There’s a critical concept with the Marvel Netflix shows often referred to as “the wall”—the moment where, about two-thirds of the way through their season, they slam the brakes on the pacing and stakes and preamble for a bit, mostly before pulling it together in the finale. Iron Fist starts by hitting that wall, and has enough problems that I don’t think it’ll ever get past it.
Netflix recently made the first six episodes of Iron Fist—the final entry in its quartet of shows before the long-awaited Defenders crossover this summer—available to press, and as a whole, they’re kind of a mess—far inferior to its earlier predecessors Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. They balance a dull lead character in Finn Jones’ Danny Rand with shockingly bland fight scenes, far more boardroom business action than should ever be in a comic book show, and a mild dash of poorly-handled representation of Asian cultures.
On a more general level, these episodes just flat out boring, saddled with bad exposition, interminable pacing, and a blatant identity crisis that appears to have created a mystical martial arts action show that’s petrified to discover that it is a mystical martial arts action show. To be fair, every one of the Marvel Netflix show’s so far has had problems like these, like brief lapses in characterization or especially their myriad pacing issues. But they all had something to override those issues and ultimately make them compelling to watch: Daredevil brought gritty, beautiful, and intense action; Jessica Jones, a compelling look at female victims of abuse; Luke Cage, an important understanding of African-American culture that is rarely portrayed well in superhero media. Iron Fist brings absolutely nothing fresh to the table, but it still had the same problems anyway, combined with a bizarre yearning to focus itself on the side of Danny Rand that is the son of a billionaire businessman rather than the part where he’s a ninja-punting living weapon.
Some of these problems—only some—would be forgiven if the moments when Iron Fist remembers it’s a martial arts action show instead of a stuffy boardroom drama were any good. But sadly, Iron Fist’s action completely lacks soul, which is sort of impressive for a show about a protagonist defined by the fact that he’s one of the greatest martial artists in the Marvel universe. Neither Luke Cage or Jessica Jones had particularly elaborate or standout action, sure but they at least had the story-driven excuse of their protagonists being superpowered to the point that they didn’t really have to care about fancy fights—they were blunt, brutal forces of nature, not intricate masters of combat. There’s an entirely different expectation for a character like Iron Fist that the show fails to live up to, and even fails to compare to the sumptuous, narrative-laden symbolism of the fight scenes in Daredevil’s first season. The fact that Iron Fist can’t rival or top that season is downright criminal.
What Iron Fist does get right in its first few episodes, thankfully, is most of its female characters. Jessica Stroup’s Joy Meachum is a serviceable part of her brother and Father’s sinister plans, and appearances by Jessica Jones’ Jeryn Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Daredevil/Luke Cage/Everyone’s-Show-at-This-Point-I-Guess’s Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) are fun and engaging enough that you remember that there are much better Marvel Netflix shows out there than Iron Fist.
The clear treasure of Iron Fist so far, however, is Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing—Danny’s future partner in his mission to take out the Hand—even when the series consistently trips her up to remind us that Danny is a Very Special White Male Protagonist. Where Danny is portrayed as equal parts naive, idiotic, and unsure of just who he should be at any point in time (other than infuriatingly annoying, it seems), Colleen is assured and focused, and faces relatable problems that are far more intriguing to watch her deal with than anything Danny ever does. Six episodes in, I’m already longing for Colleen to be the actual hero of Iron Fist, and if she and Simone Missick never get to team up in their own spinoff Daughters of the Dragon series after this, then that might just be Iron Fist’s greatest crime of all.
But Colleen’s brilliance also shines a light on the show’s troubling portrayal of Asian-inspired cultures through the lens of its white protagonist. For all the talk going in that the show would deal with the uncomfortable aspects of appropriation rooted in Danny Rand’s origin stories, there is literally a scene in the third episode where Danny—who really does feel like he’s that one annoying friend of yours who took a gap year before university, went backpacking in the far east, did some tai chi, and suddenly thought that they totally got the culture, man—explains how much better he is at martial arts than Colleen, in an attempt to show how much she needs his protection, in the middle of the fucking martial arts dojo that she owns. It’s not the only time the show goes out of the way to tell us how much better Danny purportedly is meant to be at many aspects of Asian culture (not just martial arts, but elements of spiritualism and even mastery of language come up across multiple episodes) than the many Asian people he is surrounded by, either, and if it weren’t so mind-bogglingly offensive in its execution it’d almost be hilarious.
Who knows, maybe in some miraculous turn of events in the way its Iron Fist could find a second wind—or a first wind, really—as it progresses, a turnaround of its predecessors sagging in their latter halves. But if its clunky, turgid opening volley of episodes is any indication, the show will have to break through a lengthy number of issues to do so. It’s a task that even the power of the Iron Fist will struggle with.
Iron Fist debuts on Netflix March 17.