Does Marvel's problematic Iron Fist have a profoundly understated 'Chinese connection?'

Nouns, verbs & unpacked adjectives by St. Paco

In 1973, in a head-spinning eight month span that ran from March of that year to October, six Hong Kong martial arts films captured the #1 spot at the US box office. The collective spectacle sparked martial arts mania that spread from downtown movie screens to comic book racks at the neighborhood drug store. But it also created a precarious tightrope upon which the pop culture of the 21st century must more mindfully tread.

When it was released to theaters in the US, Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer) had the enviable position of being, as touted by the right's holder Warner Brothers Studios: "the first international martial arts movie sensation." It was the first of such films to be released by a mainstream US distributor, and other films of varying levels of quality quickly followed. 

The most acclaimed of the half dozen box office hits was the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, released by Warner Brothers in August of 1973, five months after the studio's initial hit. Lee, who'd met a tragic demise in July of that same year, achieved fame in the US playing the high-kicking pulp novel and comic book hero Kato on television's short-lived The Green Hornet

Well beyond the debut of those films released to theaters in 1973, their growing popularity would keep them playing in cheaply run theaters situated in urban markets for nearly a decade. And Five Fingers of Death and Enter the Dragon would even share theater marquees from Watts to Washington D.C., billed together as a senses-shattering double feature. 

It didn't require an Einstein to measure the success of kung fu flicks. Anyone who lived in the country at the time felt their powerful effects. And Marvel Comics was among the quickest to find ways to capitalize off that popularity, producing the hybrid comic magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (1974), and the comic books Master of Kung Fu (1974), and Iron Fist (1975).

Not surprisingly, Shang Chi, the half-Chinese, half-white protagonist of the book Master of Kung Fu, was wisely patterned after the immensely popular Lee. You couldn't open the pages of rags like Black Belt or Kung Fu, or walk past an inner city school yard where boys debated "Who'd kick Batman's butt in a fight?" without hearing the beloved actor's name mentioned. 

But what may be surprising is that Iron Fist, created by Marvel Comics scribe Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, was heavily inspired by thematic elements and visuals found depicted in the box office smash Five Fingers of Death

Well, it's not surprising that this film was an influence on the character. It's the film that basically ignited the kung fu movie craze. 

What is surprising, though, is that today, some forty years after Iron Fist was created, neither martial arts movie fans or even comic book collectors seem to recognize the character's (to borrow the name of another popular film from that same era) true "Chinese Connection."

Five Fingers of Death, the film from which the term "iron fist" originates, was released to US theaters on March 21, 1973. Twelve months later, in March of 1974, the comic book character that bears the name Iron Fist made his first appearance in issue #15 of Marvel Premiere; the comic book equivalent of a testing ground used by Marvel to "audition" new superheroes.

In the film, Chi-Hao, a promising martial arts student (played by martial arts film legend Lo Lieh) is sent away from his kung fu school to be trained under another martial arts master. He's sent there in the hope that it will increase his chances of winning an upcoming fighting tournament––something that would bring prestige and more to both schools. 

At the school of his new master, Chi-Hao keeps his head down, works hard, and eventually wins both the respect and the favor of his new teacher. Oh, yeah, when he first got there, the old guy didn't seem to care for the young man all that much.

After Chi-Hao's arrival, his new master was uncertain about the pupil he'd been sent, and was keen to gauge his temperament. The old master did this by giving Chi-Hao every manner of menial task imaginable so as to test his patience, and "to toughen him up" physically. And the young man did all that he was told to do without complaint.

As the old master lies in bed one day, wrapped in bandages from injuries suffered in an attack by a ruthless gang of challengers from a rival martial arts school, he asks that his mild mannered student have a sit with him. 

"I'm not getting any younger," the old man says to Chi-Hao. "And in that incident earlier on today, I got quite badly hurt. So I'll give you this Iron Fist manual. Study it carefully."

And study it he does. 

The name of the mysterious technique developed by the old master is heard at least half a dozen times in Five Fingers of Death before viewers actually see what the iron fist technique looks like in the movie's third act. After much trial, error--and serious physical challenges--Chi-Hao finally masters the amazing fighting method, and it's something to behold.  

For anyone who's never seen the film, keep in mind that Five Fingers of Death was produced in Hong Kong back in 1973, four years before the American special effects extravaganza known as Star Wars altered the entertainment landscape forever. On it's own terms, it's awesome when Chi-Hao's hands glow with the crimson, pulse-pounding power of focused spirit, or "chi."

Recently, Iron Fist, the masked martial arts hero inspired by a Hong Kong hit, has been the focal point of intense discussion. The conversation started last year when Netflix announced the development of an Iron Fist TV show for the 2017 television season. This was exciting news to old comic book fans, but a point of concern for newer ones. 

Iron Fist is a throwback to a time in America when endless lines of 'great white saviors' whose stories were told on stage and on screen, in popular novels, in comic books and on TV, could learn the creative traditions of various peoples colonized by the Western world and, predictably, rise to be the very best "to ever do the damned thing," whatever the damn thing was. And in the somewhat controversial case of Iron Fist, the thing was Chinese kung fu.

In a recent interview with Inverse Entertainment, co-creator Roy Thomas wonders rhetorically whether "people have anything better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever." And his tone makes it glaringly obvious that, just as he probably did forty years ago when Iron Fist was created, Thomas wears his very casual racism on his sleeve. 

But it's a revelation that helps to illustrate the problem with cultural appropriation, and why it can be such a nasty thing. Those who participate in the wholesale theft of various peoples' cultural contributions often have little respect for the people from whom they get their inspiration. Far more often than not, they wordlessly refuse to even acknowledge the source. 

And in accordance with that standard operating procedure of privilege, Thomas gives no credit at all to the influential Hong Kong film that inspired both the name and the concrete crushing power of the masked martial artist called Iron Fist. But an 'iron clad' case can be built to show that the distinctive finger prints of Five Fingers of Death are all over the character, and on the pages of the comic books that introduced Iron Fist to generations of kung fu film loving fans. 

Paco D. Taylor is a Martial Arts Movie Watching Grandmaster™ who has watched over 200 martial arts films in his Generation X lifetime. He has ranked 100 of the best of such films. Check out the list by clicking here.  

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