I am so, so tired. Normally, I have no problem binge-watching these Marvel Netflix shows. Jessica Jones blew by in a whirlwind, Luke Cage was fascinating, and Daredevil was consistently entertaining even when it placed its most interesting plotline on the backburner for the back half of its second season. Iron Fist, though, is an endurance test, a show with a terrible first couple of episodes that eventually does get marginally better, but still retains such omnipresent and persistent flaws that this minor improvement doesn’t justify the investment of time necessary to get there. I have 13 hours of my life to this show, and if this final stretch doesn’t justify my time with a hell of a Defenders lead in, I’m going to be more than a little salty.
Let’s start with the plot. Or, rather, let’s start with the lack of a plot. Presumed-dead billionaire heir Danny Rand (Finn Jones) shows up in New York City after a 15-year absence, introduces himself to his father’s business partner’s heirs, Joy and Ward Meachum, only to be presumed crazy and forcibly removed. Lurking in the shadows, father Harold Meachum, who faked his own death and manipulates his company through Ward, colludes with a mysterious organization to do… something. The biggest problem with this set-up is that neither Rand’s motivations nor his antagonists’ goals are readily apparent, which would be fine if only one were mysterious, but keeping both a secret from the audience gives us no one to root for or against. People maneuver around one another in board rooms and have vague intentions expressed from moment to moment, but in terms of crafting an overall story, the show is absurdly coy.
Structurally, this makes the first half of the series quite dull, which isn’t helped by some of the worst dialogue and performances I’ve seen in a television show trying to carry some dramatic heft. Characters often express their feelings by simply stating them, run-on sentences often lose cohesion, and the actors mostly don’t seem to care enough about the bullshit streaming from their mouths in order to make it any less wooden or awkward. The Meachum siblings, and their father in particular, are quite dull, only gaining dimensionality in episode seven, and by then, it’s too little too late so that their intense dynamic shifts feel forced and absurd.
But what about Rand? Surely a strong lead could save this show from itself, but Jones plays into all the worst traits of a character that is problematic from its inception. If the show was going to be committed to portraying Rand as a rich white guy who becomes the mystical kung fu savior of the world, it either needed to give the character the gravitas to take the concept seriously, or it needed to invest the character and others’ reactions to him with enough ironic self-awareness to make it a farce. Instead, Rand is precisely the entitled white savior archetype that he sounds like, perpetually naïve to the world around him while pretentiously proclaiming that his martial arts knowledge is superior to everyone even as he gets his ass handed to him time and time again.
The action scenes are neither kinetic nor fun, and more often than not, they make Rand seem more like a tool than a hero. The punches and kicks are slow, as if from practice footage that the editor didn’t even bother to speed up, but probably couldn’t anyway because they are so brief. Furthermore, Rand gets sucker-punched much more than a supposedly deific martial artist should be, and he only ever brings out his superpower–his glowing super-strong fist–at plot-critical moments under the convenient excuse that it absorbs too much power.
In fact, Iron Fist consistently feels like it’s holding back from being the show it needs to be due to budgetary constraints. Rand’s backstory as an orphan raised in a Buddhist monastery and trained by a literal dragon was apparently too cost-intensive for the show’s production costs, so instead of ever getting a full picture of Rand’s motivations or the extent of his powers, we’re instead left with teases of reveals that are almost guaranteed to not be revealed. For this character to be adapted to this medium, big and obvious changes needed to be made from the source material, but because this show seems to serve no other purpose than to set the table for The Defenders, no effort has been expended in making anything about this story work for a modern audience or for a 13-episode structure.
Now, to be fair, the show does improve over time. Though this may just be a rationalization for all the time I’ve spent with it so far. Supporting character Colleen Wing is a highlight as a dojo master who is less compelling for being a badass female fighter—though she is that—but more because her interactions with Rand highlight just how terrible of a character he is. He is constantly belittling her and overreaching in his need to prove how superior a martial artist he is, which unintentionally paints him as a condescending douche without even a hint that he might need to grow out of that attitude. It’s a nice bit of schadenfreude in a show that expects you to take it so seriously, and it unfortunately becomes marred once Wing is revealed to be the series’ romantic interest. Furthermore, the fight scenes do improve somewhat, but they never reach the level of engagement they aim for, and stylistically, they hue a bit too close to the Oldboy-inspired fight scenes from Daredevil.
In the entire 13 episode run of Iron Fist, the redeeming qualities are few and far between. Marvel Netflix’s traditional eighth-episode-unnecessary-subplot kicks off right on schedule, and it almost feels like a welcome distraction from the tedium of the primary storyline, which gives no reason to care about either Rand or his opaque quest to fight a mysterious ninja organization. That’s not a good thing, and the ending makes me more worried about The Defenders than excited for it. Even if you’re curious about what this year’s superhero team-up show will have in store, the journey Iron Fist takes you on isn’t remotely worth the preview. And even if it was, a show needs to stand on its own merits, not just on the pedigree of the cinematic universe in which it resides. Iron Fist most assuredly does not.