Not every main character has to be likable, or stay likable for that matter. Plenty of great works in all genres and mediums feature less-than-admirable individuals at their center. But even if the audience doesn’t like the protagonist, he or she still needs to be someone the viewer wants to spend time with. Especially in the early going, your lead has to be someone the audience wants to get to know better, that they want to see face whatever obstacles are in the offing, whether we’re rooting for them to leap over those obstacles or stumble.
That’s Iron Fist’s biggest problem out of the gate. Main character Danny Rand doesn’t do anything so terrible in the show’s first episode. His knocking out security guards and breaking into someone’s home (which, in fairness, used to be his home) is questionable, but fairly par for the course when it comes to superhero stories, especially those involving long-missing orphans (of which there are a surprising number). But after an hour with him — in an episode that runs 56 minutes and would have been better with half that — there’s no good reason to want to hang out with Danny for another twelve.
Some of that can be attributed to pilots inevitably being something of a “feeling out” stage between the show and the audience. Much of it can be attributed to actors and writers needing to get their sea legs and figure out who the characters are and what the show should be. Growing pains are a part of almost any television series, and it’s important not to judge one too harshly right out of the gate.
But man, Danny is kind of insufferable in “Snow Gives Way.” It takes a lot to make the lead in a story about an orphan who lost his parents in a plane crash annoying, but the episode manages it. Part of that falls on the shoulders of star Finn Jones (of Game of Thrones fame). Jones does well enough conveying that Danny is equal parts naive, meditative, and a little crazy. But in this opening installment at least, he doesn’t really have the charm to make some of Danny’s rougher edges seem cute rather than intrusive.
Instead, the character comes off like a freshman who just finished his first Eastern philosophy class, and boy does he have things to tell you about how people should live their lives! The scraggly beard and well-worn clothes are intended to be a sign of the humble circumstances he’s come from and the simple existence he leads, but inadvertently make him look like a standard hipster stereotype, one patchouli container and lecture about “mother earth” away from him being that guy you ran into at the bus station who won’t take the hint that you’re not quite as interested in cooperative farming as you’d politely feigned earlier.
It doesn’t help that there’s not much that’s compelling about his would-be foils in the early going either. Ward and Joy Meachum are generic children of privilege with perfectly-coiffed hair and snappy outfits that provide an entree to cold receptions and calls to security. With any luck, they’ll both get a little more shading as the series goes on, but like Danny, their introductions are full of clichés and, unfortunately, developments that make you wish they’d simply go away.
They do, however, take part in the flashbacks that are supposed to give you insight into who this new generation of Rands and Meachums are. The difference in circumstance for Danny relative to the Meachum kids is meant to be striking given where all of them started, but it doesn’t really work. There’s some bog-standard daddy issues at play, with young Ward Meachum being a jerk (presumably because his dad drove him to be) and gentle Danny being bullied, partly out of jealousy for the loving relationship he has with his own father. While that could be a solid grounding for both characters, the bad dialogue and corny execution stymie it from the start and prevent it from being anything more than a bad Draco Malfoy routine.
The same goes for the only thing approaching a reveal in the episode. (Mild first episode spoilers ahead.) Despite protestations that he died twelve years ago, Ward’s father, Harold Meachum, is still alive and well and pulling strings behind the scenes. This version of Harold is a cut-rate Nathan Fillion doing a weak riff on Wall Street, and it only makes the father-son conflict that much more hackneyed and unoriginal. Recent Netflix Marvel shows have been cagey about who their true big bads are, but even if he’s a mere interim antagonist, Harold leaves something to be desired.
Pretty much everything here does. Very little of “Snow Gives Way” is actively bad. There’s some rough dialogue, janky-looking CGI, and awkward uses of Danny’s “powers,” but for the most part the opening chapter of Iron Fist is blandly competent all around. Plenty of first episodes trend inexorably toward bland competence due to the twin necessities of introduction and exposition. Iron Fist could be forgiven for some of its lack of excitement on this front in particular given that it’s the fourth of four shows in the Defenders sub-universe, and thus it has to contend with a certain degree of familiarity before the audience ever cues it up. But the whole episode just comes off as a thoroughly dull exercise, one that simply goes through the motions of a typical superhero story.
Again, that might not sink the episode entirely but for the fact that Danny Rand, or at least this version of him, isn’t a particularly interesting guy to base a story around. Sure, the premise behind the character is solid enough — billionaire child, presumed dead, returns home, knows kung-fu — but the result is a semi-creepy dude who gives off a condescending or oblivious vibe to pretty much everyone he comes across (particularly Colleen Wing).
In different hands, that obliviousness could be almost sweet, or an endearing testament to how removed from society he’s been all this time. But in “Snow Gives Way,” we just get a guy who seems to disregard everyone else’s wants and wishes to further his own ends. There’s room for Jones to grow into the character, room for the show’s writing and plotting to improve (though with late-season Dexter showrunner Scott Buck at the helm, good luck), and room for the larger story to fall into place. Still, as an opening salvo, Iron Fist delivers a big dose of limp, uninteresting dullness, centered around a guy you’d just as soon not see again.