As “The Last Defender”, Iron Fist bears the burden of tying most heavily into The Defenders.
This is not a surprise. This has been a large part of the Marvel Studios model, with productions teasing concepts and characters that will not arrive for quite some time. By the time that Thanos moves against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers: Infinity War, it will have been more than half a decade since the stinger at the end of The Avengers teased his looming threat. Even since Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. dropped by the stinger in The Incredible Hulk, these teases have been a way of doing business.
As such, it makes sense that the company would put a lot of groundwork into setting up the summer’s big-ticket crossover between the four different Marvel Netflix shows. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage had largely been their own thing, while Daredevil had devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to introducing concepts and ideas that would pay off down the line. However, as the last of the shows to be released before the big summer event series, Iron Fist carries a heavier burden than any of its predecessors.
Unfortunately, Marvel and Netflix seem to have wholeheartedly committed to the idea of the Hand as the enemy of choice for this eight-part crossover miniseries. And so Iron Fist gets burdened with the Hand.
The Defenders is coming. Iron Fist packs more sly and overt references to its companion series than any of the other Marvel Netflix series. Ward even mentions Daredevil by name in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. Danny name drops Karen Page, while Madame Gao obliquely references both Luke Cage and “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” in Felling Tree With Roots. Claire reads love letters from Luke, and Joy refers to Jessica Jones in The Blessing of Many Fractures. This is to say nothing of having Claire Temple and Jeri Hogarth as recurring characters.
So Iron Fist is committed to this crossover. In fact, looking at the structure and nature of the television series, it seems like Iron Fist largely exists because of this crossover. The contours of the show are largely defined by the needs of the crossover. The closing scene of Dragon Plays With Fire is nothing but a cliffhanger leading into The Defenders. The Hand dominate the season as the big bad, with Danny Rand’s back story even reworked so that his very concept is tied to this cult of undead ninja assassins.
At this point, it is worth pausing to not exactly how subservient Iron Fist renders the character concept to the demands of the crossover. Defining Danny Rand as “sworn enemy of the Hand” is an infinitely larger revision and alteration to the character than changing his skin colour would be, a clumsy storytelling short cut that feels incredibly cynical. Whatever makes Danny Rand and the Iron Fist unique as comic cook concepts is casually brushed aside so that he can deliver the exposition necessary to bridge the four lead-in series over to The Defenders.
The Hand were the most disappointing aspect of the second season of Daredevil, which is no mean feat for a season of television that insisted Frank Castle’s family had been murdered by a sprawling conspiracy and had the serial killer offering Karen Page advice on love inside a retro diner. Although the Hand were an essential (and beloved) part of the Daredevil mythos, they did not pop on screen. Faceless hordes of undead ninja look much better illustrated by Frank Miller than they do in live action television.
To be fair, Iron Fist seems to acknowledge that the Hand did not really work in Daredevil. As such, the series takes the somewhat unconventional approach of effectively reimagining the concept twice over the concept of thirteen episodes. It is jarring and contradictory, playing into the idea that the production team have no notion of how best to use these hordes of faceless ninja. Then again, it wasn’t as if the Hand worked particularly well the last time that they were employed in live action. Very few people remember Electra fondly.
So Iron Fist reworks the Hand significantly, stepping away from the Japanese iteration that appeared in the second season of Daredevil. As led by Nobu, a character introduced during the first season of Daredevil, the Hand were presented in a manner true to Frank Miller’s original conception. The Hand were a collection of stock Japanese stereotypes, a vaguely mystical martial arts death cult engaged in the subversion of American institutions. It was an approach very much rooted in the eighties aesthetic of the original Daredevil comics.
Iron Fist indulges in some rather awkward retroactive continuity. The series suggests that Madame Gao is heading her own faction of the Hand. Gao was also introduced in the first season of Daredevil, and made a minor appearance in the second. As part of Wilson Fisk’s cabal, Gao was a mysterious figure who was implied to have supernatural powers. However, episodes like Shadows in the Glass and .380 seemed to suggest that Gao existed quite separate from Nobu, the mysterious Chinese lady sharing no real interest with Japanese ninja.
Daredevil already established the connection between Gao and the Iron Fist mythos. In The Path of the Righteous, Ben Ulrich explained that Gao was selling a drug known as “Steel Serpent.” When Matt Murdock took down her operation in The Ones We Leave Behind, he discovered that her product was marked with the logo of the comic book character Davos. Many fans speculated that Gao was intended to be “the Crane Mother”, a character from The Immortal Iron Fist with ties to Davos. Certainly, the series suggested no ties to the Hand.
Of course, the truth is that there is no real consistency between Madame Gao as she was conceived for Daredevil and as she was employed in Iron Fist. The series are produced by two different creative teams, and so it makes sense that characters would be introduced and reinterpreted on a case-by-case basis. Scott Buck conceded as much when asked about continuity, acknowledging, “Sometimes things are done because they’re fun, just drop them in and go ‘Eh, the next series will figure them out!'” It feels more like mad-libs than carefully considered continuity.
As a result, Iron Fist gets to rework and reimagine the Hand. Perhaps the smartest decision, given the racial controversy around the show, is to move the Hand away from the more overt martial arts stereotypes. There is still a lot of Orientalism to the portrayal of Madame Gao and the Hand, but the organisation is decidedly less mystical and magical than it was in the first two seasons of Daredevil. Gao is still a magical old Chinese lady prone to offer fortune cookie wisdom and with the ability to raise the dead, but she is also a business woman rather than a cultist.
Some of this is decidedly clumsy, as Iron Fist struggles to reconcile the fact that Gao is at once the leader of the sworn enemy of K’un Lun and mythically tied to it. In Immortal Emerges From Cave, Gao talks about living in K’un Lun. In Felling Tree With Roots, she discusses her experience with other Iron Fists. When Colleen notices the “Steel Serpent” symbol, she asks, “How are you connected to these people?” Danny replies, “I’m not. It’s a sacred symbol from K’un Lun. Gao is giving them the finger by putting it on her poison.” It is a bit of a clumsy handwave.
To be fair, Gao is only one of the two separate reimaginings of the Hand served up by Iron Fist. In Black Tiger Steals Heart, the show will reveal another branch of the mysterious organisation led by Bakuto. It is revealed that Madame is the leader of a separatist faction of the organisation, one at war with Bakuto’s branch. It could be heavily implied that Nobu was the leader of his own branch of the organisation, driven by his own ideology as distinct as that of Gao or Bakuto. They seem to represent different power blocks. Nobu was Japan, Gao is China, Bakuto is South America.
This evolution is interesting, because it represents a very clear and logical framework through which the Hand might be examined. The transition from the very eighties “Japanese ninja” aesthetic of Nobu’s iteration in Daredevil to the more contemporary “Chinese capitalist” iteration in Iron Fist represents shifting American cultural anxieties. It makes sense that the Hand would evolve from a Japanese ninja death cult in Daredevil into a Chinese corporation in Iron Fist, because American cultural and political fears have shifted over the years.
During the eighties and into the early nineties, American popular culture was very anxious about the spread of Japanese influence. In large part, this fear was rooted in the economic success of Japanese companies following the Second World War, to the point that the United States regarded Japanese companies as a major espionage threat at the turn of the decade. This subconscious fear of invasive Japanese culture can be seen in everything from Die Hard to Blade Runner to Rising Sun to even The X-Files. That fear evaporated after Japan went into recession.
Recent years have seen the United States become increasingly concerned with the rise of China in the far east. Donald Trump has engaged in no shortage of sabre-rattling. Michael Schuman sees this anxiety as cast in the same mould as those earlier fears about Japan:
The reaction many have to China today is very similar to the one that towards Japan in the 1980s, when the Land of the Rising Sun was the rising economic challenger to the West. In recent years, Americans got all jittery about a Chinese attempt to buy oil firm Unocal; more than 20 years ago, Americans got all jittery over Japan’s acquisition of Rockefeller Centre. Why? After the overly emotional response in the U.S. to Sony’s acquisition of Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures, co-founder Akio Morita pointed out that Australian born Rupert Murdoch had previously bought 20th Century Fox, without the drama.
With that in mind, the update of the Hand from Frank Miller’s eighties Japanese death cult to a globalist Chinese organisation makes a great deal of sense. The Hand is a flexible construct, and Iron Fist is very consciously reworking it in a way that makes a certain amount of thematic sense, even if it doesn’t fit with continuity.
In some regards, the Hand feel like a logical opponent for a kung fu television series. American fascination with martial arts is arguably rooted in anxiety over increased Asian influence in global affairs. Many would argue that the original kung fu craze of the seventies was a response to the trauma of the Vietnam War, an attempt to rework masculine archetypes to reflect and incorporate anxieties about that conflict in East Asian. These martial arts films and comics broke out at a time when Americans were anxious about their loss of influence in that arena.
This certainly provides a framework for understanding the “whitewashing” of the genre through the embracing of white American martial arts protagonists like Danny Rand or David Carradine, their ascent over Asian practitioners like Bruce Lee serving as an attempt to supplant those who had honed and developed the art. American martial arts stars allowed American masculinity to essentially beat these Asian archetypes at their own game. After all, unfortunately, far too many martial arts stories pit white protagonists against anonymous Asian hordes.
The martial arts genre has frequently allowed American popular culture to grapple with the generic Asian “other”, in whatever form that might take. Citing The Karate Kid and its remake as an example, David Cox suggests that even martial arts cinema is revising that Asian “other” from an ascendant Japan in the eighties to a globalist China:
Over the decades, Hollywood’s geopolitics have tracked those of its host country. In the 1980s, Japan and its dark arts were a matter of national concern: the Japanese were presenting an unexpected challenge to American economic pre-eminence. Somehow, they were not only out-competing American industries but actually gaining control of them. In 1989, Sony even bought Columbia Pictures.
On screen, karate became something of a metaphor for Japan’s mysterious but devastating capabilities, enthralling audiences in films ranging from Showdown in Little Tokyo to the original Karate Kid. However, in the 1990s, Japan collapsed into its lost decade of recession, and so did much of the threat it had seemed to pose. Thereafter, the movies lost their passion for karate.
Now, however, China presents the US with a greater challenge than Japan ever did. The People’s Republic has somehow acquired a stranglehold over America’s finances; worse, it threatens to displace the country as the world’s leading power. Americans are well aware of this and feel not only anxious but intimidated. Once more, it seems, a martial art is standing in on screen for the unfathomable powers of an inscrutable national adversary.
In some ways, Madame Gao could be seen to represent contemporary pop cultural anxieties about an increasingly influential China on the world stage. After all, Gao even makes her home nestled snugly inside Rand Industries, buried away on the thirteen floor. She has staged her own hostile takeover.
Gao is undoubtedly steeped in Orientalist clichés. She has the capacity to literally raise the dead, as Harold Meachum explained in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. She had the ability to knock a man twice her size across the room with the touch of her hand, as seen in Immortal Emerges From Cave. She may not employ a literal army of ninjas, but she keeps a host of martial arts combatants on call in Immortal Emerges From Cave and even has a “sworn defender” on call in The Blessing of Many Fractures.
At the same time, it is clear that Gao has embraced some form of capitalism. Although Daredevil suggested that Gao’s drug smuggling might be tied to something larger, Iron Fist suggests that Gao is ultimately a glorified drug dealer. In Black Tiger Steals Heart, Bakuto suggests that Gao has betrayed the core beliefs of the Hand. It would seem to be implied that Gao has taken the long and mystical history of the Hand and perverted into a means of making money.
“I wonder in the spirit of change, could we be something different?” Gao asks Danny in Felling Tree With Roots, and Iron Fist seems to suggest that Gao has becomes something different. She represents a fusion of the Hand’s ambiguously Eastern value system, with is explicitly rendered as socialist by Bakuto’s interpretation of it in Black Tiger Steals Heart, and wed it to pure American capitalism. In contrast to Nobu’s fanaticism or Bakuto’s self-conscious right-on-ness, Gao runs her organisation like a ruthless executive.
This is most obvious from the “rehearsed hard sell” montage that opens Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, in which Gao sends her sales assistants into the world to broken distribution deals for her synthetic heroin. These assistants use the language of telemarketers to hawk their “great new product” with its “estimated triple profit” that will be “hitting the market in two weeks” in a work “offering security and versatility.” In a pitch that’s surprising it doesn’t end up on the sachet, they promise, “It’s one-hundred percent pure, one-hundred percent of the time.”
Gao’s enforcers seem like boring executive types. When they reprimand Harold Meachum at the start of Felling Tree With Roots, they sound like they are offering a bland HR sanction. “The Hand is concerned with this rebellious streak you’ve shown,” one states, as if Harold might lose his washroom privileges. Goa’s assistant promises her, “We should be reaching our sales goal in the next three months.” Studying her office space, Gao has some input. “We should brighten up this office, yes?” she asks. Her assistant responds, “I’ll put in an order for some lamps.”
Indeed, Iron Fist even makes a point to parallel the corruption and corporate malfeasance at Rand Industries with Gao’s management of the Hand. When Danny accuses Gao’s assistant of using his father’s company “to sell poison” in Feeling Tree With Roots, she retorts, “Is that really so different from what you’re doing on the top floor?” Gao’s drug operation is revealed in Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, the same episode in which Danny confronts his company’s culpability in “spewing poison into the air, the ground, everything around us.”
In some ways, the presentation of Gao’s interpretation of the Hand and the conscious decision to root it in China reflects American cultural anxieties about increasing Chinese influence on the world stage. Like Madame Gao’s business philosophy, Michael Schuman argues that China represents a fusion of capitalism with something else:
China, too, uses a competing economic model – “state capitalism” – that challenges the economic ideology of the West. In many ways, China also behaves in a mercantilist fashion, which gives the impression it cares little about anyone else. It keeps its currency controlled so its exports can out-compete those from other countries, and it grabs natural resources for itself wherever and whenever it can. Often state-controlled companies are doing the grabbing, making China seem like a threatening monolithic juggernaut. Worst of all, the political ideology behind China’s economic ascent completely counters Western ideals about democracy and human rights. China is not just competing with the U.S. in world markets, but offering up an entirely different economic and political system, one that at times seems better at creating growth and jobs, even as it restricts much-cherished civil liberties. China is succeeding based on ideas that Americans despise.
Much like Americans are anxious about the economic hold that China has over the country’s debt, Iron Fist makes a point to stress Madame Gao’s influence over the show’s economic realities. Gao provided the poison that Harold Meachum used to kill the Rand family, while also keeping Harold Meachum alive and imprisoned at her luxury.
Of course, it should be noted that Black Tiger Steals Heart frames Gao’s embrace of capitalism as a betrayal of the core principle of the Hand. In doing so, Iron Fist seems to suggest that the Hand is ideologically a socialist or communist organisation. It is no coincidence that Bakuto seems to insist that the real ideological home of the Hand lies in Central and South America. Much like China, those are regions of the world largely driven by economic and political philosophies that run counter to American ideals.
In some respects, Iron Fist seems to position the Hand as a Far Eastern equivalent to HYDRA, specific to the Netflix Marvel shows. That terrorist organisation has become a cornerstone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, serving as the driving force in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a sleeper cell fifth column of European fascists that can trace their roots back to the version of Nazi Germany featured in Captain America: The First Avenger.
HYDRA have come to represent fears of European fascism, rooted in the somewhat awkward idea that fascism could never take root in the United States without extensive foreign interference. HYDRA is troubling largely because it represents a very literal expression of “it could never happen here”, a school of political thought that displaces anxieties about populism and fascism to some external source. The enemy in The Winter Soldier or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the surveillance state, but a bunch of secret Nazis. That is very convenient.
In Iron Fist, the Hand becomes stand-ins for another foreign anxiety, the fear of philosophies traditionally associated with Asia. The Hand are presented as socialist in nature. There is something very “red scare” in the way that episodes like Lead Horse Back to Stable suggest that Hand has effectively brainwashed a bunch of diverse and disenfranchised young people into believing that capitalism is fundamentally broken. Madame Gao is ultimately her own thing, just as Chinese state capitalism provides a weird fusion.
All of this is interesting, if a little reactionary and uncomfortable. Then again, superhero narratives tend to be reactionary. Even Luke Cage was decidedly conservative in outlook, despite its clear social conscience and willingness to engage with contemporary politics. To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with conservatism; Luke Cage’s conservatism added an intriguing dynamic to Luke Cage‘s politics. However, this framing of the Hand on Iron Fist feels more than a little outdated. It feels like “red scare” politics updated for the twenty-first century.
Even discounting the awkward subtext of all this, none of this conceptual reworking gets around the core problem with using the Hand as an antagonistic force in these series. The Hand are simply not an interesting set of antagonists. Nobu and Gao are much less interesting as opponents than Wilson Fisk or Kilgrave, and hordes of anonymous ninja feel like a very cheap way to raise the stakes. With its massive investment in the Hand as the major antagonists of the series, Iron Fist effectively disappears down the rabbit hole.
The Hand provide seemingly infinite set of antagonists for Danny to punch and offer a concrete tie-in to The Defenders, but that is not enough to sustain a series of this length. As with a lot of the creative decisions on Iron Fist, it is hard to justify on its own terms without the weight of the other Marvel Netflix shows behind it or the looming Defenders crossover ahead of it. There are some interesting ideas around the reworking of the Hand in Iron Fist, but none of them are developed enough to seem like more than Asian “red scare” panic-mongering.
Given the other issues that Iron Fist faces when it comes to Asia, this may not have been the best choice.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Iron Fist:
- Snow Gives Way
- Shadow Hawk Takes Flight
- Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch
- Eight Diagram Dragon Palm
- Under Leaf Pluck Lotus
- Immortal Emerges From Cave
- Felling Tree With Roots
- The Blessing of Many Fractures
- The Mistress of All Agonies
- Black Tiger Steals Heart
- Lead Horse Back to Stable
- Bar the Big Boss
- Dragon Plays With Fire