From Power Man to Iron Fist: Netflix’s Newest Marvel Show Looks Lame as Hell

The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.

The latest in Netflix’s roster of Marvel TV show heroes, The Defenders, is almost here.  Netflix’s Defenders were intended to be four: Daredevil, Luke Cage (Power Man), Jessica Jones and now Iron Fist, so we’ve finally rounded out the roster.

The trailer looks underwhelming.  Without some notable changes, Marvel could drop the ball on one of their more underrated characters.  The show won’t be released on Netflix until March 17th, 2017, so here’s what I anticipate based on the trailers released so far, Netflix’s approach to previous shows, and the comics history of the character.  In short, this one could bomb.   Let’s talk a little about the history, problems, and possibilities of this character.

So who is Iron Fist?

Iron Fist's first appearance, in Marvel Premiere #15.
Iron Fist’s first appearance, in Marvel Premiere #15.

The classic Iron Fist backstory follows Danny Rand, wealthy heir of  Rand Enterprises, as he returns after many years from an ill-fated trip to Asia with his mother father, and Harold Meachum, his father’s business partner.  As we come to learn, Rand Sr. was murdered by Meachum on the slopes of the Himalayas, leaving young Daniel the sole survivor of the journey.  Meachum alone survives to walk down out of the snow, where he is finally able to return home and assume sole control of the company.  The younger Rand is rescued by monks and taken to the mystical Himalayan city of K’un Lun, to cross a bridge into the heart of Sino-American Mythology: Chinese-flavored, American-grown, very Marvel.

Iron Fist originally was one of Marvel’s answers to the the Kung-Fu craze of the 1970’s, along with Shiang-Chi (basically a super Bruce Lee) and a few others.  There was even a Fu Manchu. Really.

In the 70’s and 80’s, Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) shared a  shared a monthly comic with Danny Rand called Power Man and Iron Fist.  PM&IF was originally written as Power Man’s title; he alone was the original Hero for Hire: a jive-talking (no, really; he actually uses the word ‘jive’ a fair deal) blaxploitation-era ex-con.  In terms of the style of the period, with Cage, Marvel were really going for it, he had a black power afro and a steel headband and actually had chains as a part of his costume.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to assume that writers at Marvel started with a character named “Black Power Man” and just sort of worked their way backward, trimming words.  He regularly assailed pimps, superpowered gang hoods with names like “Comanche” or “the Big Boss,” even slumlords with evil robots.  A favorite image is of Cage punching a pimp’s leopardskin Cadillac head on, which should basically tell you everything you need to know.

The battle is joined: Power Man and Iron Fist #50.
The battle is joined: Power Man and Iron Fist #50.

When Power Man solo couldn’t make sales targets, Iron Fist was added in to make it a buddy-title– Iron Fist himself being another C-lister of the time.  Together, the thinking went, they had enough star power to carry the title.  The combination of these two themes: overseasoned Kung Fu alongside urban blaxploitation swagger, and you had a pretty distinct flavor.  By issue #50, they joined forces, presumably making a single, unified trope out of many lesser ones.

The Heroes for Hire were unique for a couple of reasons: first, that their identities were publicly known, and second, that they charged for their services.  PM&IF lasted until issue #125 issues, concluding with the third unique feature: the series ended with Iron Fist’s bizarre, friendly-fire death.  I’m going to go ahead and spoil it: Iron Fist punched through a wall by a deluded loser named “Captain Hero” who was trying to wake him up from a nap and he dies.  The End.  If you think that sounds stupid now, imagine how unsatisfying that was to read at the time.  It was absolutely inexplicable, you could feel the writers’ fatigue and frustration steaming off the page,  glad to just get the whole thing over with.  I came to PM&IF late, just towards the end of its full run, and my impression was that it was decent, if inconsistent.  By that time, the monthly stories alternated from character-to-character, as if they didn’t share the spotlight so much as pass it back-and-forth, with no real underlying continuity.  It didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, the way X-Men or Spider-Man or even Daredevil were loaded with front stories, backstories, unresolved potentials, burning revenges, collective history.  On the other hand, the last two issues, #123, “Getting Ugly,” where Cage battles a racially-motivated super-serial killer and #124, where Rand single-handedly takes on the Ninja clan callled The Hand, were excellent.  They caught their mojo just a few months too late.

Remarkably for Marvel, Iron Fist actually stayed dead for a while.  He was eventually brought back to life with some half-assed explanation that the guy who died was not the real Rand, but actually an alien impersonator.  This is the standard Marvel go-to when someone dead needs to be brought back (see also: Jean Grey/Phoenix), although robots do that job from time-to-time– practically a joke where Nick Fury is concerned, he’s ‘died’ so many times, only to turn out to have been a robot.  That’s actually what Marvel should have done with Nick Fury to start with.  Is there anyone who doesn’t prefer the Samuel L. Jackson version? No. The solution: “I was black the whole time!  That other guy was my white robot!”  Meanwhile, Cage rotated in and out of the occasional super team and even had his own title at various times, moving from C-lister to B-lister.

Luke Cage was Netflix’s previous show, and it performed respectably, gaining a decent buzz.  The plan had always been for Iron Fist to follow, leading into the Defenders, with all of them together.

A previous incarnation of the Iron Fist.
A previous incarnation of the Iron Fist battles the Huns on the steppes of Asia.

So, what can Iron Fist do?  He is a master of the mystical martial arts of K’un L’un, a mystical city in the Chinese Himalayas.  His name, the Iron Fist, is actually a conferred honorific that one attains by beating a dragon, named Shou Lou the Undying, in combat.  This means that the Iron Fist is a role that is earned, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Rand is merely the latest in a long line of Iron Fists, and arguably one of the least interesting, given some of the stories of previous Iron Fists that occasionally pop-up in historical flashbacks.

The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.
The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.

The Iron Fist has the power of the dragon Shou Lou the Undying permanently embedded in his chest.  So, the thing to know here is that in any given plot-clinch moment, drawing on the Chi of this mystical creature is the sole superpower the Iron Fist possesses. It’s what brings him from unpowered-but-amazing-fighter to full-on Superhero, in league with A-Class hitters like the Avengers.  Other than his ability to punch, Iron Fist is just a really well-trained guy.  But he punches very, very hard.

We can all see the issue that Netflix is going to run into with Iron Fist.  We’ve already watched Bruce Wayne hike to the top of the Himalayas to be trained in Secret Martial Arts.  We then watched him come home to try and re-take his father’s company.  According to the trailer, this looks to be exactly the same storyline Iron Fist is going with. You’re telling me another white trust fund kid hiked off into the mountains to become a ninja, and we are supposed to care, well, why, exactly?  How is this different, really?  No pointy ears?

The show isn’t out yet, but if there’s no credible, stylish and distinct answer to that question, that sound you are hearing is Netflix’s Marvel’s star finally crashing to Earth.   The blogosphere was aghast to learn that Marvel was playing this one straight with no modifications to the origin or casting.  This seems somewhat tone-deaf given the current social media climate, where an outrage-of-the-week seems predictable here, and the tendency of modern fans to feel they are somehow entitled to direct input into the art that will be produced for their consumption.  For example, a specific request has been made: Why can’t he be Asian this time?

The answer is, there’s no good reason.  Sure, retrofitting existing characters into new ethnicities always feels something like a ham-handed capitulation to momentary pressure.  While some on Twitter will groan, audiences do accept retrofitted characters, especially when played by real, bankable stars such as the aforementioned Mr. Jackson.  However, they prefer exciting originals. Another variation can be the re-use of a name by a new entity entirely, such as John Stewart’s Green Lantern [he’s black], or Miles Morales’ Spider Man [Afro-Latino].  I’d call Kemala Khan’s Ms. Marvel [Muslim] an original, since she has a different set of powers entirely compared to the Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel, though they do share a name.)  Given that we don’t have the requisite twenty years to get a new brand hammered into the public consciousness, the retrofit approach can have some merit.

Here are the facts: Marvel has pitifully few leading Asian characters.  It does seem like, at best, an oversight, when the character best-suited to Asian representation (Chinese, in this case) doesn’t get one.  Okay, sure, Danny Rand is white.  Danny Rand has always been white– that was the whole point of the black-white superhero buddy team.  But in 2017 he’s a white guy playing at Asian mythology in a field full of white guys who have already done this.  Staying filial to the character as envisioned might not just be insensitive, or appropriationist, or whatever. It’s worse than that: it might be, well, kind of boring.  This character really needs some spice.  Revised casting doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, especially if it’s someone who understands and can perform the martial arts necessary for the role.

What makes Rand interesting is that he is a perpetual fish-out-of-water, neither at home in China (remember, he was in the land of the Gods: China is a place he never actually visited, Chinese a language he doesn’t speak) nor in the USA.  It might have been interesting to have him be half-Chinese, half Anglo-American.  Remember, his parents died when he was quite young.  This offers writers the additional character-driven dimension of Rand learning to re-acculturate in both the  Western and Eastern worlds, driving home the point that he’s at home in neither.  This type of dimension is interesting, modern, and has something to tell us.  It updates the character without changing much.  It also allows the story to achieve operatic, family drama notes.  Perhaps Rand’s arrival in K’un L’un wasn’t as accidental as it seemed? Perhaps the forces of mystical China were claiming a price of their own for debts prior to Rand’s arrival, and the enemies he thought he had to face are backed by other, far older and more powerful enemies?  And finally, not to put too fine a point on it, it may increase the likelihood of being able to make some money back selling the show in Asia.

Secondly, I would lean heavily on the ‘Immortal’ lineage of the Iron Fist.  The Fist has endured for centuries and watched the decline of empires and colonies.  He’s battled Huns on the steppes of Asia, gangsters in the alleyways of 1920’s Hong Kong and the Japanese invaders in WWII.  Use this.  Bring in other stories, flashbacks, interweaved stories, places and times.  This is, stylistically,  incredibly rich territory to be able to mine, unique and distinct from Batman, Daredevil, or Cage, and also allows for a number of other interesting characters to be seeded.  Nothing shown in any of the press or video suggests they’ve taken on anything like this.  I’m guessing that this was too deep, too expensive and too far afield of the prime directive at this point, which is “set up The Defenders.” Too bad.  Season two?

The Immortal Weapons of K'un L'un.
The Immortal Weapons of K’un L’un.

Finally, and this is something I expect to see a lot of– issue #124 with him taking on the Hand solo comes to mind as classic, perfect Iron Fist– we will need fantastic mystical kung-fu battles.  Wildly-dressed antagonists with bizarre names like “Mother of Spiders,” “Crane Mother,” “Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter,” and so on.  Mystical allies like “Lei Kung the Thunderer.”  Alternate dimensions and martial arts tournaments.  Elaborately named, quasi-magical Kung Fu moves should be expected, as well as bright costumes and superhuman enemies.  But as far as the trailers go, this isn’t what I’m seeing.  More regularly-dressed people walking the streets of New York city.  Once again, Netflix is playing it too realistic and bleaching out the elements that made the property fun in the first place.  Where are the armies of Ninjas?  Reminder: this is a guy who got his powers by beating a dragon in hand-to-hand combat.  This should feel like a world that at least has dragons in it.  It doesn’t.

I’ve argued a similar case for Daredevil, which needs aerial, rooftop parkour battle as one of its essential flavors.  Iron Fist is a little different: picture Iron Monkey plus Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon plus Mortal Kombat plus Big Trouble in Little China.  It shouldn’t take itself too seriously, or get too dark.  Marvel’s K’un L’un is to China the way Marvel’s Asgard is to Norway.  That is, no relation.  Long on spectacle, if short on truth.  Daredevil was streetbound superheroics.  Jessica Jones is the woman on the trail of a mystery from her past.  Luke Cage is the protector of the streets.  Iron Fist has to be magic, has to bring something new.

If they can pay these elements out, the show may be something special indeed. If not, well, we’ll finally know what peak super hero looks like.

 

 

 

 

 

Super Fly! Where Daredevil Went Wrong

dd-2011I’m a longtime Daredevil fan. I liked the comic: “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” in the 80’s and 90’s. It had ninja action, the ‘blind radar’ shtick, acrobatics, a dark, urban severity. I wanted to love Netflix’s version of it. In the end, I just liked it. Tepidly. As in, “Yeah, pretty much, I guess.”

Where did they go wrong?

How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero

Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns.  Here are some ways to know you are dealing with a comic archetype.

Costume
Daredevil's red costume.
Daredevil’s red costume.

Any good hero has a costume that protects his identity.  The mask, a necessary staple, allows the hero to be more than the individual, and helps to cement their particular iconic language.  If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern.  Color also does a lot of work here, and Daredevil, while the interlocking DD of his logo is red-on-red, the entire costume is (in the comics) a very full red color.  From a brand standpoint, Daredevil ‘owns’ the color red in the Marvel universe, the way Facebook ‘owns’ blue on a web page.  Single-color costumes are rare, and the DD costume is the rare exception.

Another detail that almost always fails the transition to from comics to cinema  is the comic convention of white eyes.  Masked superheroes are typically drawn with no visible pupils or irises, whereas in their cinematic versions, eyes are shown as, well, eyes, with the actors possibly face-painted beneath the mask to soften the gap between mask and face.  In DD’s case, they used red glass.  The Daredevil of the comics series had another interesting detail here, as the mask was a single piece of fabric that covered his eyes, because he is blind.  It was never well-explained why his enemies never seemed to catch on.

Daredevil's 'ninja' costume.
Daredevil’s ‘ninja’ costume.

In the Netflix series, Daredevil wore a black ninja-like costume for most of season 1.  Officially, he had no costume until the very last episode.  Clearly, the writers wanted to hook the audience by making the process of acquiring it a plot-point, and part of me believes they felt they needed to lay the trap and get the audience committed before showing them a costume that a less invested audience might find stupid-looking or silly,  knowing poor costume choices have sunk plenty of franchises.

As a plot-point, it works.  The costume looks great, and it answers a question that the series in constantly asking itself, i.e. “how can this guy take another beating?” The answer: lightweight body-armor.  But that also means they spend 90% of the first season not establishing the foundations of the iconography and visual palette that a superhero series needs.

Weapon

This is critical.  The way the hero fights tells us everything about his personal style.  Does he fight hand-to-hand?  With a sword?  A gun?  A boomerang?  A shield?

In Daredevil’s case,  his weapon is his billy club.  Concealed as a blind man’s cane, the billy club is a multipurpose weapon.  Its foundation is a multi-part staff: two, sometimes three separate staves. It also doubles as nunchuks, can be rejoined as a single piece to make a staff, it’s wired to a climbing grapnel, and seems to have retractable cording of varying length.  It’s strong enough to be used as a climbing tool and block bullets,  but light enough to be thrown, ricochet off of walls, spin, bounce and block. A versatile weapon that is also instrumental in getting around town.  So far so good.

Once again, the creators of Marvel’s Daredevil apparently thought this could be withheld until the last episodes of the second season.  I get what they are trying to do, but I’m shocked they as TV people thought they had that kind of time.  Aaron Sorkin has observed that a play is the hardest entertainment to abandon,  and a TV show is the easiest.  And yet this seems like a decision that could only ever be made on a show the creators were certain people would binge-watch.  What are you saving the ammunition for?

Instead, we’re left with punch after punch after punch.  Had  Daredevil had this weapon to start, not only would we have been able to use the fighting style he’s known for,  we would have been able to avoid a lot of the ‘bloody beatdown syndrome’  the show seemed to suffer from, and seen more of the way he is supposed to travel in the bargain.

Travel

Heroes travel in style.  James Bond has his Aston Martin.  Batman has the Batmobile.  Spider-Man and Iron Man hit a double here by having their means of travel also double as an offensive weapon.  On the topic of Spider-Man or Iron Man, their means of travel is also something they needed to master, and as their mastery is earned, becomes something the audience is allowed to share in the exhilaration of.

Even Superman.

Daredevil’s means of travel is especially exhilarating, a mixture of aerialism and urban free running, in which he combines his cables and acrobatic maneuvers to make the cityscape into a personal obstacle course.  He leaps from rooftops, vaults walls, flips from fire escapes, swings from water towers, and catches clotheslines and flagpoles. A typically dynamic Daredevil pose is one that puts him in an impossible, death-defying aerial maneuver, especially on the comic’s covers, which always raise the question, “how is he going to land that?”

Daredevil cover.
Daredevil cover.

Why was this not taken advantage of more frequently in the TV show? Obviously it is difficult to do, and some amount of special-effects will be needed.  But this isn’t under-seasoned, it’s a total omission.  With the exception of a car chase in which Matt Murdock follows a Triad car to a drug warehouse, there is essentially no acrobatics on the show whatsoever, except for the occasional Kung-Fu flip.  This is a miss, and a huge part of what makes Daredevil, well, you know.

Any reason these guys couldn’t be put in a red suit for the occasional key stunt?

Flavor

Daredevil never had the same clear essence as a lot of other properties.   He’s often called Marvel’s Batman, so consider. Batman has already been done, and re-done. You’ll notice that each time Batman is re-imagined, a new aspect of flavor is drawn out. The original TV series was comedic, and had a rollicking, self-aware aspect with a ludicrous ‘rogues gallery’ of  villains. The Keaton movies were self-serious, but ballooned, gothic, almost stagelike in their dark melodrama. The Schumacher versions were neon, toy circuses.  The cartoons are timeless, intertwining classic cars and 30’s clothing with the elements of modern life, such as cell phones and the internet. The video games are high-tech, showcasing the slick weaponry and vehicles. The Nolan films are the most human-scaled, a moody introspection on a very troubled man named Bruce, who has this weird, obsessive thing that he does. Each incarnation takes a different vantage point, each makes a specific evolution with its times, and yet all of them are recognizably the same character.

Daredevil has a comic, a movie, and now a TV show, and only the comic has ever really managed to scrape the essence of something distinct and original, whereas the other media offer a photo carousel of snapshots we’ve seen before and better in other places.

For my money, the peak Daredevil era was the 70’s-80’s. Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for the Man Without Fear, but this was a rehash. I also have to absolutely point out the work done here by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s, as well as Brubaker. If anything made him cinematic, ready for TV primetime, their work was it.

What is the flavor?

The Street.  This is one area where he really has it down.  Daredevil is Hell’s Kitchen the way Batman is Gotham.   Hell’s Kitchen is fully realized, with its own history and backstory, supporting characters, bystanders.  Ironically, it suffers perhaps from being too fully realized: since it corresponds to a real place,  and that real place has essentially gentrified into history, the cables needed to suspend disbelief here show signs of  strain.

Here’s a version that never was: Director Joe Carnahan’s pitch which places the story in 1973.  Carnahan gave us a sizzle reel that encapsulates everything about the era that Daredevil was born into, and the flavor that he absorbed.

Seeing this really drives the point home that it’s possible that the character, at his best, symbolized a bygone New York that it’s  just impossible to sell in a modern context, when Hell’s Kitchen is now called “Clinton” and the Manhattan of The Warriors, Super Fly and Death Wish is long, long gone.

The senses.  Yes, Daredevil is blind.  More importantly, however, all of his other senses are superior, and he has radar finely-grained enough to block arrows and bullets with his club.  That means whenever we encounter a scene from his perspective, it should have a sound profile, a scent palette.  It should be tactile and raise the skin.  Is should happen,  not bounded but peripheral vision and the direction of his head, but in a 360-degree, sonar-like totality, with no upside-down or right-side-up.  He does not see the world in the way that we do, and this should present a director with constant opportunity for new creative executions.

This was, frankly, almost totally overlooked on the show. Aside from the occasions where the protagonist can hear off-camera antagonists, there’s a disappointing thinness to the sense-palette, which seems like an chance for any interested director to have a lot of fun.  Whoops.

Ninjas.  by ninjas I mean less oriental mysticism, which is really Iron Fist’s and Shiang-Chi’s territory, and more just what we can call ‘antagonists of phenomenal prowess.’  One of the most magical elements of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is that yes, there are secret Ninja societies like the Hand,  but there are also vagrants with baseball bats who perform at a supernatural level (Wildboys), S&M Swordswomen (Typhoid Mary), Mafia assassins galore (Bullseye), government super-mercenaries (Bullet, Shotgun, Bushwhacker).  These are the kind of fights that happen at hand-to-hand scale and are interdependent with his aerial skills.  The crimes Daredevil solves are street crimes, not megavillains.

Typhoid Mary
Typhoid Mary and Daredevil lay down their arms.

Sex.  The Daredevil brand has always been more adult, compared to the infinitely-adolescent Spider-Man.  The action on the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen often gets hot, with love triangles and forbidden encounters and a near-infinite supply of Femme Fatales.  Elektra,  Black Widow, Typhoid Mary, Karen Page, Black Cat have all graced the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen.  Somehow, things never work out.

Sacrifice.  Characters in Daredevil die.  Sometimes they are broken before they die.  Karen Page’s character in the comics undergoes one of the most Requiem for a Dream-like descents of any modern comics character, as the Kingpin has her strung out on drugs and performing in porn for drug money before she contracts AIDS and ultimately dies from an overdose.  Matt Murdock suffers, and the people around him suffer, too.  This was something the TV show didn’t shy away from,  although they wisely kept Karen Page’s character in-play, as one of the lighter elements in an otherwise heavy show.  Curiously, the Ben Urich character does not die in the comics,  whereas in the Netflix show, he does.

Righteousness.  Daredevil isn’t one of those heroes who suffers from too much introspection or crises-of-clarity.  He sees a problem,  he punches it.  He will always do what he sees as “the right thing” even when it isn’t the heroic thing.  He once pointed what he thought was a loaded gun at the Punisher and pulled the trigger.  He became the King of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld in a  misconceived attempt to reduce crime.  He has a very, very well-developed sense of right and wrong, especially so long as what he intends to do is what he thinks is ‘right.’  So far as I know,  Daredevil is the only hero who has had other heroes stage an intervention to tell him “you’re out of control,  chill the hell out,” to which be basically told them to screw themselves.  This isn’t a guy you want getting his hands on Sauron’s ring.  He will (and has) turn NYC into Hell on Earth if he thinks it will reduce muggings.  It is not a coincidence that Daredevil  is loaded with Catholic iconography, and that the character Matt Murdock is himself Catholic.  Self-doubt isn’t the issue, here.

As to these characteristics, With the exception of the sense palette, I tip my hat.  The Netflix series actually really nailed the rest of the elements. However, they are out of balance.  The resulting product is too dark.

The magic of Daredevil relies on the interplay between excitement and dread.  Exhilaration– as expressed by weightlessness, aerialism,  daring, unbounded physical restraint– against dread: the bureaucratic confinement of the legal system, the will of the powerful, the terrorizing, the Kingpins.   That victory against all odds– even for the poorest,  the underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks, the handicapped and underestimated– victory is possible if you have the heart,  the will, and the fearlessness.  The show delivers on its fair share of dread, but unfortunately, where the counterbalance of exhilaration is called for, they deliver mere violence instead.  The result is, disappointingly, more weight. One of these ingredients is overpowering, and the other, the other seems to have been almost totally forgotten.

There’s plenty to thrill here, and accolades the fight scenes have received are well-deserved.  But as to whether anyone has yet quite captured the essence of what this character was at his best, unfortunately that note still hasn’t been struck.  There’s still season 3.  I guess.