While the Marvel Cinematic Universe broadens its canvass with the shamelessly thaumaturgic Doctor Strange (2016) and the Avengers move ever closer to an Infinity War, the street-level corner of the Marvel Universe on Netflix has unveiled its final Defender.
Danny Rand, The Iron Fist makes a timely debut as his presence implies a neat middle ground between the kerbside pugilism of Daredevil, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and the mystical realms explored by the Sorceror Supreme in last year’s cinematic sleeper hit.
It’s that dichotomy between the mundane and the magical that makes Iron Fist simultaneously the most ambitious of the Marvel Netflix shows and the least satisfying.
The series follows Danny Rand, heir to the multi-billion dollar Rand corporation who returns to New York after a plane crash in Asia culminated in15 year tutelage in the realm of Kun Lun, a mystical province whose existence converges with ours only once every fifteen years. It’s an interesting enough premise to differentiate it sufficiently from the story of Oliver Queen over on Arrow (2011-), so long as it retains the courage of its supernatural convictions. The trouble is that the show, either for creative or budgetary reasons, flirts with the supernatural but never adequately commits to it.
In a neat microcosm for the series’ tone, the titular Danny Rand spends the 13 episode run in a near-constant state of identity crisis. Finn Jones plays the character with the requisite boyish charm and ideological naivete but oscillates wildly between moments of Carradine-esque serenity and flights of rage that would make Bruce Banner turn… wait, what’s the colour for envy?
The series and its titular character often feel constrained by the 13 episode format and I can’t help but wonder how the material would have fared under a 6 or 7 episode mandate. Rand seems to come to a point of personal revelation at the end of every episode only to revert exactly back to type in the next. Plot points feel cyclical and reused and numerous peripheral characters have staccato fluctuations of character rather than cogent arcs.
Even Coleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), arguably the series’ most interesting and well illustrated character, often takes one step forward and two steps back. The Meachum siblings (heirs apparent to Danny’s fortune with the narrative function of fairy-tale ugly sisters) are even more erratic in their character progressions than Danny himself, their amorphous personalities adjusting ad-hoc to the demands of each individual episode.
But this a martial arts show right?
Ordinarily I would be more than willing to waive any concerns about character development in lieu of great action choreography. Unfortunately this is where the show falls most conspicuously flat.
The show spends a great deal of time and effort talking up Iron Fist’s martial prowess yet he’s often seen being trounced by common thugs. That’s fine for a character like Daredevil as it speaks to his scrappy nature, but I’d expect better from one of the Marvel Universe’s premier martial artists.
It’s also painfully obvious that Finn Jones was only allowed a few weeks to get to grips with the training demands of the role as he throws sheepish punches at stunt performers moving at blocking pace.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of decent fights in the series, but never any great ones. It would be fine were it not for films like The Raid (2011) which showed us that we could have both graceful choreography and visceral brutality. Even Daredevil had much better choreographed and more compelling fight scenes.
In failing to embrace the mystical elements of its source material Iron Fist finds itself unwittingly falling into tired 70s martial arts cliches that simply don’t hold up in an age where martial arts have been so demystified.
While there’s a lot to criticise about the series, there’s a lot that it gets right too.
Rosario Dawson and Carrie-Anne Moss reprise their roles with aplomb as Claire Temple and Jeri Hogarth respectively, providing welcome continuity alongside their competent performances. Wai Ching Ho is also back as the polite but ruthless Madame Gao. Indeed Madame Gao is one of the few characters who gets the benefit of growth and exploration as the series progresses.
Fans of Ed Brubaker’s notable run on the comics will recognise the presence of Orson Randall (the previous Iron Fist) and the Bride of Nine Spiders and martial arts film fans will find comfort in the show’s numerous loving homages to the genre.
Unlike its predecessors, Iron Fist lacks a fundamental clarity in who and what its central character is, which the series is never quite able to escape from.
Rand says “I am the Iron Fist” with absolute conviction at least twice per episode but neither we nor Danny seem to have any idea what that means.
While there are many enjoyable moments and compelling episodes; the want of a clear through-line for the character and his motivations throughout the series is painfully obvious.
That said, I have enough faith in Finn Jones’ portrayal and have seen enough of interest from the character to be excited for his appearance in The Defenders later this year.