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Marvel’s Iron Fist

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Following in the footsteps of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage (and presaging team-up series, The Defenders), the latest Marvel/Netflix series has a lot to live up to – and a lot of now-apparent baggage to shed. Sadly, Iron Fist does neither.

Which is not to say it’s a terrible time, but Iron Fist exhibits a lack of ambition and an inability to effectively define its own identity. It feels by the numbers in a way its predecessors, even when they were working to formula, didn’t. If Daredevil is the opener of the way, and Jessica Jones filtered that narrative model through the lens of a woman’s experience, while Luke Cage steeped it in African American culture and history, then this series does… well, nothing too interesting.

Which may in fact be the best argument for re-imagining Danny Rand as an Asian character, instead of the comics-canonical white guy trained in the mystic East. There’s engaging work to be done in viewing the hoary tropes of the ’70s born martial arts movie through the eyes of, say, a savvy second- or third- generation Asian American.

Instead we get Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) as Rand, long thought dead after being lost in a plane crash along with his parents in the Himalayas, returning to New York City 15 years after the fact. Where’s he been in the interim? Why, learning martial arts in the magical mountain retreat of K’un L’un – hence why he’s now presenting as a shoeless hippie wanderer, a look that doesn’t endear him to the current executives of his father’s former company when he fronts up and informs them that he’d like his billions back, please.

Perhaps the weirdest choice made in Iron Fist is to spend so much time focusing on the machinations and maneuvering involved in Danny wresting back control of his company from his former childhood friends, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) Meachum, who are acting as catspaws for their father, Harold (David Wenham, having fun), Rand Senior’s former business partner , who is currently pretending to be dead for nebulous reasons.  If nothing else, Batman Begins handled this entire plot much more quickly and adroitly.

Still we do get some martial arts action, largely from Danny’s reluctant ally, dojo-owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who gets involved in illegal cage fighting in order to pay the bills. And Danny gets some moments to shine, too – his skirmish against a squad of hatchet-wielding Chinese toughs ticks the boxes nicely. But it’s all a bit underwhelming, lacking the audacity and brutality of Daredevil‘s fight choreography, and the casual superhuman power of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. And, forgive us, but isn’t Iron Fist’s whole schtick supposed to be spectacular martial arts?

If anything is a dealbreaker, it’s the series’ failure to fulfill the inherent promise of its premise. We should be seeing some Yuen Woo-ping style wire-fu, some scenery shattering displays of mystic kung-fu power (which we do from time to time, to be fair, but it’s underwhelming), something that takes us above the street-level beat-ups we’ve seen so far and bridges the gap between Daredevil and, say, Doctor Strange. It’s all there in the premise.

But it’s not there in the show.

So far, at least. Netflix put out the first six episodes for review purposes, and it’s possible that Iron Fist picks up significantly in the back half, but it wants to ramp up to an extraordinary degree to make up for its plodding opening act. If there’s one thing Netflix needs to learn – and this goes beyond their Marvel properties to encompass pretty much all their original series – it’s that length is not its own virtue. We shouldn’t have to trudge through hours of makework storytelling to get to the climax. It is, at base, bad writing beholden to a pointless production mandate.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Iron Fist is for completists only. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a significant step down in quality.