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Iron Fist – Black Tiger Steals Heart (Review)

And so it becomes a little clearer what exactly Iron Fist is trying to do with the Hand.

Black Tiger Steals Heart reveals that Madame Gao is not the leader of the Hand, but instead one faction of the Hand. Presumably, Nobu was the leader of another faction of the Hand on Daredevil, although his interactions with Gao never seemed anywhere near as charged as they might otherwise be. Black Tiger Steals Heart properly introduces the character of Bakuto, a mysterious figure who has been lurking at the edge of the narrative since he was introduced as a friend of Colleen Wing in Felling Tree With Roots.

“Ay, Macarena!”

Bakuto is ultimately revealed to be a major player in the Hand, a character with ambiguous motivations and impressive influence. Black Tiger Steals Heart immediately sets Bakuto up as a cool idealist with progressive values and socialist leanings. He attracts young followers who seem genuinely devoted to them, arguing against capitalism as a philosophy and suggesting that the power of disaffected youth can be channeled in a more constructive manner. Contrasted with Gao’s capitalism or Rand Industries’ exploitation, Bakuto makes a lot of sense.

Bakuto is ultimately revealed as a sinister cult leader looking to exploit the young people placed in his care, turning them into weapons through which he might wage war upon the establishment. Bakuto’s reinvention of the Hand away from Nobu’s Asian mysticism or Gao’s magical capitalism continues the theme of the Hand as a stand-in for American anxieties about foreign belief systems. In this case, Iron Fist treats the Hand as a reactionary critique of left-leaning social movements like Black Lives Matter or Bernie Sanders supporters.

Enjoy this, because this is the only Asian Iron Fist that you’re going to get.

As portrayed by Ramon Rodriguez, Bakuto is charming and disarming, zen and chill. He also revealed as the leader of his own faction of the Hand. Indeed, Bakuto is a comic book character who can trace his roots back to Andy Diggle’s Daredevil run. Bakuto was introduced (and promptly killed off) in a three-issue story arc leading into the ill-conceived Daredevil event book Shadowland. Somewhat unfortunately, based on what little has been seen of the Hand’s activities in Daredevil, it seems like the Marvel Netflix shows are running full tilt towards Shadowland.

As originally conceived, Bakuto was a Japanese character. He was the daimyo of the South American “finger” of the Hand, one who adopted more modern methods and ideology in overseeing his operations. Although Iron Fist is never explicit about this, it heavily suggests that this interpretation of Bakuto remains true to these roots. Bakuto is certainly more modern than Gao. Rodriguez is a Latino actor. When Bakuto starts appropriating Rand Industry funds in Lead Horse Back to Stable, Harold Meachum notes that he is transferring them to South America.

The deal goes South.

To be fair, there is something completely ridiculous about the many different factions of the Hand running around in the Marvel Netflix shows. The organisation seems to have no clear central agenda, no driving purpose. The Hand is almost like a franchise brand, an umbrella organisation that can welcome apocalyptic zombie cults alongside drug-dealing capitalists or zen socialist radicals. There is remarkable flexibility. Even the uniforms seem loose, with the suggestion being black and red in varying degrees of formality.

Black Tiger Steals Heart at least acknowledges this absurdity in dialogue, even if the script ultimately brushes it aside. “She is part of a rogue faction of the Hand that deals drugs and destroys lives,” Colleen states of Gao. Danny doesn’t seem to buy that line. “That’s your story, that she’s the bad Hand and you’re the good Hand?” he demands. Of course, it sounds ridiculous when he says it like that. Because it is ridiculous. It is terribly convoluted plotting, not least because Gao’s version of the Hand has not really be developed enough that the audience would care about a schism.

The Left Hand.

As with a lot of the plotting on Iron Fist, there is a sense that the production team are desperately looking for a way to extend the plot to pad out thirteen episodes. Introducing a new antagonist seems a fairly safe way to do that. Luke Cage swapped out primary antagonists at the halfway point, killing Cottonmouth and introducing Diamondback in Manifest. It seems like Iron Fist is doing something similar, given that The Blessing of Many Fractures effectively took Gao off the table as a viable antagonist and Harold Meachum is not in play yet.

While this is a problem that could easily be handled with some better planning and tighter structuring, it makes a certain amount of sense and certainly is not outside the realm of expectations for a Marvel Netflix show. After all, the first season of Daredevil made a point to hold back on Wilson Fisk until the middle of the season to keep things fresh. The second season of Daredevil pivoted from Frank Castle to Electra Natchios in Penny and Dime. It just seems counter-intuitive for Iron Fist to shift from “ninjas” to “slightly different ninjas.”

Ain’t Gaon anywhere.

At the same time, there is something instructive in looking at Nobu as the head of the Japanese faction of the Hand, Gao as the head of the Chinese faction of the Hand, and Bakuto as the head of the South American “hip” version of the Hand. Each version speaks to a particular set of fears about foreign ideologies. Nobu’s faction speaks to the fears of subversive Japanese influence that rippled through popular culture in the eighties. Gao’s faction speaks to the weird ideological threat of “state capitalism” posed by contemporary China.

Bakuto’s faction of the Hand seems more closely tied to that of Gao than to Nobu. Certainly, Bakuto and Gao exist in relation to one another, while Nobu stands apart. This makes sense, given the common fear that ties the United States’ anxieties about the county of China and the continent of South America. Bakuto and Gao both represent forms of socialism. Gao has just allowed her brand of socialism to become tied to capitalism, using Hand mysticism to empower her heroin empire. Gao does not seem driven by ideology, although she will readily employ it. She is driven by money.

You know when you’ve been Pollocked.

In contrast, Bakuto seems to be more invested in his belief systems. He is less compromising. Indeed, both Colleen and Bakuto suggest that Gao’s biggest crime is the perversion of Hand ideals. Bakuto’s South American origin and home suggests a reading. As J.C. Scull points out, Latin and South/Central America have  along history of socialism that is largely defined in opposition to the influence and ideology of the United States:

One of the reasons for the interest in Socialism within the educated population in Latin America have been the overriding concern for the social and economic improvement of the masses as well as this region’s relations with the United States broadly viewed as dealing with the bullying “colossus of the North”. The U.S. ability to make territorial gains as in the case of Mexico in 1848, Puerto Rico and special rights in Cuba in 1903 and Panama in 1904, the Banana Wars between 1898 and 1934, and the overall U.S. hegemony over the region created an important motive for interest in Socialism among the educated class. Further the willingness of the U.S. to work with military dictatorships in order to protect its interests in Latin America created another motivating factor for socialist fervor in this region.

South and Central America were frequently treated as front during the Cold War, with the United States concerned about the emergence of communism and socialism on its doorstep. This was particularly true during the Reagan administration. Conflicts waged  in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala to stem Soviet influence left deep scars. Although tensions died down following the end of the Cold War, the relationship has been fraught in the twenty-first century.

Strange bedfellows.

Indeed, it has been argued that the “comprehensive strategic partnership” being forged between China and countries like Venezuela, coupled with increased Chinese influence in the region and even Chinese-driven plans to build a canal through Nicaragua, are could be read as “chess moves” against the United States. While there is an argument this influence is exaggerated, the Hand give form to these anxieties about closer ties between China and Latin America. The Hand feel like a geopolitical boogie man anchored in American fears of socialist influence.

That said, Iron Fist is not particularly invested in Bakuto’s South American origins. The detail is rooted primarily in the character’s back story and suggested in a few fleeting lines of dialogue. Instead, Iron Fist is more interested in Bakuto as the face of a cooler and hipper version of the Hand than defined by Nobu or Gao. Bakuto appears to have modernised, foregoing creepy warehouses for a more tranquil campus and dressing down from Nobu’s robes or Gao’s business suits into casual shirts and loose jackets.

“Oh, hey. Wolverine has one like that.”

In some ways, Bakuto just continues the trend of moving the Hand away from the overt Orientalism that defined the Frank Miller creation during the second season of Daredevil. Although the Hand are still a cult with power to raise people from the dead, both iterations of the Hand featured in Iron Fist represent a conscious effort to de-exoticise the organisation. Bakuto still knows kung-fu and still talks in fortune cookie clichés, but also operates a more recognisable business model and employs modern technology.

Stepping away from the idea of the Hand as a mystical collection of stock Asian stereotypes is undoubtedly a good thing, particularly given the other problems that Iron Fist faces when it comes to cultural appropriation. At the same time, it underscores just how underdeveloped the Hand are as a concept. When Iron Fist tries to strip away the Oriental clichés from the Hand, there is little left. The show asks audiences to embrace the unintentionally absurd image of ninjas commuting to ominous meetings in a Ford in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm.

End of the road.

Although Bakuto is distinct from Nobu or Gao, he does feel very much of a piece with them. Bakuto’s ideology is portrayed as subversive and socialist, albeit couched in more friendly language. Bakuto speks in new age clichés, telling Danny about how he is “rooted, tied to the force that binds all life. Let it course through you. Let it replace everything that is broken.” The campus that he runs is described as “a community that can help you be all you can be.” He smartly laughs it off when Danny describes it as a “cult.”

Bakuto suggests that he has a radically different vision for the world. “A change is coming, Danny,” he assures his latest guest. “Something significant.” While he is talking in terms of the shared universe and looming crossover, he seems to suggest the change is social in nature. “When I heard what you did with the pricing of the drugs at Rand, I knew we had similar values,” he admits. “The world we live in now is run by corporations, not governments. Oligarchies of the rich and powerful. But that’s not going to last much longer.”

Right Bak(uto) atcha.

Bakuto has been recruiting from the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, using Colleen’s dojo as a staging post to recruit suitable candidates to his “elite training programme that comes with a full scholarship to a university.” He specifically targets those without strong connections family or friends. “This is the first family I’ve ever had,” one recruit tells Danny. It is notable that the Hand is noticeably more diverse than the rest of the cast, suggesting that Bakuto has been recruiting from minorities in particular.

In fact, there is something decidedly tone deaf in revealing that Colleen is secretly a member of the Hand who has been used by Bakuto to lure Danny into his trap. Not only is a cliché story beat that awkwardly repeats the Elektra plot thread from the second season of Daredevil, it also feels like an ill-advised back story for the series’ most prominent person of colour. While Iron Fist makes a conscious effort to move away from the more overtly uncomfortable Orientalist aspects of the Hand, there is still something disconcerting if the racial politics of the group’s portrayal.

Forget it Colleen, it’s Chinatown.

As led by Bakuto, the Hand seems like an update of the hackneyed “red scare” threat updated for the twenty-first century. They are socialist enemies for the aftermath of the Cold War, disguising themselves as community-conscious hippies who oppose big business and speak to those left behind by contemporary society. Bakuto’s version of the Hand feels like a creation of an older conservative deeply worried about all these contemporary youth movements with socialist overtones; the economic platform of Black Lives Matters or the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders.

After all, social justice has become a rallying cry of the political left. Part of this is reflected in the focus on identity politics, which seems to have rankled Republican voters so much that they have embraced white identity politics. There are certainly shades of this to be found in Iron Fist, reflected in the ethnic diversity of Bakuto’s version of the Hand. However, there is also an increasing interest with the redistribution of wealth on the political left, something that deeply unsettles older conservative voters who lived through the Cold War.

“Wait… the files are in the computer?”

Young Americans are more open to the possibilities of socialism as a political philosophy. Although there are debates to be had about just how socialist Bernie Sanders actually is, there is no denying that his success with young voters caught the establishment off-guard. Other inexplicably controversial (and much-maligned by conservative) movements like Black Lives Matter have also flirted with socialist economic policy platforms. There is a tangible change in the political mood, with ideas that had once been taboo allowed to enter political discourse.

Perhaps because they did not live through the height of the Cold War, or perhaps because they’ve seen the relative success of countries like Sweden and Denmark, or perhaps because they witnessed their futures derailed by the Great Recession, millennials seem genuinely curious about the possibilities of a political system other than American capitalism. And that is certainly reflected in Bakuto’s dialogue and philosophy. Bakuto talks about using the disenfranchised to tear down a broken system so that it might be replaced with something better.

“When the named some guy Danny Rand as ‘the Iron Fist’, those adult parodies started writing themselves.”

The conservative movement is understandably terrified by the rehabilitation of socialism in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the topic was the subject of much discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2017:

“Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — this is your responsibility,” Schlapp, a columnist at the Washington Times, told a Conservative Political Action Conference event on Thursday. “You have to take this message to your children and your nieces and nephews.”

Schlapp was moderating a panel titled “FREE-stuff vs. FREE-dom: Millennials’ love affair with Bernie Sanders.” It was both an exploration of young people’s skepticism toward capitalism and a brainstorming session for what should be done about it.

“The old story used to be, ‘Wait until they have a mortgage, and then they’ll become conservative,’” said Timothy F. Mooney, an attendee who is a partner at the Republican political consulting firm Silver Bullet. “I honestly don’t think that’s true anymore.”

Of course, it is harder than ever for young people to get a mortgage, which suggests a plausible explanation for why young people are disinvested in American capitalism and hints that there are probably more important questions to answer than why millennials are no longer terrified of the word “socialism.”

No red lines.

Ultimately, the treatment of the Hand in Iron Fist plays like a reactionary knee-jerk fantasy about the dangers of young people seduced by movements promising radical social change. Indeed, Black Tiger Steals Heart cannot wait to reveal that Bakuto is a cynical monster exploiting the trust of people like Colleen and Danny. Given the languid pacing of Iron Fist, it is surprising that the reveal of Bakuto’s true nature should arrive so quickly. However, it seems like the series really doesn’t want the audience getting the impression that Bakuto might be a decent guy.

The first half of the episode layers on the talking points, as if prepping the way for a reworking or reimagining of the Hand as an organisation that is not inherently evil, simply different in philosophical outlook. “You grew up in a place hearing one story about us, and nobody every questioned that view,” Colleen assures Danny. “I understand, but those were lies, shoved down your throat when you were a kid, by people who live in the past.” Given that Iron Fist has established K’un Lun as a place built on systemic child abuse, Colleen might have a point.

Dialing back his paranoia.

In theory, Iron Fist is structured to suggest a great deal of ambiguity. On paper, the story leaves room for any number of interesting debates and discussions. Danny’s unchecked privilege is a recurring theme of the season; Davos’ criticisms of Danny’s behaviour are perfectly reasonable; K’un Lun does not seem like “one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven”; Rand Industries is involved in very shady deals. However, it frequently seems like these nods towards a more complex moral framework are just half-hearted affectations, nods towards the markers of prestige television.

In practice, Iron Fist eschews nuance in favour of a very clear black-and-white morality. Danny is a hero, and so everything he does is treated as beyond question or interrogation. Davos is a villain, so his legitimate criticisms of Danny are dressed up in emotional anxiety and disguised by acts of brutality. It only takes one honest member of the Rand Industries board to fix systemic issues like overpricing and environmental damage. K’un Lun is a terrible place, so its disappearance in Dragon Plays With Fire is primarily a tragedy for Danny.

A smashing success.

So it is with the Hand. Bakuto talks a good game, and makes some salient points, but Black Tiger Steals Heart makes it clear that he is just preying on the confusion and disconnect experienced by young people in a chaotic world. He is trying to undermine the fundamental building blocks of a functional society by forcing Danny to question his company’s capitalism and asking Colleen to invest in social justice for disaffected youths. Gao suggests that Bakuto’s end game is “taking away [Danny’s] ability to trust.” Presumably in the institutions that anchor his life.

Repeatedly, Black Tiger Steals Heart suggests that Bakuto derives strength from uncertainty, from making people question the world around them. He disguises this as new age spiritualism, teaching yoga classes and talking at length about chi. However, by asking people to engage critically with the world in which they live, Bakuto makes it easier for a subversive organisation like the Hand to infiltrate and subvert the institutions of a civilised society. After all, Lead Horse Back to Stable suggests that Bakuto has “sleeper” agents working in fields like healthcare.

“No, you’re a stupid poopy head!”

Danny accuses the Hand of “trying to get me question everything.” There is a sense that Danny is rendered impotent by his doubt and uncertainty. At the end of the episode, he cannot even summon his superpower. “Your anger, your hatred, your confusion it’s destroyed your chi,” Bakuto boasts. “The Fist won’t work. You cannot access it.” The implication is clear. Questioning the status quo makes Danny weak. Challenging his assumptions renders Danny powerless. It doesn’t matter if the system is unfair, it at least provides certainty and stability.

In some ways, this reflects establishment criticisms of progressive movements and identity politics, which Bakuto’s branch of the Hand seems consciously designed to mirror. According to these pundits, identity politics fragment politics and distract from what is really important. It could be argued that the focus identity politics shifted the Democratic Party’s focus away from the white working class, ignoring the fact that that is just another form of identity politics that happens to favour the already-enfranchised over the disenfranchised.

More like Iron Pissed, am I right?

Indeed, Iron Fist seems to endorse the position that drawing attention to a broken system only serves to cause disruption and instability. This reflects the attitude that many conservative commentators take to protests against police violence and brutality, arguing that they only serve to undercut the effectiveness of law enforcement. This would seem to be the position of the Trump administration, as outlined by Jeff Sessions:

“One of the big things out there that’s, I think, causing trouble, and where you see the greatest increase in violence and murders in cities is somehow, some way, we undermined the respect for our police and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult,” he said in a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General. “It’s not been well-received by them, and we’re not seeing the kind of effective, community-based, street-based policing that we found to be so effective in reducing crime.”

The implication is that those protesting excessive use of force by police officers and advocating for increased oversight are somehow making it harder for police officers to do their jobs, and are thus responsible for any resulting breakdown in the social order. It is a very disingenuous debate tactic, one that suggests the complainer is inherently wrong for raising a complaint in the first place because it might be disruptive.

Holding the office.

To be fair, early episodes of Iron Fist touched on issues of corporate malfeasance within Rand Industries, to add a little weight to Bakuto’s criticisms. Harold Meachum is unquestionably a murderous monster with little regard for anybody but himself. Eight Diagram Dragon Palm revealed that Rand Industries made a nine-hundred percent profit on life-saving drugs. Under Leaf Pluck Lotus focused on the environmental and health risks caused by the company’s manufacturing practices.

In each case, Iron Fist insists that there is a seemingly easy solution to these problems within the framework of capitalism. In Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, Danny draws a “red line” on the pricing issue and insists that his company sell the drug at cost. It is a weird all-or-nothing argument that glosses over the cost of research and development, and that mark-up could fall anywhere on a spectrum between “zero” to “nine-hundred” percent. In Felling of Tree With Roots, he closes the plant while keeping the staff on salary. This seems impractical on a large scale.

Fist of mild confusion.

Ignoring the gross over-simplification of these issues for a moment, because the last thing that Iron Fist needs to do is to spend more time in board rooms, there is a recurring sense that Iron Fist treats the problems within Rand Industries as individual rather than systemic. They are aberrations. As Abigail Nussbaum contends:

What at first seems like the show treading water before Danny discovers the Hand’s presence at Rand, actually turns out to be the point of the exercise.  Iron Fist is seriously trying to argue that all it takes for a billion-dollar corporation to be ethical is for one boardmember with a controlling share to insist on approaches such as selling a new drug at cost.  In one particularly tone-deaf plotline, Rand is sued by people living near one of their chemical plants who have been experiencing abnormally high levels of cancer.  Rather than reveal that the plant is indeed poisoning the residents, the show instead offers the weirdly implausible conclusion that Rand have abided by all existing regulations, but that they may be poisoning the residents through a process not yet understood, or regulated by the law.  This gives Danny the opportunity to insist that the plant be closed nonetheless, but more importantly, it allows the show to paint Rand as innocent–a company that has followed all the rules and is being sued nonetheless.

There is something awkward in all of this, a very romantic vision of capitalism that insists the world needs more Danny Rands and fewer Harold Meachums. Of course, the truth is that Harold Meachum simple seems more self-aware of his privilege and entitlement issues. Danny can be just as manipulative and self-righteous as Harold, albeit in a manner that is less overtly evil. (What is buying Colleen’s dojo but doubling down on Ward’s earlier attempted bribe?)

Meachum in the middle.

Indeed, Iron Fist plays into the recurring conspiracy theory that these progressive movements and organisations are simply pawns in some sort of secret shadow war being waged. For all that Bakuto might pose as a well-intentioned new age philosopher, he cannot wait to sink his claws into Rand Industries and use its finances in service of his own agenda. Bakuto’s mercenary attitude recalls conspiracy theories about the influence of liberal billionaire George Soros within the United States and allegations that social protestors are all being paid for their time.

The portrayal of the Hand in Iron Fist is very knee-jerk and reactionary. Given that the series has been saddled with awkward racial politics from the outset, this is not the best approach. In political terms, Iron Fist plays like a bitter Trumpian diatribe. The series is so heavily invested in Danny’s legitimacy and authority that any attempt at introspection or examination must be a villainous plot. Danny Rand must never question himself, never challenge assumptions, never even consider alternative perspectives. All that Danny has is his certainty, and the Hand is a threat to that.

Champagne capitalism.

Once again, Iron Fist positions the Hand as a thematic counterpart to the version of HYDRA featured on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Whereas HYDRA represents a threat from the political right, the Hand is treated as a threat from the political left. Crucially, though, both threats are external. The problem with S.H.I.E.L.D. has nothing to do with the politics of the surveillance state and everything to do with secret Nazis. The problems with Rand Industries are largely due to outside forces at work rather than anything intrinsic.

Iron Fist is supposedly about a character who can harness his internal energy and channel it into an external force. However, Iron Fist seems unwilling to even look inside. The dirty Hand always belongs to somebody else.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Iron Fist:

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