First, let’s answer a couple of questions. Is Iron Fist as bad as many critics say? No, it isn’t. Are the critics correct about the problems? Yes, but those problems don’t affect the overall quality of the show nearly as much as many critics contend.
Below is my spoiler-free review. I will talk in generalities about the differences between the comic book and the show, with no details beyond what is available in trailers and on IMDb.com.
Also, I won’t address the controversy over cultural appropriation. Yes, the comic book the series is based on is one of the most glaring examples of the “white savior” trope, with a New York kid becoming the best warrior in an Asian city full of warrior monks literally born to the task, and takes on their ultimate weapon as his own. The series is faithful to the comic in that regard, and in retrospect it sucks. But it is what it is.
Iron Fist is seemingly a typical origin story like the the first season of Daredevil or Luke Cage. But it isn’t structured like either of those or like Jessica Jones. The pacing is glacially slow at first, and Iron Fist eschews the “current action followed by slower flashback” storytelling structure those other Netflix series use.
That different structure is in large part responsible for why Iron Fist develops slowly. But it also means that the series picks up pace and quality as the episodes go on. It doesn’t succumb to the problem common to every other Marvel Netflix series — the story fatigue that sets in around episodes seven, eight or nine.
One other way Iron Fist differs from the other Netflix series is that it has much less interesting villains. It is a truism that a good villain makes a good hero. Charlie Cox’s Daredevil was almost overshadowed by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, and David Tennant was absolutely chilling as Kilgrave. Even Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth was a worthy adversary for Luke Cage. In comparison, the plethora of antagonists in Iron Fist don’t add up to one Wilson Fisk. None of them — even the leaders of the Hand — have the menace of Fisk or Kilgrave.
Iron fist, leaden writing
I say antagonists and not villains because for the most part, not one of them is pure monstrous like Fisk or Kilgrave. In fact, all of Iron Fist is colored by the Eastern concept of duality, the yin and yang in all of us. In the hands of better writers, the series could have been a very interesting comment on the nature of evil in contrast to the usual comic book black & white morality.
That writing is one of the great problems with Iron Fist. The story is very interesting — and the plot and dialogue to tell that story is mediocre most times, with occasional flashes of inspiration and much more common plunges into cliche and confusion.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the writing of Danny Rand and his story. He is written as the supremely confident most elite warrior of a heavenly city full of warrior monks at one moment, and a mewling emo reluctant hero the next. He is a master martial artist that actually toys with other master-level fighters on one hand, and gets his ass handed to him by hired thugs (not even Hand ninjas) on another. Again, in the hands of better writers, his emotional turmoil could be used as an explanation for this irregular character performance. But in this case it just looks sloppy.
Speaking of sloppy, in the first handful of episodes, Finn Jones looks like he is a kung fu master fighting on quaaludes. It isn’t that he looks like he doesn’t know his stuff — the fight choreographers and his stunt double do a creditable job with the kung fu. It’s like he is fighting in molasses. I think, based on some dialogue, that they are trying to show that Danny is so advanced that he doesn’t need to put any effort at all into defeating his opponents. But even still, all techniques need snap, pop and crisp execution. There is a huge difference between showing a total lack of wasted movement (think Bruce Lee) and a lack of any energy whatsoever. Thankfully, that changes as the stakes increase for Danny in later episodes.
Since I brought up Finn Jones, he is fine as Danny Rand. No, he isn’t as engaging as Charlie Cox or Mike Colter, or as marvelous a revelation as Krysten Ritter (come on, we all thought of her as strictly a comic actor). But he does a decent job with the mediocre writing he is given.
One of the things that pulls the writing into the “just OK” level is the character motivation. The reason why Danny leaves Kun Lun after achieving the status of The Iron Fist has changed from the comic book, and that change turns Danny from a Bruce Wayne-level tortured soul into a confused young man. We can identify with Danny’s motivation from the comic book and feel less bad about the fact he abandoned his adopted homeland, but he looks like a whiny kid who was a complete douchebag to his Kun Lun family in the series.
Where Iron Fist really shines is in the interaction of the secondary characters, particularly Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing and the always awesome Rosario Dawson, again playing the glue in the Marvel Netflix universe, the nurse Claire Temple. In fact, Danny seems to be a traveller swept along by the actions of the other players in his own story. Another plotting problem.
There are some Easter Eggs as usual in the series for both Marvel comics fans and fans of the Netflix series. And other characters in the Netflix family get called out by name, something unusual up to this point.
I can recommend that you watch Iron Fist. But like many anime shows, you need to stick with it past the first half-dozen episodes. And temper your expectations — this isn’t season 1 of Daredevil or even season 2. But it is overall enjoyable, and gets more so as the episode count climbs.
Errata: Keep an eye out for what I think is the same location used for Cottonmouth’s club from Luke Cage … and the Chinese restaurant turned into the HQ from last year’s Ghostbusters movie. And one of the most random murder weapons and scenes I’ve ever watched.
Iron Fist (Netflix, Marvel; TV-MA) 3.5 out of 5 stars.