Iron Fist Brilliantly Adapts the Chinese Martial Arts Genre to Western Cinema

Iron Fist Brilliantly Adapts the Chinese Martial Arts Genre to Western Cinema

After hearing negative buzz about Netflix and Marvel’s television series, Iron Fist, I almost didn’t bother to click on the poster when it appeared on my Netflix’ “Recently Added” section last weekend. Nevertheless I was curious to see how bad it could be, so I started watching the pilot late Friday night. Totally against my expectations, I was hooked and finished the 13 episodes season over the weekend. Neither a superhero fan or a film critic, I realize the critics are so wrong about Iron Fist. As a viewer who grew up watching Hong Kong martial arts television series and movies, I think Iron Fist is probably the best adaptation of the Chinese martial arts genre in modern Western cinema… far more sophisticated and compelling than the recent Orientalist and boring fodder like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2, Marco Polo or The Forbidden Kingdom.

The “white savior” criticism is so off base as Finn Jones’ Danny Rand is such a quirky, vulnerable and tortured superhero. As an Asian American filmmaker, I immediately wondered what if Danny Rand had been cast as Asian American. Surely he could be Asian American, but he would fit even less into the New York WASP elitist background. It’s actually more interesting that he’s a WASP boy being taken in by the K’un-Lun monks, making him an outsider in both K’un-Lun and modern New York. From the diversity angle, many Asian American actors were cast in the show including the British HAPA Jessica Henwick who brilliantly plays the ass-kicking Asian American female lead and romantic interest.

Unlike the typical Marvel superhero cardboard cutouts, Danny Rand discovers his superpower in urban New York as he’s struggling with emotional vulnerability and issues of trust. I daresay he’s the most complex and vulnerable superhero I’ve seen in the typical superhero genre. The main heroes and villains of the series such as Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing, Jessica Stroup’s Joy Meachum, Tom Palphrey’s Ward Meachum, David Wenham’s and Harold Meachum are all well cast, complex, contradicting and compelling characters that keep me guessing until the end.

Iron Fist stays true to the modern Chinese martial arts mythology established by author Jing Yong and Hong Kong martial arts movies and television series. The characters are often ambiguous as they can turn from bad to good and good to bad… which is what I’m most appreciative of Iron Fist that keeps me compelled from episode 1 until 13. It reminds me of how I was glued to the often long-winded 80s TVB martial arts series. Iron Fist also stays true to martial arts elements that I’m familiar with like the popular concept of qi gong.

Having grown up in Hong Kong in the golden era of Hong Kong television mostly created by the lately declining TVB, I haven’t watched much American television since I came to college at Berkeley in late 80s. Who would have the time to schedule a couple hours a week to watch an episodic television series? However, Netflix and other streaming services have changed all that providing us with “binge watching” via streaming at the tip of my finger.

In my 25+ adult years in North America, I have finished watching five American television series which are the first season of Sopranos, Stranger Things, The OA, The Returned and most recently Iron Fist. I’ve started watching other television series and have never been compelled to finish them after watching some or all of the pilot. I did enjoy some of the first season of Breaking Bad.

As much as the internet has created new audience, content and media consuming habit, it has rendered old school critics and criticism obsolete. Why would I need critics’ opinions when I could just discover good content myself at the click of a button? If I don’t like it in 10 minutes, which happens all the time, I shall click it off and change the program.

In my humble opinion, Iron Fist is fantastic cinema, brilliantly adapting the Chinese martial arts mythology to modern America that I have not seen before.



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