NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for the first season of, “Iron Fist.” That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the series, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Iron Fist has quickly become one of the most debated Netflix Original shows made to date, which is no small feat. Despite a savage mauling by critics, the show was nonetheless heavily watched and enjoyed by fans, to the point where many viewers made their disagreement with much of the media coverage very public, sometimes even going as far as to accuse various critics of unchecked sensationalism, especially when the politics behind the character’s race and background come in. This has naturally led to one of the largest and most high-profile disagreements between critics and fans in the history of Netflix, and the fact that it’s happening around a Marvel Cinematic Universe show, if nothing else, does continue to speak to just how much Marvel has come to rule the entertainment world in the modern era.
That, paired with the hotbed of innate controversy to Marvel’s Iron Fist character in general, a Caucasian man who becomes a Buddhist martial artist after being taken in by a fictional sect of monks based in the Himalayas (sort of), invites the usual stigma of, “Whitewashing” and, “Cultural appropriation”, which has led to quite the interesting intellectual mess that I, admittedly, have had a hard time forming my thoughts on, until now. Eventually though, I came to remind myself that it’s not ultimately my job to assess whether Iron Fist is politically correct, according to the arbitrary definitions of various pundits and commentators. It’s my job to assess whether it’s successful, worthwhile entertainment for both general Netflix subscribers and Marvel fans.
I also must admit that I side with the fans more than many of the other critics in terms of the show’s final product as well, though not completely to the point of declaring those other critics entirely wrong, just moderately wrong. It does appear that some of the backlash and criticism from both critics and pundits (and some particular loudmouths in the online peanut gallery), is definitely fueled by a misunderstanding of Iron Fist’s character, as well as a misunderstanding of the themes behind the show, and what it’s truly supposed to be about. To be fair though, Iron Fist does end up being easily the weakest out of the four lead-in shows to crossover miniseries, The Defenders, and it does sometimes prove to be frustratingly generic and disappointingly boring. Even if it’s not perfect though, it’s still a cut above the majority of Netflix Original programming, especially since the supporting cast, particularly Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing and the returning Claire Temple, once again played by Rosario Dawson, do prove to be likable, strong and appealing heroes, with Claire playing her most active role in the MCU yet on Iron Fist.
Finn Jones’ Danny Rand however, the civilian identity of Iron Fist, does prove to be a mixed bag in his first appearance. Jones’ Danny is an aimless, confused and vaguely broken vagrant, one having gone missing in a plane crash fifteen years previous, who is looking to save himself more than the world around him, after he finally returns to New York upon being trained as a martial artist that wields the power of the chi-manipulating ‘Iron Fist’. He is definitely not a ‘great white saviour’, since the raw, unrefined initial portrayal of Danny in the MCU stubbornly and exclusively pursues his own self-centered agenda as the Iron Fist of K’un-Lu’n, one of the fictional capital cities of Heaven. Danny doesn’t even seem to know why he came back to New York initially, with this mystery being unearthed as the season goes on. It’s an interesting concept for a hero that, much like the MCU’s new take on Spider-Man, does effectively play to the character’s youth and inexperience, even if it also makes him less reliable than many of the MCU’s other do-gooders.
Even then though, it feels like there’s an attempt made to contrast Danny with the previous would-be Defenders, namely Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, by making him younger and more uncertain of himself, which has him begging for the presence of another Marvel hero at his side, much like Iron Man’s role in the upcoming movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Danny isn’t strong or inspiring enough to stand on his own two feet yet, leaving Jones shouldered with the burden of playing a hero that’s sometimes difficult to fully sympathize with or root for, and the appeal of whom is consistently carried by Henwick’s Colleen Wing in particular. This is especially frustrating when Danny’s situation seems to be one of the main catalysts for bringing the Defenders together in the first place, since the season has to bring in several elements from Marvel’s previous three Netflix shows to begin gradually tying them together, whether it’s Jeri Hogarth from Jessica Jones (whose Marvel Comics inspiration, Jeryn Hogarth does, in fairness, have a big connection to Danny Rand), the big villains from Daredevil, or the fresh experiences of Claire Temple from her most recent role on Luke Cage.
Compounding the early growing pains of Iron Fist is that its first season is largely built around a corporate scheming element that really doesn’t work that well. The Meachum family, all civilian antagonists of Danny Rand in Marvel Comics lore, all play lead parts in Iron Fist, consisting of surrogate siblings, Joy Meachum (played by Jessica Stroup), and Ward Meachum (played by Tom Pelphrey), along with believed-dead father, Harold Meachum (played by David Wenham), who is actually very much alive, and still manipulating Rand Enterprises, the company he founded alongside Danny’s late father, behind the scenes. Marvel fans would know Ward Meachum as the brother of Harold Meachum in the printed panels, but in the MCU, he’s been changed to be Harold’s son instead.
There’s also a connection made in Iron Fist between the Meachum family and a major faction of Marvel villains that have already been explored on Daredevil, which does represent some story developments, along with a particular foe, which were established way back during Daredevil’s first season in 2015, finally seeing a payoff here. This connection to these villains doesn’t manage to elevate the fact that the frequent financial squabbling and economic bellyaching ultimately proves to be a pretty poor backdrop for Iron Fist at this point though. It seems like Matt Murdock got the fun part of dealing with this mess of bad guys.
This faulty corporate storytelling element also leads to a disappointingly weak set of villains for this first season of Iron Fist too, especially when compared to the brilliant portrayals of Wilson Fisk in Daredevil, Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, and Mariah Dillard in Luke Cage. There’s a clear effort to make the Meachum family into questionably reliable allies that may be foes in disguise if it suits them, but they lack the true scale and influence to feel like a truly credible threat to Danny’s agenda, especially when they’re almost always under the thumb of that far more dangerous major villain faction I mentioned already. There is a future Iron Fist nemesis that comes into play towards the end of the season, but it feels like this character only shows up to tease future seasons, which will probably frustrate fans of Iron Fist’s stories from Marvel Comics.
Ward Meachum in particular feels like a bratty errand boy to a greater evil that just wants an excuse to squash him, especially due to the misguided decision to make him the disappointing son of Harold, rather than his brother like in Marvel Comics lore. Harold Meachum, meanwhile is at least played with plenty of charisma, with David Wenham doing everything in his power to wring every ounce of potential menace and intrigue out of this character, but even then, Harold is often left to cower at the mercy of a more interesting force, one that the MCU feels like it’s intentionally holding back so that it has material to use in The Defenders. Speaking of holding back, Joy Meachum also feels like she’s constantly a benchwarmer, clearly being saved to become a bigger issue in a second season, leaving her to languish around, wide-eyed, emotional and confused for the duration of the first season, not often accomplishing much else.
Where Iron Fist gets noticeably stronger is when it pushes the issues of Rand Enterprises and the drama of the Meachum family aside, and instead focuses on Danny trying to find his place in a world where his ‘sacred’ mission may not be as black-and-white as he initially thought. Like a hot-headed adolescent, Danny thinks that he has the world figured out after his time in K’un-Lu’n, and when this belief is challenged, forcing him to grow into a more grounded and multi-dimensional warrior of justice, that’s when Iron Fist becomes significantly more entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that the show has plenty of action scenes at key moments too, even if they sadly don’t manage to surpass the stellar action moments of the current two seasons of Daredevil either. Some of the fights are still awesome, though some do suffer from weird choreography, especially when Jessica Henwick, and even Rosario Dawson, are noticeably more comfortable with the martial arts moves than Finn Jones currently appears to be.
Iron Fist definitely feels like one of those shows that will probably improve quite a lot in a more refined second season, when it can get some of this necessary establishment and world-building out of the way, and move on to more interesting villains and conflicts. The show does feel noticeably hobbled by The Defenders at this point, since it has to be the lead-in series to that crossover effort, and thus, has to find an excuse to place and sustain Danny Rand in the world of political and criminal intrigue that has been fleshed out between Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage alike. This leaves the character in an environment where he doesn’t as easily thrive, and can’t be used to his full potential. The showrunners try to get around this issue by making this live-action incarnation of Iron Fist a hero that is very much a work-in-progress, even more so than the previous three Defenders agents to come, to the point where he doesn’t even wear his trademark yellow and green gi from Marvel Comics lore in this case. It doesn’t always work though, since it leaves the title hero overshadowed by more competent and noble allies, to the point where you have to wonder if this show should have been about Colleen Wing instead.
So, after all is said and done, is Iron Fist’s debut season worth watching if you’re a Netflix subscriber? Well, it’s not a must-watch masterwork on the level of Daredevil’s or Jessica Jones’ current seasons, and doesn’t manage to have the gripping, memorable style of Luke Cage’s debut season either, but if you enjoyed those other three MCU-set Netflix shows, then you will probably enjoy Iron Fist too, especially if you like Marvel in general. The show might become more recommendable to general Netflix users if it gets a likely superior second season, which it probably will get, considering that it got far more viewership than the majority of Netflix’s original shows (even rivaling the previous original Marvel shows on Netflix, which were also big viewership hits), but for now, this is a first season that is best served to established Marvel fans, even if they’re definitely not in short supply these days. Since the show seems to be primarily made for the Marvel faithful and not critics, I suppose it’s pretty tough to call it a true failure after its huge viewership numbers and so much audience defense.
To be blunt, Iron Fist is nowhere near as bad as many critics are claiming it is for its first season. It does however suffer from both having to lead in to a much more interesting crossover miniseries, from having to make do with a hero that genuinely isn’t allowed to reach his full potential at all yet, and finally from the very high bar set by its three Netflix predecessors in terms of quality and inspiration, let alone Marvel’s other highly successful movies, and modestly-rated, but considerably beloved ABC television shows. Iron Fist is more disappointingly forgettable in its first season than truly bad, but even if it’s not forging any bold new ground for the MCU yet, it doesn’t drag it down as any kind of black stain either, especially with great supporting heroes and interesting foreshadowed lore that do seem to promise something truly remarkable in future seasons.
- Some really standout action scenes
- Colleen Wing and Claire Temple nicely elevate the show's heroic element
- Good payoff to some teased elements from Daredevil
- Some awkwardly choreographed fight scenes
- The Meachum family and their corporate agenda aren't that interesting
- Jones' Danny isn't a perfectly likable hero yet