Somewhere inside Marvel’s Iron Fist there’s an interesting show struggling to get out, like the powers inside Danny Rand that could make him great, if they weren’t constantly in combat with his smugly mystical non-sequiturs and his bratty sense of entitlement. As the titular superhero, Danny (Finn Jones) is unfortunately the central focus of the Netflix show, whose first season is released Friday. But there’s more to be intrigued by on the periphery—in the boardrooms of Rand, Danny’s father’s corporation, and in the dojo where Danny consistently plagues Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a martial-arts teacher. It’s enough to make Iron Fist worth struggling through, if only to get caught up for the next chapter.
This, at least, is what Marvel is banking on. Later this year comes The Defenders, a miniseries uniting all four of the Netflix superheroes: Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Danny Rand. So Iron Fist exists not as a standalone show that has to worry about things like an engaging central character and stylistic consistency, but as a preview viewers will likely endure to be ready for the main event. Could it be better? Almost certainly. But Iron Fist fits neatly into the Netflix concept of television, where entire 13-episode seasons are prequels to the real action (this vision wobbles a bit if you’ve seen Season 2 of Daredevil), and structure is less important than grabbing back viewers’ attention with periodic spurts of violence.
The six episodes made available to critics establish Danny’s origin story as the Iron Fist, one in a long line of living weapons granted extraordinary powers to battle a nefarious organization called The Hand. In the first episode, Danny arrives back in New York City with the world-weariness and tatty clothing of a gap-year backpacker, shoeless, and wafting stale sweat and privilege. Lacking a real sense of purpose, he breaks into corporate offices, a private home, and an East Village dojo. And he tries only weakly to persuade people that he’s Danny Rand, a billionaire’s kid who went missing 15 years ago with his parents in a plane crash in the Himalayas. In the interim, Danny sleeps in the park and is befriended by a homeless man who gifts him sandwiches. “I’m guessing people think we’re pretty much alike,” Danny tells him, smiling at the joke that people think he’s poor.
Soon enough, he’s restored to wealth, thanks to Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a sharklike lawyer last seen in Jessica Jones, and a former protegé of Danny’s father. This involves battling Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), Danny’s childhood friends, and the two children of his father’s business partner. Ward and Joy are one of the show’s most intriguing elements, with his slicked-back hair and her glossy perfection emitting a distinct Donald Jr. and Ivanka vibe. Joy sympathizes with Danny, while Ward resents him. But neither seems particularly compelled to let Danny disrupt the business they’ve dedicated themselves to since their own father’s supposed death from cancer.
Iron Fist, shot with a pallor that borders on grayscale, often feels like Mr. Robot or The Matrix in its use of contrasts, juxtaposing the sterile lives of the uber-rich with the teeming underbelly that exists below the penthouse level. The obvious comparison for Danny is Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, who leaves Gotham after college to seek out injustice around the world, and is trained as a warrior in the League of Shadows. But Jones, infinitely more convincing and charismatic as the petulant Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones, can’t muster the complexity to make Danny’s mission persuasive. Although his immaturity is clearly part of the character’s development, it doesn’t jibe with Danny’s tai chi poses and incessant Eastern mansplaining. “If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions,” he tells Joy pompously in the first episode, as if he were Confucius instead of a grating kid with a scraggly beard. “You are really pushing the limits of karma,” he warns Ward later on.
And it’s here that the show really struggles with its 1970s-era source material, inspired by the success of martial-arts films at the time. Iron Fist was always going to be a tough sell for contemporary viewers, based on a billionaire orphan who’s trained as a fighter by monks on a celestial dimension, and whose superpower is literally appropriated from another culture. Marvel could have dealt with the problem by hiring an Asian American actor to play Danny Rand, as many fans campaigned for, instead of showing a white guy posture himself like Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury. (“You chatter like monkeys,” Danny tells squabbling kids in the dojo. “Your kicks and punches are like lace curtains.”) Instead, they went all in on the Orientalism, setting a fight scene in the very first episode in the middle of a Chinatown parade, in which Danny actually puts on a mask he purchases from a street vendor in order to blend in. It’s an accidental metaphor that speaks volumes about the show’s clumsy footprint.
Perhaps the show’s creator, Scott Buck, will be tempted to blame its poor critical reception on heightened cultural sensitivity and the PC police. Jones, for his part, has blamed Trump, assuming that a white billionaire is a tough sell in this current moment. But neither is right. Iron Fist’s decided unwokeness is notable, particularly when Danny lectures Colleen, who is of East Asian descent, on the right way to channel her internal force. But it’s just one of a list of flaws, with Jones’s miscasting the most obvious issue. When Danny is less sympathetic and compelling than Ward’s potentially sociopathic CEO, there’s a problem. Ditto when it’s more entertaining to watch Danny strapped down on a gurney in the psych ward than it is to see him dispatch ninjas, special powers or no.
Still, Iron Fist has its moments—Henwick’s Colleen injects energy and passion into her fight sequences in a way that makes Danny’s own rote punches look even more forced by comparison. And the show’s exploration of New York’s wealthiest denizens adds an interesting (and more realistic) layer to Marvel’s alternate portrayals of the city. Ultimately, though, the real gratification in watching the show comes from seeing where it slots into the larger picture. It’s rewarding, in an indistinct way, to encounter Hogarth, and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), and the devilish Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho). And: to anticipate that Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or the Punisher might be just around the corner. Not enough to make 13 ponderous hours feel like less of a slog, but that’s the cost of buying into a cinematic universe. Not every hero will be worth the effort.