TV: Iron Fist (Season 1)

When it comes to entertainment, I tend to finish what I start. It’s not often this completism feels like a burden, but Iron Fist (Netflix) really put me to the test. This final build-up series to The Defenders is slow, overlong, boring, miscast, and inept.

Iron Fist tells the story, such as it is, of Danny Rand (Finn Jones), who vanished during a plane crash over the Himalayas as a child. The son of a billionaire, Danny was the primary heir to the massive Rand Corporation. Fifteen years after his disappearance, he turns up in New York City, miraculously alive—much to to the consternation of his childhood friend Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) and her brother Ward (Tom Pelphrey). Joy and Ward now run the Rand Corporation, but there’s a hidden figure guiding their hand: their father Harold (David Wenham), who supposedly died years ago but is secretly alive and scheming, with the reluctant help of Ward. Danny’s return is met with initial disbelief from the Meachums, but eventually becomes a problem for their corporate politics.

But what about Danny’s mysterious disappearance? Turns out he survived the plane crash and was rescued by monks from the magical nation of Kunlun, a place only accessible from Earth once every fifteen years. Raised by the monks, Danny became a kung fu master, and eventually won the the title of “Iron Fist,” his job to guard the pass to Kunlun and destroy the evil forces of The Hand. So why did he abandon his post and return to New York?

Alas, the show doesn’t really know, and can’t make us care. It’s so trendy to bash on Iron Fist these days I almost feel guilty piling on, but the show really is a catastrophe. Among its many flaws are three that, taken alone, might have been debilitating, but together are fatal: the source material, the writing, and the star.

It’s possible Iron Fist was doomed to fail by the property itself. Marvel’s tendency to reimagine and reboot its heroes in the comics hasn’t extended to its Netflix TV properties, which means this show was shackled from the start to problematic, uninspired source material: an unfortunate “white savior” narrative for its Tarzanesque origin story, and a main character who is basically the Richie Rich of superhero alter egos. The latter problem is more prominent, perhaps because so many of the characters here are wealthy and we now live in a world where greedy, cruel oligarchs are basically dismantling civilization for personal profit. The Rand Corporation, where far too much of the story unfolds, requires us to care about the whims and desires of people who have experienced little to no suffering. The fraught dilemmas they find themselves in inspire no sympathy.

Still, it’s the job of the writers to spin this material, to find and enhance its strengths. They fail almost completely. For the first couple of episodes, Danny (on the surface) and the show (underneath) whine stridently about why we should care about Danny Rand or the Iron Fist, without presenting a convincing case. Almost immediately, the plot spins its wheels in the mud, and spends thirteen interminable episodes trying to find traction. Danny’s return to civilization, his attempts to reintegrate into the Rand Corporation, his mission to destroy the Hand, his tragic past—every single thread falls flat. So does the obvious villainy of Harold Meachum and the corporate angling of Joy and Ward. The Hand, represented respectably by Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao, is mostly an offscreen threat, its motives vague, a simplistic boogeyman. But the writing flaws are more than structural. Iron Fist has dialogue so unconvincing that it visibly sets the actors apart based on ability. When Claire Temple wades into this mess, Rosario Dawson feels like a heavyweight boxer beating the living shit out of lousy scripts.

Which is in stark contrast to Finn Jones. There may be an actor capable of bringing charm, intensity, and gravitas to the poorly conceived and written Danny Rand, but Finn Jones is not that actor. He is neither dramatically nor physically convincing as Iron Fist, his performance made all the more awkward by writing that renders him bratty, naive, impulsive, and dim. It’s hard to rally around a poor actor whose character is in an untenable position when you’ve got Rosario Dawson undermining his logic with convincing counterarguments. The fault’s not all on Jones’ shoulders—really, there isn’t one scene here that feels like it’s the right length, and some of the lines truly are horrible. But he does not help.

Is there anything worthwhile in Iron Fist? Precious little, outside of some performers who rise above the scripts. As kung fu instructor Colleen Wing, Jessica Henwick is a minor bright spot, continuing the Netflix/MTU trend of female costars outshining the male protagonists in their shows (see Karen Page, Misty Knight). Jessica Stroup should get noticed for her performance as Joy Meachum, bringing depth and humanity to her scenes; she elevates an extremely thin character and is far better than her material. But that’s about the extent of it.

I am slated to review The Defenders for Lightspeed later this year, so I felt obligated to watch Iron Fist out of a sense of professional duty. I’m sorry to report it truly is as bad as its reputation.

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