It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that as the final installment of the standalone Marvel Netflix series, Iron Fist has been a highly anticipated show—for better or for worse. Even before its airing, the series has been a part of the important conversation regarding racial stereotypes and representation in media, effectively illuminating issues where the industry still flounders in certain areas. Bearing all that in mind, the question remained of whether Iron Fist would be a powerful addition to the Marvel Netflix shows or whether it would similarly stumble. Based on the first half of the series, however, this last Defender appears to be dragging his feet.
One problem all of the Marvel Netflix shows face, Iron Fist included, is the length of time they’ve been given to tell their story. Thirteen episodes may sound like a showrunner’s dream, but when you’re writing a show with binge-watchers in mind you have to approach your narrative in a different way; otherwise, you run the risk of your plot stalling out at the worst possible time. None of the other Defenders’ shows have been immune to this problem, but in Iron Fist‘s case the show is slow to start from the very beginning—not what you want happening if you’re trying to hook an audience.
The narrative is simple enough: Danny Rand (Finn Jones) returns to his original stomping grounds of New York City after being presumed dead along with his parents in a plane crash. Much of the initial story is spent revolving around Danny trying to prove who he says he is to the people who matter—in this instance, it’s the Meachums, Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward (Tom Pelphrey), descendants of his father’s former business partner. Danny also finds himself tangling with local dojo owner and martial arts instructor Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who struggles with secrets of her own but who may be even more of an asset to Danny than he knows. While Danny tries to navigate a once-familiar city that now feels foreign, greater and more sinister threats begin to loom.
Iron Fist‘s problem doesn’t lie within its characters or the actors bringing them to life; Finn Jones brings a different kind of youthful energy and optimism to the character of Danny Rand, and one can certainly envision him butting heads with some of the more cynically-minded of his future teammates later on. Jessica Henwick is equal parts soulful and blunt as Colleen Wing—if there’s a character who embodies one half of the beating hearts of this show it’s definitely her. The other half would have to go to Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who not only serves as a flesh-and-blood link tying each of the Defenders together but isn’t afraid to call Danny out on his delusions of honor among thieves and mafia gangs. Honorable mention also has to go to Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), who shares an amusing connection with Danny and assists him in some of his more corporate pursuits.
Iron Fist‘s biggest issue sits with the aforementioned dragging plot, and unfortunately, the victim who suffers most from it is Danny himself. When the show doubles down on showing the same flashback three episodes in, you start to wonder if there’s anything new you could possibly learn at that juncture. Given that all the other supporting characters are driven forward in the story by their choices and underlying issues, it appears as if Danny Rand, by comparison, is the only one standing still. Only towards the end of the first half do you really get the sense that things are finally starting to ramp up.
The slogging story makes Iron Fist‘s action sequences feel like a breath of fresh air—although with everything else, these take up valuable story time getting to and merely seem to be sprinkled in to keep the show from feeling too much like a legal drama. It would be one thing if the sparse fight scenes served to build anticipation and excitement for the future, but the plodding narrative only contributes to a sense of hyper-vigilance, of waiting eagerly for any sign of a glowing fist or another demonstration of Danny’s freshly acquired skills.
If Iron Fist wasn’t the lead-in to the long-awaited Defenders crossover, it would probably be skippable (unless you’re a completionist by nature). The series does boast some strong supporting characters and striking visuals (especially in episode six, directed by RZA) but the show’s biggest flaw is that it takes way too long to get started, which may be a problem for even the most dedicated of binge-watchers. It would have been more of a thrill to see Iron Fist fully realized on Netflix if its “slow burn” had ever caught fire; sadly, what it offers is the equivalent of struggling to strike a match.