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When Marvel Studios struck a deal with Netflix a few years ago, they found an opportunity to craft material unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the series never quite reach R-rated levels, the streaming service is the outlet for bloody and scary crime-fueled noir, and stories of post-traumatic stress and urban change. In an era when the superhero genre needs to grow or die, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have all provided unique and different flavors offered for the enjoyment of fans and new audiences alike. Collectively, they have set a high bar for the fourth series in the franchise-within-a-franchise, Iron Fist... and sadly, that bar is one that the new show is unable to clear.
The series, which is put together by Dexter alum Scott Buck, has been dealt a poor hand schedule-wise, as it's the last of the Marvel/Netflix origin stories and positioned just a few months before the hotly-anticipated team-up The Defenders -- but there isn't any part of it that suggests it was ever built to try and overcome these challenges. Instead, the first half of Iron Fist's debut season suggests that it is not only far and away the slowest moving of the small screen franchise, but also armed with a fraction of the complex characters and style. Save a few elements, it's missing what has made these shows compelling and interesting.
Based on the Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Iron Fist centers on Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a young man who has lived an incredible life (at least according to what he tells us, rather than what is actually featured on the show). He is the son of insanely wealthy industrialists, but as a kid found himself the lone survivor of a plane crash in Asia. While the entire world presumed that he was dead, he instead was taken in by a pair of monks to be raised in K'un-Lun -- one of the Seven Cities of Heaven, found in another dimension. It was there that he extensively trained in martial arts and earned the title of Iron Fist, the official guardian of the city against the evil forces of The Hand (the ninjas audiences met in the second season of Daredevil) who has the ability to channel his chi energy into tremendous strength.
15 years after his disappearance, Danny finds his way back home to New York City, and while he seems to think that he can just waltz back into his old life and claim a top position at the still-running Rand Corporation, he meets some opposition in the form of Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey, Jessica Stroup), two former childhood friends of Danny's who have been running the company since the death of their father, Harold (David Wenham). So while audiences sit waiting for the powerful Iron Fist to become a vigilante and start taking on hordes of ninjas, the show instead spins its wheels for its first batch of episodes by having the titular hero prove his identity and deal with corporate politics.
The aforementioned distinct flavors introduced by Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are entirely missing in Iron Fist, as the show lacks any kind identity -- an issue compounded by an ensemble of lackluster characters. With credit to Finn Jones and the stunt team, it's fun to watch Danny fight, but those bits of action are few and far between, and the hero mostly finds himself precariously walking a tightrope between naiveté and stupidity in the context of the modern world. Really, the most engaging character introduced is Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a new friend of Danny's who runs her own dojo, but the most interesting thing she gets to do within the first six episodes is battle a total stranger in a cage match.
That being said, nothing in Iron Fist is more shockingly underwhelming than its trio of antagonists. Up until now, this has truly been the bread and butter of the Marvel/Netflix shows, with Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin, Jon Bernthal's The Punisher, David Tennant's Kilgrave, and the trio of Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth, Alfre Woodard's Mariah Dillard, and Erik LaRay Harvey's Diamondback all elevating their individual programs. So what does Iron Fist deliver? The Meachums: Ward, a pill-popping bully with serious daddy issues; Joy, a woman who randomly switches between friend and foe with the presentation of any new evidence; and Harold, who is unsurprisingly actually alive and keeping an eye on everything, but also literally locked away in an apartment and unable to leave. The Hand will surely play a bigger role in the back half of the first season, but even if that winds up being great, the first six episodes are still punctuated by a complete lack of legitimate threats.
Similar feelings of disappointment can easily be expressed about the complete lack of style in Iron Fist, particularly because what would have been the most obvious approach to the show is entirely ignored. The best version of the series would essentially be what amounts to a 13-hour Bruce Lee movie, but there is nothing distinctive about the editing or cinematography style -- with the episodes not even attempting anything on the level on the "single take" fights in the first two seasons of Daredevil. Perfectly accenting this weak spot is the fact that the show feels like it is actually allergic to K'un-Lun, as what should be production design heaven is rarely glimpsed for more than a few seconds at a time.
If we're grasping for a silver lining here, it's that Iron Fist has a whole lot of room to grow -- and we can only hope that the possible strengths of the last seven episodes in the season can ultimately insulate the show from the weaknesses of the first six. The best case scenario is that the creators' mindfulness of the binge-watch means that it's a slow ramp up to a crazy, explosive finish, and that the apparent weakness of the villains is actually a smoke screen for an eventual terrifying strength. But I can't say I have high hopes. Without a serious turnaround, it will stand as the weakest material Marvel Studios has produced to date.