Three Ways To Save Iron Fist

finn-jones-iron-fist-netflixLike a lot of Marvel Netflix junkies I was looking forward to Iron Fist, perhaps more than any of the other Defenders even, not because I’m the world’s biggest Iron Fist fan (full disclosure: I haven’t read the Matt Fraction series and I’m mainly aware of the character from guest appearances in old Spider-Man comics and a few issues I’ve picked up here and there), but I AM a tremendous fan of martial arts entertainment, particularly classic 70’s era kung fu movies.

After the brilliant, brutal choreography of the Daredevil show and the depth of love shown to Afrocentrism and particularly to 70’s Black culture in Luke Cage, I assumed  we had a recipe for a killer Iron Fist show. Sadly, it didn’t go the route I expected.

I’m not gonna bash Iron Fist. Everybody has their favorite criticism. You can read that anywhere. Suffice it to say, I watched the whole thing, and in the end, I didn’t hate it, but I recognize it was not up to the other Marvel Netflix shows.

I’m not gonna list all the ways I think Iron Fist went wrong – that’d be annoying. But I’ll list here three sure fire ways to make Iron Fist right.

EMBRACE THE ORIGINS, CELEBRATE THE CULTURE

Iron Fist was created during the 70’s martial arts explosion that stemmed from the distribution of Shaw Bros kung fu movies abroad, Bruce Lee, and the Kung Fu television series with David Carradine.

kung-fu_tv-master_po-young_grasshopperYes, the one everybody hates but few have seen. I reconcile my love of both Bruce Lee’s films and Kung Fu because of the high quality of both.  Bruce Lee is amazing, unquestioned. The Kung Fu TV show (the original, not the modern day one) is amazing – seriously, watch it. With its dissemination of Eastern philosophy and message of peace and love, I truly think the world would be a better place if everybody did an episode a day.

This was probably also the reason, I think, that the early reviews citing the cultural appropriation inherent in the concept of Danny Rand didn’t affect me overly. Yes, an Asian actor in the role would have been preferable, and we can argue the importance of this all day, but in the end, they went with the original iteration of Danny Rand as the Immortal Weapon.  I’m not entirely sure altering the character’s race would have lessened the amount of pre-judgment, just swung it in the other direction. I would have watched it either way.

Anyway, Kung Fu was about Kwai Chang Cain, a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian orphan being taken into a Shaolin monastery and learning the discipline of the martial arts (sound familiar?) and employing those lessons as a somewhat naive outsider facing the prejudice and injustice of the American West (how about now?).  As Cain faced adversities in the course of an episode, he would invariably flash back to the past and his training as a young monk, remembering some applicable lesson that informed his decisions in the now. It’s practically a template for an Iron Fist show.

maxresdefaultNow these dream-like flashbacks were achieved pretty simply, with minimalist sets, mostly black, a lot of candles and the trappings of Chinese décor. The exterior scenes were actually a redressed castle set from the movie Camelot. There’s absolutely no reason our first glimpses of Danny’s past at K’un Lun couldn’t be depicted in a similar manner. It’d be a great homage, and cheap to film. Not seeing this in this starting season of Iron Fist was a tremendous misstep, like showing that gun in the first act and never having it go off.

return_36th_chamberIn the way Cage was a celebration of African American culture, Iron Fist should absolutely be a love letter to the martial arts genre, full of subtle references to everything from Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob, Jackie Chan, and Gordon Liu to wire-fu, 5ven04Donnie Yen, Jet Lee, and The Raid.  The producers should look to classics like Five Elements Ninjas, House of Traps, Master Of The Flying Guillotine, Kid With The Golden Arm and Flag of Iron for how to handle the bizarre martial assassins Iron Fist should be facing. The training sequences in K’un Lun should directly refer to movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. In fact, the direct inspiration for the character of Iron Fist was a line from the first kung fu movie creator Roy Thomas ever saw (maybe 1971’s Duel of The Iron Fist? Thomas doesn’t remember.) in an Upper East Side NYC theater in the 70’s. What better oeuvre to refer to then the wealth of movies that were shown in those kinds of theaters? This is what spawned this character!

I believe there was an intent to do just that that just got neglected somewhere along the way. Just as the episode titles for Luke Cage homaged black culture, Iron Fist’s episode titles recalled the colorful names for techniques in classic wuxia moves (Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm). And I didn’t miss the drunken master either. The will was there, but it needs to be double downed.

Iron Fist should be chock full of references and cameos from the length and breadth of martial arts entertainment. Show the love! Embrace the source! We should see Sonny Chiba as a Hand leader or something. Or have Benny Urqidez show up, or Angela Mao! Bolo Yeung ! Dan Inosanto! Have Ray Park or Scott Adkins play villains. Jeez, could you imagine Ron ‘The Black Dragon’ Van Clief introducing Danny to Luke Cage?

MAKE MINE MARVEL

Which brings me to the second point.

Iron Fist is a Marvel character. We need to connect him to the Marvel universe in the same way Daredevil did. Daredevil was loaded with sly Marvel references (Stilt-Man, for Crissakes!).  The grainy 1940’s footage of the previous Iron Fist in costume duking it out with Chinese soldiers was great. More! Look to Iron Fist’s stable of villains and bring the kind of mystic martial arts action the character is designed for.  Let’s see Black Mariah, Chaka and the Golden Tigers, Chi’Lin, Senor Muerte, or Triple Iron.

OK, I suspect the long awaited meeting between Danny and future partner Luke Cage will probably happen in Defenders, but man I was really missing it in this first season. I fully expected Cage to notice his own bullet riddled shirt (given him by Claire) and ask Danny where he got it. Heck, when the DEA got involved and Danny was on the run, I thought he’d wind up in prison with Cage as a cell mate (this could have led to a killer Story of Ricky reference, with Danny punching his way out of jail and putting him and Luke on a Defiant Ones-style odyssey as fugitives).

Oh and the first time Luke sees Danny use his powers, take note: there had BETTER  be a Last Dragon joke!

last-dragon-8

But I understand that might be best left for another time, another show.

Now what about Shang Chi?

SC-deadly

The early (false) rumors that Starlin and Engleheart’s Master of Kung Fu had been cast had me excited, and, I think, the inclusion of a powerful and savvy Chinese foil for Danny, commenting on the absurdity of his concept as a white savior and kung fu master, would have gone a long way towards deflecting the cultural appropriation criticism. It certainly worked for the last Tarzan movie, with Samuel L. Jackson fulfilling that very role.

Shang_ChiIf Danny Rand is David Carradine, Shang Chi is Bruce Lee, and that symbolic reconciliation needs to happen. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a Shang Chi spin off? I’m aware there were rights issues with the character due to his father being Sax Rohmer’s famous Fu Man Chu, but if The Ancient One can be a Celtic woman and the Mandarin can be a drug addled cockney actor, I don’t see why a single aspect of this character couldn’t be tweaked to make his father an unscrupulous crimelord (maybe even the ‘real’ Mandarin).

He was a big omission in season one, and he’d be a fantastic addition to season two.

And that brings me to my final pont….

BRING BACK RZA

rzaAll respect to HBO’s stable of talented writers and directors, but the standout episode of season one was Immortal Emerges From Cave, where the show touched on the brilliance it could have been. Danny facing off against weird Hand challengers in an honor duel to the death. Writer Dwain Worrell nailed it, but the fact that RZA directed it can’t be ignored.

The grandmaster of Wu-Tang knows his kung fu movies. I’ve seen him speak before a presentation of 36th Chamber at LACMA here in Los Angeles, and his Man With The Iron Fists displayed a love and passion for the genre unmatched. Bring him back for round two.

Buddha willing, there is one.

Namaste!

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My Love For Comics Has A Giant Sized Origin

I’m a comic book fan from waayyy back. I can trace my interest in funnybooks directly back to four big oversized comic books my parents bought for me back in the day. This was a couple years before I could read, so I used to make up the story and dialogue as I followed along with the pictures, running to grab an adult when something particularly interesting to me came up and I just HAD to know what was going on.

Marvel Treasury Edition #18

Marvel Treasury Edition #18 featured Werewolf By Night, whose standalone series is the only complete run I’ve ever hunted down and purchased. There was also an Iron Fist story about a guy who was born old and aged backwards, the X-Men (out of costume, so I had no idea who they were) and Morbius the Living Vampire, and a Ghost Rider story with a bad guy cyclist called The Orb, who wore a big blue eyeball motorcycle helmet for a very good reason. He had ditched his bike during a race and crossed the finish line ON HIS FACE. Leaving me with this indelible image (I think I might’ve been four)…

The Orb Unmasked

Gah! No wonder my interests went the way they did. I covered my eyes through the climactic unmasking in Return of The Jedi because I imagined Vader would look much like The Orb….but Anakin had nothing on him.

Marvel Treasury Edition #25  – Spider-Man vs. The Hulk at The Winter Olympics. I remember The Mole Man created a machine to lift the Olympic village out of reach. Peter Parker was there covering the games. I don’t remember why the Hulk was there. I think the Mole Man’s guys competed against the Olympians for some reason, and I don’t remember if they were actual real life Olympians. All I remember about this is there was a lady with a bubble head space helmet which got cracked and made her rapidly age. The Mole Man carried her off and The Hulk pounded the village back to ground level with his fists.

Sweet

Hulk, MODOK and The Harpy

Marvel Treasury Edition #26: The Rampaging Hulk. My impressions of this one as a kid are hard to put to words as an adult. I remember being fascinated and repelled by MODOK, the leader of AIM. The guy is just a huge head and face with relatively spindly mechanical arms. Freakish. There was also The Harpy, who was a hot chick (apparently Betty Ross) that seemed to have the same problem as The Hulk, except she turned into a green skinned half bird woman, which again, freaked me out (and yet was also titillating, because her clothes tore off).

What is it with me and green chicks? Later there was the Orion girl, She-Hulk, and Oola, but first there was Harpy...

The thing I remember clearest though was the little story in the back which featured Hercules getting into a barfight with a trucker looking guy with nails that came out of his fists. I think the fight started over Hercules hording all the chicks in the place. At the end, their tremendous fight cleared out the bar. I had no idea who Wolverine was till years and years later. This story confused the heck out of me as a kid because I thought the trucker guy was a bad guy and couldn’t figure out why they got along in the end.

It also introduced me to the term ‘skirts’ as a word for women.

Finally, there was the magnum opus of my collection, which I wish to God I could find. Thankfully DC put this one out again recently in a nifty hardcover edition which my lovely wife got me for Christmas.

Oh yeah.

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.

It’s as awesome as it sounds and not nearly as bad. The Neil Adams art is great, the story line killer. An alien fleet appears in orbit and demands to fight Earth’s greatest champion over the fate of the planet. Superman steps up to the challenge, but Muhammad Ali argues that as a native earthling, HE’S Earth’s greatest champion.

They decide to settle it with an exhibition bout, battling it out under a simulated red sun. Ali OWNS Supes, apparently putting him in traction.

Ali goes toe to toe with the massive alien boxer, but sensing the alien commander’s duplicitous nature, Ali and Superman had previously formed a plan. Bundini Brown (Ali’s real life cornerman) is in reality Superman in disguise. He goes off to cripple the alien fleet while Ali takes a pounding in the ring. What happens next is best left to the actual panels…I think by the time I got a hold of this one I could read a little bit, so imagine a six or seven year old little white kid speaking Ali’s dialogue in his best Mr. T voice.

BAD-ASS

Meanwhile, don’t think Superman has been slouching all this time either….

SEE ABOVE

And the real kicker at the end, which was a stipulation Muhammad Ali demanded before he allowed DC to use his likeness…

Haw! Yeah, Ali figures out in a single issue what it took decades for Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to learn. That’s why he’s the greatest, I guess.

Anyway, in retrospect, these four comics likely informed my own storytelling for years to come. I’ve always been attracted to old fashioned stories transplanted or retold with weird concepts.

Jack Russell’s (AKA Werewolf By Night – yeah, like the terrier) appearance in #18 probably went a long way towards fostering my love for werewolves, which I expounded on in my pirate horror novella Red Sails.

Bizarre, oddly sympathetic villains like The Mole Man, MODOK, and The Orb have always appealed to me. My first encounter with martial arts was probably the Iron Fist story in #18.

My professional Star Wars story was a boxing tale, and part of the Chevin cornerman’s name, Eedund Cus, was just Dundee (ie Ali cornerman Angelo Dundee) backwards.  My appreciation for Muhammad Ali no doubt sprang from reading his exploits with Superman at a young age.

Of course, my tastes changed over the years. In the 80’s, like most kids, I was reading The Punisher (but enjoying DC’s illicit modern day continuation of The Shadow with Howard Chaykin, Bill Scienkiewicz and Kyle Baker more) X-Men, and Wolverine, with an early stint through Marvel’s fantastic GI Joe and Transformers comics. That was probably the peak of my collecting days, when I built up my boxes, finding little gem titles I continue to return to every so often like Milk and Cheese, Groo The Wanderer, Hellboy, and Marshall Law. Then came The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and all the heavy stuff that followed.  I don’t pick up monthlies anymore, relying mainly on word of mouth and wikipedia to keep up with what’s going on there. I still go to Comic Con every year, pick up the occasional funnybook or trade paperback.

But I look back on these (and probably a giant sized Shazam/Captain Marvel edition I can’t even begin to remember enough to seek out) early, slightly goofy but genuinely great books as the beginning of my comics education. I lost them all a long time ago. Read them so many times the covers disappeared followed by the title splash pages, and finally the whole shebang.

Think I know what I’ll shop for at Comic Con this year.