Warning, this review contains spoilers for Marvel’s Iron Fist...
This past weekend, Marvel completed their final solo series of their Netflix “Defenders” Universe before “Phase 1” concludes with The Defenders with the show Iron Fist. The show focuses on Danny Rand as the particular character, who returns back to New York City after a 15-year absence (in which he was presumed dead after a plane crash) to reclaim his father’s mega-conglomerate. Danny also just happens to know kung-fu and is the “Immortal Iron Fist” a “Living Weapon” and in the Marvel world, that means we are in store for some more of the extraordinary.
The film has been plagued with controversy pretty much since its inception. For one, it is the lease “street” level of the Defenders characters. Daredevil was a man who gains superhuman sensory abilities as a result of an accident involving chemicals, yet he remains grounded not with any mystical powers. Both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage contain heroes who have superhuman strength, yet again those powers via experiments. Although not realistic in our world, completely realistic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even realistic in the grounded world build around the Netflix Marvel shows. However, Iron Fist introduces alternate dimensions and dragons. Given the nature of the what transpires in the comics, it would have been difficult for a more grounded adaptation of the original content, so fans paid attention closely.
The other thing is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the decision to stick with comic book canon and keep Danny Rand as a white male. In an era where many geek properties (Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell) are being criticized with “whitewashing,” here is a story that is not technically doing the same, but it “feels” like it is. The comic was created in the 1970s when David Carradine’s Kung-Fu was very popular, and it followed the same theme of an “outsider” (white male) is raised in an Asian culture, who becomes “the master.” Many fans thought that this was the right time to not only do some course correcting, but also give us an Asian superhero, as there aren’t many to begin with. This is a double-edged sword though because, on one hand, it wouldn’t be staying true to the comics, which Marvel has prized itself on doing (unless you count Nick Fury and other examples), and yet looks “bad” optics-wise having a great white hero doing kung-fu against The Hand (the evil Asian cult we saw in Daredevil). Either way, Marvel took a risk, so we shouldn’t really hold it against them for either decision they made.
Then the reviews came out for the first six episodes that were screened for critics came out, and it didn’t look too good for the TV show. Many were calling the show an outright mess. Many also cited Danny Rand being white, once again and unfair comparison, and a host of other things pointing to Iron Fist being a hot mess. However, it was only six episodes out of a thirteen-episode season, so we had to see the whole thing and make our own minds to see if Iron Fist is good or bad.
So, after all the episodes were released on Netflix and we got the chance to digest them, how did Iron Fist go? Not that bad. Some of the criticism is valid, but some of it was just people piling on without the context of the original content. Without a doubt, this is the weakest of all the Marvel/Netflix shows, but it is still better than a lot of stuff that Netflix (and TV in general) puts out for us to consume. Let’s take a look at the show and measure up what worked and what didn’t.
Over the 13 episode season, we are introduced to Danny Rand as he comes back to New York City after spending his entire childhood in K'un-Lun, a mystical city that exists in another dimension. At first, he is met with skepticism and he’s taken for a random hobo trying to capitalize on the sad story of his family’s plane crash. It takes a few episodes, being committed to a psychiatric hospital, and him needing to prove to both Ward and Joy Meachum (childhood friends and now those in charge of his father’s company) but his identity is proven. He also meets Colleen Wing, a young woman who owns her own dojo. At first, he just needs a job working at her dojo, but he eventually forms a relationship with her and the two eventually become connected as they team up for his many adventures.
While being gone, Danny has become The Iron Fist. The Iron Fist is a title given for those trained in K'un-Lun for the purpose of defending and destroying their enemy The Hand (the bad guys from Daredevil), who have faced a trail of defeating Shou-Lao the Undying, a dragon. Once the Iron Fist defeats the dragon, he gains the ability to summon the Iron Fist, and can harness their chi and have the ability to turbocharge their fist and have superhuman abilities. Throughout the show, he uses this power for both offensive (super punching a bunch of things and people) and defensive (healing poison, blocking bullets) purposes. The Iron Fists’s purpose it to guard K'un-Lun from The Hand, only Danny has vacated his post to return back to Earth.
Danny’s father’s company, Rand, Inc. is involved with The Hand, as the group not only has operatives in the organization, but they also have partnered with the former CEO Harold, who is dead in the public eye but really is the man behind the curtain at the company and controlling his children who run the day to day operations of the company. The Hand has been leveraging Harold as he was cancer-stricken and they used the same life-saving and resurrection abilities they did in Daredevil on him. As a result, The Hand is able to peddle their drugs through Rand, Inc.’s corporate distribution networks. Danny wants to put a stop to that, and other of Rand’s immoral business practices.
As Danny faces The Hand, he confronts both Madame Gao (the villainess from Daredevil) as well as Bakuto, the leader of a rival faction of The Hand. While Colleen operates as his right hand throughout the series, he also teams up with Claire Temple (the Night Nurse and the “Nick Fury” of the Marvel/Netflix shows we have seen in all the other shows) as she gets involved in the activities, and his friend from K'un-Lun, Davos, who comes from the mystical city to help Danny out. Towards the end of the show, Davos and Danny have a falling out, setting him up to be a major villain for future seasons.
Towards the end of the show, Danny takes on both factions of The Hand as well as Harold, who after his partnership with The Hand finally ends reveals himself as Danny’s true enemy and responsible for the death of his parents via plane crash as a means to gain control of Rand, Inc. When completed, Danny attempts to return to his post as The Iron Fist, but is left with a disappointment.
The show overall had a strong story that kept you interested. From Daredevil season two were started to learn about the mystery surrounding The Hand, the mysterious group of ninjas who Daredevil’s mentor Stick is at war with. Iron Fist has them as the primary villains of the show and as a result, we get to learn a bit more about them. While they are very much still a ninja cult, they are also heavy in the world of drug dealing, brand building, and corporate politics. One of their Leaders, Madame Gao (returning from Daredevil) is active in Rand, Inc, Danny’s father’s company. She uses Rand. Inc’s corporate hierarchy to ensure her heroic trade is top notch, and even has a series of beautiful corporate saleswomen selling her synthetic heroin to the business elite in New York City, as well as setting up warehouses and distribution through a warehouse owned by Rand, Inc. As tech and business savvy as she is, she’s very old school. We learn that she’s far older than she appears to be when Danny attempts to extract information from her when he captures her, she mentions that she was tortured in the 17th Century and they didn’t get any information from her. Although she appears as a frail old woman, she is able to through Danny Rant against a wall without even touching him, the simple flick of her wrist was enough to telekinetically throw him forcefully across a room. She is also a citizen of the mystical city of K'un-Lun as well. She even asks Danny Rand why he would leave “Heaven.” The average fans watch and think, “Oh K'un-Lun must be a nice place if they call it “Heaven.”” No, it’s real name is “Heaven.” K'un-Lun is just one of seven Capital Cities of Heaven and it’s only available on this Earthly plans every 15 years (well, 88 years in the comic).
The Hand is also a diverse brand. There are different factions within the group and not monolithic. This season on Iron Fist, we are introduced to Bakuto, and learn that he has a major beef with Madame Gao’s faction of The Hand. Bakuto also is in the business of expansion as he recruits wayward youths, trains them in fighting, and also helps put them in positions of power as some of the kids in Colleen’s Dojo get jobs in government or get placed in good colleges. They help break down and build up young promising warriors and then give them, even more, skills to utilize for their own Nefarious means. They even have their own campus that Danny visits later on in the show. Expect them to be even more explored in The Defenders.
Colleen Wing is a welcome addition to to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Comic fans know that she and Luke Cage’s Misty Knight team up to become their own group, the Daughters of the Dragon. Just like Misty Knight was the standout in Luke Cage, Colleen Wing is the standout in Iron Fist. Her character probably has one of the best arcs throughout the 13-episode run of the show. While we find out that she is actually the “enemy” and a member of Bakuto’s faction of The Hand, her relationship with Danny has her choose him over her group. Even though they are sworn enemies and her group was at first using him for their own means, she comes to fall for him and even goes to betray Bakuto and side with Danny. Actress Jessica Henwick is giving her all for the role and it shows. Her fight scenes also work well (given that some of the criticism of the show was that the fight scenes weren’t as well choreographed as other Marvel/Netflix shows like Daredevil or Luke Cage were), especially when she does some cage fighting early on, and when she does some sword fighting in China and later on in her fight against Bakuto. It’s already been announced that she and Misty will both appear in The Defenders, so that will be great and hopefully the beginnings of their superhero team will ferment. It’s going to be weird, though, as in the comics, Misty and Danny are a couple and Colleen and Danny slept together on the show.
While all of the corporate shenanigans on the show didn’t work, another supporting character that ended up working well on Iron Fist was Ward Meachum. At first, he’s a major douche. He doesn’t buy that Danny has returned from the dead and the person who returns is an imposter. He convinces his sister to drug Danny and then commits him into a mental hospital. He also is holding the secret that his father Harold, who was assumed to have died of cancer, is still alive and still really in charge of Rand, Inc. His father is manipulative and not only controls his son (to control the company the Meachum siblings are supposedly running) but his father is also a terrible parent and constantly belittles his son. As the series progresses, he also goes through an arc from villain to hero and ends up working with Danny on stopping both Harold and The Hand.
The introduction of Davos continues the “brother-turned-villain” troupe that Marvel did with Doctor Strange as a means of providing origin stories for bad guys. Davis is Steel Serpent in the comics, a native of K'un-Lun who failed the Iron Fist test and had a built-up animosity of Danny Rand. However, on the show, he and Danny were friends and Danny simply became the Iron Fist by passing the trials. Davos and he remained friends, so much that Davos went to Earth to make sure he was OK and fought The Hand with him. However, it’s Danny’s unwillingness to return to K'un-Lun and fight The Hand turns Davos against him. Like Mordo did in Doctor Strange, Davos turns on his friend because Danny is not being “pure,” and therefore they are enemies.
What Didn’t Work?
The fight scenes early on in the show were very much a miss. They improved as the season progressed, but this is a show about the Iron Fist, the immortal weapon and one of Marvel’s best fighters. This show should have had top-notch fighting and choreography. Daredevil already showed that these shows can deliver bone-crunching, well-done fights. Hell, Arrow does it on a weekly basis. Into the Badlands rivals most Hollywood blockbusters in regards to their fight choreography. It’s inexcusable that Iron Fist’s fight scene look like they were rehearsing their fight scenes, and it’s the final product. It’s clear they did not have much preparation for these fight scenes early on as they were sleepwalking through the fights. It’s clear in the first episode as the fight scenes were downright laughable. As the show progressed, it’s clear they put more time and effort into the final product, but for future seasons, they need to use the stunt work from Daredevil or from Into the Badlands instead of whoever they currently have. They also need to give Danny a costume. Part of what makes Daredevil’s stunts work is that their hero is wearing a mask, helping to “mask” a stuntman doing the fighting. Simply putting a blond wig on the stuntman isn’t going to cut it. They need to give him his traditional Iron Fist costume, complete with his mask to help make the fight scene more believable.
The show tended to focus a little more than they should have on the corporate world. While it was fine when it was about showing Danny Rand adjusting to the world of corporate politics after returning from training in kung-fu in K'un-Lun and showing how it is a completely different world than he was used to, they also showed a lot of the corporate world without him in it. The show is supposed to be about Danny and not the mechanisms of Rand, Inc. Danny using his majority stake in stopping price gouging was good, the other mechanizations of the Executive Board and Joy and Ward Meachum were time-consuming and overall did not do anything to advance the plot. This might have been done to help pad out the time for the show (it shouldn’t have been 13 episodes as most Netflix shows run too long already), but that’s when it was at its most boring.
Speaking of boring, the show took too long with the “is he really Danny Rand” arc. We the audience knew he was, and sending him to a mental institution and having hearings for Danny to prove his identity were also time-consuming. It took three episodes for that to happen and it really should have taken only one, maybe two max for that to happen.
The cardinal sin of the show was the lead character and the writing surrounding him. Finn Jones has done a good job on Game of Thrones, so we probably can’t blame him 100%. However, he just felt dull. His motivations for leaving K'un-Lun (seeing a hawk fly) was weak, as was his wishy-washy attitude. One moment he’s the master, lecturing Colleen and her students in kung-fu, and later on, Davos says what we all were thinking “you’re the worst Iron Fist ever!” Danny is one of the few characters in the show that didn’t have any character growth. Colleen, Claire, and Ward all went through some changes as the show progressed. Danny seems to just “be there” most of the time. The show is supposed to revolve around his character, he should be the one who has some sort of growth if anyone does.
I still can’t forgive not showing Shou-Lao the Undying. Game of Thrones gives us dragons, there’s no excuse for not showing the full dragon (not just his eyes)!
In conclusion, it’s not a complete miss. The show gave us a wide range of Easter Eggs for the MCU. Name dropping other Defenders characters was a welcome touch. The show also serves as a great teeing up for us to get ready for The Defenders as we know Danny will be in it, as will The Hand. It’s still more than a placeholder for us before the big dance with The Defenders comes later on this year. The hope is that the show will rebound from its failures and produce a solid second season (given Netflix’s willingness for multiple seasons of their original shows, there most certainly be a second season) that delves deeper into K'un-Lun, Danny’s history there, and further goes into his relationship with Davos, the soon to be new bad guy. While there were some problems, Iron Fist still works on many levels.
Rating: 3 out of 5