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'Iron Fist' review: Too grounded to punch out of Marvel mold

The new Marvel series on Netflix plays it safe when it needs more glowing fists and immortal dragons. This is a spoiler-free review.

Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, gets his powers by learning martial arts from Lei-Kung the Thunderer in the interdimensional city of K'un Lun, earning the right to face Shou-Lao the Undying and plunging his fists into the burning heart of the immortal dragon. So it feels like a misstep for his Netflix series to focus more on corporate intrigue, real estate deals and legal stoushes.

The show kicks off with Danny Rand returning to New York after a mysterious 15-year absence. Only it's not so mysterious. He was in K'un Lun, doing that kung fu dragon thing I just mentioned. "Iron Fist" avoids a lot of the stale origin story structure you might expect, but the start of the season meanders because of it. He's one of the few heroes who would have benefited from some frontloaded, dragon-slaying fantasy. Instead, he returns to Manhattan ready to claim a billion-dollar inheritance and armed with a martial arts repertoire we never really get to see him earn.

Netflix

"Iron Fist" is quite thin on the martial arts and mysticism. Finn Jones ("Game of Thrones") brings a naive swagger to Danny that plays well against the very cynical Manhattanite supporting cast, and it's easy to see him as a stranger on the wrong side of his own homecoming. But there's an awkwardness in his physical movements that makes it hard to buy him as a highly trained living weapon.

Despite some hints of wuxia brilliance, like the showdown with a gang of hatchet-wielding triads, the first time we see the Iron Fist in action or Danny working his way through a quartet of gloriously outrageous assassins, nothing ever really hits the same level as "Daredevil's" lauded hallway fight. The best action scenes in the first half of the season go to Jessica Henwick's Colleen Wing, from brutal street fights to practiced work with her katana, but the standout fight scene comes from Lewis Tan's all-too-brief appearance as Zhou Cheng.

Colleen Wing is the standout in the supporting cast, torn between personal honour, the realities of survival and the need to dish out some old-fashioned ass-kickings. It feels like she's doing a better job telling a version of Danny's grounded-in-reality story than he is but even she struggles to survive a late plot twist that seems designed more for quick shock than character development.

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Netflix

The supporting cast all fall victim to it at some point. Constantly shifting alliances, expositional monologues and even geographical location is at the mercy of the plot, leading to moments that are both overly convenient and needlessly convoluted.

Jones' Danny is likeable enough. The fight scenes are good enough. The problem is that "Iron Fist" suffers from having to follow "Daredevil", "Luke Cage" and "Jessica Jones". It's hard not to compare the latest show in Netflix's "Defenders" lineup with those that came before, especially "Daredevil's" masterful fight choreography or "Luke Cage's" neo-noir spin on a '70s exploitation character.

Those characters felt like they had shows built around them from the ground up. Danny wanders through modern-day Manhattan, unsure and fairly interchangeable. The corporate plot feels too by-the-numbers to be personal, even with his name on the building. Once the army of ninjas becomes involved, it still feels like it's too caught up in corporate struggle and murky, gritty realism to ever shoot for fun martial arts action.

As the last member to join the roster of Netflix's "Defenders" crossover, "Iron Fist" felt like the chance to broaden the TV universe's gritty scope with levity and more fantastic elements, especially in a post-"Doctor Strange" world. It comes tantalisingly close to indulging in over-the-top action, but you're left with the impression that the showrunner never really worked out what to do with a show about a kung fu master who once hugged a dragon to death. Instead, you're left with a show that struggles frustratingly against its own identity, determined to "stay true to the source material" without ever really embracing it.

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