PILOT LITE: Iron Fist (2017 tv series)

Posted: March 22, 2017 in Pilot Lite
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Netflix continues to push forward with assembling its own team of Marvel heroes, The Defenders. Two years ago (seriously? It’s been that long?) when Daredevil premiered, there were equal parts anticipation and trepidation in seeing this new iteration of empowered heroes brought to the small screen. In the years since, we’ve had entries from the aforementioned Devil of Hell’s Kitchen as well as Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Now, the final Defender has been brought to life in the form of Danny Rand, the champion of K’un Lun and the wielder of the Iron Fist.

ifDanny is a character who originated in the 70’s to ride the coattails of the Kung-Fu movie craze that was popularized in the west by the works of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. As a young boy, he was the sole-survivor of an expedition to a mystical city of ancient power. His parents were betrayed and murdered on the trip and Danny grew up in the mystical city of K’un Lun training to one day become a hero. He eventually gained the power to turn his fist “unto a thing of iron” by defeating the dragon Shou-Lao and baptizing his hands in the molten liquid made from the dragon’s heart. This act marked him as the newest in the line of the Immortal Iron Fist and left him with an identifying scar on his chest. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Marvel’s resident martial arts experts and even had a stint on The Avengers. However, he’s probably best known as one half of the crime-fighting duo Heroes for Hire with Luke Cage.

jonesifWithin this television series, Danny’s backstory and origin are largely kept intact. However, in an odd and somewhat sad turn of events, his origin is never fully shown. Netflix is known for trimming character’s backstories when needed (both Daredevil and Jessica Jones dispatch the inciting incident for both heroes in mere seconds) but that isn’t always the case. Luke Cage was given a full multi-episode sub-arch to tell his origin. Iron Fist probably should have followed suit. In the case of DD, his creation is fairly well known and doesn’t need to be told yet again (it’s also a pretty boilerplate superhero origin). While with JJ, her origin is secondary to the backstory that show chose to focus on, which was also a wise decision. However, both Luke Cage and Iron Fist have characters who aren’t well known to the wider audiences in situations where a fleshed-out history could be considered essential. That’s not to say that no character history is provided, it’s just not shown. Don’t hold your breath if you’re hoping to see Danny beat a dragon to death, is what I’m getting at.

The series focuses on Danny Rand as he comes back home after his time in K’un Lun. He’s trying to get back into his family’s business while turning his back on his responsibility as the defender of the heavenly city in which he was trained. Danny is played by Finn Jones whose casting caused a fair amount of uproar on the internet. I won’t be addressing that much here (seriously, just do a quick search on Twitter if you’re really unaware) except to say that Danny being played by an Asian actor would have been nice, but is also probably the least of the issues that this series (and its lead character) has. Mr. Rand is easily the biggest of the said issues within the show. He’s just not a very engaging lead. I’m not saying Finn Jones is a poor choice or a bad actor, I’m saying that the character is flat and uninteresting. He has a power that he doesn’t seem to understand or take steps to learn about, shirks his responsibilities and is constantly surrounded by other heroes and villains that are far more interesting and charismatic than he is. Again, it’s important to point out that I am not blaming Jones for this, he is just playing the character as written. Sadly, he seems to be the person who is getting a lion’s share of the criticism instead of the writers or showrunner of the series. But, that’s internet justice for you.

meachumsThe fact that the lead character is caked in such boredom is a real pity too, because the rest of the cast is fantastic. Danny’s childhood friend and present-day foil Ward Meachum is played absolutely perfectly by Tom Pelphrey. This character has an incredibly dramatic arc over the season and makes for a much more dynamic lead than Danny. Pelphrey plays the character initially as a spoiled man-child who hides behind his inherited wealth. However, as the series progresses, his character’s depth increases significantly. That’s not to say that he becomes a hero by any means, but the reasons behind his decisions are poignant and impactful. Ward is joined by his sister Joy, played by Jessica Stroup. Joy is the heart of the Meacum family and seems to also stand in for their soul. She is initially receptive to Danny returning to the company but also has her own agendas, as seen when she bullies and settles with a family who sues the company claiming that a Rand owned factory gave them cancer. Joy is probably the least developed of the Meachum family if only because she is the one in whom Danny confides. That keeps her from being completely villainous and thus reins her in a bit from being as fun to watch as her brother and father. Speaking of that; the Meachum patriarch is played by a impeccably cast David Wenham. Harold Meachum is the long-thought deceased father of Joy and Ward. He is secretly pulling the strings of the company and his only contact with the outside world is through his son. The reasons behind his faked-death and hiding are somewhat of a secret, so I won’t be addressing it here. All I’ll say is that, like Pelphrey, Wenham takes the character in interesting directions which are firmly rooted in understandable character motivations.

wingThe remaining cast members aren’t Meachum family members, but are no less important. Martial arts expert Colleen Wing is played by Jessica Henwick. Wing is a confident owner of a dojo and ally to Danny. The series has a noticeable lack of action in its first half, but the fight scenes of worth definitely all belong to Wing. She enters into a cage fighting club early on and provides some brutally awesome ass kickings. Wing is joined by one of her students, the ever-present Claire Temple, once again played by Rosario Dawson. Temple has become the Netflix series’ most well-traveled character appearing in every show to date. Claire gets to join in the adventure by providing both medical aid as well as field support this time around. Her role continues to expand (and will likely continue to in The Defenders) and she is so comfortable in it, it barely registers as acting. The final cast member to note is Sacha Dhawan as Davos. He is a fellow inhabitant of K’un Lun with Danny and a great friend to him. When Danny abandons the ancient city, Davos follows in order to convince him to return home. Davos’ depth is really mind-blowing for the limited screen time he gets. While he comes into opposition with Danny eventually (that’s not much of a spoiler considering the character’s comic history) it’s not hard at all to see him as being right. He sees someone who is handed an ancient power and watches as this person squanders it to show off back home. Davos is a character type that isn’t uncommon but is rarely played as human or as perfectly as he is here.

davosDespite some excellent casting, the series has definite trouble gaining momentum or telling a compelling story. As mentioned, the supporting characters are excellent but they are sadly no match for a lead that is so underdeveloped. The series also has a rather bland, made-for-TV look that is in stark contrast to the other series’ it ties into. While they’ve had limited budgets, past shows were able to hide this with cinematic editing and lighting. Here, the best description of the show’s look is “utilitarian”. A vast majority of the series looks and feels very bland. It’s not Agents of SHIELD level blandness, but it’s bordering on it. The two major exceptions to this are episode 6 (which was directed by The RZA and is the first to embrace the Kung Fu aesthetic that the series initially promised) and episode 12 (which featured a genuinely well-shot and edited finale fight).

While the series is definitely the weakest of the lead-up to The Defenders, it’s not without its merits. The amazing cast elevates the less-than-interesting storytelling style with their well-developed characterizations. As such, it’s still recommended. There is currently talk of where the story will go in its second season. I, personally, would rather just see Danny team up with Cage in a Heroes for Hire spin-off. Think about how cool that would be! The series would logically need a b-plot focusing on Wing and Misty Knight working their own cases as The Daughters of the Dragon. Ah, a nerd can dream…


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