Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
For as popular as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, there’s been a growing contingent of both moviegoers and critics who have called the franchise out for its formulaic storytelling and overall uniformity. While a certain consistency is expected (and even laudable?) among the various installments of a multibillion film series, the 14 MCU releases to date have in most instances fallen prey to the same shortcomings. With few exceptions (e.g., Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), nearly all of the films hew particularly close to the Iron Man formula that kicked off the whole enterprise in the first place. With Iron Fist, a similar pattern is beginning to form with the interconnected Netflix series firmly set within (but, still, not really) the MCU.
Finn Jones – aka Loras Tyrell on HBO’s Game of Thrones – plays Danny Rand, the presumed-dead son of billionaire parents who returns to his hometown to reclaim his family’s company. But the Danny that comes back to New York isn’t the one who left 15 years earlier. In the intervening years, he’s been trained in martial arts and imbued with the mystical power of the Iron Fist. Before long, Danny finds himself caught up in a centuries-old feud threatening his city and the people he cares about, as he struggles to pick up the pieces of his old life.
The controversy surrounding Jones’ casting aside – in which some felt that the role was a missed opportunity to cast an Asian-American – Jones neatly balances the naiveté and the wisdom that make Danny Rand a very different hero than we’ve seen on the other Marvel Netflix series. Whereas Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are burdened by complicated pasts and cynical lives, Danny spent his entire adolescence in a monastery and, as such, often displays the innocence, emotional unpredictability and hopefulness not often seen in the genre. He’s also something of a blank slate, especially early on, which makes him a bit less engaging than his predecessors. The fact that his backstory plays like a lesser-known variation on the tragic billionaire childhoods of Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne (DC vs. Marvel trolls be damned!) doesn’t do much to set him apart in any kind of impactful way.
Rather, the weight of Iron Fist falls to its stellar supporting cast. Jessica Henwick – another Game of Thrones alum – in particular stands out as Colleen Wing, a no-nonsense ally of Danny’s who at first hesitates to join his crusade. David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) chews scenery every second he’s onscreen as the morally ambiguous corporate tycoon Harold Meachum, and Jessica Stroup expertly tows the line as his daughter Joy, perhaps the character most likely to incite a love-hate response from viewers. Naturally, a few faces of Marvel Netflix series past re-appear here as well, considering that Iron Fist is the final solo series to debut prior to the miniseries event The Defenders.
Indeed, there is plenty of connective tissue introduced in Iron Fist that functions as a kind of bridge between the more grounded world of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and the mysticism that lies beneath the surface in Daredevil. The show – created by TV writer Scott Buck (Dexter) – feels very much like it belongs in the city space as those earlier series, but perhaps that’s part of its problem. Much like the MCU films, the Netflix series have such an even tenor across the board that there’s not a whole lot that feels fresh in Iron Fist. While Daredevil is the vigilante, Jessica Jones is the noir-style detective and Luke Cage is the neighborhood champion, Iron Fist remains the least defined and therefore blandest addition to the team so far.
In all fairness, any interconnected universe is bound to reach the point wherein it teeters on the verge of stretching itself too thin, of cannibalizing itself by merely repackaging the same story elements and character types into something “new.” There’s still quite a bit to enjoy in Iron Fist, and it’s clear that Buck and his creative team are aiming to create a series that harkens back to the classic 1970s kung fu properties that inspired the comic book series in the first place. However, just when you think the story is going in an intriguing new direction, it tends to shift into something overly familiar, almost as if the MCU overlords are making too concerted an effort to prove to viewers just how closely knit the Defenders truly are.
Perhaps such issues may be ironed (pun intended) out in the back half of the season, as the entire 13-episode run was not made available prior to review. We’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt there, but regardless, this is easily the least compelling Marvel Netflix series so far. By the time the credits run on the final episode of Iron Fist, all but the most devoted fans will be relieved that the road to The Defenders will have finally come to an end. Maybe the combination of Iron Fist and Luke Cage – in a rumored Heroes for Hire series – can punch up the former character’s appeal before the possibility of season 2 is floated.
Marvel fanatics will relish another addition to the growing Netflix canon but should be forewarned of the diminishing returns inherent in the fun but subpar Iron Fist.