It’s hard to believe Marvel brought its cinematic universe to Netflix just two years ago.
In that relatively brief time (by Hollywood standards, at least), three of the four interconnected series set in a new hemisphere of Marvel’s live-action universe launched to critical acclaim. And with the crossover series The Defenders now looming large on the horizon, expectations are high for Iron Fist, the final solo series that will feed into the team-up event later this year.
Given how much success Marvel and Netflix have had so far, there’s no shortage of optimism for Iron Fist, but fans can’t help wondering whether Iron Fist will indeed punch up Marvel’s Netflix-verse, or simply serve as a stepping stone to the long-awaited arrival of The Defenders.
Digital Trends got an early look at the first six episodes of Iron Fist ahead of the series’ March 17 premiere on Netflix. We’ll update our review with impressions of the entire season once it premieres, but until then here’s our spoiler-free appraisal of the first half of Iron Fist’s debut in Marvel’s cinematic universe.
Big shoes to fill
It’s not easy being the follow-up act for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, but Iron Fist does an admirable job of carving out its own, unique narrative niche in Marvel’s rapidly expanding universe.
The series casts Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones as Danny Rand, the heir to a powerful corporation who suddenly returns to New York City after disappearing 15 years earlier. He returns to his former home – and family business – claiming that he was saved by mysterious Buddhist monks who not only gave him a Zen outlook on life, but also bestowed upon him the mantle of “Iron Fist,” the latest in a long line of powerful martial artists with superhuman abilities.
Danny’s story is received with as much skepticism in Marvel’s television universe as it might be in our own, and the series doesn’t shy away from celebrating the more fantastic aspects of its kung-fu inspiration as often as it pokes fun at it.
In Iron Fist, showrunner (and former Dexter and Six Feet Under writer) Scott Buck finds a good balance between the more surreal elements of the show’s mythology and the somewhat grounded take on Marvel’s superhero universe established by the show’s Netflix predecessors. The result is a relatively smooth transition into what is by far the most surreal superhuman territory the Netflix shows have covered so far. It’s a tonal shift that could’ve easily been far more more jarring – disastrously so, in fact – in the wrong hands.
When Jones was cast as the show’s lead back in February 2016, the decision was met with some controversy as many saw Iron Fist as a good opportunity for Marvel to diverge from the comics and cast an Asian actor as Danny Rand. That Jones’ casting was – and remains – an intensely polarizing subject of debate among fans. That adds some extra baggage to a role that already had high expectations, as the show’s lead will need to win over fans who – despite enjoying the previous Marvel series – find themselves on the fence about Iron Fist.
Although he does an admirable job of shouldering that burden in the show’s first six episodes, Jones still falls short of the character-defining performance that his Netflix predecessors – Daredevil star Charlie Cox, Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter, and Luke Cage star Mike Colter – all provide.
Iron Fist is by far the most surreal superhuman territory the Netflix shows have covered so far .
Where each of the aforementioned actors had a moment or two that firmly entrenched them as the living embodiments of the comic-book characters they portrayed (the hallway fight sequence in the first season of Daredevil, for example), Jones’ Danny Rand never quite finds that epic moment in the first half of the series. It’s not for lack of opportunities, either, as the story that develops over the first six episodes is never lacking in dramatic potential that goes somewhat unrealized.
Still, the problems with elevating Jones’ version of Danny Rand might not lie entirely with the actor himself.
Of all three lead characters in Marvel’s Netflix franchise, Danny Rand could very well be the most difficult to connect with for the average viewer. The first six episodes of Iron Fist paint him as a boundless optimist with a Zen perspective on life, a net worth measured in billions, and a streak of frustrating naivety to go along with his somewhat ill-defined supernatural powers. Although he’s part of Marvel’s quartet of “street-level” heroes, there is very little “street” about Danny Rand, and Jones never quite manages to bridge that disconnect between the character as he’s written and the audience’s sphere of empathy.
A fighting chance
The most disappointing element of the show, however, might be Danny Rand’s surprisingly mediocre fight sequences in the first six episodes.
Given Iron Fist’s roots in classic kung-fu cinema, it seems reasonable to expect some spectacular choreography – and possibly some intense wire-work action – when it’s time for Jones’ character to use his martial arts skills. When the action scenes do come around, though, they’re fairly forgettable, and lack the sort of creative flair and technical prowess typically associated with the genre Iron Fist pays so much homage to otherwise.
It’s in this particular element of the show that “grounding” the world of Iron Fist feels like a poor strategy, as so much of the character’s appeal comes from the colorful kung-fu world he inhabits, both in the comics and – as the series reiterates time and time again – in the live-action world.
What Iron Fist might lack in other areas, it makes up for with a great supporting cast.
Jessica Henwick delivers a standout performances in the first six episodes as Colleen Wing, a martial arts instructor who gets tangled up with Danny shortly after his homecoming. She also plays a key role in some of first half of Iron Fist’s most memorable action sequences, making us hope for a scenario that has her fighting alongside Daredevil and the rest of Marvel’s Netflix heroes down the road.
Henwick’s Colleen Wing continues the trend of great supporting characters in Marvel’s Netflix series that not only elevate the lead but also feel fully fleshed-out themselves.
Like Elden Henson’s Franklin “Foggy” Nelson in Daredevil, Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jeri Hogarth in Jessica Jones, and Simone Missick’s Misty Knight in Luke Cage, Henwick’s character is good enough to carry scenes independently, while making whatever screen time she shares with the series’ lead even better.
Iron Fist also benefits from cherry-picking some of the best supporting characters from previous series.
Wai Ching Ho takes on an expanded role as Madame Gao, for example, and extensively develops a character that spent little time in the spotlight across two seasons of Daredevil. Her role in Iron Fist is a welcome addition that not only serves this series well, but retroactively adds more depth to the part she played in Daredevil.
In her return as ice-cold attorney Jeri Hogarth, Moss also elevates both the series and greater Marvel universe with her performance, and her role in Iron Fist is a nice reminder of how significant her character’s contribution was to the success of Jessica Jones.
Good to be bad?
As far as villains go, the first season of Iron Fist is a bit of a slow burn, and there’s little that can be said of the series’ antagonists after six episodes.
Jessica Henwick delivers a standout performances in the first six episodes as Colleen Wing.
Although Danny Rand doesn’t have any trouble finding people who want to do him harm in the first half of the season, most of the antagonists he tangles with after six episodes are of the nameless henchmen variety. The series dabbles a bit in classic kung-fu cinema tropes near the end of the first half, but it never fully commits to a memorable villain (or villains) to oppose Rand.
Still, Marvel’s Netflix series have a good track record so far with villains – Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk and David Tennant’s Kilgrave chief among them – so the question of who Danny Rand will eventually test his Iron Fist against is one that could have a profound effect on the series in its second half.
Still some fight left
Up to the season’s halfway point, Iron Fist has talked the talk when it comes to blending kung-fu mysticism with the grounded tone of Marvel’s Netflix shows, but stumbled a little too often when it tried to walk that walk.
Make no mistake: There are some great ideas pushing Iron Fist forward, but after six episodes, the show has yet to establish its identity in Marvel’s live-action universe with any certainty.
The first season of Daredevil was a gritty tone-setter that established the baseline for Marvel’s Netflix shows, while Jessica Jones and Luke Cage each expanded the borders of that universe in unique ways. It remains to be seen how Iron Fist will influence the greater story being told across all four solo series, as the first six episodes tend to look inward at Danny Rand rather than explore the effect he has on the world around him.
There’s a lot to like about Iron Fist despite its flaws. But much like its lead character, the show will need to grow up quickly if it wants to live up to its potential.
Marvel’s Iron Fist will premiere March 17 on Netflix with all 13 episodes of its first season.