Fifteen years ago a plane crashed in the Himalayas. The only survivor, 10-year-old Danny Rand, was found by monks from the otherworldly stronghold of K'un-lun. Trained in their ways of combat, meditation and mysticism, Rand became the Iron Fist, a warrior beyond compare, destined to protect K'un-lun from their mortal enemies, the Hand. Now he has chosen to return home to New York City, to find his father's company is making money from unethical sources. With the city threatened by the Hand, Rand steps up to save the world and his parents' legacy.
Iron Fist is the fourth collaboration between Netflix and Marvel, following on from Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It's also the final set-up series before the whole gang gets together for an event mini-series, The Defenders, which will air later this year.
Netflix have batted high so far in this collaboration: the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones were excellent, the second season of Daredevil was less accomplished but still watchable and the first season of Luke Cage opened well but fell apart later on as it ran out of plot and interesting characters long before the season ended, but those early episodes were still great. All of these shows have been stylish and well-written with excellent action sequences, but have struggled at times with structure and pacing. Iron Fist is, contrary to some early reviews, not the weakest Netflix/Marvel collaboration (I'd say that goes, by a whisker, to Luke Cage, despite the stronger main character) but it is the most maddeningly inconsistent.
An early weakness is that the show tries to get us interested in the doings of Rand Enterprises and then doesn't do that (exactly what the company does and makes is left unclear as well). Danny Rand (Finn Jones from Game of Thrones) returns home to find everyone thinks he is dead and struggles to convince everyone he is who he says he is, particularly the people now in charge of the company, Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and his sister Joy (Jessica Stroup). Aided by superstar lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss, returning from Jessica Jones), Danny eventually gets recognised and his foot back in the door. But he then promptly loses interest in the company for most of the rest of the series and the corporate dealings of the firm are deeply dull, not helped by Tom Pelphrey's uninspired performance in a mediocre role. More interesting is David Wenham - Faramir from the Lord of the Rings movies - as the Meachum patriarch, Harold, who has faked his own death and is overseeing things secretly from afar for initially baffling reasons. Wenham is charismatic, unpredictable and ambiguous, but goes from dominating episodes to barely showing up. In addition, having a second character who everyone thought was dead feels redundant and repetitive.
The corporate storyline never flies, but far more successful is the character arc of Colleen Wing, played with energetic gusto and charisma by Jessica Henwick (late of both Star Wars and Game of Thrones). Colleen is a martial arts instructor who faces having to close down her dojo due to financial problems before getting caught up in Rand's story. Colleen's storyline is very well-handled to the point where you start wishing she was the protagonist rather than Danny. Finn Jones does okay with the material he is given, but his character is less interesting, more rooted in standard tropes and the show constantly finds excuses why he can't use his superpower, which gets dull quickly.
I was bracing myself for the later confrontations with the Hand, since the Hand were absolutely terrible on Daredevil. Fortunately, the traditional Hand we are familiar with are soon out of the action and a different faction within the organisation emerges, one which contains actual characters with something approaching credible motivations. At first this nicely makes the organisation more morally murky and interesting, but eventually they return to base villainy.
Rosario Dawson also returns as Claire Temple from the other Netflix shows and she gets a lot more to do here, having been trained by Colleen in the ways of combat, so she actually gets mixed up in the action and feels more like a character contributing to the narrative than a random and incongruous cameo (as she was on Jessica Jones). The only thing that is a bit weird is that Claire does mention several times that she's been hanging around with other superheroes but Danny and Colleen are completely uninterested and no-one suggests recruiting these other guys to help them out against the Hand.
Iron Fist avoids the problem of Luke Cage and Daredevil S2, which both started off strongly and then fell of a cliff in quality and never recovered, by actually starting off a lot weaker and getting better as it goes along (particularly Colleen's story, which takes an unexpected turn which adds greater depth to the character). But there are problems which are constant: the show's moral message is murky and bizarre (at one point saying it's bad to kill but okay if someone else kills the person instead, as it gets you off the hook), dialogue can be thunderously clunky and the Hand go from being an omnipotent villain who is everywhere to being easily-defeatable goons. Finn Jones also gives the most pedestrian performance of the four Netflix leads (five counting the upcoming Punisher series).
Most damaging for an action show about a martial arts character, the action scenes are subpar. Some scenes use unconvincing stunt doubles and some - shockingly - resort to CGI blurring the stunt doubles' faces when they are too obviously not the right person. Given the absolutely brilliant action scenes achieved in Daredevil (that hallway fight in Season 1 remains the highwater mark for physical combat scenes in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date), Iron Fist's are startlingly bad, not helped by Jones's rather obvious lack of martial arts skill. Henwick's scenes are far more brutal and convincing and her two cage match fights are the most intense and believable action scenes in the series.
In the final analysis, Iron Fist (***) is nowhere near as bad as the early reviews make out but is still far from ideal. It's mostly okay, but never rises above the watchable. It doesn't outstay its welcome to the extent that Luke Cage and Daredevil's second year did, mainly because it knows when to introduce new elements and characters to explore to keep the story wheel turning more effectively. But it does suffer from some weak opening episodes, an uninteresting corporate subplot and some very underwhelming action scenes. It's also hard to shake off the feeling that the series is about the wrong character. Hopefully Netflix considers adding a Colleen Wing (either solo or teamed up with her traditional comics sparring partner, Misty Knight from Luke Cage) show to the roster at some point in the future.