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.