Why Marvel should address Iron Fist's legacy and kung fu exploitation in Season 2

Contributed by
Apr 11, 2017

By now, we've all seen Iron Fist, and we can all admit that it's not good. Colleen Wing has her charms, Claire Temple is always a welcome sight, and Carrie-Anne Moss really deserved a better post-Matrix career, but beyond those forgiving observations, there isn't much to say about Iron Fist. It's boring, the fight scenes are slow and uninspiring, Danny Rand is not a good protagonist, and Finn Jones was miscast.

Besides just plain not being good television, Iron Fist is also mired in controversy as fans argue whether or not Danny Rand should have been reimagined as an Asian-American character and if that would have made the show any better. The answers are "probably" and "definitely yes."

There are a number of problems facing Iron Fist from the conceptual stage, the first of which is the show Arrow. To the audience, the vast majority of whom do not read comic books and only know the movie/TV versions of these characters, Danny Rand is interchangeable with Oliver Queen. They're both billionaire prodigal sons returned after years away who learned martial arts in a land out of time, and they're both trying to reclaim their family businesses from frenemy CEOs while maintaining a side business as a superhero. So from the very beginning of considering an Iron Fist show, you should be thinking about how to set Danny Rand apart in a crowded hero TV-scape.

But there's another problem that needs addressing, and that is the controversial cultural legacy with which the character is saddled. Iron Fist debuted in 1974, three years after Bruce Lee's film The Big Boss sparked an international interest in martial arts and gave birth to kung fu exploitation as a film sub-genre. Kung fu exploitation tends to get lumped in with blaxploitation, which is understandable as both flourished in the B-movie culture of 1970s cinema. But blaxploitation grew out of a culture largely ignored by mainstream cinema, and so African-Americans created their own sub-genre, which just happened to catch on with a larger audience.

Kung fu exploitation, on the other hand, is pretty much just white filmmakers inspired by Bruce Lee ripping off Bruce Lee. There are other exploitation sub-genres, like chambara (B-grade samurai movies) and ninja films (totally badass ninja glorification), which grew organically out of Asian film cultures much like blaxploitation did in the US. But Kung fu exploitation, the kind that led to Iron Fist making his debut in 1974, is predicated on the notion of appropriation. And that's not a great legacy to saddle a character with in the 21st century.

So what to do about Iron Fist, here and now and on TV? Ideally, Marvel would have pulled the trigger on casting an Asian American leading man. That would give Danny Rand a unique identity within the superhero field, separating him from Oliver Queen and lending his show a specific point of view, much like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Those shows power through their weak spots on the strength of their respective heroes' compelling, unique voices. With an Asian lead, Iron Fist could have developed a similarly singular voice and also opened many more doors through which to explore the character.

But we're stuck with Finn Jones and Season 1 is in the bag. Supposing there is a Season 2 — of course there will be, Marvel never admits defeat (see also: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) — where should Marvel go from here? For my money, it's to run right at the appropriation and exploitation issues inherent in the character. Make the entire Season 2 theme consist of Danny exploring the ways in which him being a rich white dude impact his role as Iron Fist, and vice versa. It doesn't have to be the substance of every single conversation in every single episode, but Iron Fist desperately needs a stronger engine driving the drama, and Danny wrestling with these conflicting facets of his identity — and that people may see him as a grasping interloper — gives him something to chew on.

If there's no possibility of passing the title to an Asian character, then let the next season explore the ramifications of a white Iron Fist. However much we would like our entertainment free of politics, we can't ignore these issues when representation is still so drastically imbalanced. And at least, in engaging with the complicated legacy of kung fu exploitation and Iron Fist's role in appropriation, the show stands to gain some much-needed perspective and personality.