'Iron Fist': Why Netflix's New Marvel Show Is a Kick in the Head

Latest addition to rapidly evolving Superhero-TV landscape feels surprisingly old-fashioned – and more of a miss than a hit

'Iron Fist' rounds out Netflix's superhero roster with a kung-fu hippie – Rob Sheffield on why this latest Marvel show is more of a miss than a hit. Credit: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

A stranger wanders the streets of New York. To everybody, he just looks like another hairy, barefoot slob who got lost in the parking lot between sets at a Spin Doctors gig in 1992. The man walks into the Rand Tower skyscraper and claims to be the long-lost heir to the family's corporate empire. But everybody knows Danny Rand got killed 15 years ago, at the age of 10, when his parents' private plane crashed in the Himalayas. So who is this hippie dude with the mysterious power to punch through walls, jump over speeding cars and kick ninja assassins in the face? Is it a miracle? Or a scam? Danny can't seem to give anyone a straight answer, declaring, "If you wish to see the truth, hold no opinions. That's a Zen saying."

That's the starting point of Iron Fist, the first misfire from the Netflix galaxy of the Marvel universe. It takes place in a New York City where superheros are spreading faster than Starbucks' shops, on a network where Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Daredevil are already in full effect, with The Defenders and The Punisher on the way. It comes at a time when superhero TV is innovating at warp speed, to the point where men-in-capes fantasies are as multifarious as the rest of TV, too complex to get lumped together as a genre anymore. The show follows in the Netflix Marvel house style, a world away from other adaptations like FX's excellent new Legion or ABC's durable Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., darker and more brooding than the CW's zesty pop-flash squad of DC crimefighters like Arrow. It's also, unfortunately, way too tedious to keep up the pace. This hippie tool wouldn't last five minutes in a cage match with the Young Pope.

The secret to Danny Rand is revealed in the tattoo on his chest: He's the inheritor of the fighting legacy of the Iron Fist. When that plane crashed in the Himalayas, Danny was rescued in the snow by kindly Buddhist monks who raised him in the mythical city of K'un-L'un, training him in ancient martial-arts secrets and turning him into a noble warrior. Now he's returned, another orphaned aristocrat ready to seek revenge. The Rand Corporation has gotten mixed up with a global criminal empire called the Hand, and Danny goes up against them with help from local fight-club master Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who hides him in her dojo. So many scowling henchmen whose faces need kicking, so little time. But only Danny has the chi for the job. He also enlists lawyer Carrie-Anne Moss, who asks him a sensible question: "Do you have any money for new clothes? Because this homeless hipster thing isn't working for you."

Finn Jones, a.k.a. Margaery Tyrell's brother Loras from Game of Thrones, plays Danny as a case of a secret identity that might be just too well disguised – because he's so totally devoid of charisma, more cub than lone wolf. With his scruffy beard and dazed "who, me?" eyes, Jones could be one of the twinkling boy-men who populated Hollywood comedies a decade ago, except now the party's over and he can't understand why bad hombres keep trying to kill him. It might have been shrewd to play the hippie hacky-sack man-child angle for laughs – a kung fu avenger trapped in the body of a schlub from The Hangover Part IV: Return To Vegas. But Iron Fist has no humor either, so it ends up just looking like a superhero drama where they forgot to invite the superhero.

There are connections between all the Netflix Marvel shows – like Rosario Dawson, who returns as nurse Clare Temple. But unlike its urban do-gooder brethren, the series has no personality. Where Jessica Jones digs into sexual trauma and Luke Cage plays off the historic agony and glory of Harlem, Iron Fist's hero can't seem to muster any inner turmoil beyond the occasional harshed vibe. There doesn't seem to be much of anything going on his skull. His mystic Zen quotes go over like a Wayne's World set-up minus the punch line. Jones' Danny has a unintentionally comic way of walking away from a Daredevil-style combat scene with a hurt expression that says "Whoooa, I hate when that happens." In a perfect TV world, he'd get a Broad City crossover episode where Danny and Abbi have a romantic date with some cosmic brownies and Phish bootlegs.