Iron Fist Pilot Review: No Knock-out Blow

Photo Credit: Marvel

The last defender has finally arrived!  Iron Fist, the latest Marvel series featured on Netflix, does not deliver a knock-out blow in its premiere episode. Instead, viewers are treated to a competent hour of streaming television that introduces its main character Danny Rand (Game of ThronesFinn Jones) and several supporting players. Individuals who are familiar with the property may be let down because the episode lacked any real ‘iron fisting.’ Though, to be fair, the episode provides a sample of the Danny’s fighting prowess. “Snow Gives Way”, the episode’s title, accurately describes the premiere. Before viewers can feast on the main course of the kung fu mysticism that is synonymous with the Iron Fist character, we must endure this tedious appetizer.

Danny Rand follows in the path of other billionaire prodigal sons like Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen. Following a prolonged absence (and unsubstantiated death) the would-be hero returns home to face mistrust and skepticism. Unlike Bruce and Ollie, Danny does not have a trusty butler or living blood relatives who can corroborate his story. Instead Danny must endure the unrelenting rounds of doubt dished out by siblings Joy and Ward Meachum (Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey respectively). All Danny wants to have some tea with the Meachums, and perhaps reminisce about Ward being a teenage bully. Instead, Danny is constantly fending off monosyllabic body guards and the occasional assassination attempt.

Iron Fist’s first episode may not score high on the super-heroics meter, but it does a great job incorporating soap opera elements. Returns from the dead and fake deaths have become hallmarks of soaps (for good or ill) over the last few decades. Iron Fist happily embraces both tropes. Danny Rand is not the only character whose headstone needs updating. Spoilers, Harold Meachum (David Wenham) the supposedly dead co-founder of Rand Enterprises and Meachum Patriarch is also alive. While Danny is living on the streets of New York, Harold is residing in a five-star fortified bunker where he likes to micromanage his offspring. Actor Tom Pelphrey (Ward) is no stranger to portraying characters with complicated parental relationships and inappropriate chemistry with a blood relative. Pelphrey portrayed bad boy Jonathan Randall on the CBS daytime drama Guiding Light.

The pilot also reminded this reviewer of the decompressed story-telling style Marvel Comics has embraced since the 21st century started. By emphasizing character interactions a comic book storyline that previously took one or two issues to resolve are now stretched out to six issues. Episode one contained a large amount of character interactions between Danny the Meachums. These scenes established how the characters felt about each other prior to Danny’s disappearance. However the episode meandered when it came to plot points like Danny’s plane crash.  Sharing an obvious piece of information so late in the episode does not entice individuals who are not familiar with Iron Fist to invest time in subsequent episodes.

Iron Fist’s premiere lacked the stylistic panache that helped draw the audience into Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Part of the charm of the previous Marvel Netflix shows was how much those pilots played up their respective genre conventions. Jessica Jones had a Rockford Files vibe going on, while Luke Cage fully embraced Blaxploitation films like Shaft. This was not the case with Iron Fist, though the martial arts aspect of the character’s background was represented. “Snow Gives Way” introduced martial artist instructor Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick who also appeared on Game of Thrones); Wing is a long-time ally of Danny’s from the comics. There were also several scenes in which Danny utilized his martial art skills. Unfortunately there was very little lip service paid to the character’s mystical side, which is the source of Iron Fist’s powers. The episode only briefly touched upon the mystical city of K’un-L’un; the city was named during an exchange between Danny and a homeless man he befriended. Hopefully Iron Fist will do a better job of embracing its superpower roots in future episodes.

Scott Buck, Iron Fist’s showrunner and writer of episode one, clearly understands slow boiling character dramas. He worked on premium cable dramas including HBO’s Six Feet Under and Rome, in addition to Dexter on Showtime. Unfortunately the corporate power struggle, along with the Meachums’ family drama, seems to override the super hero elements. The premiere episode does a painstakingly good job of establishing Danny and the Meachums. I certainly want to know more about the music on Danny’s iPod and his hip-hop influences. However, this comic book fan also needs a bit more ‘iron fisting’ too!

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Written by Mo Walker

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