just made. It is almost as if Netflix have become self-aware that they have these superheroes on their hands and are now making stories about superheroes: sadly, that is the opposite of what we actually wanted.
Final Verdict: Iron Fist is another strong entry, but it lacks the identity the other shows possessed. Good, but we’ve had a lot better.