Word of mouth was already toxic by the time Netflix released the thirteen episodes of Iron Fist in March. The consensus among those who'd had an advance look was that it was easily, by far, the worst of the Marvel Studios Netflix productions. It was troubled before the reviews started coming in, thanks to a stunning bit of "p.c." overreach that saw people demand that the protagonist, Danny Rand, be played by an Asian man. The idea that a blonde white man would become the world's greatest martial artist, offended many who decried a "white savior" trope, as well as some who no doubt simply wanted an Asian actor to get a big payday. Once people finally saw it for themselves, Iron Fist seemed to add injury to insult. Not only was a white man the world's greatest martial artist, at least theoretically, but the martial arts themselves, to many observers, were lame. People simply expected a very different sort of show -- something more like Into the Badlands in modern dress, perhaps -- from what Marvel and Netflix delivered.
Iron Fist stands apart from its sibling shows in the Defenders cycle by abandoning the grungy inner-city milieux of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage for the corporate heights of Marvel's Manhattan. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is super-rich in the comics and is supposed to be on television, but the show introduces him as an Oliver Queen-like castaway reintroducing himself to 21st century America, albeit without the publicity attending the TV Ollie's rescue. A disheveled, barefoot Danny returns home after growing up, having survived the plane crash that killed his parents, in the magical land of Kun-L'un, where he was taught to be The Iron Fist, a living weapon of defense against The Hand, the yellow peril last referenced in Daredevil's second season. As Iron Fist, Danny can channel his chi to make his punching hand like unto a thing of iron, as they used to say in the funnybooks. It glows white-hot and can punch through walls with devastating force. Despite the responsibility placed upon him, Danny's in New York to reclaim his heritage as heir to Rand Enterprises, which has been maintained since the Rand family's disappearance by the children of Harold Meachum, the partner of Danny's dad. The kids, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) don't know what to make of this hairy hobo beating up guards in the lobby of corporate headquarters. Ward, an addict who bullied Danny when they were kids, distrusts the stranger whether he's Danny or not, while Joy more quickly comes to believe our hero's odd story. While he struggles to sort things out with the corporation, Danny hangs out at a more Netflix-typical inner-city dojo run by part-time cage fighter Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). It's so typically Netflix a setting that Defenders mascot-in-advance Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is one of Colleen's students.
The corporate shenanigans continue as we learn Harold Meachum himself (David Wenham), believed long dead by the general public, is alive and in hiding from The Hand, represented by Mme. Gao (Wai Ching Ho) from the Daredevil show. Harold is Ward's puppetmaster but finds himself at odds with his boy, who'd like to get rid of Danny while Dad thinks the kung-fu kid could be useful to him. Publicly acknowledged, Danny has a tumultuous stint on the Rand board of directors that leads to he and the Meachums getting sacked by the board majority, while he, Colleen and Claire battle drug smugglers in New York and China. Things get still more complicated as we discover that The Hand has contending factions, one of which has Colleen as a member, while Ward decides to free himself from his father but finds him very difficult to get rid of, and Danny's old Kun-L'un schoolmate (Sacha Dhawan) arrives in Manhattan to convince our hero to resume his duties at the alma mater.
I actually appreciated the change of pace and setting Iron Fist provided, and one of the show's most pleasant surprises is Ward Meachum's character arc. Ward starts out as the show's number-one scumbag, but as he sobers up and recoils from his dad's unnatural antics he gradually becomes one of the good guys. Tom Pelphrey gives the best performance of the series so far, except maybe for David Wenham's unpredictably devious Harold. Finn Jones has come in for a lot of criticism for a perceived lack of charisma, acting talent and martial arts skills, but those are the limitations of a generic fish-out-of-water character, not necessarily those of an actor who proves himself likable enough. More likable still is Jessica Henwick, if only because Colleen Wing brings more obvious passion to her fight scenes, and is likely to inspire more passion in the male audience. As for the fighting, it is plainly less dynamic, though often better lit, than the standard-setting scenes on Daredevil or the superhuman stunts of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. You can't help thinking that Danny will be the weakest member of The Defenders later this summer, but if Iron Fist disappoints as a martial-arts show it's mainly because the writers had a lot of story to tell and not so much time for fighting as fans would have liked. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, however, I found myself in later episodes marking time impatiently before something (violent) happened. In a way, there was both too much and not enough going on much of the time, and I also suspect that Iron Fist had the lowest budget of any of the Marvel shows so far. It's hard to dispute that it's the weakest of the four shows, but the others set a high enough standard that this one can fall short and still be at least okay. In any event, let's reserve judgment until Defenders on whether we want to see more of Danny Rand after that.