So far, the Marvel Studios/Netflix partnership has produced some pretty stunning results. “Daredevil” has been a huge success, even if its second season was more uneven than its brilliant first season. “Jessica Jones” is the crown jewel so far, a brilliant and gripping series anchored by a superb central performance. And “Luke Cage”, though it had its faults, wound up overall being perhaps the most aesthetically assured and innovative series Marvel has produced. The streak was bound to end sometime, and if the first episode is any judge, it looks like that streak is ending with Marvel’s Iron Fist.
Based on the Marvel Kung Fu character created in the mid-1970s by Marvel legends Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Marvel’s Iron Fist follows Danny Rand (Finn Jones), long-lost son of a powerful American family who returns to New York after having been presumed dead 15 years earlier. As the episode opens, a shoeless and bedraggled Danny heads to the Manhattan Corporate HQ of the company that bears his name, looking for answers. But as Danny Rand is supposed to have died in a plane crash over a decade ago, everyone is understandably dubious of this odd homeless wanderer who is reticent to explain himself and who possesses unbelievable martial arts prowess. As Danny struggles to convince old friends of his identity, he begins to suspect sinister goings on at the heart of Rand Enterprises, and those forces begin to align themselves against this mysterious man, whether he’s Danny Rand or not.
The premiere episode of Marvel’s Iron Fist has a ton of flaws that are going to have to correct themselves pretty quickly if it wants to equal the quality level of the other Netflix series in the franchise. It has a cast that mostly works, with some of the actors even finding moments of real interest, but the problems come in the writing and direction, neither of which are well-focused enough to deliver. The show runner for the series is Scott Buck, who has written for such diverse shows as “Six Feet Under”, “Rome”, “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Coach.” He was also show runner for three seasons of “Dexter” which were met with decidedly mixed reviews. The dialogue for this episode proves why, as the central obstacle of the entire narrative of the episode relies on Danny not simply telling people specific information that would prove without a shadow of a doubt that he at least should be listened to. There are two people in the show with whom Danny ostensibly grew up and has shared a ton of private moments with that only the three of them would know. Why he doesn’t immediately come out with a story about their youth in their first scene is beyond me, and it’s clearly because the episode needs to prolong Danny’s childhood friends being unconvinced. The dialogue otherwise is kind of clunky, barring a couple of solid scenes involving a homeless guy named Big Al who befriends Danny, and a scene with David Wenham where the actor gets to shine as the series’ clear big bad menace. Otherwise people don’t really talk to each other the way real people in this situation would. Even when Danny does reveal information to his old friends that should at least raise some questions, the show remains hugely cagey about what these people really think. There’s reasons why both or them wouldn’t WANT Danny to return, but is that the reason why they refuse to accept him, or is it that they don’t believe him? Is it both? Who knows, because the script certainly doesn’t seem to.
This flaw wouldn’t be that big a deal if the series embraced an aspect that should be a no-brainer. This is Marvel’s Kung Fu show, so the series should have the best fight scenes they can come up with on display. But the fights seen in this episode, which should be visceral and exciting so as to hook a new viewer, don’t come anywhere close to hard-hitting and thrilling ones we regularly saw in “Daredevil.”Director John Dahl, whose work I really like, simply doesn’t give the action any urgency or impact. This is where the fun of this show should be coming from, and none of the major set pieces in this episode came anywhere close to hitting the mark. The whole episode feels flabby and slow-paced.
There are some good things in the episode, though. I think it features a pretty solid cast overall. Finn Jones tries pretty hard as Danny Rand to give the character an oddball quirky Zen vibe that is supposed to suggest why everyone around him thinks he’s nuts. I think that presenting a centred, spiritual guy who has a less materialistic and consumption-based outlook and suggesting modern Americans would view that guy as a crazy loser is what the series (and Finn’s performance) is going for. But the script doesn’t meet them anywhere close to half-way, playing it too safe to make the audience see him as an eccentric. I’ve already said David Wenham does a nice, if a tad hammy, job. But he at least brings some oily charm and wry menace to the show. Jessica Henwick makes a solid first impression as Colleen Wing, and it’ll be interesting to see her grow over further episodes.
I also liked a subtle point the episode makes about homelessness and how we react to it in our society. Everyone assumes Danny is a mentally ill homeless man, and different characters react to him with varying degrees of negativity. To Joy and Ward Meachum, Danny’s childhood friends, he’s a frightening and dangerous threat. To Colleen, it’s fine to show him some financial charity, but Danny’s attempts to connect on a human level register as a nuisance to be tolerated only so far. Only a fellow homeless man tries to treat Danny as a fellow human being and listen to him. I liked that this episode seems to also be making a commentary about how we treat the homeless, even going so far as to decide how one-way we like our sympathy for them to be. We can throw some change in a cup, or give them shoes, but we don’t want to engage with them.
The first episode of Marvel’s Iron Fist seems to have blown the signature accomplishment of each of its predecessors. “Daredevil” established itself right off the back as a gritty crime epic, “Jessica Jones” as feminist noir, “Luke Cage” as a thoroughly African-American hero in the Black Lives Matter era. Marvel’s Iron Fist should be its martial arts series, full of balletic and innovative fight scenes supporting a classic story of family intrigue. If it’s going to be that, it’ll need to significantly up its game so the formulaic aspects of the storytelling matter far less. 6/10