The whole “eccentric billionaire disappears for a few years to train in the martial arts and fight criminals upon his return” motif gets turned on its head (slightly) in the first episode of Netflix and Marvel’s latest joint venture. But is Iron Fist just another retread of the Bruce Wayne/Oliver Queen mythos we’ve seen before? Some spoilers ahead.
The first episode of Iron Fist introduces the world to our hero Danny Rand (played by the former Loras Tyrell, Finn Jones), the son of a deceased billionaire who has been missing for 15 years and was presumed dead by the public at large. In our opening scene, the raggedly dressed and shoeless Rand walks into the building of the corporation his father built and asks to meet with his dad’s old business partner, Harold Meachum (an almost unrecognizable David Wenham; Faramir from Lord of the Rings). Breaking from the conceit raised in familiar origin stories portrayed in series like Arrow or any of the Batman movies, his shabby dress and outlandish claim to be a child long thought dead gets him thrown out of the building by security. It turns out looking like a hobo and claiming to be the missing don of a deceased billionaire doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in the people one interacts with.
This bit of realism is actually something I hope the series addresses more–the unfair judgement of an individual based on their appearance. Much of this introductory episode focuses on people being reticent to talk to or believe Danny’s claims because of the fact that he looks like (and essentially is at this point in the story) a homeless man, and it’s potentially the most interesting part of the episode. It’s the closest we get to the social commentary that helped set Jessica Jones and Luke Cage apart from other action shows, and hopefully something that could be a more central charm of Iron Fist. We see Danny struggle to be taken seriously because of his perceived station, see him live in the park and on the streets and see him only receive food for the night from a kind transient gentleman named Big Al (who I’ll discuss more later). Sure he somehow manages to ditch the backpack containing all of his belongings at will (including an iPod loaded with early 00’s hip hop bangers that is always charged) only to always find it, but his life on the streets gives the Rand character an interesting wrinkle.
It’s also one of the only things that makes Danny likeable to the audience. This is actually a problem with all but one of the named characters in this episode, as–barring Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing–none of them are people we can root for. The Meacham family is comprised entirely of little shits (even if they’re trying to plant the seeds of Joy being an okay person outside of her business persona), with Ward particularly being shown to have been an insufferable douchebag even as a child. It’s almost cartoonish how much his scumbag tendencies are played up. Then there’s Danny who, despite his often sunny disposition, is prone to childish fits and outbursts whenever he’s even slightly provoked. I know that the last time he was in a major western city (or a non mystical society for that matter) was when he was a coddled 10-year old boy of privilege, but martial arts are largely grounded in focus and meditation. “Rage is the path to the dark side” and all that. This also surfaces as subtle micro-aggressions as well, most notably when he bemoans to Big Al that he thinks the outside world thinks they are similar. Al takes it as a sign that they are both unique, calling the pair “special creatures,” whereas Danny means to separate himself from this man who is on the street due to some combination of family issues (he mentions a sister he doesn’t get along with) and drug addiction (before the end of the episode we see him die from an overdose of what appears to be the same intravenous drug the Asian cartel had been manufacturing throughout the Daredevil series). I would’ve assumed that his time spent among the uber-disciplined monks of Kun Lun might grant him some sense of community with his fellow man, particularly given that he is described as a Buddhist monk in some promotional materials.
Moving on from the character issues, the series’ visuals maintain the fairly high bar set by its preceding series (Jessica Jones’ cinematography and art direction were particularly great)–for the most part, at least. The combat scenes never lose the audience or the subjects, the scenes of Danny in the park remain fairly serene and emblematic of New York in Spring and the sequences in the office buildings are…fine, really. Not much to write home about there. The issue I have is with the flashback sequences, which are both questionably shot and questionably acted. There’s also a really questionable sequence involving a CGI hawk that does nothing as either a visual metaphor or an actual plot development, at least at this point in the series. That’s all without touching the strange anime-style speed lines that appear whenever Danny starts to focus his Chi.
Like its non-Daredevil contemporaries, the show is slow to get into any superheroing, as, short of his acrobatic and combat skill, we don’t see Danny do anything too super in this episode. Similarly the plot doesn’t really develop past the initial world-building phase, but that’s not too dramatic for a pilot. In the first episodes of the three other Marvel/Netflix series we’re introduced to our villain, with only Luke Cage subverting that trope by featuring a secondary antagonist for its latter half. As someone who can’t help but read casting reports, I know that there’s a non-corporate villain waiting in the wings so I anticipate it following Cage’s lead; fitting as the two characters are close friends in the comics.
Still, there’s intrigue in this episode. It could certainly be better developed and the writers could have made more of an effort to make more than one of these characters likeable, but it’s not a bad first episode. I’ve definitely seen some series that started worse only to get great (I know it’s not a popular opinion, but that first season of Mad Men was almost unwatchable), so I think the next few episodes will be the real test of how the series can be judged.