Does Netflix's Iron Fist Illuminate American Politics?
By Wil Forbis
Decemeber 1, 2018
Iron Fist would probably not be many people's choice for favorite superhero. But for a while in the early 1980s, when I was crossing into teenhood, he was mine.
This admission probably provokes certain thoughts to arise in my readers' heads like, "Why?" or "Who the fuck is Iron Fist?"
I'll answer the second question first. Iron Fist was a Marvel Comics superhero created in the early 1970s. Born Danny Rand, he was an orphaned child who ended up in a mystical, Shangra-La-like Asian city where he learned kung-fu and earned the power of the iron fist which basically meant his hand would start glowing and he could smash things. Iron Fist was never an A-list superhero like Spider-man or the Hulk, and probably existed most memorably when he was paired with another B-lister, Power Man, in a comic titled, fittingly enough, "Power Man and Iron Fist."
So why did I crush on him? I grew up in Hawaii, a locale steeped in Asian culture, so I'm tempted to say that Danny Rand growing up as a white kid surrounded by Asians made him relatable to me, but I doubt that's really it. Mainly I just thought he looked cool. I really dug the wraparound face mask he wore (for some indecipherable reason it seemed hipper than the helmet-style masks worn by guys like Spider-Man or Daredevil) and I liked the dragon tattoo on his chest. Who knows what piques a kid's interest?
As a result of my fandom, I was excited when Netflix announced the addition of an Iron Fist show to their slate of Marvel comic book programs. (Power Man, now simply known as Luke Cage, also got his own show.) This announcement, however, was soon embroiled in controversy. Caucasian actor Finn Jones was cast in the lead role, and, even though the comic book version of Iron Fist is white, some activists and critics argued that the role should be filled by an Asian actor due to the fact that the Iron Fist mythos was heavily indebted to Asian culture. (He was clearly created in response to the boom of kung fu movies in the late sixties and early seventies.)
There were additional complaints that the TV Danny Rand character was not just white but insanely rich in an era when "privilege" was becoming a pejorative. On top of all that, once onscreen the Netflix Danny Rand turned out to be written as something of a petulant whiner.
I objected to these objections. I could say it was because I felt that Iron Fist's "fish out of water" experience as a white kid raised in an Asian city and later as a cultural Asian in New York was essential to his character, but really, I think I just wanted "my" Iron Fist, the character from the comic, to be what showed up on screen. The comic book Iron Fist was white and rich (he was not, however, a whiner) and I felt the show should stay loyal to that vision.
I briefly touched on the whole controversy at the time in this article and I will add here that I get why some Asians were angry about the Iron Fist casting. Often, when Hollywood updates a particular entertainment property they throw in a Black dude or a woman (consider Ving Rhames character in the Mission Impossible franchise or the female Ghostbusters), but seldom an Asian. Doubtless this response is partly driven by the stereotype that Asian audience members are passive and won't complain. So I understand why the current generation of Asian Americans would find this galling and want to make some noise.
In 2017, season one of the show dropped and, uh, it wasn't that great. Unlike every other Marvel Netflix show it had a bland, forgettable villain and like most other Marvel shows it had pretty mediocre dialogue and didn't have a particularly cohesive plot. Some people also complained about a lack of quality action scenes though I don't recall that bothering me at the time. The critics panned it and it looked like the show might be cancelled. But, in fact, it was not and this year, season two hit the screen.
SPOILER ALERT! THE NEXT SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS DISCUSS THE PLOT OF THE SECOND SEASON OF THE NETFLIX IRON FIST SHOW!
The second season of Iron Fist was supposedly retooled to handle some of the objections to the show and character. I watched it not long ago and a couple things bugged me about it.
First, Iron Fist was basically a pussy. In the comic, Iron Fist is supposed to be one of the greatest kung fu practitioners on the planet. In the second season, while Danny Rand could ably handle attacks by regular goons and henchman, he was incapable of defeating either of the shows major villains---Davos and Typhoid Mary---without serious help.
Second, by the end of the show, Iron Fist no longer had the iron fist. Early in the second season, the iron fist power was stolen from Danny and by the end, for reasons not worth getting into, he decided to not retrieve it but rather to hand the power to his girlfriend, fellow martial arts master Colleen Wing. (For hard-to-understand reasons this dissolves their romantic relationship.)
Now, from a certain point of view this was a clever plot twist not without precedent in the comics world. Stories where Superman's power got handed to Lois Lane, or Iron Man passed his suit of armor over to his best friend have all taken place over the years. Why not do TV show spin on this old comic trope?
But here's the thing: Colleen's character is half-asian, and it was pretty easy to see what was going on. The writers of the show, blanched by criticism of the white, uber-rich Danny Rand Iron Fist were setting up the possibility that the series' titular character would fit a more progressive model.
And, well, frankly, it pissed me off. As I said before, I wanted my Iron Fist---the one from the comic--to be the focus of the show. Handing the fist power to Colleen would have been a smart twist had it been motivated by the telling of a good story, but if it were merely pc-politics, it smelled rotten.
Then, not long after the second season premiered, the show was cancelled. Not longer after, The Netflix Luke Cage show (a far better show though not without its own flaws) was also axed.
I'm tempted to say the hamfisted way the Iron Fist show was handled alienated everyone and pleased no one. But, in fact, despite being loathed by critics, Netflix's Iron Fist actually has a pretty high audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Somewhere around the time I was digesting the show's cancellation, a thought occurred to me, and if you'll allow me a tangent or two, I will share it with you. We keep hearing about how white guys (like myself), particularly white guys who voted for Trump (unlike myself), are driven by a certain sense of rage. A rage not about the economy or wage stagnation but over their impending loss of power as minorities gain a larger share of the population. This is a theory most frequently expounded upon by Vox magazine in articles like this one.
Now I don't completely buy this argument---I think there are a lot of factors that prodded people to vote for Trump (I get into some of that here)---but, yeah, I think there's some truth to it. White folks are feeling a certain unease with the realization that the America of their youth is fading fast, never to return.
To illustrate how much America has changed consider a movie that defined my teen years: The Breakfast Club. If you watch it today, you notice one thing: everyone in the film is white. And that's not because of some racist gatekeeping---the vast majority in a school such as that in 1985 probably would have been white. But we all know if that film were made today it it would have a different racial balance to accurately reflect the times.
So you probably see where I'm going with this. My discomfort with the "asianization" of Iron Fist is an example of the same sort of thing driving Trump voters (and feelings of white vulnerability in general.) I wanted the Iron Fist of my youth. Other older white folk want the America of their youth.
Now, I should be clear here: I don't feel any guilt for this reaction. I think not wanting things to change is a normal human response. I think the various creative forces behind the Iron Fist show did fuck up, first by making the character whiney and unlikeable and then responding to outside pressure to change the storyline. If anything, understanding this has given me a certain sympathy for this sub-group of Trump voters---people who grew up in one world and are now facing a radically new one. In my own little Iron Fist way, I get their anxiety.
But I also have to say to them: deal with it. Put on your big boy pants and handle shit because time's are changing.
It will be totally absurd if, decades from now, the classic superheroes are the same---still a collection of good looking white dudes (and the occasional gal.) In order to be relevant, to appeal to generations to come, these characters will have to change, to reflect the times and their readers.
100 years from now, Iron Fist may be gay. Superman may be black. Bat-Man may be autistic. The Hulk may be a zhe.
Mickey Mouse may be a cat.
How about that?
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.