‘Iron Fist’ Review: Like ‘Batman Begins,’ If Bruce Wayne Was an Idiot Man-Child
There’s no way around the fact that Marvel’s Netflix Iron Fist had the highest hill to climb of the four Defenders. Daredevil was easy enough to sell as a traditional superhero, while Jessica Jones built off that credibility to bring us a different type of hero, whose cynical tone and stellar cast created something wholly unique. Luke Cage got to pivot into a world we’d already explored, adding flavors of hip-hop and Blaxploitation to timely and vital issues. Iron Fist has always been the outlier here, and it’s no surprise that reports claimed Marvel was uncertain how to angle its interpretation, especially in light of the racial controversy swirling around Finn Jones’ casting as Danny Rand.
As a lead-in to The Defenders, the hope was that Iron Fist could lean into its more mystical elements, but the end result feels much closer to a spaced-out retelling of Batman Begins, minus the fact that Jones’ Danny Rand lacks any of the self-awareness or purpose of Bruce Wayne, and, frankly, comes across as a petulant brat most of the time. Without Alfred to ground him, and no urgent mission to focus the early episodes, we wind up with three shows worth of Danny wandering into people’s personal space, presumptuously expecting their embrace, and attempting to reclaim a corporate majority shareholder position that – by his own admission! – he has no idea what to do with.
Danny Rand is Marvel’s Dumb, Idiot Man-Child Batman.
It’s not Finn Jones’ fault, and I don’t relish the thought of a young actor being made the poster child for a racially-charged comic’s history, but the whole of Iron Fist feels notably underwritten when viewed through that lens. Danny is painted as a child trapped by the surreal trauma of his past. Think Big without Tom Hanks’ charisma, so that Danny registers more immature than enlightened, more arrogant than experienced (never thought I’d use the phrase “chi-splaining”). His occasional flashes of charm never balance the disruption he brings everyone around him.
Along for this rampage through common sense are Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey as Danny’s childhood companions Joy and Ward Meachum, plus Jones’ fellow Game of Thrones alum Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, a karate teacher that winds up becoming Danny’s reluctant partner. The former two seem equally under-thought, vacillating between pseudo-antagonists and sympathetic sounding boards. Dancing around all of this is David Wenham’s shadowy patriarch Harold Meachum, who is given nothing to do but ponder Danny’s return from afar, remind a beleaguered Ward to do his bidding and – I kid you not – cultivate a borderline dominant/submissive relationship with his personal assistant.
Henwick’s Colleen Wing feels like the most fully-realized character, as someone who matches Danny’s world for both wits and fists. Like Danny, Colleen only truly comes alive in the middle of a fight, but unlike our immortal Iron Fist, she displays an interior life beyond the ring. It’s a rich supporting performance, albeit one Iron Fist initially overlooks to spend three episodes on Danny convincing others he’s actually who he claims.
You may have noticed that I’ve spent five paragraphs without much mention of the actual fights, which could have redeemed a lot of Iron Fist’s flaws. It won’t take a student of martial-arts cinema to recognize that most of the show’s fight choreography as a rehash of Marvel’s Daredevil with a little more kung fu style. There was a real opportunity here to up the visual ante before Defenders, and while occasional moments keep things lively, like the requisite hallway fight turning into a split-screen elevator battle, truly dynamic sequences are few and far between.
The honest truth is that Iron Fist needed to be so much weirder than it actually is, akin to how Doctor Strange essentially re-told the Iron Man story with enough out-there visuals and eccentric supporting characters to paper over any shortcomings. Iron Fist starts to show signs of life in its sixth episode (a very video game-like, RZA-directed outing), but the slog in getting there is too great an ask, especially when the vast majority of the principal characters feel so spectacularly underdeveloped.
This is an origin story of a man stranded in the mystical world, mastering martial arts from characters with names like “Lei-Kung the Thunderer,” and fighting an actual freaking dragon named “Shou-Lao the Undying.” Why are we stuck with Batman Begins by way of Suits?
AND ANOTHER THING …
- If it wasn’t already apparent, don’t expect anything terribly memorable from the opening credits, visually or musically.
- I am deeply amused by a character who suddenly rationalizes M+Ms as the solution to her problem, and apparently keeps bags of them behind her desk for just such an occasion.
- You will never unsee Fred Armisen as Tom Pelphrey as Ward Meachum.
- Thankfully, Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple and Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jeri Hogarth both appear in the early episodes.
- The degree to which Danny fails to comprehend how he comes across as crazy or condescending is staggering. He almost literally pulls the “K’un L’un ... You’ve probably never heard of it” at one point.
- Tom Pelphrey is terrible at swallowing on-camera. I offer no context for this remark.
All 13 episodes of Marvel’s Iron Fist will debut for streaming on Netflix on Friday, March 17 at 12AM PST / 3AM EST.