This review of the new Netflix series Iron Fist first ran on March 8th. We are rerunning it now that the series is available for streaming.
“I’m not good at this stuff,” Colleen Wing tells Danny Rand.
“What stuff?” he replies.
“Talking,” she says.
This isn’t a surprising admission. Colleen, like Danny, is a master martial artist, and also one of the main characters on a superhero action show, Iron Fist — the fourth of Netflix’s Marvel Comics adaptations, following Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, debuting March 17 — and that job often calls for the strong, silent type.
The fact that both Danny (Finn Jones) and Colleen (Jessica Henwick) aren’t good at talking should be no sin for the genre. The problem is that Iron Fist is virtually all talk — most of it painfully dull — and the fighting is both brief and unconvincing. It’s easily the worst of the Netflix Marvel shows — where the others tend to start off well and then run into massive pacing problems around episode 8 or 9, Iron Fist begins as if it’s already at that sag point — and an unfortunate illustration of the perils of miscasting.
Jones more or less resembles the comic book version of Danny — a child of privilege whose parents die in the Himalayas, leaving him to be raised and schooled in the martial arts of the mystical other-dimensional city of K’un -L’un, where he gains the ability to focus his chi until his fist becomes like unto a thing of iron — and he has some genre fiction street cred as a member of the larger ensemble of Game of Thrones, where he played Loras Tyrell. But whatever charisma he displayed as the Knight of the Flowers vanishes in this role, where he comes across as a befuddled surfer who wandered into the middle of a kung fu movie. Even worse, he’s not much of a martial artist, and it shows — badly.
The action scenes throughout the first six episodes are few and far between, and when they come, they’re filmed and edited in a manner where it becomes hard to tell what Danny is doing, or if he’s remotely the brilliant fighter he’s being sold as. The first few fights have all the actors, Jones in particular, moving so slowly and tentatively, it feels like they filmed the first rehearsal and moved on. I wanted to write that off as the show’s way of demonstrating that Danny is so good, he barely needs to make an effort against civilians — an approach that served Luke Cage well at times — but later fights aren’t any more impressive, even if Danny is moving slightly faster. (He’s not even involved in a long and elaborate combat sequence until late in the fourth episode.) Colleen’s fights look a bit better in comparison, but are also edited so aggressively that it’s all but impossible to tell.
It would be easy to blame the choppiness of the action on the fact that so few modern filmmakers understand how to shoot and edit this stuff anymore. (One of the reasons John Wick struck a chord with the audience was that its directors knew that less is often more in the genre, and focused on making sure we could easily follow everything Keanu Reeves was doing.) But Iron Fist comes out of the Netflix/Marvel factory, where Daredevil features some of the most exciting — and most classically composed — fight scenes in all of television, as the camera just hangs back and lets us watch the Man Without Fear kick and flip his way through one army of bad guys after another(*). The skimpiness and infrequency of the Iron Fist fight scenes suggest a production doing whatever it can to keep you from noticing that the greatest warrior ever produced by the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, who should be able to cut his way through men like in the comics page below, instead moves like a guy who can’t wait to get his green belt at the strip mall dojo.
(*) Daredevil also has the advantage of putting its hero in a dark costume and mask, which makes it easier to send in a stunt double. Charlie Cox does some of his own fighting, but Chris Brewster usually handles the more complicated superhero moves. At least through these first six episodes, Danny’s fighting unmasked in civvies, which means there’s no easy way to hide Jones.
Making a show about a glorious fighter who doesn’t fight all that often, or well, is a pretty big stumbling block, but it wouldn’t be a fatal one if the rest of Iron Fist weren’t such a drag. The fights on Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were rarely anything to write home about, but those characters and their worlds were so well drawn that the action almost felt besides the point. If Cheo Hodari Coker did a Luke Cage prequel series about the regulars at Pop’s Barber Shop, I’d want to pay it a visit (even if newly-minted Oscar winner Mahershala Ali wasn’t available to cameo as Cottonmouth).
Iron Fist has nothing remotely as interesting as that, or Jessica’s fraught bond with Trish Walker, or the camaraderie Matt Murdock has with the others at his law firm. There’s a lot of rigamarole about Danny trying to reclaim his stake in his father’s business empire, which is now being run by childhood friends Ward (Tom Pelphrey from Banshee) and Joy (Jessica Stroup from The Following) Meachum, but the show quickly loses interest in the fight for control of the company and starts giving the Meachums(*) one of Montgomery Burns’ trademark changes of heart whenever the story demands that one of them go from enemy to friend, or vice versa.
(*) Pelphrey and Stroup are among the few castmembers who aren’t Brits or Australians playing American. After hearing Jones and the others grapple with their non-regional American diction for a while, you may start imagining that Pelphrey is secretly English, too.
None of the conflicts are well-articulated, and none of the pacing choices make any sense. They do a Gaslight story in the second episode, for instance, as Danny is sent to a mental hospital where the doctors try to convince him that his time in K’un-L’un wasn’t real. That’s way too early to go there in a series where we barely know Danny or any of the other characters yet, and seems mainly an excuse to have Danny talk about K’un-L’un without the series having to build an expensive fantasy city and a CGI dragon for Danny to fight. A flashback could be coming later in the season, but the early episodes violate the “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling at almost every turn.
Really, the only recommendable parts are the appearances by characters from the other shows, like Carrie-Anne Moss as icy lawyer Jeri Hogarth and Rosario Dawson as vigilante nurse Claire Temple, who instantly outclasses everyone else onscreen when she turns up in the sixth episode. They’re more energetic performances than anything the core Iron Fist actors give, but they also benefit from having gotten better writing elsewhere that gives this show’s creative team — led by Scott Buck, who was showrunner on the later seasons of Dexter, and one of the two credited writers on the episode that gave us Dexter Morgan: Lumberjack — guidance in how best to use them.
Iron Fist is the last of the solo series Netflix and Marvel announced back in 2013, to be followed by The Defenders, where Daredevil, Jessica, Luke, and Danny team up. At the time, I wondered if everyone was getting too ambitious in agreeing to do five series before even one of them debuted: If Daredevil had been terrible, or watched by no one, what would that mean for the four shows meant to follow it? I can’t speak to Netflix’s ratings (no one who isn’t employed by the company can, and they guard that information as fiercely as Danny does the secrets of K’un-L’un), but the previous shows have all been creative successes to varying degrees, so the earth certainly hasn’t been salted for Iron Fist.
But after the non-fighting elephant in the room, the biggest problem with the new show is that no one involved seems to have any kind of take on the material. They’re just making a mostly faithful but personality-free adaptation because someone at Marvel decided four years ago that Danny (who often partners with Luke in the comics) had to be the final member of the team. If that big announcement hadn’t been made in advance, maybe Marvel execs would have waited for the best pitch on one of their many street-level characters, whether it was moving up the time table for the planned Daredevil spinoff with Jon Bernthal as the Punisher, or even recognizing the great utility work Dawson had done on the other series and taking a gamble on a full-fledged version of Night Nurse. Instead, we got a show that’s so lifeless that I have no interest in finishing out the season; if there are important story points that wind up carrying over into The Defenders, I’ll have to figure it out as I go, because life’s too short.
If Iron Fist was an otherwise boring series with a hero who kicked butt in exciting ways early and often, I’d forgive the bland expository parts in the same way I do for a lot of action shows and movies. And if Finn Jones couldn’t fight but was otherwise a riveting screen presence blessed with sparkling dialogue and a compelling character arc, I’d get past the alleged living weapon’s lame physical prowess. But when neither part works at all, why would anyone but the most devout, masochistic Marvel completist want to watch?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org