Iron Fist: Season One Review
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No show exists in a vacuum. It may seem that the fairest and most objective examination of a show would be without comparing it to others, but that is simply impossible: we are constantly consuming multiple shows at a time, often in the same night, trying to decide which few of the hundreds of series will take up our precious free time.
Iron Fist is especially plagued by these comparisons, considering that it’s actually part of a television universe. Netflix’s latest Marvel hero is advertised as “the last Defender,” and so of course viewers will go in understanding its place alongside the other urban crimefighters: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. Critiques must begin with a side-by-side: while those three shows pushed the boundaries of superhero television, Iron Fist drags it down, failing to successfully revitalize even the most standard hero fare.
Before the season even released, the media set its sights on it for its hero, Danny Rand. The other three Defenders are, in order, a working-class hero, a woman overcoming sexual and mental abuse, and a bulletproof black man in times of extreme racial tension. It’s alarming, then, that the hero to round out that roster be very rich, very white, and very male. But as soon as detractors voiced their opinions, a large group of supporters rose to defend Iron Fist, using that age-old argument that quality trumps diversity.
That social media war continues to rage, but the main faults of Iron Fist are rooted far deeper than just his gender and race. No, the story of Danny Rand—the son of a billionaire businessman—is nothing new, in the worst way possible. He was only ten when the plane carrying him and his parents crashed in the Himalayas. For fifteen years, they were all presumed dead, until Danny returned, now an adult hippie walking shoeless around New York, ready to reclaim his fortune. Unfortunately, there are some obstacles: namely, the Meachums, one-time family friends of the Rands that now run their company.
As it turns out, Danny was rescued by some monks and taken to K’un Lun, a mystical heavenly city, where he studied martial arts diligently and earned the title of Iron Fist, a legendary protector equipped with a fist that can punch through walls. That origin story—presumed-dead billionaire with dead parents and new fighting skills—is reminiscent of Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, and even a little bit of Tony Stark. Unfortunately for Danny, the writers make him far less compelling than any of those three.
In fact, the show’s writers can be blamed for almost all of Iron Fist’s flaws. Not only is the origin story miscalculated, but so is almost everything else. The Meachums are particularly egregious storytelling errors. Their plots and subplots—involving siblings Ward and Joy and their resurrected father Harold—are convoluted and grossly melodramatic. Ward is an unbearable character, Harold is a garishly cartoonish villain, and Joy’s potential is squandered by her inconsistent decision-making. They were obviously set up in an attempt to repeat the success Luke Cage had with its evil relatives, Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard, but this was simply a failure. That they take up so much of the story is even worse.
The person that suffers most from the poor writing is Iron Fist himself. At no point does he feel like an intelligent, powerful hero: instead, he believes and goes along with everything that every character says to him, no matter how obviously deceitful they are. He doesn’t notice major plot points until well after the viewer has already figured them out. That’s not an example of dramatic irony—it’s an example of a show crafting a stupid character under the assumption that their audience is stupid, too. Bad assumption, guys.
To make matters worse, moments of intense emotion or character development are bogged down by hammy, over-explanatory, soapy dialogue. Screenwriting 101: not everything has to be said aloud for the viewer to understand what’s happening. There’s no point analyzing any of the characters here, because they all vocally analyze themselves and each other time and time again. Some defenders of the show—of which there are a surprising amount—argue that this kind of dialogue is also in well-received shows like The Flash and Arrow, and they aren’t entirely wrong. But those shows acknowledge and embrace their low-budget camp. Iron Fist takes itself way too seriously to feel like a fun, comic-y romp.
Not everything in the show is a misfire. Colleen Wing, Danny’s love interest and the Daughter of the Dragon in the comics, is an interesting character with some cool fight scenes and a story line somewhat independent of Danny. Still, her character would've made a much greater impact under different creative command. The same goes for Claire Temple, a mainstay in the Defenders universe. We know from her appearances in the three other shows that she’s a great character, so her overall lackluster outings here are pretty indicative of the show itself.
Iron Fist is a huge misstep in a TV universe that was thriving up to this point. Sure, Luke Cage and season two of Daredevil had some flaws. But the fourth series doesn’t just have flaws: it is a flaw. For the first time, I’m forced to temper my expectations for the upcoming Defenders series. Nothing could redeem this flailing mess of tropes as poorly executed as the stiff fight scenes and groanworthy dialogue. The only thing this Iron Fist smashed was its potential.