Marvel’s Iron Fist: a second-rate Daredevil that matches the low expectations

Netflix’s latest superhero series fails to match the heights of its predecessors, says Huw Fullerton in this spoiler-free review

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Sporting a green open-chested onesie, an angry-looking half-mask and some delicate yellow pumps, the warrior lashes out at a crowd of deadly foes, clearing them with a powerful kick of his muscled leg.

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Whipping his burning right hand in a deadly arc of destruction, he yells out his peerless battle-cry.

“You karate killers wanted a showdown – now you’ve got it!”

So was Marvel hero Iron Fist introduced in May 1974, with the character waxing and waning in visibility just outside the mainstream of the comics world for decades to come. Never super popular but never totally obscure either, he was a slightly odd choice to turn into a TV series, and from the moment it was announced that Marvel’s fourth on-demand Netflix superhero series would be Iron Fist I couldn’t help but wonder what the show’s USP would be.

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The first appearance of Iron Fist, aka Danny Rand, in Marvel comics

So far, all the Marvel/Netflix series have found one great quality to focus in on that helps mask recurring issues of pacing and awkward dialogue, from Daredevil’s incredible fight choreography and Jessica Jones’s emotional throughline to Luke Cage’s fantastic sense of culture and place. What could Iron Fist bring to the table? 

Well, after watching six episodes it seems I have my answer – not much. Iron Fist has all the familiar problems of the Marvel Netflix series thus far, but without the key saving graces that have elevated the previous offerings beyond those issues. It’s unfortunate, but Iron Fist is basically a sub-par Daredevil, a series which itself is hardly a perfect example of television anyway.

The story revolves around Danny Rand (Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones), the heir to the billion-dollar Rand corporation who disappeared as a child in a plane crash along with his parents. Years later, he returns to New York as a master of the martial arts with the ability to centre his chi into a powerful punch and irritate everyone he meets – only to find his childhood friends (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup’s Ward and Joy Meachum) don’t recognise him and his company has been taken over by sinister, ninja-y forces.

To start with, it’s worth acknowledging that the casting of Jones has been slightly controversial from the beginning, with many fans disappointed that Marvel and Netflix didn’t take the chance to use an Asian actor in the (traditionally white) lead role to update a character that some think is a little outdated (Jones himself recently got into a Twitter row on the topic so severe that he ended up deleting his account).

Still, with Danny remaining a caucasian outsider in a world of Asian martial arts, there was a chance to delve into that idea as modern Iron Fist comic writers have done, exploring the interplay between Eastern traditions and Danny’s Western background.

But Marvel’s considered response was to instead show a privileged white guy mansplaining martial arts to a female Asian sensei (Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing), and it’s hard to believe that no-one found the optics of that troubling. The fact that Danny’s also completely insufferable doesn’t help matters, with the character smugly lecturing everyone he meets on their moral failings while also getting annoyed and beating up a martial arts student when they make a fart noise at him (this actually happens). 

His sense of superiority doesn’t stop there. In another bizarre scene early in the series, a down-on-his-luck Danny meets a fellow rough sleeper who offers him some thoughtful advice about surivival, only for the Immortal Iron Fist to laugh and patronisingly rebuff the idea that he has anything in common with genuine homeless people. 

“I guess people think we’re pretty much alike,” he chuckles serenely at his companion.

What a prick.

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Finn Jones as Danny Rand/Iron Fist

Watching the show, I kept thinking the point was for someone to challenge his actions or entitlement and draw attention to what an arsehole he was being, but that never happens. Instead people mutely accept his martial arts expertise and moral superiority, and simply wring their hands at the difficulties he’s visiting on them through his pure actions. Maybe his holier-than-thou attitude will gel better with the other rougher-edged heroes in the Defenders (the New York-based supergroup, also including Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, coming to Netflix later this year) but so far a Zen attitude and some anguished flashbacks to your parents’ deaths every now and then do not a compelling protagonist make. 

Of course, irritating, arrogant people do exist and maybe Danny’s personality problems could have been acceptable if there was also a compelling story to tell, or even some pulse-pounding action, but it’s a resolute “no” on both those counts. The plot is the same ninja nonsense that made Daredevil series 2 a tedious slog (and will probably infect planned team-up The Defenders, given the build-up to baddies The Hand, who Daredevil has already faced), tied to a sort-of fish-out-of-water storyline that creates conflicts – Danny must prove his identity! Danny must fight for control of his company! – only to resolve them anticlimactically or gloss them over entirely (for example, everyone is extremely chill that Rand corporation boss Ward sets contract killers on Danny an episode or two later).

As noted before, the series also has the classic Marvel/Netflix issues of pace, writing and inconsistent characterisation, sluggishly dragging out instalments filled with underwhelming plot turns and overly-earnest dialogue that makes you long for the wit of the Marvel movies.

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Even the fight scenes are a bit sub-par, with an average bout between Danny and one of his disposable foes containing more cuts (to disguise stuntmen) than your average game of fruit ninja. In a series all about a character who describes himself un-self-consciously as a “living weapon,” it’s disappointing that some of Daredevil’s flair, imagination and fight logic couldn’t make its way over to its sibling series. 

“Why doesn’t he just use his titular Iron Fist?” I kept muttering to myself as Danny entered another drawn-out battle where his mystical powers kept a back seat. “He could just punch them in the head right at the beginning, and he’d save so much time.” As with many fans’ questions as to why Marvel prioritised this over Jessica Jones series two, no answers have been forthcoming.

Based on all this, it’d be tempting to call Iron Fist a disappointment, but let’s be honest – to disappoint people you’d have to be below their expectations, and Iron Fist is about as “meh” as everyone expected. Danny Rand is not a particularly popular character who people really wanted to see on screen, and generally speaking hype for this series seems to be at an all-time low. It’s just a shame Iron Fist conformed to expectations and is exactly the sort of middle-of-the-road offering everyone expected back when it was first announced.

It’s not a terrible series and it’s reasonably watchable (Colleen Wing’s storyline is somewhat entertaining, for one), but it’s sad to see that 40 years on Iron Fist hasn’t got much more sophisticated than his first appearance. He’s still taking on poorly-sketched villains and spouting cheesy dialogue – and he doesn’t even have a neat outfit any more. 

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Iron Fist will be available to stream on Netflix from Friday 17th March