It may have been instantly branded as the worst Marvel show on Netflix, but defenders of Iron Fist came to its defense, reminding everyone that telling a “great Iron Fist story” isn’t exactly easy. It’s a fair argument… at least, it would be if Marvel Comics didn’t immediately begin to tell exactly that. Not just a compelling, unorthodox story following the immortal Iron Fist, Danny Rand, and not just a story built to please fans of classic kung fu adventures. But in short, the kind of story that Netflix’s Iron Fist series really should have been if the studio wanted to make it in any way memorable.
To be clear, this isn’t a case of critics or ‘haters’ sitting through Iron Fist and turning to the expansive world of Marvel Comics to claim that a Heroes For Hire series would’ve been better (although that’s a seriously promising idea). Even for those who thought Iron Fist wasn’t actually bad, Marvel’s new Iron Fist series begins Danny’s story in a fascinating place, giving him unique challenges and motivations, an unexpected mission among the rest of the Defenders origin stories, and – most importantly – more martial arts action than fans could ever hope for.
The Netflix series did give Iron Fist some memorable moments, but started things on an odd foot. The idea of a millionaire heir returning from the dead to reclaim his empire isn’t exactly a groundbreaking notion… it’s actually the first clue that Iron Fist was weirdly copying Arrow. But aside from the playful comparisons, it was a missed opportunity to begin Danny’s story in a more interesting place for the audience. From one point of view, it’s beginning his story after the exciting things have happened. That idea isn’t devoid of potential, but how to capitalize on that potential is far better demonstrated in Iron Fist #1 from writer Ed Brisson and artist Mike Perkins and Andy Troy.
Issue #1 opens with Danny – a completely unknown figure to the reader (aside from those familiar with the character, obviously) – stepping up to compete in an underground, bare knuckle boxing tournament. Putting forward the cash needed for entry, and taking in the enormous, intimidating, musclebound, or murderous fighters, Danny claims he wishes to fight every one of them. A deceptively small, Caucasian male stepping into this arena sends all the messages it’s supposed to with a cold open. The one thing Danny has going for him is a death wish.
An American steps into a Bulgarian fighting pit. Puts up $1,000,000 to fight everyone present. Defeats ever single one of them in a smash-cut of fists and feet. And as an unknown man watches intently from the shadows, Danny reveals that he came in search of something. But whatever that is… he didn’t find it here. It’s the kind of opening that sells a comic book arc, every bit as well as it would sell a TV series or film. A protagonist with surprising gifts, uncommon traits, and a clear motivation that the viewers is not yet privy to. Most importantly, in contrast to the Netflix series, it establishes that Danny’s martial arts skills aren’t just thrilling or accomplished – they’re somewhat insignificant.
He’s deadly, sure. But he doesn’t enjoy it. In fact, he’s so dangerous, the fights themselves aren’t the point of his story. So with the audience nibbling at the bait, it’s time for Brisson to set the hook.
There are some aspects of the Iron Fist series that nearly everyone would concede fell short, for reasons that, while disappointing, are understandable. The martial arts scenes and fight choreography were lacking, but the cast and crew did the best they could with sometimes just minutes to rehearse an Iron Fist battle. But they only wound up with that problem because the premise meant Danny Rand should be, by the time we meet him, an unparalleled fighter. That’s a hard sell with months of preparation and rehearsal. Not to mention the fact that it skips over the inherent drama and satisfaction of an origin story.. replacing it with the internal angst of a typical second act, or middle chapter.
Instead of following a formula of “Danny’s the hero… what now?” the minds behind the comic begin after Danny has fallen. Make no mistake: this is the Immortal Iron Fist, Danny Rand that fans know and love. But having served as the defender of K’un-Lun and failed, Danny feels the energy of Shou Lao the Undying fading. Without a purpose for it, the Iron Fist itself is ebbing away, leaving Danny as the world’s greatest living weapon, the greatest combatant K’un-Lun could produce, with nothing to defend and nobody to fight as an equal.
And so, he lives as he’s introduced. Wandering from Bulgaria to Cambodia, seeking fighters to challenge or push himself in hopes of regaining his lost Chi and the Iron Fist with it. Hoping, as was described in the Netflix series, to find himself in the midst of combat once again. But finding himself only “punching down” and fearing that he no longer could live as “just Danny Rand,” he sinks into drink and darkness. The billionaire’s money is meaningless. The fighter’s skills hinder more than they help. Unlike the rest of Marvel’s Earthbound heroes, he’s not out to become a legend or attain victory – he already did. And now, can’t see what comes next…
The aforementioned figure keeping an eye on Danny’s exploits finally makes himself known to the American in a Vietnam bar. He knows Daniel Rand, and knows what he’s capable of – and how he’s wasting that potential. Believing Danny to be “a lion stepping into the ring with a kitten. Both may be the same species, but they are not the same beast.” Knocking the bottle from Danny’s hands and slamming him across the room with a single blow isn’t what stuns Rand out of his stupor. It’s the fact that, after months of searching, the strike actually hurt.
As Danny leaps with clear enthusiasm into a brutal fight strictly because it is punishing, the subversion of the typical superhero myth for one far more in keeping with the tone of martial source material and legend is evident. That is, Danny is not seeking to win the day, defeat an enemy, or save the world. He’s simply searching for a worthy opponent – an archetype with roots resonant in myths of the East, Norse, or even Old West. It still does little to soften the serious issues of Iron Fist‘s whitewashing and cultural appropriation, but if this was the story Marvel chose to adapt, it would at least make an effort to be something aside from a typical ‘white savior’ narrative.
Because it isn’t actually that figure – Choshin – who poses as the worthy opponent. No, Choshin comes to invite Danny into a far larger world than he actually realizes exists. An island called Liu-Shi, where a tournament will soon be held to find the greatest fighter among their own factions. And if Danny accepts their invitation, he may finally find the lost Chi he’s been searching for (in the form of truly brutal opponents). Needless to say, when faced with a plot and fighting tournament torn right out of the very best entries in Hollywood’s kung fu movie history… Danny immediately accepts.
So begins Danny’s true adventure, being welcomed by the seven factions of Liu-Shi as the perfect mean by which they can prove their legitimacy. The council of the factions’ leaders make a compelling, but un-complicated offer: Danny must battle each of their seven greatest warriors, in sequence. If he loses, then the factions receive honor and recognition for developing warriors greater than the Iron Fist. If he wins, he’s free to absorb the Chi of his vanquished foes. The worthy fights alone would be enough to sway Danny, but the promise of restoring his Chi and reconnecting with his former self – the one that gave his life meaning – seals the deal.
Needless to say, the fight is more challenging than Danny is perhaps prepared for. Yet he presses on – dressed in full, why-won’t-he-wear-it-on-Netflix Iron Fist costume – battling one fighter after another… as the council discusses their true purpose. They intend to steal Danny’s power and permanently replace K’un-Lun and its champion to build a new order – led by a mysteriously concealed leader of the Wolf faction.
In just two issues, readers have it all: a compelling premise, nuanced hero pursuing a new kind of victory, mysterious, but not entirely ‘evil’ antagonists, and a framework for seven (at least) incredible, unique fight sequences. Danny doesn’t need to find greatness, but regain it. He has no need to conquer a business empire that doesn’t interest him. And he isn’t forced to fight mindless thugs… he only craves true opponents. In short, a kind of hero Marvel doesn’t already claim among its TV shows and films. Too bad they missed the boat.
Fans will enjoy the dose of Danny Rand they’re getting on Netflix, and continue to hope that the future will only get better and brighter (and the critics along with them). In this case, the comic book fans may have a stronger case than usual that the Netflix series missed more of Iron Fist’s potential than it capitalized on. The good news? Marvel fans sold on the initial pitch, or hoping for something different from Iron Fist have a comic book series just waiting to be enjoyed.