Last year’s Iron Fist was a dud in Netflix’s otherwise successful Marvel lineup. Aside from the leaden pacing and lackluster acting, the show earned (deserved) criticism for its treatment of race. Before the lead character was even cast, petitions were circulating for its white savior hero to be reimagined as Chinese American, which would have subverted the tired trope of “white guy appropriates Asian-coded powers and iconography to become The Best Asian.” Plus it would have avoided the problematic optics of the comics, which all too frequently are 22 pages of a white guy beating up a bunch of Asian people.
As we all know, the show decided to instead go with “tradition” by casting a Brit as an American, and we got thirteen episodes of, well, a white guy beating up a bunch of Asian people.
Meanwhile, Marvel canceled my beloved Power Man and Iron Fist and rolled out a suite of Defenders-related books to accompany the existing Daredevil and cash in on the Netflix shows: Defenders, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. I’m reading all of them on Marvel Unlimited, because I am Defenders trash, and because I actually like Danny in the comics, although I will forever maintain that there are no good solo Iron Fist stories and he should always be paired with Luke or placed on a team. (No, not even the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja run, which is mostly just a parade of one-note new characters, including the utterly tiresome Orson Randall. Don’t @ me.)
I was interested to see how the new comic series by Ed Brisson and Mike Perkins would reference the show, if at all, considering how different the Danny coming off of Power Man and Iron Fist was from the show version. Surprisingly, the first arc, “The Trial of the Seven Masters,” attempts to engage with not just the show, but the controversy surrounding it. Which, uh, was probably a poor choice.
In brief: K’un-Lun has recently been destroyed, severing Danny’s connection to his chi and thus his Iron Fist powers. So when a stranger in a bar invites him to participate in a kung fu tournament on a mysterious island where the prize is the restoration of his chi, he leaps at the chance. (N.b. 97% of solo Iron Fist stories are about mysterious kung fu tournaments.) (The other 3% is about carnivorous plant people.) (Iron Fist stories are weird.)
The denizens of the island, Liu-Shi, turn out to be separatists from K’un-Lun who left the heavenly city in protest over the corruption of its leader, Yu-Ti. They were particularly incensed when an outsider (Danny) was chosen as the Iron Fist, especially because, unbeknownst to Danny at the time, he didn’t earn his title fair and square—he earned the right to confront the dragon Shou Lao and thus become the Iron Fist by defeating a fighter called “The One,” who had been replaced by a robot under Yu-Ti’s control. (Comics!) Danny has been lured to Liu-Shi not so its warriors can test themselves against him, but so that they can kill him, take his chi, and retake K’un-Lun. As Danny progresses through the various champions, they grow desperate enough that they kill one of their own and frame Danny for it in order to justify sending multiple champions against him at once.
Naturally, Danny defeats them—he is the hero, after all. He’s also indignant about repeatedly being called “outworlder.” “K’un-Lun was my home,” he insists. “I wasn’t an outworlder. Not to them. I was one of them. K’un-Lun is part of me.”
It’s all kept strictly in the world of fiction, of course. No one refers to Danny as American or—more to the point—white. No one refers to the citizens of Liu-Shi or K’un-Lun as Chinese, or Tibetan, or Asian.
The controversy over the Netflix show revolved largely around the question of whether it is appropriate for a white man to have a central role in this narrative, or if he’s appropriating something that rightfully belongs to others.
Brisson’s Iron Fist seems to answer that question with: of course a white guy deserves a central role in this story, and anyone suggesting otherwise is probably just jealous. That is, if they don’t have another, more sinister agenda.
That is a bad take, Brisson.
It’s not Danny’s fault that he was brought to K’un-Lun as a child, or that the role of Iron Fist was handed to him, at least in part, through political corruption and not his own merit—just like it’s not any privileged person’s fault that they have privilege. And there’s a sensitive, complex story to be told there.
But Danny’s loud refusal to see the Liu-Shi-ers’ point of view on this is his fault. His insistence that he’s from K’un Lun—when he’s, you know, not—is the equivalent of covering his ears and shouting “LA LA LA I’M THE IRON FIST AND I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” The fact that he winds up fighting the original One—the guy who was replaced by the robot—who explains exactly how corrupt Danny’s victory was makes Danny’s response of “I earned this power. I earned this title” completely ludicrous. He’s not a champion. He’s a frat bro complaining about affirmative action while lounging in a student center with his daddy’s name over the door. And positioning that behavior as heroic compounds the offensiveness of a trope that was tired and insulting 40 years ago, let alone in 2018.
And, of course, it’s all told through the mechanism of a white guy beating up a bunch of Asian people.
(Oh, and just in case all that wasn’t enough, Danny’s told that the chi he’s absorbing from the masters he’s defeated is temporary, weaker chi (and in the case of one master, actively toxic). I don’t pretend to be an expert on chi, but my understanding is that it’s the energy or life force of every living thing. Danny’s Iron Fist comes from his ability to harness it as a weapon, not from having “more” or “better” energy than other people. So a. it’s ludicrous to suggest that he could lose it in the first place and b. are you seriously implying that Asian people have inferior chi to white people??? What!!! Who signed off on this comic?! It’s too early to blame Akira Yoshida.)
The story ends with Danny reconnecting with his chi, apparently via sheer pissiness, and the few noble Liu-Shiers apologizing to Danny for not getting that he totally is The Best Asian after all. “I was chosen. I have no doubts anymore,” thinks a newly confident Danny before sailing off, shirt open and fluttering in the breeze, the frat bro taking his yacht and heading back to the sick Ultimate Frisbee game in the quad. Take that, anyone who questioned this entitled man-child’s right to his title! Put your lesser chi in your pipe and smoke it!
God, I hope Shang Chi punches him in the face a lot next storyline.