Iron Fist is later to the Marvel Netflix party than originally intended. He was supposed to arrive last year, kicking and streaming, on the gumshoe-heels of Jessica Jones. But his future bromancer Luke Cage so impressed everyone, the kung-fu master got shunted to the back of the queue. Which, in retrospect, feels just right.
Though the Defenders strand of the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t really permitted to cross over with its big-screen equivalent, it does help to have ushered Doctor Strange through the door, along with all his Eastern-mystical baggage, before Danny Rand. Especially as Rand arrives in the most grounded and gritty corner of the MCU, talking about a dragon named Shou-Lao the Undying and busting open thick, metal doors with a chi-infused fist that glows bright gold.
Taken out of the Defenders context it feels much more superhero business as usual.
Yet, for all the bare-pated monks and mumbo-jumbo, Iron Fist isn’t merely Stephen Strange doing martial arts instead of magic. There’s a fair bit of Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Star-Lord in there, too. Both heroes are snatched from Planet Earth at a young age, leaving them in a state of arrested development. Neither can let go of their childhood. On his return, 15 years later, we even find Danny (Jones, with a wild blond frizz and hipster beard) sporting his own equivalent of Peter Quill’s Walkman and mixtape: a first-generation iPod, playing turn-of-the-century hip-hop like OutKast’s So Fresh, So Clean.
Compared with the less ostentatious power-sets and moody, conflicted heroism of Daredevil, Jessica and Luke, Iron Fist is a fresh presence. Here’s a Defender-to-be who’s actually keen to step up. He is, he says, “a living weapon”, purpose-built to fight crime; it’s his destiny.
But taken out of the Defenders context it feels much more superhero business as usual. Didn’t we see this ‘callow outsider returns to his wealthy life and secretly fights crime’ business in Batman Begins? Or even a variant thereof in Iron Man? Once he has the funds to impulse-buy an Aston Martin, Iron Fist becomes less compelling: another rich orphan with a traumatic past and vigilante tendencies. “Darkness/no parents/super rich,” as Lego Batman once sang. Showrunner Scott Buck (Dexter, Six Feet Under) is a steady pair of hands, but there’s no sense of connection to his subject. Luke Cage had its problems, but Cheo Hodari Coker’s passion rang out, giving it a robust and unique identity. The same goes for Melissa Rosenberg and Jessica Jones, which felt like a smart, punchy feminist anthem. In Iron Fist, it’s not until the sixth episode that you really feel the pulp martial-arts-movie-riffing origins, and that’s thanks to its director, RZA. He finally gives the show a proper sense of flair, shamelessly revelling in the genre’s campier elements through a fun, three-act combat-challenge structure. It’s enough to make you wish they made him the showrunner.
Still, you can’t fault the casting. Jessica Henwick graduates from Game Of Thrones Sand snake to Colleen Wing, a socially awkward dojo-owner who becomes Danny’s kinda-sidekick, maybe-girlfriend. Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey, meanwhile, are Joy and Ward Meachum, his childhood muckers who now run the Rand business. Operating in the shadow of their reclusive father Harold (David Wenham), they deftly handle characters more complex and interesting than straight rich-git antagonists.
And then there’s Henwick’s fellow Thrones alumnus, Finn Jones, who gets to show a depth the petulant Ser Loras Tyrell never allowed. At times, it feels like watching Tom Hanks in Big; at others, when he’s lazily despatching goons, Keanu Reeves as Neo. Though Danny has dark places to go — he is, in effect, a victim of sustained physical abuse — his charm and light touch help lift the show out of its drabber stretches (boy, do these Marvel Netflix shows know how to stretch). In fact, when the Defenders finally arrive, he should provide some zesty relief from the dourness of his fellow street-based crime-fighters. Iron Fist works some fantastical flavour into the MCU’s down-to-earth Defenders nook, but it needs more proper kung-fu flair than showrunner Buck allows.