So Marvel’s newest Netflix series Iron Fist is on the horizon and advance reviews peg it as… not fantastic. In fact, it’s tracking to be pretty bad. Which is depressing because I like Iron Fist. But he is a troublesome character to work into a modern context. Troublesome but, as we’ll discuss not totally impossible.
Early on in the series’s casting, there was controversy over the decision to cast him as a white actor instead of an Asian one. Personally, I think casting an Asian actor would have been the right call and would fix numerous problems with the source material. However, It’s been said that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to write a white Iron Fist adaptation that isn’t inherently flawed. I disagree, But clearly the way they cast and wrote White Iron Fist failed to escape the “white savior” and “colonialist” undertones of the source material. So how do you do that? Is it possible to write a white Iron Fist adaptation that works? I got bored and decided to try and figure out a way as a writing exercise. And I think I got something workable.
Iron Fist is naturally a story about a rich white dude who goes to an Asian nation and becomes the best ever at martial arts. I don’t love the term “problematic”, but that is hell of problematic, dogg. Like, even if we ignore all the white savior tropes in film history, that’s still an icky colonialist idea. So let’s tackle this origin story and see what we can change.
Let’s look at the first part of the sentence “a rich white dude”. Can we make him not rich? Well, we can, but that doesn’t solve our problem. Can we make him not white? Well yeah, and that would immediately solve our problem but this entire thought experiment is predicated upon keeping this facet intact. How about not a dude? Again, better, but not tackling the core issue.
Ok, what about taking issue with the “Asian nation/ martial arts” stuff? Well, changing that also screws with the core idea and making it “a middle eastern nation” or “an African nation” just gives us the same problem so what have we left? “becomes the best ever at martial arts”. Oh hey, why don’t we look at that? What if we just make him… not the best?
So how do you make Iron Fist work? Simple: you make him Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. In Fraction’s Hawkeye run, the archer is portrayed as a charming but bumbling troublemaker who keeps getting in over his head and getting assisted by way more knowledgeable people who aren’t idiots. So why not do that with Iron Fist?
For Iron Fist to work, Danny has to be someone who’s strength comes from listening. He can’t just master the teachings of K’un Lun by the time he’s 24, he has to seriously struggle and accept advice from those smarter than he is. And he has to be kind of an idiot. There’s no way for this to work if Rand is a natural. He has to triumph through accepting that he CAN’T be the best.
So what would my Iron Fist series look like? Well, here’s the way I’d handle it. Danny Rand is a rich kid with a big inheritance who is wronged by a corporate takeover that strips him of his family’s company and his actual life is put at risk by hired guns. Rand decides to take his rich boy money and head to the mystical city of K’un Lun to train up, desiring revenge. However, his ideas of being instantly the best are stripped away when he constantly fails to attain even the most basic level of skill. Rand learns that he can’t just force of will himself into skill and finally agrees to listen to the much wiser masters around him, who train him to harness his chi as a warrior. HOWEVER, to attain this skill level, Danny would have to come to terms with the idea that he would never be as good as his mentors, and certainly not in a matter of months. And especially the idea that in order to be successful, you need to have an open ear and never assume you know more about someone else’s life and experiences than they do. (Yes I am suggesting an Iron Fist show based on the idea that Mansplaining/Whitesplaining is wrong, deal with it). I would have him attain an incredibly basic level of skill. Honestly, if you asked me to pitch an Iron Fist series, a central tenant would be the idea that Danny was incompetent at using his chi that he could ONLY use it in one fist, as opposed to everyone else, who could use it throughout their bodies. This would make Iron Fist not a title of honor, but a mocking one of his own limitations. So Danny takes what he learned (both about kicking ass and about life) and returns to New York to beat the bad guys and save his company through punching and understanding. Essentially, Iron Fist works in a modern day context only if he’s making fun of the original idea of what Iron Fist is. Don’t make him a hipster with a man bun, make him a wannabe white savior who learns that white savior-ing doesn’t work in real life.
So yeah, that’s my pitch for a white Iron Fist adaptation that skewers the problematic racial motivations of the original story. Or you could just cast an Asian actor and you can ignore everything I just said.