If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
For a full episode synopsis, grab a read of our Iron Fist #1.1: “Snow Gives Way” episode guide.
By now, you’ve heard all of the pre-release hype and reviews about Iron Fist and how disappointed most seemed to be with he six episodes of the series released to critics early. Sadly, I missed out on the chance to see the episodes early, but I tried to enter the first episode without being influenced by the response. Our own Craig Byrne got a chance to watch the six episodes and he enjoyed them, so I went in with reason to think I might well enjoy them too.
The premiere episode of Iron Fist is an inconsistent mix of good (though not great) character moments, labored pacing, some sketchy dialogue, passable action, and a lazy sense of introducing a point to the series. In short, there was enough to get me to a second episode to see if it got stronger but I was not overly impressed by the hour.
The Netflix model can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it allows creators to really delve into a true serialized experience. The shows genuinely are 13-hour movies for a season, something I quite enjoy. A curse in that you lose a bit of the natural structure of a TV series. A premiere episode should present a number of elements of the series to really give a good flavor of the tone and draw interest in the characters to want the audience to come back. By relying strictly on the 13-episode model to tell a story, Iron Fist seems to eschew that in favor of the big picture, which sadly doesn’t serve the episode well.
Finn Jones seems a bit lethargic and listless at points in the episode. No doubt a choice to provide Danny Rand with an air of Eastern philosophy where he’s found peace in the soul and mind that paces him far different from our frenzied Western world. The downside to this approach is it seems to provide Danny with a bit of a vapid quality, as well as takes away from being a solid character the audience can invest in. His enthusiasm is a treat, though, and it seems to save him from being a disposable lead. It also seems to breed a slight naivete, and there’s a moment where Danny thrashes one of the Rand Enterprises security guards sicced on him by Ward Meachum and forcefully demands who sent the guards to kill him. You already know, Danny. It makes you seem less intelligent or intuitive to have to have it spelled out for you.
That’s a significant problem for this first episode. There is a heavy amount of exposition and it’s delivered in often-shoddy dialogue that leans toward the on-the-nose approach. Beyond that, the performances are bit too stiff and inconsistent or erratic. In particular, I was quite unimpressed with Tom Pelphrey as Ward. Aside from the performance being far from nuanced, there were early scenes where the words just didn’t fit well in his mouth. When we finally get to the moments when he visits his father hiding away in a penthouse, he feels more comfortable in the role. Perhaps it’s playing off of David Wenham that helps. In the scenes in the corporate tower or with Jessica Stroup as his sister Joy, he just doesn’t feel like a believable person.
Jessica Stroup also seems to struggle with much of the dialogue. It makes her performance far too stiff, which doesn’t provide a lot of context for her character. Sure, we know she’s heavily involved in the business, and Danny’s visit to her home — which used to be his family home — reveals she’s a lawyer and has done well for herself. There’s just not more beyond that, and we’ve come to expect much more than cardboard characters from the Marvel Netflix series. She does seem to soften a bit towards the end of the episode, which allows a bit more humanity and shades to her, setting a nice scene for her and Danny to talk in her office. The head fake with her drugging him is a nice touch, but we’ll have to see if that pits her on the side of her brother in the nefarious dealings.
The other Jessica, Henwick, fares better as Colleen Wing. In particular, the two scenes she and Jones share display a nice, low-level chemistry that should offer a good reprieve from the action and corporate elements of the series. There is not too much to display how well she’ll do in the fight game in this opening episode, but I like the dynamic of their relationship already set up. It’s far too convenient that Meachum’s guards attacked Danny right outside her dojo, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for a pilot to rope Colleen’s character further into Danny’s story.
That attack and the subsequent hunt during the Chinese parade were better highlights of the action in the episode. Though, given that the series is about a martial artist, you would think the opening hour would do better to focus on this aspect of the lead. The first fight moments where he takes down the guards at the Rand building to get up to see Harold were nigh laughable. Nothing against Jones, but it was very obvious that the sequence was choreographed and you could almost hear him counting the movement steps in his head. The street attack and parade were much better, likely aided by a stunt double hidden behind a mask. They also seemed to have more urgency, impact, and thrust. That first fight sequence, coupled with the cheesy moment where Danny backs out into the street while Joy snaps at him about breaking into her place only to have to somersault over a cab, doesn’t bold well for the action going forward.
Again, there is a lot that detracts from the series in this first hour, but I’m brought back to Jones himself. The moments he shares with Big Al, the kind homeless man in the park who eventually overdoses on heroin, are small and beautiful character moments. Sure, we get the exposition in showing Danny the internet searches about his family on the phone, but it gives a nice insight into how good of a man Danny has grown up to be. I also enjoyed the brief bit with the dog, even if it was obvious.
I’m a bit surprised at John Dahl’s direction in the hour. I’ve been a fan of his work in the past. In particular, I’m a complete sucker for the Matt Damon-Edward Norton film Rounders, and not just because I love poker. Also, his episode “Year’s End” from the first season of Arrow was a standout of the first run of episodes for that series. Here, there were points where the direction and cinematography felt amateurish. Scenes set in the corporate office, specifically Ward’s, were badly staged, stranding the actors and not doing much to help establish character and tone. The set itself also sounds cavernous when anyone is talking on it. Having the offices is a great distinction between the three other series, but their use of them in this opening chapter left a lot to be desired.
As a pilot, I would have to agree with most of the critics that this was not a strong start or a promising series. Having seen the second episode already, I’m encouraged as the season goes on. In fact, the show would’ve been far better served by combined the first two episodes into a single episode. Even if it had ended up 70 minutes long, it would’ve told a better story and set up the series in stronger fashion.
If you watch, I recommend taking the chance on the second episode to get a more reasoned understanding of the show. Then, you can decide if you’d like to invest any more time on it. Based on the first episode alone, though, it’s hard to advocate digging further.