When Danny Rand can focus his chi and turn into Iron Fist — a superhero with a superpowered, glowing right hand — he’s unbeatable.
The same can’t be said for “Marvel’s Iron Fist,” the latest Marvel-Netflix collaboration, whose 13 episodes are available on Netflix. It’s been getting beaten up consistently and severely.
Is “Iron Fist” as bad as its 14 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating would indicate? Not exactly. Through six episodes it’s blandly mediocre, though it starts to perk up in Episodes 5 and 6. In the Netflix-original catalog, it’s ahead of “Fuller House” and “Hemlock Grove.”
And there are extenuating circumstances. Netflix likes its comic-book shows on the serious side, unlike the DC Comics shows on The CW, which are lightweight, somewhat fantastical entertainment.
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That hasn’t been a problem with Marvel-Netflix heroes like Jessica Jones and Daredevil, whose powers and origin stories are, in the comic-book context, relatively everyday. But Danny Rand (Finn Jones) was raised in a monastery that (spoiler alert) exists in an alternate dimension and aligns with Earth only every 15 years. “Iron Fist” is “Brigadoon” with Asian monks and kung fu, and it should be silly fun.
Some of the show’s problems stem from trying to soft-pedal this supernatural premise. Details of the origin story are introduced grudgingly, and there are no real scenes in the magical realm of K’un-Lun. Instead, we see Rand in present-day New York, where he returns and tries to regain control of his father’s company.
The first four episodes are largely about the barefoot, Zen-spouting Rand trying to navigate the corporate world, which could be an analogy for how uncomfortable the show seems to be with its mystical martial-arts premise. In Episode 2 a character watches Rand being interrogated and barks: “Ask him where he’s been the last 15 years.” You sympathize with his impatience — you’d like the show to stop poking around, supply those answers and move on to kicking evil’s behind.
The hokiness of the premise is bound up with another problem: At a time when the “whitewashing” of Asian narratives and roles is a hot issue, “Iron Fist” is about a white man who spends a lot of time in a dojo and has a Buddhist aphorism for every occasion. The show has been criticized for squandering an opportunity: Why not cast an Asian actor, even though the character in the comics is white?
That’s a bandwagon I’m not prepared to hop on. But you’d think the show would have avoided the casual Orientalism of its depiction of Chinatown, which begins with a lion dance and firecrackers and progresses to hatchet-wielding triads.
The sad thing about the dawdling featurelessness of the early episodes is that you can see a better show struggling to get out. The actors — including Jones; Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, a cage-fighting ally; and Tom Pelphrey as Ward Meachum, Rand’s childhood frenemy — are better than the material they’re given. And the testy relationship between Rand and Meachum has the potential to be interesting.
“Marvel’s Iron Fist” is available on Netflix.