- Iron Fist
To complete the 'Defenders' quartet required for a team-up to rival the 'Avengers' of their cinematic universe, Marvel Studios and Netflix followed their co-produced series Daredevil (2015–18), Jessica Jones (US 2015–19) and Luke Cage (US 2016–18) with Iron Fist. The first three titles established themselves as unique entrants into the canon of Marvel live-action adaptations: Daredevil offered visual brutality through its fight choreography and dark, gothic cityscape; Jessica Jones dealt with the trauma of surviving emotional and sexual abuse; Luke Cage was unapologetic in its blackness, placing race at the centre of its thematic framework. All three series gave these so-called 'street level' heroes complex emotional lives to empathise with while their cinematic brethren continued to tread in more shallow and predictable strictures. And then there was Iron Fist, the comic-book adaptation version of a backlash made flesh. As a series it offers none of the risk in subject matter or maturity of theme that made its predecessors push boundaries within the limitations of the superhero format. In the Marvel/Netflix oeuvre Iron Fist is conspicuous for its blandness, a fatal flaw that fissures from its fidelity to its source material. [End Page 161]
A key challenge Iron Fist faced on its way from page to screen is the seeming abundance of white one-percenters trying to save the world. Batman, Iron Man and Green Arrow all remain linchpins of their respective franchises and anchors to expanded, interconnected universes in cinemas and on the small screen. They are all billionaires who vanish from the world only to return somehow empowered. The particulars may vary but the basics of their origins are the same. Iron Fist seems thus superfluous from the jump.
Iron Fist was forged in the fetishisation of martial arts in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The character is a product of the effect of Bruce Lee on the popular imagination and the grindhouse features the action film pioneer made before his untimely death in 1973. Martial arts were a compelling new arrival in the pop culture and DC and Marvel comics needed to meet the demand. Creators Roy Thomas and Gil Kane first featured Iron Fist and his alter ego Danny Rand in the May 1974 issue of Marvel Premiere, essentially creating a less dynamic version of Batman. Both are orphaned billionaires, but instead of a random act of violence in Crime Alley, Wendell and Heather Rand die when their plane crashes while passing over the Himalayas during a storm. The crash is later revealed to be an assassination orchestrated by the Rand's family friend and business partner, Howard Meachum. Ten-year-old Danny survives the crash and is saved by the monks of K'un Lun, an ersatz Shangri-La crossed with Brigadoon, its gateway appearing on Earth only once every 15 years.
The monks train Danny in kung fu and he rises in their order. He becomes the Iron Fist, the chosen defender of K'un Lun, a title he earned by defeating the dragon Shou Lao the Undying and plunging his fist into its heart. This action gives Danny the ability to focus his chi, or life force, into his fist, making it an unbreakable weapon. It is the duty of the Iron Fist to guard the gateway to the mystic city at any cost, but Danny abandons his post to return to Manhattan. For the purposes of the show, he is searching for his identity. K'un Lun made him the Iron Fist and gave him duties, but Danny also wants to know if he has a place in the world that was taken from him.
The Orientalist mysticism that this origin story hinges on could possibly be passed off as wilful ignorance 40 years ago, but it is made inexcusable at a moment when matters of representation are at the forefront of the cultural conversation. Thomas and Kane created Danny Rand as a white character, a blonde, blue-eyed billionaire, and the producers of the television adaptation followed suit, casting actor Finn...