Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Shang Chi, not Iron Fist, should be the new Marvel TV series

Marvel just announced a slew of new TV series, to be released through Netflix, and Iron Fist is one of them.

I want to love Iron Fist. He has everything I love in a comic book - martial arts based powers, a killer tattoo (on his chest! Yay!), a visually awesome "super power," and a generally excellent backstory full of mystical lost cities and dead dragons.

Yet I can't. I have, at best, mixed feelings about the character, and I doubt he'll ever be a breakout star for Marvel.

First of all, if you're not familiar with the character, make yourself so. I'll wait.


My basic problem with the character, and this is ironic, because he was paired with a black partner and they had fun liberal adventures together, is that his story is awesomely racist.

Let's recap. White kid, with no special training or abilities, winds up in the mystical (and Asian) city of K'un-L'un, where he begins intensive training in kung fu. Now, being white, OF COURSE he just happens to be the most talented kid there, even more than all the native K'un-L'un-ites who have lived and breathed martial arts starting at conception. He's so good that he becomes the best fighter around, surpassing all the darker skinned natives who have been training for decades longer, kills their dragon, and takes its power. And leaves.

If you wanted to purposefully write an allegory for cultural appropriation and imperialism I'm not sure you could. And he's the hero!

So he tries to get revenge, doesn't (which is cool, I like that bit), and then what does he do? He's the heir to a ginormous fortune (I just realized Blogger doesn't red-squiggly-underline 'ginormous'), so he hangs out in the slums of NY and fights crime with Power Man. Now Luke Cage is a man who actually grew up in those slums, who is actually struggling to do the right thing and make a life for himself. And her comes Danial Rand, a rich white dude just pretending to need to be there - an heir to a vast fortune, who's literally slumming, so he can learn about the gritty underworld.

Iron Fist fights crime and injustice because he's bored. Not driven by inner demons - he's no Batman or Moon Knight - not trying to make amends, just needs something to do with his badass kung fu skills so he figures, "hey, why not chill with the poor people and beat up the ones who don't meet my standards of behavior?"

By the time Brubaker took over the series Daniel Rand seems to loath himself. As he should. He's a douche.

To add insult to injury, Iron Fist's basic power (rad martial arts skill, plus every so often he can make his fist Like a Thing Unto Iron (and glowy) and hit stuff really, really hard) is a story killer. It's like Voltron's sword - if he can take out the bad guy without pulling out the Iron Fist, they were never a threat, and if he uses it and it DOESN'T work, the bad guy's way out of his league. He's a one trick, one shot pony, and that's a story killer.

For a contrast, let's look at a contemporary of Iron Fist's: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. He was an infinitely better character in every way, except that he had no cool tattoos.

Shang Chi is awesome at martial arts. Why? Because his dad, basically a super rich megalomaniacal supervillain, had him trained from birth by the very best instructors in the world to be a killing machine. No implied white supremacism here (he's pretty Asian), just hard work and dedication!

Plus he has a great motivation - his dad was super evil, and he isn't, so he goes back and defends the free world from his father's evil plots time and time again. Then, when he's bored (i.e. in between evil plots by dad), he wants to fight against injustice to make amends - because he feel responsible for the sins of his father AND for bad stuff he did while still under the old man's thumb.

Making up for your father's sins. That's some classic, nigh-Shakespearean shit.

Shang Chi has no one super killer martial arts move. He has to work to figure out a strategy to defeat every skilled opponent he comes across. He has no superpowers at all, other than metal bracelets that can, Wonder Woman style, deflect knives and throwing stars and stuff. He trains hard, learns new things, and goes through crises of conscience.

In short, he's a much better character than Iron Fist could ever hope to be.

I don't mean to be all negative. I will here offer a way to fix Iron Fist as a character:

1. Make his mom from K'un L'un. She left/escaped/whatever, she had super duper skills, fell in love with a white dude, had Daniel. They came back for some reason - she dies protecting him from wolves, but had taught him great stuff or he inherited great genes from her. Takes away the white people can do everything better angle, plus adds a hook into the mystical city (maybe people there were fans of hers? Maybe some internal conflicts going on?) Maybe it's an ongoing search - why did she leave to begin with? What was going on?

2. Take away the Rand Corporation. Nobody likes rich people these days.

3. Give him some recurring villains that aren't plant people (God I wish I was making that up). Ninjas from K'un L'un (yes, I know I'm crossing cultures, sue me) out to get back the Dragon Spirit or whatever. He goes to NYC to fight them on his own turf. Or mystical dudes from another city - another culture, even - out to steal his power. Or, you know, there's some bad thing out there that the Dragon Spirit is supposed to defend us from.

4. Make his powers more... varied. Maybe the Iron Fist is his big KO, but let him do little bits of other things (jump real high, climb walls, heal himself, whatever). Maybe he has a power meter, so he can only do X units of stuff per day, then has to meditate/get laid/whatever to recharge, but add a strategy element to it - does hie put all the power into his fist, or save some for a shield/ for healing/ to make a bright light & distract his opponent? More tools = more interesting battles. I learned that from Naruto.

You want a really fantastic idea? Mash the two characters together. Guy (I'm resisting the urge to dub him Shang Rand or Daniel Chi) is from a mystical city from which his super evil father wants to rule the world. His mother escapes with him, and they go to New York & he's raised there, being trained intensely by his mom against the day when dad comes to get him (which can only happen periodically, because mystical city).

Kid grows up poor in NYC slums. After 10 years his father's minions kill his mom, kidnap him, and bring him back home. He trains more, all the while plotting revenge, gets even better (using mom's secret techniques), kills dragon, gains superpowers, defeats his father.

Now picture this: super powered kid goes back home, hangs out with childhood friend Luke Cage, and tries to help people he actually knows and cares about. Plus, make up for evil father. Plus, maybe father's minions come and offer him power - like, "become our leader & we'll help you clean up the city." Which was, like, an awesome Daredevil storyline. What does he do? Plus, the ever present tension - is he helping the city more by crimefighting or hurting it because evil dudes are always showing up to take his glowy hands away?

Which character is more compelling? Sadly, the least compelling, to me, is the actual Iron Fist. But he's blonde, so that's the one they'll go with. I'll still watch it, but I'll be saddened by what could have been... if only Marvel listened to me.