It all started with such promise in 2015, when Netflix dropped Marvel's first street-level TV show, Daredevil. Showrunner, Steven S. DeKnight, deftly mixed the cement that solidified the sidewalks in both the fantastic and the gritty. Murdock's inner demons and Catholic guilt anchored the show whenever it was in danger of getting too mystical. Jessica Jones had carried the weight of domestic/sexual abuse and even peppered a little gumshoe tropes to get through the soap opera elements. Iron Fist's spiritual prequel, Luke Cage embodied the African-American experience. Cage was as much a message as it was an education, and still managed to indulge it's blaxploitation roots without undermining itself. Netflix' next installment, leading up to The Defenders, stammers and starts almost from the get-go and doesn't deliver the multi-layering of it's counterparts.
Just like the Luke Cage/Powerman comics of the time tried to capture the cool funk of blaxploitation, Iron Fist was published to harness the high-kicking popularity of Kung Fu flicks. The opening of Netflix' Iron Fist series is a playful subversion: A close-up on a New York City sidewalk. Dim colored, buffed shoes and high heels clop to and fro. Then enter a pair of bare feet, clad in linen bottoms. They traverse confidently through the knee-high, smartly-dressed jungle. It introduces a devil-may-care attitude to the character before he even opens his mouth. When he does it's to introduce himself to the receptionist, before he's quickly ejected by security - Danny Rand has been dead for years. With efficient storytelling this strong, it's an embarrassing jab when the first introduction to to Danny's skills are, frankly, rubbish. The static camera and editing leave the bad taste of half-arsed choreography. It's a disappointing inauguration, that spreads through the remaining 12 episodes like a poison, rather than surging like a powerful chi.
Danny returns to find the Fortune 500 company, that's his birthright, now run by his childhood friends. While the writers find a spot between Tony Stark's arrogance, or Bruce Wayne's stoic revenge, billionaire Danny is still a little hard to like. He means well, but comes across as annoyingly naive and inadvertently ignorant. Then, when he's besieged by an over-complicated plot, poor writing and woefully staged fight scenes, it makes for the kind of experience that's plagued by disappointment of what could have been.
Unable to commit to the fun it's premise offers, makes for overwrought scenes that have their legs swept by the kind of exposition usually saved for daytime soaps. Statements are blurted so out of character that it distracts from the whole scene - one board member remarks what a disappointment Ward would be to his father, but only after staging a coup to have the the brother and sister removed from power; why would he even care? Rosario Dawson's Claire, should be a welcoming repeat character that ties the Marvel output together, but even her best efforts can't save the contradiction of a nurse whom points out the morality of killing then wears razor sharp claws in a fight . The inconsistencies don't stop there. For a self-proclaimed master of "everything" Danny gets his ass handed to him whenever it fits the story. Much like the second season of Daredevil, he has trouble in a fight just long enough to show us how unbeatable the opponent is, but doesn't match how much effort has been put in to showing us just how "super" they are.
There are moments of true promise, where after the grueling mis-steps you'll sit up, hoping that this is the moment when it all comes together. The end of the third act does tie itself narratively, but gets hampered by a supernatural tale of the man pulling the strings. There's an episode that culminates in Danny being challenged to a tournament, by enigmatic stalwart of the Marvel Knights, Madam Gao. Surely it's the set up we've been waiting for. One man fights increasingly skilled enemies; what could be more kung fu than that? Not only is it directed by RZA; self-confessed kung fu fan and the rapper/director that wrangled Russel Crowe in chop-sockey homage The Man With The Iron fists. It's a sure thing! However, the curse of Iron Fist's non-committal results in something that looks like a Shakespeare's Sister video from the 90's, rather than a knowing David Carradine tribute. Even the credit sequence has more confidence and gusto than most of the tussles on offer.
2* - Shaolin Clunk
Further Reading: MARVEL'S LUKE CAGE - REVIEW