Over the first half of the season, Marvel’s Iron Fist suffers from the same malady as other Netflix series in that it’s too long, too fond of go-nowhere subplots, and too many episodes could or should be cut for the sake of affording it a more propulsive plotline. But whereas the likes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage primarily sag in the middle, the story of Danny Rand sags from its opening moment onward. The series’ inert narrative is laden with exposition that struggles to match Danny’s past with his super-heroic present in an engaging way. The show is so dull, it practically turns the immediacy of the binge-watch model into a dare.
Overseen by showrunner Scott Buck, Marvel’s Iron Fist is uncertain about what kind of story it wants to be. The first few hours wade neck deep into the familiar waters of superhero origin tropes. And yet Danny’s homecoming is little more than a tedious back and forth in which he tries to convince others he is who he says he is. What’s worse, the boy who presumably died in the Himalayas along with his mother and father 15 years prior didn’t come back with a definite purpose in mind, nor did he develop a personality strong enough to overcome the deficit of a distinct and compelling want. Several episodes in, people are still asking Danny what he’s doing in New York. After several episodes, he still doesn’t have a good answer for them.
To assuage this problem, the series shifts its focus to Danny reclaiming his namesake. Even then, the presumption that the audience would care about a company as vaguely defined as Rand Enterprises, to the degree that an outsider assuming control of it would be of immediate interest, speaks to the issue of uncertainty by the writers in what the story of Iron Fist is really about.
The assumed appeal of business is misguided, but it speaks to the character’s comic book origins and the idea that masked men with remarkable abilities were at one time also titans of industry whose names were emblazoned on towers of familiar and not-so familiar metropolitan skylines. As a TV series, Iron Fist follows in the footsteps of Batman, Iron Man, and even Green Arrow – stories that depict men returning home from long journeys to become protectors (while also inheriting huge fortunes and companies that bear their name). Considering the list of characters that have come before him in movies and/or television, if anyone could have used an origin update, it’s this version of Danny Rand — which doesn’t help regarding complaints of the series’ casting being out of touch with present-day interests in inclusivity and representation of groups with a marginalized status in Hollywood.
But the above-mentioned comic book characters and their respective enterprises share one important thing: an understanding of what the character’s company does, or at least why it’s important to the story. These companies represent something that puts their significance in perspective for the audience; Stark Enterprises was a weapons contractor, and Wayne Enterprises was invested in the future of Gotham City. These businesses, and either their philanthropic endeavors or massive ethical shortcomings, also helped define the hero in question and the specifics of his journey. Rand Enterprises, however, is a vaguely sketched monolithic empire; it represents nothing more than a want for a pair of secondary characters, since Danny’s interest in the business, or even knowledge of it, is nebulous at best. What’s most frustrating about Iron Fist throughout the first few hours is how the lack of definition surrounding Rand Enterprises extends to nearly every other aspect of the show.
Much of this has to do with the way Danny is presented. Despite being a living weapon, Buck has chosen to write the character as naïve, making him very much the child who was left to die on a mountaintop. The contradiction between his two halves – the literally iron-hard substance of his fist and the paper-thin boy he still seems to be – could have made for an interesting, original arc, but it’s never expressed convincingly enough to read as the defining element of Danny’s character, or the component that makes his narrative stand out amongst more popular and well-known heroes that have walked a similar path.
The blandness of its characters and narrative is worsened by the dual association Iron Fist has with the superhero and martial arts genres, two varieties of film and television that are typically denoted first by their kinetic and action-oriented storytelling. In the first few episodes, the series almost goes out of its way to avoid putting Danny in a position where he would need to use his martial arts skills, limiting the action to a handful of featureless scuffles framed by uninspired cinematography and unconvincing stunt work. Adding to the muddled nature of it all, the power of the Iron Fist is given only the most cursory of explanations — a creative choice that underlines how fickle the show is in terms of what the mystical power does and does not allow Danny to do.
This character deficit is made most clear when the series introduces and intermittently focuses on Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, who is not only more compelling than Danny, but she has also been given a clear and obtainable want. Colleen is fully immersed in the world of martial arts, so when a subplot is introduced that requires she use her fighting skills, it does so in a way that complicates the character’s story physically, emotionally, and ethically. The idea is familiar, especially in the world of superheroes, but at least it gives Colleen and Iron Fist a reason to throw some much-needed punches.
It’s difficult to tell if Iron Fist is straining to find a reason for its characters to fight or not trying nearly hard enough. The story moves at such a languid pace through the first half of the season, any reason to see characters engage in (iron) fisticuffs is like water to someone wandering in the desert. There is reason enough to believe Iron Fist will find a more exciting gear in the second half of season 1. A later episode, directed by RZA, captures the cinematic spirit of the character’s martial arts legacy with an energetic hour that seemingly opens the door for more action and a more focused plot. Such hints may greatly improve what’s to come, but they do little to salvage the leaden introduction to the series and its characters.