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‘Iron Fist’ Is Afraid of the Big Questions

The story at the heart of Marvel’s latest Netflix series has always been contentious, but the show wants no part of that debate

(Marvel/Ringer illustration)
(Marvel/Ringer illustration)

Iron Fist has always been problematic. The character, created by writer and editor Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane for Marvel Comics, is far from alone in that regard. Superhero comics have generally leaned toward the progressive end of the sociopolitical spectra of their times. But the creators of comics have, historically, not been a particularly diverse collection of people, and their blind spots can loom over their work. Which is how you get Danny Rand: rich white guy, martial arts expert, guardian of the mystical city of K’un-Lun, and the protagonist of the recently released and widely panned Netflix adaption Iron Fist.

Iron Fist is bad. It’s an action series about a martial arts expert that leans on set-piece fights of comically poor quality. I can’t stress this enough. The fighting in Iron Fist is awful, like Captain Kirk–fighting-a-lizard-alien-level terrible, though it gets better as the series progresses. The writing — the plotting and dialogue — is unimaginative at best and thinky-face-emoji problematic at worst. But the main reason Iron Fist fails is its unwillingness, bordering on abject fear, to tackle the central sin of the character’s creation: his very existence as a white, culturally appropriating savior. Iron Fist is 13 episodes of missed opportunities.

Let’s start here, because it’s the simplest fix: Danny Rand should have been played by an Asian actor. Many people, myself included, have been saying this for years. It’s a story about a kung fu master raised and trained by Asians in a magical Asian city. No need to overthink it! The facile objection to this is: “Danny Rand has always been white.” To which I would say: Danny Rand is not a real person or a historical figure. He’s a comic book character. Nick Fury was white for more than four decades following his 1963 debut and is now essentially synonymous with Samuel L. Jackson. To their credit, Marvel Television and showrunner Scott Buck (Dexter, Six Feet Under) tried, and apparently came close to casting Lewis Tan as Danny, before eventually settling on Finn Jones. (Tan appears as one-and-done villain Zhou Cheng in the eighth episode.)

Still, having a white actor play Iron Fist isn’t, in and of itself, necessarily a terrible choice. At least not if the show is aware of how strange it is that a blond, rich, white guy from New York City has become the mystical guardian of a legendary Asian city in the sky. That’s weird, and if you make that choice, the weirdness needs to be acknowledged. And this is where Iron Fist really fucks up.

(Marvel)
(Marvel)

Iron Fist’s origin story, in the comics and (with some minor changes) the show, goes like this: Wealthy industrialist and Asiaphile Wendell Rand; his wife, Heather; and their young son, Danny, disappear in the mountains of Tibet while searching for the mythical city of K’un-Lun. Wendell dies after falling into a crevasse. Heather and Danny stagger through the mountains, with a pack of wolves close on their trail. Miraculously, they discover a golden bridge; it is, of course, the bridge to K’un-Lun, which exists in another-dimensional plane but appears periodically in these mountains. The wolves are close on the Rands’ heels now. Heather sacrifices herself to the pack to give Danny time to cross the bridge. The people of K’un-Lun take Danny in. There, for more than a decade, he is trained, often brutally, in the ways of the martial arts and steeped in K’un-Lun’s culture and religion, which stretches back thousands of years. Eventually, Danny rises to become K’un-Lun’s best fighter. He defeats the dragon Shou-Lao in single combat and plunges his fist into its molten heart. He becomes the latest Iron Fist, the warrior-guardian of K’un-Lun, capable of focusing his chi energy into a destructive force (via his fist). Danny then returns home to New York City to reclaim his birthright as the scion of the Rand Corporation.

That’s a lot to take in as an audience member. Imagine what that would be like if it actually happened to you! Sadly, Iron Fist is not at all interested in imagining that. At every turn, the show seeks to avoid the strangeness of Danny’s biography — and the inherent problems (or opportunities) therein — by presenting everything as normal. There are some fascinating ideas trapped in the amber of Marvel’s 40-year-old story, but Buck and the writers don’t want to dig them out.

Would the citizens of K’un-Lun feel threatened by this white interloper becoming their greatest champion? Would they feel safe under the protection of a person who has no connection to their ancient culture and whose background they don’t know? How would those feelings color the way the people of K’un-Lun treated Danny? Were people there afraid of him? Did they take pity on him? Did they make fun of him? Wouldn’t Danny Rand, at a minimum, have complicated feelings about being marooned in a strange Asian city governed by the laws of magic? Wouldn’t those feelings become more intractable once, after many years of brutal training, he won the position of Iron Fist by killing a fucking dragon?

The show never touches on these basic character and world-building questions, in K’un-Lun or back in Manhattan. When Danny meets Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) he speaks to her in fluent Mandarin. K’un-Lun has been evolving separately from the earthly plane for thousands of years. So, is this Old Mandarin? Some other dialect? Wouldn’t K’un-Lun’s Mandarin speakers have a distinct accent, one modern speakers might find strange? Would K’un-Lunian Mandarin have words for “computer” or “gun” or “cellphone”? After being immersed in a Mandarin-speaking culture for over a decade, wouldn’t Danny’s English skills have eroded? Wouldn’t he feel more comfortable in any of New York City’s numerous Chinatowns rather than lurking around the Upper East Side and sleeping in the park? If he went down to Canal Street, wouldn’t people down there find a white guy speaking fluent medieval Mandarin weird? Why is Danny not the least bit interested in the numerous changes that New York has undergone since he left?

A person orphaned in a foreign land — whose rulers eventually entrust him with a tremendous responsibility — arrives back in a city he no longer knows. He’s a stranger stuck between worlds, forced to confront his own otherness. I don’t know, that’s kind of interesting. Why, if they weren’t going to cast an Asian in a culturally Asian role, didn’t Marvel tell that story? Because it was scared of engaging with the subject of Danny’s race, the concept of otherness, of foreignness, of culture. Every basic question leads directly to those places. What you’re left with is a show that is profoundly incurious about its central character, and about anything at all that doesn’t involve kicking and punching. And in trying to gloss over these questions, the show instead highlights them.

Roy Thomas, Iron Fist’s creator, now 76 years old, was recently asked about the controversy surrounding Finn’s casting. “Yeah, someone made me vaguely aware of that,” Thomas said. “I try not to think about it too much. I have so little patience for some of the feelings that some people have. I mean, I understand where it’s coming from. You know, cultural appropriation, my god. It’s just an adventure story. Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.”

What are the right words now? What would it mean in 2017 for someone to be a white kung fu master from an ancient and magic Asian city? Throughout the show, Danny Rand displays no self-awareness about how other people might view him, about how an itinerant white homeless dude schooling an Asian martial arts teacher on the proper way to kung fu could look from the outside. Iron Fist knows its story isn’t quite right. It’s just hoping you don’t notice.