Cara Howe/Netflix

Iron Fist stars (from left) Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, Finn Jones as Danny Rand and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple.

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Some comic book characters, like Superman and Spider-Man, seemed fully formed (and successful) the minute they hit the newsstands. Others ... well, their overnight success takes a little longer.

That brings us to Iron Fist, the newest Marvel series on Netflix. The first season becomes available for streaming on March 17, starring Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick – both of whom, coincidentally, worked on Game of Thrones. Rosario Dawson, who has been in Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, continues her journey as a “Night Nurse” who patches up New York’s gifted. And Matrix star Carrie-Anne Moss, who played lawyer Jeri Hogarth in Jones, brings that character back in Fist as well.

Another player is New York City itself. Daredevil and Jones were set in Hell’s Kitchen, while Luke Cage moved uptown to Harlem. Fist is set in Chinatown and affluent areas such as Gramercy Park, Wall Street and the Upper East Side. By the time all these series dovetail into The Defenders (slated for a mid-2017 release), there won’t be much of Manhattan viewers haven’t seen.

That’s the backdrop on TV for the sudden re-appearance of Danny Rand (Finn), who shows up after being missing and thought dead for years. Finn’s story is that he was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Himalayas when he was 10, and adopted into a hidden mystical city named K’un Lun, where he was trained in the martial arts to be a human weapon called the Iron Fist. Oh, and he can focus his chi (spirit) to where his fist “glows and smolders,” as they say in the comics, “until it becomes like unto a thing of iron!”

Naturally, nobody believes him. That includes childhood friends Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), a lawyer, and Ward Meacham (Tom Pelphrey) who is now running Danny’s father’s chemical and pharmaceutical company, Rand Enterprises. There’s no DNA or fingerprints for Danny, so why should they believe this guy?

“The key is letting other people react to it the way that they would in the real world,” says Marvel’s head of television, Jeph Loeb, a former comics writer and a veteran of all of Marvel’s Netflix series. “It’s not something that you readily accept. This is something that you question and continue to question and it becomes one of those issues where you think, is this really happening or is this something that he made up? You have to decide. There are many versions of what the truth is and that’s part of the journey.”

One person who has to make that decision is Colleen Wing (Henwick), a martial arts instructor with her own dojo. As one of the Sand Snakes on Game of Thrones, combat is certainly nothing new. And for emergency room nurse Claire Temple (Dawson), getting roped into another superhero dust-up is getting to be just another Tuesday.

Naturally, we believe Danny, because that origin – white Westerner learns mystic secrets of the East and returns with baffling abilities – makes perfect sense. After all, we accepted it when it was used for The Shadow and The Green Lama, Dr. Doom and Dr. Droom, Mandrake the Magician and Chandu the Magician, Will Eisner’s Wonderman and Bill Everett’s Amazing Man, Alan Moore’s Ozymandias and Peter Morisi’s Thunderbolt, and Deadman and Dr. Strange. Even Batman dropped by Tibet for a little Eastern enlightenment in Christopher Nolan’s movie Batman Begins. 

Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Carrie-Anne Moss returns as Jeri Hogarth (left), to star with Finn Jones in Iron Fist.

And when Danny Rand debuted in 1974, there wasn’t much original about a protagonist who knew a lot of martial arts. The kung fu craze of the mid-‘70s was in full swing, fueled by the TV show Kung Fu (1973) and movies like Billy Jack (1971), Five Fingers of Death (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973), the latter starring the sensational Bruce Lee.

But the pump had been primed even before that. In England, the TV series The Avengers (1961) starred Honor Blackman and later Diana Rigg judo-ing and karate-ing their way through Merrie Olde’s enemies, while James bond faced the inscrutable Oddjob in Goldfinger (1964). America had its own karate stars in Treasury Agent James West (Wild, Wild West, 1965-69) and Napoleon Solo (Man from U.N.C.L.E., 1964-68). Oh, and don’t forget the 1966-67 Green Hornet, which co-starred a young man named Bruce Lee before his days of Dragon superstardom.

Comics, of course, had plenty of martial-arts masters, because there’s nothing comics like better than a fistfight! Some of the more notable entries were Charlton’s Thunderbolt and Judomaster in the mid-1960s, the arrival of I Ching to tutor Wonder Woman in 1968 and Karate Kid (long before the movie) in DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes in 1966. Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu arrived in 1973, combining the kung fu craze with the super-spy fad.

So when Iron Fist debuted in 1974, he was a character with a used origin riding a fad – right into oblivion. It’s not that his green-and-gold costume was all that bad, although some looked askance at his slippers, waist-sash and chest-baring tunic. And his series introduced familiar names, such as Colleen Wing, half of Knightwing Restorations (the other half being Misty Knight, first introduced in Luke Cage comics) and X-Men foe Sabretooth. But by 1977 the first iteration of Iron Fist was heading for cancellation.

As was another book born of a fad. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire debuted in 1972, riding the blaxploitation wave that gave us classic movies like Superfly, Cleopatra Jones and Blacula. (OK, maybe not Blacula.) When the street-wise angle faltered, Hero for Hire became Power Man, with superhero hi-jinx goosing the book for another few years. But by late 1977, Luke Cage, Power Man was on the rocks, sales-wise.

Which is when someone got the bright idea of seeing if these two great tastes would taste great together.

The last issue of Luke Cage, Power Man with a 1977 date guest-starred Danny Rand in an adventure titled “Fist of Iron – Heart of Stone!” Two issues later – before sales reports on that first team-up were in – Danny had co-star credit as the book changed its logo to read Power Man and Iron Fist.

And a star was born. Why is anybody’s guess. But the black, cynical hustler with the super-hard skin and the white, naïve, optimistic boy raised by monks became a popular duo. They were abetted by some of the best supporting characters in comics, including Misty Knight as both a bionically-enhanced detective and Danny’s significant other – one of the first long-running, mixed-race couples in comics.

In short, both characters escaped their one-dimensional roots and became unique characters in their own right. Blaxploitation and Bruce Lee were dead, but Power Man and Iron Fist not only lived, but thrived.

Now both are on Netflix. We’ve seen that Luke Cage has had a mild makeover for TV, and the same will be true for Danny Rand.

For one thing, Danny won’t wear the “classic” green-and-gold – but what he will wear will be close, according to costume designer Stephanie Maslansky.

“I always go back to the original comic illustrations, the origin stories,” she told “The original illustrations actually inform a lot of what we do. We look at what was done in the past, and we translate those original images, kind of evolve them into looks that are definitely current and modern, but contain a nod to the original source.”

And here’s another change: In the comics Danny’s parents didn’t die in a plane crash. They were eaten by wolves after surviving a plane crash. See? Different.

That’s fine, though, as long as Danny, at some point, says he can turn his hand “like unto a thing of iron.” There are some things too sacred to change.

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Randy Jackson said:

Something I'm not getting is the whole controversy over casting a Caucasian actor to portray a Caucasian comic book character.

Yeah. That argument doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Seems like people going out of their way to find fault with something. Personally, I think it's always best to respect the source material as much as possible.
A much better argument could be made that they should have adapted Shang Chi instead. That would have addressed the diversity angle and also provided a wellspring of source material to draw upon.
Well, Figs, I wouldn't consider Iron Fist long form. I haven't checked yet but I think it's​ 10 to 13 episodes. I also think Shang Chi would have worked better. I think the connection to Luke Cage made them pick Iron Fist.

One problem with Shang Chi, though, is his father. When Marvel's contract with the Sax Rohmer estate ended, they found themselves having to drop a lot of characters and write around naming certain people. Some word balloons became impenetrable as they avoided saying "Fu Manchu" and ""Denis Nayland Smith." That may have been a factor in not picking Shang Chi for Netflix.

Also, it was Power Man and Iron Fist, not Power Man and Son of a Guy We Can't Name.

I was reminded of this recently when reading Titan's new Anno Dracula, which chose to use Fah lo Suee but also can't name Fu Manchu, calling him "The Doctor of Strange Deaths" or something. How they can have Fah so Luee but NOT Fu Manchu is a mystery to me -- didn't Rohmer create them both? -- but there it is.

I'm not a lawyer, but from what I understand back in the day copyrights in the US were often held by publishers. There were laws requiring the affixing of copyright notices and renewal of copyright, so works could fall into the public domain quickly.(1) Since then the law has been changed more than once.

Today the term of copyright for known authors is life of the author plus seventy years (source: Wikipedia). The terms for works by unknown authors and collective works are different. Rohmer died in 1959, so I take it his remaining works will enter the public domain in 2029.

My rule of thumb is if I can find a book at Project Gutenberg, I can assume it's in the public domain in the United States. (But not elsewhere, such as here in Australia.) The site currently has 16 books by Rohmer. These include the first three Fu Manchu books. (The second one is there under two names.) If the later ones were out of copyright, I'm sure they'd be there.

Now, several years ago I read a discussion thread somewhere that discussed what happens when some books in a series are out-of-copyright and others aren't. A poster said one could legally use characters introduced in the out-of-copyright books, but would run the risk of being accused of using elements relating to them introduced in the under-copyright ones. That sounds right.

So I suspect Fu Manchu is no longer under copyright in the US if one steers clear of elements introduced from the fourth book on, but he's too risky to use. Also, a publisher would have to consider whether the opening books of the series are out of copyright in other countries in which it wanted to sell its product. Also, whoever holds Rohmer's copyrights might have a trademark on the name. (If I understand right, that wouldn't prevent it being used inside a work, but it would prevent it being used on its exterior.)

Wikipedia says Fu Manchu's daughter was introduced in the third book, but not named there. She's a central character in the fourth book, Daughter of Fu Manchu. My inference is her name and any elements associated with her introduced in the fourth book on are under copyright. (Incidentally, there was a hiatus of over a decade between the third and fourth books. So the third book was for a while the end of the series.)

I've not seen Anno Dracula. The simplest explanation is Titan can't use Fu Manchu's name because someone else has licensed him. Maybe Fa lo Suee is licensed separately. My first guess was she's cheap and Fu Manchu is expensive, and Titan was only willing to pay for her, but that sounds a bit less likely. If she's being used under license the comic might have some kind of notice of the fact.

(1) I have a collection of stories by Henry Kuttner called Return to Otherness which first appeared in 1962, four years after his death. The copyrights page acknowledges the copyright holder of each story separately, but omits mention of the story "The Ego Machine". Apparently it had already fallen into the public domain. It can be found at Project Gutenberg.

Longer than a movie, at any rate.

My problem in this case with a rich WASP is that it's too similar to Arrow.

Daredevil killed/concussed ninjas by the score too, but at least he was a working class Irish American. It's about texture in the characters and watching something a bit different to what we've seen 1,000,000 times before.

The rich WASP teamed with a street black dude could save Iron Fist, but I don't know how much Cage is in it.

Throwing yet another white character into the pop culture who does Asian skills better than the Asians is problematic.

If they can make the Ancient One a white woman, then the sky's the limit, and there's no block on making Shang-Chi the son of Mu Fanchu and teaming HIM up with Luke Cage.

I'm halfway through the season now.  I think this show works best during the action/fight scenes when the viewer isn't constantly asking "why is he doing that?" "why doesn't she do this?" "How did we get here from there?" 

My favorite thing about this show, by far, is Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. She steals most every scene she appears in.

As I mentioned in my column, Henwick was a Sand Snake in Game of Thrones. The Snakes were memorable for their fight scenes and their badass look, although they didn't have many lines.

Finn Jones was Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones. He didn't make much impression on me. All I remember is that he was Renly's lover and Margaery's brother -- the one who caved to the High Sparrow. In both cases he was essentially the sidekick to the heroic leads, Renly and Margaery.

On the flip side of the issue, tho, is that while the caucasian Iron Fist raises the issue of "cultural appropriation" and "a white guy naturally being better at everything than the non-whites who invented it", Shang-Chi, even without The Doctor That Must Never Be Named Until the Lawyers Say It's OK, brings the problem of the stereotypical "All Asians are great martial artists" trope, much like the original Ancient One supposedly worked the whole "All Asians are mystical gurus" stereotype (and not at all the "We can't put a heroic Tibetan in a movie without risking the Chinese market" trope). It could be a no-win scenario. They probably should have just gone with Misty Knight as the fourth Defender, since as far as I know "tough PI with a bionic arm" isn't a stereotype or a cultural appropriation (Bionic Woman fans may disagree...)

She doesn't have the bionic arm (yet), but I still think she could be, and should be, a member. A street-level group shouldn't have any problem with non-powered members who do, essentially, support tasks. That is to say, you've got guys who can hit things really well (Jessica, Luke), but they need someone to tell them who to hit -- and that's where an investigator, who is also a cop, would be mighty handy.

By the same token, I think Claire Temple ought to be a de facto member, as the team's medic. She also wouldn't wade into battle, but I think she ought to be included in every aspect and called a Defender. Not everything is solved by fighting, except in comic books.

As to cultural appropriation, I'd like to second Dave's point about no-win situations. That's where we stand now on Native Americans. If an entertainment writer wants to include a Native American, he has two choices: Make up a tribe or go with a real one. The made-up tribe has the advantage of not being tied to specific customs and symbols, but the writer will be criticized for not using a real tribe. If he uses a real tribe, he has the advantage of using real customs and symbols, but will be criticized if he doesn't use them the way every single defender of that tribe thinks he ought to. In other words, it's a no-win situation, and you see very few Native Americans on screen as a result.

As an example, take a look at the Facebook page. One reader criticized the buffalo-headed minotaur depicted on the first cover of American Gods because, in his view, buffalo represent Plains tribes and the tattoo/symbol on the minotaur's belly looked Northwest Pacific. Is that true? I don't know. Does it affect the story? Doesn't appear to. Is the criticism valid? Probably, although I'm no judge.

But it shows that even Neil Gaiman can't win the no-win scenario.

I haven't begun watching Iron Fist yet, but I have some other comments.

The first time I saw Tilda Swinton was as the androgenous angel Gabriel in the movie Constantine. She was about the only memorable thing in that movie. When they cast her as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, I wonder if their first thought was to actually have her portray an ancient Asian man, and they rethought it? As great as she is, I don't think Ms Swinton drove a lot of moviegoers to see Doctor Strange who weren't going to see it already.

There is currently a lot of noise about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the title cyborg in the movie Ghost in the Shell. They originally talked to Margot Robbie before casting Johansson. From what I can find, the original character of Major Motoko Kusanagi is just being called The Major in the film. Since the only thing movie executives care about is putting butts in the seats, it makes sense to cast a bankable star. Would the movie have been made with a less-than-well-known star? We'll never know. According to this Wiki article it doesn't bother the Japanese that she was cast in the role.

When DC lost the Captain Marvel series title to Marvel, they used the Captain Marvel name inside their comic but the cover title had to be Shazam! This exactly fits your observation.

Now DC has gone overboard and changed the character's name to Shazam, which makes no sense to me.

Luke Blanchard:

Also, whoever holds Rohmer's copyrights might have a trademark on the name. (If I understand right, that wouldn't prevent it being used inside a work, but it would prevent it being used on its exterior.)

What are they calling Mary and Junior now?

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