The fourth and final piece of Marvel and Netflix’s Defenders has arrived, this time centering on Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s Iron Fist, a character initially created to take advantage of the 70’s Kung Fu movie craze. The character has had a number of good-to-great runs since, with the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja The Immortal Iron Fist being a recent stand-out that many readers are turning to in order to get familiarized with the character. But there are a number of complications embedded in bringing the character to the screen, and so far, the series hasn’t found a way to circumvent them.
One common thread I’ve noticed with these Netflix comic adaptations: generally, the less material the series has to pull from, the more thematically rich the shows end up being. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage both felt like shows with a cohesive approach to their characters and themes, using those blanker canvases to spin the characters off into real world issues regarding inequity. Iron Fist, much like Daredevil, puts the core traits of the character and the inherited mythos first. Where Jessica Jones and Luke Cage feel like a respite from the growing Defenders mega-plot, Iron Fist picks up more or less where Daredevil’s second season left off. Whether that’s a point for or against the show depends on what you’re looking for in the series.
To give you the general log-line: Danny Rand (Finn Jones) returns to his birthright, Rand Industries, after a plane crash left him orphaned in K’un-Lun, where he began training in martial arts. He returns to claim his place in the world he left behind, while also attempting to further a different, more mysterious, and more important mission entrusted to him by his master. Of course, Danny’s return is held up to intense scrutiny by Ward and Joy Meachum, his childhood friends who now run the company in the stead of their father, Harold Meachum, who sits on the sidelines for reasons you’ll discover watching the series. Danny, destitute and living on the streets, takes up with martial arts instructor Colleen Wing and begins to piece his life back together again.
Does that premise sound fairly familiar? It should. The “rich white guy goes away for a long time thanks to youthful trauma and becomes a fighting badass” story has played out a number of times both in short form (Batman Begins) and over a longer period (the entire first season of Arrow). Putting aside the concept itself, which is not without criticism, the execution is largely unsuccessful here. Iron Fist doesn’t really find a new or interesting way to embark on this journey, which results in the show kicking off with arguably two of the weakest episodes of the Marvel-Netflix canon. I found myself actively waiting for the plot to move beyond the inevitable and interminable “Will Danny prove his identity?” quandary. It wasn’t quite an origin story; more like a micro-origin story full of exposition and flashback, stretched out needlessly to move the character to the starting point everyone associates him with by episode 3 or 4.
After that painfully rough start, the series starts to settle in a bit more as Danny’s mission comes into focus. More of the mystic elements come to the fore and the show starts to line up with what you’re expecting from an Iron Fist outing: an increasing amount of (at-times questionably shot and choreographed) fighting, a glowing fist, and some pretty colorful looking enemies. There’s also a nice mythos tie between Iron Fist and Daredevil that I didn’t expect, but found clever. Additionally, Danny begins to present himself as a more fully realized character. What at first seems like a rather off-putting performance by Jones shapes up to be a really cool take on the idea of someone who hasn’t had much wider human interaction since his pre-teen years. There’s a youthful and wide-eyed approach that carves some unique ground in the concept of the superhero.
On a similar front, Danny’s relationship with Ward (Tom Pelphrey) undergoes an interesting metamorphosis as the episodes tick on. A begrudging sort of older-younger brother relationship that is both antagonistic and collegial highlights what a casting coup Pelphrey was for this series. Eventually his character begins to derail into more trite melodrama, but he remains one of the better characters in the series. Equally bullying, slimy, pitiful, and oddly sympathetic, it’s my favorite performance in a series that’s starving for a stand-out.
Unfortunately, the other portions of the Meachum clan don’t quite have as much to do. Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) serves very little purpose at all beyond acting as a moral anchor for several male characters – specifically Danny and her brother Ward. Stroup does solid enough work in the role, but you could virtually lift her from the plot entirely with very little effect, which is a pretty unforgivable sin in a series with a small lead ensemble. Harold Meachum (David Wenham), halfway through the series, is still pretty nebulous, with Wenham playing him as a sort of wild card, but his actual part of the overall scheme hasn’t really taken a clear shape. There’s a sense that he might be a potential threat for Danny down the road, but then he vanishes for long stretches with little explanation. His pseudo Phantom of the Opera meets Dracula meets an MMA fighter borders almost on campy shtick.
Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), thankfully, is right up there with Danny as one of the more dynamic characters of the series, and her scenes give us some of the better fight scenes of the show. Unlike Joy, she doesn’t exist solely as a sounding board for other male characters around her, nor is she relegated to function solely as a love interest. We also have some familiar faces show up after the first two episodes, which help anchor the show in the world it’s meant to inhabit – this shared Defenders universe.
A major issue with each of these Defenders series is that they try to play out like 13 hour long movies instead of satisfying individualized units, which would be fine – these are meant to be binged after all – if there was enough story to justify all 13 episodes. We haven’t gotten a season of these yet that hasn’t felt like it needed to have its count trimmed by about 3 or 4. My hope here is that the drag that tended to drag down the back half of shows like Daredevil and Luke Cage just happened to show up at the beginning of Iron Fist, in which case we might have a shot at a really good closing set of episodes. By the closing hour of this run, the series hits you with its most exciting installment, for example, perhaps foretelling where the final half is headed. Or, the entire enterprise could be a bust; given what we’ve seen so far, that could be equally probable, the amount of narrative inertia in this first stretch is fairly pronounced.
I just can’t shake the feeling that the promise showcased within the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones has been diminished some by these follow up series, which thus far, Iron Fist is the least satisfying.