Like Unto a Thing of IRON (Fist)

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.”

– Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol

Tonight at midnight, Netflix will drop the entire first season of IRON FIST, the final solo adventure of the street level Marvel Universe offerings (Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Cage) that will culminate later this year in a team up called The DEFENDERS. And whether it’s superior or inferior to the other Netflix entries, I really don’t care: one of my first and favorite beloved heroes is finally being adapted in live-action.

As a child in the late 70s and early 80s, the first comic I ever bought was Power Man and Iron Fist. Today, the Netflix series has been fraught with controversy due to what is perceived now as white-washing and/or the white-savior complex. I can understand some of why it’s being perceived through that lens today, though people forget the time period and mimicry Marvel has often employed. At that time in history they had two comic martial arts heroes: Shang Chai and Danny Rand (Iron Fist), who conveniently mirrored era legends Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, two very real martial artists: one Chinese and the other Caucasian.

Also, Iron Fist’s book only lasted a dozen issues (Shang Chai’s lasted 125) and by the time I discovered Danny Rand he was already paired with another non-white hero in a book that exemplified equality and diversity. It was a marriage of both the blaxploitation and Kung Fu craze: Shaft meets David Carradine. So while I can understand some people’s modern-day reasoning to see Iron Fist recast as an Asian-American actor, I’d like to point out, contextually, some key things the character – being white in the comic I purchased – taught a young boy in 1983:

  1. Western Thinking is Not “Superior”. Danny had learned amazing abilities, discipline and understanding from a culture far different from the western upbringing and the U.S.-centric culture I was growing up in. He looked like me, so I needed to consider that other ways of living and learning were at least equal (and perhaps better) than my own. Because of his detached upbringing, his view of American idiosyncrasies and hypocrisy challenged a young reader to step out of enculturated assumptions.
  2. The white guy is not always smartest or wisest. Danny also represented a young, developing mind in America who didn’t understand the culture or ways of living around him. Granted, this was because Danny had been raised in isolated K’un-Lun but the practical outworking was that Danny’s mind in many ways was still child-like. He had a specific set of skills and could hit things, but lacked many areas of knowledge and wisdom. So this character I was identifying with was being taught how the world works by Luke Cage – a black man. Which brings us to the fact that…
  3. The white guy was the sidekick. This comic wasn’t “Iron Fist and Power Man”. The man of color got top billing, and while you can say the format of this comic’s pairing was relationally equal, we were growing up in a world with “Batman and Robin” (Green Arrow and Speedy, etc) and everyone knew the name after the conjunction was at least somewhat lesser. Spider-man got top billing over his “Amazing Friends”. And even the cover of my first issue featured Power Man standing tall, facing the danger… while Iron Fist seemed to be performing some kind of supporting action. To punctuate this, Iron Fist’s comic had been cancelled and he’d come into Power Man’s book: the title changed to show Iron Fist had been brought into Cage’s world (and not the other way around). This spoke volumes to me, like the fact that…
  4. Prejudice and segregation needed to go. Having this white character interacting in such an environment of diversity meant the comic regularly dealt with prejudice and other racial issues. Iron Fist was not the “savior” in these matters, but stood by his friends as an active supporter of the need for change. Like Star Trek and other groundbreaking storytelling of the 20th century, the comic (and the character) showcased a young white human embracing a progressive worldview, even to the point of…
  5. Championing interracial relationships. Most people don’t realize the first groundbreaking comic book kiss appears with the relationship of Danny Rand and Misty Knight. Again, as a 10-year old white boy this visually communicated a lot about a prejudice liberated mindset. In fact, I didn’t even realize at the time how mold-breaking it was: to my developing mind it wasn’t “shocking” or “world-view challenging”… it was just there, on the page, no big deal. It imprinted my brain with a sense of expected normalcy on the matter. On top of that…
  6. Misty Knight was a strong female character. She was written with confident personality, self-supporting profession, and more… she was not just Iron Fist’s arm candy. It wasn’t just issues of racial equality being expressed, but the portrayal of men and women. Sorry 21st century, contrary to popular belief you didn’t just start giving us stories of women with agency. 

The lessons just kept on coming: as a young white boy I slipped into the slippers of Danny Rand and experienced more than just comic book fisticuffs. I received these and many other lessons that helped instill in my soul a sense of diversity, humility, and more. Since a Chinese martial arts character existed alongside Iron Fist (even longer, and solo, in his own book) Shang Chi provided another vehicle for identification. And yes, I’d love to see him get a Netflix series in the future too, satisfying another expressed cultural desire for representation (and so we can have the inevitable conflict – followed by a team-up, naturally – of these Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Then another image of diverse, but united, side-by-side partnership will be in play.

As we say at Cinemagogue, everything preaches. Will the Netflix Iron Fist series, and the Defenders follow-up, showcase some of these key ingredients again that were so formative to my childhood? I hope so, because they’re all still relevant: the lessons I learned as a boy need to be embraced by just as many people today, the problems haven’t diminished, and in certain ways have become more polarized. If a new generation of kids like me – pale mixes of Irish, German, Scottish, etc. – can slip into the footwear of a Danny Rand and walk through a world of cultural, racial, and relational equality with respect, bring it on.

It also explains why I’ve cosplayed as Iron Fist, and why I will be binge-ing 13 hours of television this weekend. I am 10 years old again. Bring it on!

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