Marvel’s Iron Fist went live on Netflix today, and while we gave you a general overview of the first six episodes earlier in the week, here are the individual episode reviews. Just to reiterate, after a disappointing and slow start, episode six was a major step in the right direction… (we’ll get you reviews of the final seven episodes early next week.
Episode One: “Snow Gives Way”
Someone claiming to be Danny Rand, son of Wendell Rand, arrives at Rand Tower to see family friend Howard Wenham. The only problem is, Danny Rand died in a plane accident years ago…
The final Defender is here and it’s safe to say he’s off to a pretty rocky start. It’s not entirely show’s fault either. Iron Fist doesn’t just have a big act to follow, it has THREE big acts to follow, all of which nailed it straight out of the gate. Daredevil had the Catholic guilt and beautifully choreographed violence. Jessica Jones is a blisteringly smart exploration of the survival of abuse and what that costs you. Luke Cage is a fiercely intelligent exploration of what it means to be a black hero.
Danny is the heir to a multi-million dollar empire and the latest in Marvel’s eternal seeming line of super talented white men with awesome destinies.
That by itself would be a big problem and the producers’ mishandling of the campaign for Danny to be Asian American shows just how little of a handle they have on audience perception and expectation. That being said, it’s not the worst problem the series has. Plus Finn Jones is a pleasant surprise as the calm, naïve and PTSD-riddled Danny.
No, the problem is… this is often kind of dull.
Some of that comes from the flat, green-tinted direction and the weirdly muddy ’90s-esque credit sequence. Some of it comes from the total lack of any Easter eggs whatsoever. Seriously, half the fun of the Netflix shows is spotting how they inter-connect. This episode? Not a bean. A lot of it comes from the fact the entire episode is basically Danny trying to get Joy and Ward, the children of Harold Wenham, to see him. They think he’s mad, they throw him out, repeat. That’s interspersed with some conversations with a somewhat Nietschean tramp called Big Al and, in the episode’s single high spot, Colleen Wing.
Jessica Henwick is on screen maybe five minutes here. She owns all of them. She’s got incredible presence, natural authority and is far and away the most interesting thing about the show. The fact that her second scene involves Danny mansplaining kung fu to her? Not good. At all. But Henwick is the show’s first and so far only home run.
None of the other performances, with the possible exception of Tom Pelphrey’s massively flat Ward, are bad. You can even see why the show is taking it slowly with Danny slowly getting used to his new life again. That’s fine. But the pacing and direction are lumpen and so far the fight scenes that are all Jones are…not good. At all. And for this show of any to get martial arts wrong? Does not bode well.
Despite that, “Snow Gives Way” is a competent hour of TV. Jones is fun, Henwick is REALLY fun and it’s never less than watchable. But it’s also never much more.
Episode Two: “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight”
Get ready for a solid hour of whiplash because every time “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight” does something right, and it does a lot right, it sprints at the nearest wrong thing to do straight after.
Danny has been committed on the order of the Meachums. Most of the episode is him, trying to convince his psychiatrist that everything he’s said is true. A lot of this stuff feels like ground that’s been gone over before because, well, it is. It’s going to try your patience, especially around the middle of the hour, but stick with it.
Because there are three scenes in this episode that genuinely feel like they’ve wandered in from the show Iron Fist thinks it is and should be. The first is a conversation between Colleen and Ward at her dojo that gives Jessica Henwick and Tom Pelphrey a chance to flex their muscles a bit. Henwick is the best element of this show by a mile so far, and her brittle, spiky yet dialled in and focused Colleen Wing is a delight to watch. She presents a lot like Clare Temple without the idealism; cynical and world weary but at the same time invested in something more. The scene with Ward, which is Pelphry’s best work by far so this season, is great. Not just because of the Faustian bargain he offers her but because of the subtle, and deliberate, culture clash they represent. The simple fact Ward doesn’t take his shoes off before stepping into the dojo, that it doesn’t even occur to him, tells you more about the character than any other moment has so far.
Then there’s the M&Ms moment. Jessica Stroup’s Joy Meachum is starting to catch with Colleen as one of the show’s best elements. The way she discovers Danny is who he says he is, and her complicated reaction to the proof, is pretty much perfect. Stroup works through joy, relief, guilt and horror in the space of a few seconds and for a show that’s felt as dialled back as it’s currently-drugged protagonist, it’s a shining moment.
Finally, there’s the closing fight Don’t get us wrong, it’s not especially impressive, just three people beating on Danny while he’s in a strait jacket. No, what works here is the point, after a solid hit’s landed, where the camera cuts to a close up of Danny. Finn Jones’ nasty, overly calm smile is all the callback we need to an earlier moment. There, Danny talks about how the harder he’s hit the more awake he gets. Here, we see it. Almost two full episodes in, this is the first hint we get of the Iron Fist and it’s a truly impressive, subtle moment.
That’s the good news. The bad? Unfortunately is just as bountiful. The fakeout cold open feels as unearned and unneeded as a lot of the times The Walking Dead tried this. David Wenham’s Harold Meachum is actively dull. The pacing is non-existent. You could legitimately skip everything this episode aside from these three scenes and not miss anything. And worst of all? The show commits the sin Doctor Who has committed repeatedly since returning.
Modern Doctor Who has featured, at least, one world-changing event a season. The sort of thing people write about when they write about the Singularity. Epic, epochal events that change humanity forever and are swept under the rug repeatedly.
Iron Fist does the same thing here. The point where Danny’s psychiatrist references how many people think they have powers after “the incident” made us want to focus our chi and punch through the screen. This is a world where a billionaire in power armour is on the front cover of TIME, where a government organisation’s Washington HQ was destroyed by flying aircraft carriers, where the American King Arthur is a wanted criminal due to his resistance to Superhero Registration. Even just focusing on the Netflix shows, Danny lives in a world where a man with unbreakable skin protects Harlem, a man dressed as a Devil defends Hell’s Kitchen and a super strong female PI is an open secret. But of course he can’t possibly have powers.
This idea, this justification of it still being a normal world, is idiotic. It insults the intelligence of the audience and the characters alike and seeing it show up in a Marvel TV show made our hearts sink. This is the show’s lowest point. From here it desperately needs to improve.
Episode Three: “Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch”
Hogarth! And a different director! Which means for the first time this season there’s actually the slightest hint of visual wit! Also, things happen, several of them good!
This episode we finally see the collision between the fight Danny knows and the fight Danny’s in and it’s summed up through Hogarth. We’ve had a feeling she was coming for a while, the original character is an Iron Fist one after all, but after the trudge of the last two episodes it’s SUCH a relief to see her. In short order, she shows up, tells Danny how to understand what he needs to do, offers to help and sorts things out. It’s brilliant. Plus she finally gets him money for a haircut and we love her forever for that. Plus the legal Kung Fu she busts out in the closing scenes of the episode is easily the most impressive martial arts display in the show so far without a single punch being thrown.
Elsewhere in the episode, we get some solid movement on the Meachums and what they actually want. A particular piece of real estate down at the pier is very important to Harold. Or more specifically, Madam Gao from Daredevil, who is revealed as his “sponsor” here, at least vocally. Plus we get to see a welcome hard edge to Joy as she manipulates hospital records to get the buyer they need a new kidney for a relative. Jessica Stroup has been good throughout but this is the first time we’ve seen her show her teeth and it really works.
Over at the single plot that’s been functional from the get go, Jessica Henwick continues to impress. Colleen comes face-to-face with the difference between a code of honour and paying the bills here and she comes down on the wrong side. There’s no right side but the episode does a really good job of showing how her principles aren’t surviving contact with the real world and how that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She’s a hard character to like, spiky, contradictory and bitter, but she’s an even harder character to look away from.
It’s not all good news. We get Danny mansplaining Kung Fu yet again and the fact the technique he shows Colleen helps her win the enthusiastic but over-staged closing fight leaves a nastier taste in the mouth than any punch to the face. Similarly, this is, fundamentally, the third straight episode of “Immensely Rich White People Fight Over Their Corporation” with occasional Kung Fu seasoning. Plus the show is definitely gearing up for a Danny vs Harold fight which we could honestly live the rest of our natural lives without seeing. Oh, and Ward pushes Danny off a building to his near certain death…
Episode Four: “Eight Diagram Dragon Palm”
GO GO GADGET IRON FISTS! Danny, of course, survives and its actually a pretty fun use of his powers. Plus the show gets major points for getting the sit down between the two of them out of the way early. The thought of having to sit through a full season of Danny thinking he was talking to Meachum’s ghost in the asylum just fills us with dread.
Plus, this is the first time David Wenham’s actually felt in line with the material. Meachum is still a crushingly tedious villain but his plausibility and Danny’s child like nature actually align really well here. Plus it gives Tom Pelphrey a chance to do some epic side eye in the background. Better still, it finally gives us a good idea of just how divided and messed up the Meachums are.
Elsewhere in the episode Colleen steps back into the cage for a much better, if still over enthusiastically nasty fight. Her arc remains one of the show’s best elements, and she remains the one martial artist in the show whose connection with the real world is actually interesting to watch.
Plus, we get some answers about the pier deal and those springboard into a very nice combination of Danny’s warrior and corporate selves. Someone is shifting something very unpleasant through that pier. And Danny Rand, corporate warrior, may be the only one that can stop them…
All in all a welcome, strong entry and a hint that the show is maybe, finally, getting its feet under it.
Episode Five: “Under Leaf Pluck Lotus”
Having received a sample of the super heroin at the end of the last episode, Danny proceeds to do science to it. Actually he has his people do science to it, which is kind of nice. It’s a weird thing to say after four ENDLESS episodes of corporate intrigue but Danny being a surprisingly good, if overly touchy feels boss, is actually rather fun.
Plus, after four episodes of the Rand Corporation stuff getting in the way of everything else, this episode it’s actually used to move the plot along. Armed with SCIENCE FACTS, Danny goes to one of the literally two friends he has in the city to ask for help. In this case, Colleen.
WHO’S TEACHING CLAIRE THAI BOXING! WOOOOOOOOOO!
Claire is so much fun, again. Even better, it makes perfect sense for her to show up. After being the designated bystander for three shows, she’s finally had enough. It makes perfect sense for her to start training with Coleen and the two of them have an easy, friendly relationship that’s instantly the most fun double act on this show full of grim white people.
And given the Grim White People are super grim this episode, they are very needed. Joy continues taking the first steps in her long journey towards thinking about growing a conscience, in this case inspired by a lawsuit involving cancer caused by a Rand power plant. She buries the case, she feels a bit bad, that’s basically it.
Ward has a bad episode. Ward probably has the worst episode so far this season. It’s not Tom Pelphrey’s fault either and you can see what the show is aiming for but, once again, it misses the mark. Ward is under stress so it makes sense for him to hit the drugs. But for him to try a sample of synthetic super heroin he was given a few hours ago because he’s bored? Come on. Although the mysterious phone messages he’s starting to get are actually pretty interesting and fun.
The better news is that the Colleen plot continues to be fun and also continues to be the only part of the show that makes Danny being slightly awful a feature rather than a bug. Danny showing up with a full meal at the dojo feels charming but slightly odd. Danny buying Colleen’s building just feels downright creepy. Plus, while Henwick and Jones are both very good, the sudden romantic spark between them feels both sudden and slightly unearned. That being said, the play session where they both show off their martial arts skills to one another is genuinely cute. It worked in Daredevil (the Affleck movie) and it works here.
The ending also sees the show finally FINALLY start to try the same sort of physical wit as Daredevil. Danny’s fight with a bodyguard in a moving truck isn’t fluid but it is fun and shows a willingness to try something new that the show has singularly failed to do up to now. Plus Iron Fist is finally on the Daredevil-like narrative path it needs to be, as Danny and Coleen get a lead in the form of Radovan, the captive chemist who made the super heroin. Of course, he gets stabbed over the course of the fight (hi Claire!) but you can’t have everything. Good deployment of the Iron Fist this episode too.
There’s still a lot of stuff that doesn’t work here. Danny is still fundamentally hard to like, poor Claire lasts not even an episode before she has to MacGyver a poor fool’s chest back together and the Madam Gao reveal at the end feels very anti-climatic. But, Grim White People aside, this is actually pretty good fun.
Episode Six: “Immortal Emerges From Cave”
Directed by rap legend and massive Kung Fu movie fan, RZA, this episode feels like the sort of stylistic shift the show needs to make, at around the time it needs to make it. Some stuff works, lots doesn’t but the memory of these green-lit sludgy opening episodes continues to fade.
Well, at least the Ward on drugs plot wasted no time before going south. Poor bloody Tom Pelphrey does his best but the bloodshot, wide-eyed Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho routine he’s forced to do is yet another bundle of walking clichés. This should work. The show has set Ward up as this tightly wound golden boy turned errand boy so his fall from grace should, at least, be satisfying.
Instead, despite real effort from Pelphrey it feels like a tick list of clichés in a plot that has already taken up a near-show killing amount of time. Also where the hell does Joy suddenly come from when she finds him at the clinic? Not to mention Danny taking him along on the search for the chemist’s daughter is unforgivably stupid, so much so it even busts through Danny’s, “But the brutal childman doesn’t know any better,” field.
Speaking of Danny, he’s invited to a ritualised duel with the Hand’s best fighters. This leads to Claire, who rightly points out she has more experience fighting the Hand than he does, calling him on his White Nonsense. It doesn’t take and neither does Colleen offering to help. Again, there’s more unearned romantic tension but the episode does at least focus in on Danny being both slightly unlikeable and possibly mad. Plus the Socratic conversations he has with Thunderer, his possibly dead, certainly not physically present, teacher are really good.
It’s kind of a shame then that the sight of the grand duel is… a warehouse. We know it’s supposed to be the world behind the world but it still feels a bit cheap. His first opponents, a pair of Russians, are top fun though.
That. Being. Said.
Six episodes in it is painfully obvious that the show has had to be shot in a way that protects Finn Jones’ fundamental lack of training. Don’t get us wrong, he works very very, very hard and some of this stuff does look good. But the spots where his stunt doubles are tagged in are painfully obvious and every fight so far this season has felt modular and choreographed. There’s none of the fluid, slightly panicked free-form brutality of Daredevil. Just people working very hard but also clearly working to hit their marks.
Oh and Danny’s second opponent is a spider-themed female fighter wearing a basque, massive earrings and a choker who tries to seduce him. And yes we know she’s the Bride of Nine Spiders and a faithful adaptation from the comics but still… really?…
Anyhoo. There’s some really, genuinely great Claire and Colleen stuff this episode. Radovan isn’t getting better so they finally decide to take him to hospital. This leads to a welcome cameo from Claire’s old boss, Shirley and some nice progression on Colleen loving her work maybe a little too much. Plus, Claire hits a guy with a fire extinguisher! There’s a Luke Cage callout! It’s really fun!
Meanwhile back at Danny’s Bad Day, he faces his final opponent and is told if he survives, Danny will be burnt away forever. This is really good news given that the dichotomy between the two has been far and away the least interesting element of the show so far that hasn’t involved white yuppies being sad in New York.
Plus, this last fight is really pretty good. There’s a whole sequence inside scaffolding which does a lovely job of giving a visual component to the decreasing options both fighters have. It’s great fun even with the obligatory “The bad guys win by cheating” moment at the end. Plus there’s some smart elements of doubt introduced into just how idyllic K’un L’un was, given Madam Gao is from there. She is great by the way, courteous and friendly in a way that is absolutely terrifying, especially given the beheading she was responsible for last episode. And she delivers one hell of a blow to Danny and even more of one to Danny’s self image and view of his past…
So, universally terrible Bride of Nine Spiders choices aside, this episode again, is actually pretty fun.
Reviews by Alasdair Stuart