Kung fu was popular in the United States during the early 1970s, due to the global success of Bruce Lee. That’s where the genesis of Iron Fist, a new Marvel superhero series screening on Netflix, lies.
Looking to cash in on the martial arts boom, Marvel created the comic-book character back in 1974, when interest in the genre was strong.
The new Marvel show features Finn Jones, best known for his role as Loras Tyrell in Game Of Thrones, as Iron Fist, and is written to lead into The Defenders, another series featuring the character Iron Fist, due to air on Netflix in early 2018.
Iron Fist, aka Danny Rand, is a young American business heir who becomes skilled at kung fu after an accident lands him in the mythical martial arts kingdom of K’un L’un.
Although he has no superpowers, he learns to focus his qi (energy) to increase his fighting skills, and becomes a crime fighter when he returns home to New York.
Always a lesser Marvel hero, Iron Fist was killed off in the 1980s – literally – and resurrected briefly in the 1990s. A film version was mooted in the early 2000s, starring British martial arts expert and actor Ray Park, but the film never went into production.
The Netflix show received some negative online publicity before it was screened for the press, not least because few of today’s Marvel fans were interested in the character. But the series proved to be well-structured, and unexpectedly thoughtful in style.
The Marvel comics of the 1970s were known for delving deeper into the psychology of their characters than rival brand DC Comics, and that introspective approach returns for the show, making Iron Fist more than a punch-up.
The writers have taken the original idea, modernised it, and even added a political angle.
Danny is now a naïve, well-meaning youth who is unprepared for the corporate machinations of the Trump-like extended family he finds when he returns to New York from K’un L’un.
“Danny’s not a superhero to start with,” says Jones, who had time to add some depth to his character over the show’s 13 episodes. “He has a long way to go before he gets the right to call himself a superhero – there are a lot of creases that he needs to iron out, and he has to discover a lot of inner truths. I like the fact that it’s a slow-burn of a series, as it gives me time to get to know the character.
“Danny is very pure, and you see people take advantage of his purity all through the series. He becomes slightly world-weary because of that.”
Jones says that there’s a lot of dramatic conflict involved in the character, and that’s part of Danny’s appeal. “He’s stuck in the middle. He’s trying to be a disciplined spiritual warrior, yet he’s also a child that is deeply tormented, deeply traumatised,” he says.
“I have to play polar opposites – Danny doesn’t know which way to go, and he’s in complete turmoil. His spiritual development in the show is all about knowing himself, about finding his purpose and his responsibilities.”
Jones brought his own experiences to the role, he adds: “That’s something that I went through in my early 20s. I’m 28 now, and Danny is 25. I can look at my past, and although it’s different, I understand what Danny is going through. A lot of men and women are like that at that age.”
Viewers in this part of the world might find the martial arts sequences a bit lacklustre compared to those in Asian films, but Jones, and co-star Jessica Henwick, do give it all they’ve got.
Jones notes that he performs the “soft” martial arts styles like tai chi, while Henwick displays the “hard” forms like karate.
“I did wing chun and tai chi,” he says. “That makes a nice contrast with what Jessica does, and highlights the differences in out characters. Mine flow a lot, as it’s all about redirecting energy – it’s a non-aggressive form of fighting, whereas Jessica has a very aggressive way of fighting. But there are times that Danny loses control and his non-aggressive martial arts become aggressive,” Jones says.
Henwick, recently seen in Rogue One as an X-wing fighter pilot, plays Colleen Wing, a martial arts expert who runs a dojo in New York where Danny finds shelter. (She also appears in Game Of Thrones as Nymeria Sand.)
Half-Singaporean and half-Zambian English, the actress learned wushu for a month for a BBC children’s television series, Spirit Warriors, and took more martial arts lessons for Iron Fist.
Wing – and Henwick, by the looks of it – can give as good as she gets, and a rough cage fight sequence is an action highlight of the series.
“My fight styles are a mixture, and I did a lot of Japanese styles,” she says. “We wanted to put a different spin on it, so I also did aggression training, and basic street fighting. That teaches you how to get out of street-level situations. We kind of made a new free-style martial art.”
Having a non-Asian hero such as Jones in a mystical martial arts television series prompted uneasy memories of the 1970s US television series Kung Fu for some.
A show originally developed for Bruce Lee, the network subsequently decided that an Asian face would be bad for ratings, and the role went to David Carradine instead.
The Hollywood Reporter, in 2015, ran an article titled Why Marvel and Netflix should cast an Asian-American Iron Fist. According to the Reporter, Marvel did heed the calls to audition an Asian, and auditioned some Asian-American actors. But the role ultimately went to a Caucasian, as in the comic.
To avoid stereotyping, the city of K’un L’un has become multicultural, rather than Chinese, notes Jones: “It’s not based on any culture that exists. It’s a diverse culture. You have Brazilians, Europeans, and Asians. That is very different to the comic books.”
There is a possibility that, if it’s successful on Netflix, Iron Fist could become a film. The series is written to adhere to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a standard that means that the character histories can interact with those of other film superheroes.
Jones is not that impressed by the prospect, he says: “I don’t think there is anything interesting about us becoming a movie. Who wants to see us in a big-budget film, doing a lot of flashy stuff?
“In the series we have 13 hours of character development, and that is what people will want to see. Why would us getting an upgrade be interesting?” – South China Morning Post/Richard James Havis