How ‘Iron Fist’ Became Marvel’s First Misstep on Netflix
Ever since Netflix first unveiled the debut season of Daredevil, the bar for superhero television has been raised almost impossibly high. Suddenly, mid-tier shows like The Flash and Arrow barely measure up, while more experimental efforts like FX’s Legion began to take hold. Suffice it to say, Marvel’s Netflix empire threw down the gauntlet. Their success has been a double-edged sword though, and that’s most evident in their latest series, Iron Fist.
The standard by which we judge superhero television has changed dramatically since Marvel set up camp with Netflix. That makes the timing for a completely average show like Iron Fist, unfortunate. By the old standard set by the likes of Arrow circa Seasons 1 and 2, Iron Fist falls firmly in the “passably alright” tier. But we live in a post-Daredevil world now, and because of that, we’re operating on a whole different scale.
1. First, let’s address the elephant in the room
We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least briefly discuss the ongoing debate surrounding Iron Fist‘s casting of Finn Jones as Danny Rand. Many fans felt as though Marvel missed a valuable opportunity to diversify the world of superhero television when they chose a white actor to fill the role, and in many ways those feelings are justified. On the other hand, casting Jones also fit with the source comic book series.
The decision has steeped the show in controversy since day one, and has made it so Rand’s portrayal requires a deft hand.
That leads to the question of whether Rand comes off as Kung Fu’s white savior. Netflix’s Iron Fist slightly skirts that issue by having its titular hero spend his formative years training in a separate dimension, although it’s tough to shake the lingering cultural appropriation all the same. At the end of the day, people on both sides of the aisle are probably not going to change their mind after watching the series, especially while the debate still rages on across the internet.
2. Iron Fist suffers from sluggish early pacing
Pacing has often been the biggest issue across all of Marvel’s Netflix shows, and Iron Fist suffers from this more than any of its predecessors. Things get off to a bit of a rocky start, with the first episodes featuring little in the way of actual forward momentum, and a whole lot of Danny Rand trying to convince people he is who he says he is, after disappearing for 15 years. That being so, it makes it tough to get invested early on.
3. Things pick up if you’re patient enough to get through the opening episodes
The biggest frustration we had in our own viewing was that the pacing really didn’t pick up until the sixth episode (functionally, the halfway point in the 13-episode season). Incidentally, that sixth episode is directed by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who brings an intriguing (and much-needed) genre aesthetic to the series.
Iron Fist would have been well-served by having the events of that episode occur far earlier in the series, with much of the initial story movement acting as little more than filler.
4. It struggles to find a purpose
Each Marvel Netflix series before Iron Fist has carried a strong subtext. For Daredevil, we got a profound statement on morality and what lines a hero should (and shouldn’t) cross. Jessica Jones carried a stunning commentary on rape and consent. Luke Cage in turn, made a bold statement on race.
Iron Fist lacks that thematic backbone, and the result is a narrative with a tendency toward drifting aimlessly. At times, the story manages to snap back into focus (mostly in that aforementioned sixth episode), but there’s still a noticeable lack of purpose in the greater arc.
5. Jessica Henwick is a revelation as Colleen Wing
While Danny Rand’s character lacks the complexity of his fellow Defenders, Colleen Wing is by far Iron Fist‘s most intriguing personality. Often, you’ll find yourself wondering why this series isn’t all about her. Colleen is a struggling Asian-American who is trying to make ends meet, while helping keep kids off the streets by teaching them martial arts out of her run-down dojo. It’s a narrative with far more pull than Rand’s own “rich white kid learns to fight from magic monks” story. For now, we’ll just bide our time for a Colleen Wing/Misty Knight spinoff series.
6. An all too familiar origin story
The premise behind Danny Rand’s transformation into the Iron Fist is all too familiar: A wealthy heir to a family fortune disappears somewhere in Asia, and reappears with special abilities, ready to reassume his place as the head of his company while moonlighting as a superhero. Over at DC, we’ve seen that with Bruce Wayne, and most recently with Oliver Queen on The CW’s Arrow. And while it’s tough to fault Iron Fist for pulling that straight out of the pages of its own comic source material, it’s a story that’s been done to death already.
7. All that aside, Iron Fist isn’t nearly as bad as many critics would have you believe
The early critical consensus for Iron Fist is far from positive. io9 labeled the series “Marvel and Netflix’s first big failure,” while Variety went so far as to claim that “not one element of this plodding piece works.” We had our own issues with the series, but we’d hardly label it as a complete and utter disaster. More than that, if the second half of the season is as interesting as the sixth episode, then we have high hopes for it rebounding. Its fatal flaw is that it came after far superior shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
8. It’s still unclear where the Iron Fist story is headed
Because Iron Fist took an entire half-season to unravel its story, it’s tough to guess at what the next seven episodes might bring. And yeah, it’s always nice to be surprised, but after six episodes, there should be some semblance of understanding concerning the direction of the story.
Jessica Jones culminated in a showdown with Kilgrave, and that was made clear from the get-go. Daredevil‘s boss fight with the Kingpin was practically an inevitability in the show’s first season. We don’t have that same climactic certainty with Iron Fist.
9. Iron Fist is a victim of our own high standards
In a vacuum, Iron Fist is a perfectly OK superhero show. The problem is that Marvel’s already proven they can do better, and that’s set expectations for anything new they create. Operating on pre-Daredevil standards, Iron Fist is an entertaining, albeit oft-flawed comic book adaptation. It’s really just a question of where you set your own bar. Bottom line, this show doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessors, but still manages to ramp up after a slow start.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!