THE FINAL MEMBER OF SMALL-SCREEN SUPERHERO SQUAD THE DEFENDERS IS ABOUT TO HIT THE STREETS. PREPARE FOR IMPACT. PREPARE FOR IRON FIST
On set of Marvel’s new series. Spoiler: his fist is actually just made of clenched hand.
Some superhero origin stories require more suspension of disbelief than others. Take
Iron Fist. Danny Rand is the gilded heir to Manhattan’s billion-dollar Rand Corporation until, at the age of ten, he loses both his parents during a trip to Asia and is adopted by the warrior monks of K’un Lun, a mystical city that rarely intersects with the Earthly plane. Under their guidance, he becomes a formidable fighter and earns the title of the Iron Fist by slaying the ancient dragon Shou-lao. When the portal finally reopens 15 years later, Danny decides to return to New York to reclaim his identity and discover who’s to blame for his parents’ untimely end. Got it so far?
Now, in the context of Marvel comics, Danny’s story is par for the course, no more outlandish than that of Thor or Doctor Stephen Strange. But in the world of Marvel’s Netflix shows, firmly grounded in the streets of contemporary New York, it sounds rather like the ramblings of a madman.
“Danny has to deal with society’s reaction,” says Finn Jones, the British actor who plays
Iron Fist. “He comes back and says: ‘Hey, guess what? I’ve been in this place called K’un Lun for years, I’ve got this thing called the Iron Fist and I met a dragon!’ And everybody’s like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? You’re insane.’”
Jessica Henwick, who plays Danny’s ally Colleen Wing, compares it to Dorothy’s situation at the end of The Wizard Of Oz. “She has a full, rich memory of this mystical city,” she says.
“And she tells people in Kansas about it and they think she’s crazy. We kind of have the same situation here.”
Danny’s challenge is persuading others that Iron Fist is the real deal. The team bringing the adventures of Danny Rand to a whole new audience faces a similar task.
IRON FIST IS
the fourth and final component of The Defenders, the all-star show towards which Marvel and Netflix have been working since the first Daredevil development meetings in 2013. The character wasn’t an obvious choice. An Iron Fist film had floundered in development hell since 2000, when Ray Park (Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) was mooted as Danny, before Jeph Loeb (head of Marvel TV) revived the character as a Defender.
He has always been one of Marvel’s B-listers. Just as Luke Cage was Stan Lee’s attempt to grab a slice of the blaxploitation pie, Iron Fist shamelessly exploited the martial-arts craze spearheaded by the late Bruce Lee. Launched in 1974, the character combined writer Roy Thomas’ kung-fu fandom with artist Gil Kane’s affection for the 1940s character Amazing-man, another orphan raised by monks. When his solo title struggled, Iron Fist was teamed up with Luke Cage as the street-smart ‘Heroes For Hire’, but he never made it to Marvel’s top table. When writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction pitched their 2006 comic-book reboot The Immortal
Iron Fist (Jones’ favourite), they said Marvel still needed to “reposition Iron Fist as more than just a kung-fu riff from the ’70s”.
It’s not entirely surprising, then, that neither Finn Jones nor showrunner Scott
Buck had heard of Iron Fist before becoming involved in the TV show. Buck, an unflappably business-like veteran of Six Feet Under, Rome and Dexter, considers his ignorance of Marvel lore prior to meeting Loeb in late 2015 a virtue. “When Jeph pitched me the idea, he said, ‘Don’t take the comic books too seriously, because that’s just a jumping-off point.’ There wasn’t a really clear iconography, so that enabled us to be more creative.”
We first meet 25-year-old Danny on his return to New York, culture-shocked and bedraggled, trying to convince people he is indeed the long-lost Danny Rand and find a way back into his interrupted life. “It’s a coming-of-age story, but played a hundred times bigger because he’s not just figuring out who he is as a person, but who he’s going to be as the Iron Fist,” explains Buck. “It creates an interesting dichotomy because he’s this New York billionaire boy, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and also this monk warrior. He’s
part of two different worlds, but doesn’t feel fully comfortable in either one of them.”
Henwick compares Danny’s disjointed boyishness after spending 15 years in an all-male monastery to Tom Hanks’ character in Big. “He’s a bit socially inept. He doesn’t understand that he sounds weird and ludicrous.” Jones agrees: “He’s almost like a child in a man’s body. He has no idea what he’s doing. There’s a lot of inner torment to work through while trying to come to terms with modern-day life.”
Buck says he cast Jones for his “youthful innocence”. For the actor, the call to audition for Iron Fist came at the perfect time. He was at the airport, having just filmed the final scene of his six-year run as disgraced gadabout Ser Loras Tyrell in Game Of Thrones. “I was only just starting to think about life beyond Thrones and then this character suddenly appeared,” recalls Jones. “I knew just from reading the character breakdown on the Marvel website that I’d be interested. He has a quieter spiritual element to his superpowers.”
The first friend Danny manages to make when he returns to New York is Colleen
Wing, a Japanese-american woman who runs a martial-arts dojo in Chinatown. Buck says Colleen’s arc mirrors Danny’s. “She thinks her destiny is meant to be one thing, but her life is completely upturned so she’s left in a similar situation. Who is she? What is she going to do with her life?”
Jessica Henwick also has Game Of Thrones experience, although her whip-toting killer Nymeria Sand is so far faring rather better than Ser Loras. Henwick first came across Wing when she was combing the Marvel Universe for Asian women she might conceivably play. There weren’t many options, so when her agent alerted her to an audition for a codenamed character that sounded like Wing, she jumped on it.
“It was a shot in the dark but it came together,” she says. “Colleen was raised in New York until her mother died and her father sent her away to Japan. She’s a chameleon who’s had to assimilate to jarringly different cultures.” Henwick is aware of the minor controversy last year when Marvel comics writer Marjorie Liu used Twitter to call Iron Fist an “orientalistwhite-man-yellow-fever narrative” that could only be subverted by casting an Asian actor, but thinks people should hold fire until they see the show. “Marvel and Netflix have transformed Luke Cage and I’ve tried to do the same for Colleen,” she says. “So I hope Asians will give the show a chance and see what I’ve done. I’m Asian, I’m female and I’m an actor. If anyone understands misrepresentation and underrepresentation, it’s me.”
Iron Fist’s third lead is David Wenham as Harold Meachum, the former Rand business partner who now runs the corporation with his daughter, Joy, and son, Ward. In the comic books he was knocked off after four issues, but could this iteration of Meachum be Iron Fist’s super-bad equivalent of Kilgrave or the Kingpin? “Meachum brings a big mystery with him,”
Buck says, cagily. “We have one major enemy but we don’t fully realise who that is until we get closer to the end of the season. Danny finds himself fighting multiple people. He thinks he’s returning to the comforts of home, but he’s surprised to learn that wherever he turns there’s an enemy he wasn’t fully aware of.”
Among his foes are The Hand, the murderous ninja clan introduced in Daredevil’s second season. “The Iron Fist is the antithesis of The Hand: the light to the darkness,” explains Jones. “Or so
Finn Jones finds himself in a new ’hood as Iron Fist. Right, from top: With Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple; Wing shows off her martial arts skills; Iron Fist. How did he get that name?