❉ This is Marvel-by-numbers, a bit like watching a student attempting tai chi without really understanding the art.
‘I’ve no idea what an Iron Fist is. Sounds like a sex toy.’
Irrespective of what an Iron Fist sounds like, Danny Rand could be Cockney rhyming slang for bland. Netflix set the bar high with their previous Marvel series and their latest offering lacks punch by comparison.
Expectations for the fourth and final member of The Defenders were a strange combination of high and low. High, because the Marvel/Netflix team had a great track record for kindling newfound interest in characters that were on my radar but not among my favourites. Low, because advanced mutterings about Iron Fist were not altogether encouraging.
Still, coming last in a four-horse race when you’re up against relative thoroughbreds such as Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Daredevil doesn’t mean you’re lame. It just means you might want to work on your form.
Iron Fist opts for a slow beginning and I’ve no particular issue with a patient approach to storytelling. Not everything has to start with a bang, but in this case it wasn’t until episode five that I was actually hooked. And it’s no coincidence that it’s around the same time that the character of Clare Temple makes her appearance.
Now, she has become one of my favourite characters in anything, consistently well-written (and she’s given all the best lines in this) and brilliantly brought to life with winning conviction by Rosario Dawson. She is the glue that cements all the Netflix Marvels together and her presence in this was even more welcome than usual. She highlighted much of what had been lacking up to that point.
The fact is Danny Rand isn’t very interesting. Neither is Iron Fist. Let’s face it, ‘martial artist with glowing fist’ is at best on a par with Hawkeye, ‘guy with nifty bow and selection of special-purpose arrows’. So he – and his series – is in need of something more in the way of substance. And while Finn Jones is amiable enough in the lead role, there’s simply not much foundation in terms of character or personality.
We’re introduced to a Bruce Wayne-like figure returning, barefoot, from martial arts training in the Himalayas. Except everyone believes him to have died fifteen years before in a plane crash, so his first major challenge lies in convincing others of his identity. This amounts to a conflict between some boardroom brats and a ‘hero’ who comes across as a spoilt rich bloke who’s had a go at living on the streets for a week.
A brief connection with a good-hearted hobo in the park, who dies tragically, evokes brief sadness for the homeless but very little empathy for Danny’s plight. Similarly, the show can establish the fact of his parents’ death as clearly – and repeatedly – as it likes, but it does little good if I’m not feeling it.
Of course, the series is really about identity and there’s potential drama to be had from a protagonist struggling to find his place and purpose in the world. But while Danny Rand has problems with his sense of self, the audience is tasked with rooting for a guy without any great sense of who he is. This would be all right if he was shrouded in intriguing mystery, but he’s not.
If we’re invested in his story at all, it’s more or less by default, because the execs and boardroom brats he’s up against are unlikeable. But even uber-brat, Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey), never reaches the heights of unlikeability required of a damned good villain. And that, at least, is something that can always compensate for a hero who’s a bit vanilla.
The series overall is missing its Kingpin. Vincent D’Onofrio was such a giant presence in the first season of Daredevil, it would be unreasonable to expect Iron Fist to match him in the bad guy department. Here, villain duties are shared between three main players: David Wenham (Faramir from Lord Of The Rings) shows his quality as psychotic, immortal recluse, Harold Meachum; Wai Ching Ho makes a brilliant return as the serpent-tongued Madame Gao from Daredevil and then you have Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez), the mild-mannered sensei with the heart of darkness.
They all bring their strengths but it’s not clear which of them is meant to emerge as the dominant big bad. This is not automatically a failing and indeed could have doubled or tripled the jeopardy, but in this case the effect is to somewhat dilute the array of forces ranged against Danny. And, for instance, even though we’ve been shown Harold Meachum training hard – and fiercely – at his martial arts he doesn’t give the Iron Fist much of a fight when it comes to their rooftop confrontation.
Which brings us to another missing ingredient. The fights. That is, there are plenty of fights, some of them even pretty good – for example, when Danny runs into a Drunken Master outside the Hand’s warehouse in china. But I can’t help feeling the show missed an opportunity to really, thoroughly embrace its kung fu roots. Luke Cage immersed itself in urban black culture and was all the stronger for it. Iron Fist could have borrowed its flavour from Hong Kong movies and at least the series could have forged a distinct identity for itself, even while Danny Rand continued to search for his. As it stands, the title sequence (again, the weaker of the four Netflix Marvels), has a hint of the Jet Lis about it but ultimately acts as an emblem for much of what’s missing from the episodes. Perhaps some glimpses of Danny’s otherworld life in K’un-Lun in place of some of the corporate (in)action wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Such could-have-beens are not the strongest advertisement for a series, but there was something that not only persuaded me to stick with it but had me binge-watching all thirteen episodes in the space of a weekend.
Obviously we can attribute that to my healthy (?) Marvel appetite (aka addiction) and, as mentioned, Rosario Dawson upped my attention factor. There are other pluses too and Iron Fist does at least have some commonality with Luke Cage in its supply of strong females. There’s not quite the power triumvirate of Claire Temple, Misty Knight and Maria Dillard, but Claire, Jerri Hogarth (Carrie Ann Moss), Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and, to a lesser extent because she’s one of the aforementioned unlikeable boardroom brats, Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) have significant roles to play and all bring more appeal and interest to proceedings than the eponymous hero. Of course, two of those are features of the other Marvel Netflix shows and Colleen, while new, has a story thread that has some parallels with Elektra’s in Daredevil’s second season. Only she’s a much more engaging character played by a much better actress.
The pace does pick up and various twists and turns help sustain the momentum as the series progresses, and I found myself keen to move on to the next episode as soon as one ended. Sacha Dhawan’s appearance stirs the mix some more in the later stages, an intense and driven warrior with his own agenda and someone who could make for a more interesting and formidable opponent than Bakuto. And at the end of it all, I felt I had enjoyed the ride. Much of the dissatisfaction arises from knowing there are better rollercoasters in the theme park.
The competition is tough. This is Marvel-by-numbers, a bit like watching a student attempting tai chi without really understanding the art: it’s going through the motions. There is potential there and it’s mostly enjoyable viewing, even graceful at times. But in order for Iron Fist to properly shine the world may have to wait for Danny Rand to find his core.
❉ Marvel’s Iron Fist: A Netflix Original. Watch Season 1 Now.