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.
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 Forbes.com. “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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Richard Willis said:
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.
Brian Cronin has an article here about how they originally used the name on covers anyway, and were told to knock it off. So from the #15 cover they dropped the "original Captain Marvel" line and only used sobriquets for the heroes in the blurbs. Edit: checking, I see, the name was used twice on #32. The issue had a new editor - Jack C. Harris - so presumably that was either a new guy's mistake, or Harris seeing what he could get away with.
Incidentally, the other thing to notice about #15 is DC hadn't yet decided the Marvels' Earth was one of its parallel Earths, so Luthor goes there by magic, and at the end he's not sure he really went.
I really like the idea of Earth-S -- now Earth-5, I think -- where life is simpler and the rules of physics are more bendable and it's sorta 1950 forever. In other words, Earth-C.C. Beck. There's no market for that, but there's no market for the current, unrecognizable "Shazam", either -- he's not the beloved character of yore, so he's just another ersatz, redundant Superman. They can't even call him by his proper name!
Since Marvel will have etched the name "Captain Marvel" on Carol Danvers forever after the movie, over-writing the original in the pop culture subconscious, DC might as well retire their version to Earth-5 and visit there in Multiversity stories, or do back-up stories set there in annuals or somewhere.. That would keep the original Captain Marvel alive, and keep him alive in the form that made him famous.
That's not a money-maker, but they're not going to make money on the character anyway. (Anyone think the Black Adam movie will make Captain America money?) They might as well lock him in Suspendium, metaphorically, until circumstances change.
Come to think of it, I kinda wish they'd do that with all their acquired properties. I don't want to see the Quality characters turned into some sort of government squad -- leave them on Earth-10 as they were, and visit occasionally.
Ditto with the Charlton characters. As we've discussed before, DC has never known what to do with Captain Atom, who -- like Captain Marvel -- is redundant on Earth-Rebirth. Leave him on Earth-4 where he can be Earth's mightiest hero, as he was meant to be. Send Ted Kord there, too, and leave Jaimie here.
And, for God's sake, give us the original JSA on another earth, where they team up with the JLA occasionally, but are not made redundant by sharing the same universe.
Does that make marketing sense, or am I just being nostalgic?
I just realized after posting those two opinions, that they would essentially un-do Crisis on Infinite Earths. And DC will never agree with me that CoIE was a mistake, so I'm pipe-dreaming.
I guess DC never talks bad about previous management decisions. I think their true concern is to maintain trademarks on the Charlton, Quality and JSA characters, which they could do with occasional appearances on or from another Earth. I agree that they don't fit into the DC universe unless you change them a lot. Drastically changing them makes them meaningless.
I enjoyed the Blackhawks when I was a kid and had never heard of Quality. I "met" the JSA in their yearly team-ups and I "met" the Charlton characters in their Ditko/Giordano heyday. Using them as cannon fodder or turning them into unrecognizable versions does nothing for me, and I don't think new readers care about them at all.
I first read the JSA in the first JSA/JLA crossover and I was eager to know more about this new group, who seemed to have a whole history behind them that I didn't know. But I was happy to see them once a year, because even the Li'l Capn knew that Justice League of America was grossly overpopulated when they were around, and that everyone was under-served.
I began reading Blackhawk in the Dick Dillin, red-and-green uniform days at DC and was unimpressed, even though Blackhawk numbering was higher than Jimmy Olsen, and the letters page indicated a fervent fan base. It took Dan Spiegle and Mark Evanier to show me how cool they could be.
I started reading the Charlton characters in their native habitat. I even have some Dan Garrett Blue Beetles and I have all the Captain Atoms from his second Charlton run, even the ones with the gold-lame outfit. In both cases, I still prefer those versions to the later ones -- even the Ditko Blue Beetle, which just seemed like Spider-Man with The Question's ethics.
That's my perspective when coming to these characters, but I know I'm in the minority. I just think they all need their own area to shine in, rather than be redundant characters on the common Earth, which is already overrun with super-characters.
(1) I believe some characters have mainly legacy appeal (Ellery Queen), and others have a combination of inherent appeal and legacy appeal (Sherlock Holmes). A legacy appeal character isn't all that great in himself, but is interesting to the reader because of his history.
(2) Rebooting continuity reduces legacy appeal by cutting off characters from their pasts. Henry Pym with his past is Henry Pym with his Avengers #213 baggage. But Henry Pym without his past is less able to appeal to the reader's established connection to the character. If the character's other elements (name, costume, powers etc.) are strong dropping baggage could leave you better off. But if they aren't, the character may no longer attract readers. For some readers Hank's baggage is the interesting stuff.
(3) Rebooting doesn't sever the connection to the past completely. The publishers want fan interest to transfer from the old version to the new version. Creators draw on the old continuity for ideas. And rather than just rebooting, the companies often do stories in which the universes are recreated in-story. So continuity reboots result in a more complex metacontinuity.
(4) The formula "there are no good or bad characters, only good or bad handling" is partly true, but goes too far. Part of what makes a character compelling is his characterisation. This is obviously true of Spider-Man. But that isn't all that makes a character compelling. Spider-Man also has a great costume and interesting powers. Any character might be given an interesting characterisation, but it doesn't follow that any character can carry a series, as costume, powers, character-concept, themes and supporting cast also matter.
(5) When Silver Age DC revived Green Lantern it redesigned the costume, changed the weakness, gave the new version a secret ID with a flashy occupation, added a romantic entanglement, changed the premise to an SF one, and introduced the Green Lantern Corps. Pieface replaced Doiby in the sidekick role, and wasn't as comic. The new costume was better than the old one but a bit bland. It was modified into a really first class costume later. DC did make use of elements of the original character: his name and powers. But the new character's success wasn't due to those elements alone.
(6) From the start DC put the new GL into SF adventures as well as crook-catching ones. The Green Lantern Corps wasn't initially at the heart of the strip, but gradually became more important. This is parallel to the way the Asgardian element took over Thor. Some ideas just have untapped potential.
(7) DC's library of characters and stories is a library of names and ideas. The materials don't have to be picked up as-is, but replacing bland old characters with new characters doesn't necessarily leave you better off, as the new ones might be blander.
(8) Sometimes elements become dated. I think Captain names are an example. There are all kinds of elements in the Fawcett Captain Marvel strip that might be used to create a successful feature. There's no reason to cling to the dated elements if there's no legacy advantage in doing so. Are there many people about my age who fondly remember the Shazam! TV show (which I never got to watch)? There might be. But maybe their boys are in their teens now, and too old to take to a family movie. Can a character without legacy appeal have strong commercial appeal in the modern comics market? I don't know. The legacy approach seemed to have appeal when JSA was a top title, but that's a long time ago now.
(9) The appeal of the Golden Age Captain Marvel feature was partly its style: its combination of cartoony art, imagination and humour. I don't know he's an appealing character without that approach. Visually, he's a fairy-tale Superman. C. C. Beck argued that the real hero of Captain Marvel stories was Billy Batson. This makes sense to me: the stories often had scenes where Billy had to figure out how to free himself from a trap. But that element is likely not the key to appealing to adult men today, and DC may not know how to reach pre-teen boys. On the other hand, it's possible the industry is reaching new readers through digital comics. I have really no idea what the numbers are, or who's buying them.
I still think that digital comics will have to be cheaper than $3 to $5 a pop to get that going. Since you can't undercut the magazine price for the same book without having a retailers revolt, you have to offer something that isn't initially available in the comic shops. It would have to be (at least some) established characters in stories that would be collected later in trade form.
Come to think of it, there's another element of the original GL DC kept: his mask!
I think e-comics do offer three things print comics don't: they're portable on e-devices; they're more easily stored; and you're less likely to be mocked for reading them, and keeping them.
I use a large screen, and can read a comics page at about published size. I imagine the reading experience is less satisfactory on smaller devices. I've found I don't like being only able to see part of a page.