On Friday, Netflix will premier Iron Fist, the fourth in its successful franchise of Marvel Comics adaptations. Early reviews have not been positive, and critics continue to level against the show a concern raised since casting began: the series retains the source material’s use of the “mighty whitey” trope.
“Mighty whitey” is a tongue-in-cheek way of describing a stock character in adventure fiction who, despite his European lineage, becomes a master of a non-white culture and eventually saves or rules those who taught him; think Tarzan, Natty Bumppo, or Allan Quatermain. It’s an obviously racist trope, one that stems from European imperialism and reduces all non-white civilizations or peoples into treasures to be mastered and plundered by white people.
Iron Fist first appeared in a 1974 comic book story from writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane. Created to capitalize on the period’s kung fu movie craze, Iron Fist’s origin fully embraces the mighty whitey trope: the rich white Rand family seeks out a mystical Asian city called K’un-Lun, but die before finding it, leaving behind their young son Danny. The citizens of K’un-Lun adopt Danny into their care and put him under the tutelage of Lei Kung the Thunderer. Despite his relatively late start and outsider status, Danny masters the ways of K’un-Lun, eventually earning the right to face the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. Succeeding where native citizens have failed, Danny defeats the dragon and becomes the city’s hero, Iron Fist. Despite the relatively modern sheen provided by mid-70s action and superhero standards, Iron Fist’s origin too often repeats the beats of its racist forerunners: a white nobleman perfects the ways of a mystic oriental people, transforming himself into their champion.
Never popular enough to carry a solo title for very long, Iron Fist has been a perennial supporting character, most famous for his team-ups with fellow Netflix headliner Luke Cage. For four decades, myriad creators have modified and reimagined the Iron Fist story, some downplaying Danny Rand’s racially problematic roots, some emphasizing them.
In addition to crafting the most acclaimed treatment of the character, writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction (working with a number of artists, primarily David Aja) retold and expanded Danny Rand’s story in the first two arcs of the 2006 series The Immortal Iron Fist. The stories “The Last Iron Fist Story” and “The Capital Cities of Heaven” feature two major revisions to the character’s mythos. First, the story reveals that “Iron Fist” is the title given to anyone who defeats Shou-Lao and becomes the champion of K’un-Lun, of which Danny Rand is the latest in a very long line. Second, we learn that K’un-Lun is only one of seven cities of heaven. Each one has its own champion, or “Immortal Weapon,” who will fight the others in a ceremonial tournament that occurs once every eighty-eight years.
These two changes to the Iron Fist narrative, and the way they unfold over the sixteen issues of Brubaker and Fraction’s run, not only tell an entertaining adventure, but they also subvert the mighty whitey trope in three distinct ways.
The Unexceptional Iron Fist
Mighty whitey stories need the European hero to be, well… mighty. The hero must do something exceptional; otherwise, a native person could simply take the mantle the hero assumes. Additionally, most variations of the narrative include a native who believes he deserves the mantle, either because of training or birthright, but the hero’s amazing abilities render irrelevant the native person’s claims to the title.
In the standard Iron Fist story, Danny Rand’s remarkable martial artistry allows him to jump ahead of those who had trained their entire lives to challenge Shou-Lao. By introducing other Iron Fists and other Immortal Weapons, Brubaker and Fraction greatly diminish Danny’s exceptionalism. To be sure, Danny remains an elite fighter. But he no longer seems like some “chosen one” or savior, unique in all of history. Instead, he’s just one in a series. And while readers likely have more respect for Danny’s abilities than those of the others, given his starring role in the series and his battles against super-villains across decades of Marvel continuity, Brubaker and Fraction give quite a bit of attention to the exploits of other Iron Fists, often opening their issues with vignettes featuring these characters.
In fact, Brubaker and Fraction don’t just put the other champions on the same level as Danny; they often put their abilities above his. Of the several legacy Iron Fists introduced in these issues, we spend the most time with Orson Randall, a gun-toting white man, very much in the model of pulp heroes like The Shadow and The Spider. Randall preceded Danny as Iron Fist, and abandoned his station after World War I, but still retains a greater understanding of the role’s abilities than our protagonist. He not only handily defeats Danny in their first encounter, but he holds the secret The Book of the Iron Fist and knows a number of advanced tricks, such as infusing his chi – the power that allows Iron Fist to make his hands into the titular metal – into the bullets of his gun.
Furthermore, the Immortal Weapons from the other cities also outclass Danny, defeating him in the first round of the tournament. The story gives Danny something else to do after being eliminated from the tournament: he becomes integral to stopping a larger conspiracy to conquer the seven cities while the tournament is happening. However, this occurs not because Danny is the most skilled or virtuous, but because he’s available and willing to help.
By making Danny less of an extraordinary individual, Brubaker and Faction undercut the central premise of the mighty whitey trope. No longer is Danny the sole hero to properly master the secrets of K’un-Lun and put them to good use. He’s just a good guy with some good powers, if in slightly over his head – a narrative with which Marvel has had more than a little success.
The White Man’s Bungle
In Thomas and Kane’s first Iron Fist story, Danny’s father Wendell Rand simply knew of K’un-Lun and sought it in the spirit of adventure. Over the years, various writers and editors revised Wendell’s involvement with K’un-Lun, expanding his connections to the city, including the revelation that he is the adopted son of the city’s erstwhile ruler, called Yu-Ti or August Personage in Jade, and the brother to the perfidious man who currently holds the title.
Brubaker and Fraction further downplay Danny’s “white savior” identity by enfolding this version of the Wendell Rand story into their multiple Iron Fist narrative. In their version, Wendell Rand was raised by Orson Randall, trained in martial arts, and educated about K’un-Lun while an outsider. Like Danny, Orson Randall and Wendell Rand both were white Americans who came to K’un-Lun as youths: Randall when his inventor father teleported there with his family, and Wendell when he sought out the city to test himself. All three boys studied under Lei Kung and all three had their chance to wrestle Shou-Lao. Although Wendell doubts himself and runs away, Randall foreshadows Danny by defeating the dragon and becoming Iron Fist. He eventually becomes disillusioned with the role and goes into hiding, leaving the city without a champion and in disgrace. Furthermore, despite teaching the young Wendell about K’un-Lun and its practices, Randall fills the boy with doubt about his abilities, thereby inflicting Danny’s father with the uncertainty that drives him from K’un-Lun back to New York.
As indicated by their similar backgrounds, ethnicities, and names, these three characters all echo one another, giving Danny’s genesis simultaneously a sense of tradition while also keeping tightly focused on his own lineage. The expansion of the mythos undercuts the traditional mighty whitey trope by making Danny less of an outsider and his placement in K’un-Lun less an act of fate. He’s there because of the meddling of his father, who is there because of the meddling of Orson Randall, who is there because of the meddling of his father.
More importantly, these Iron Fists have not necessarily improved their adopted city. Randall became a great Iron Fist, but brought shame to K’un-Lun when he refused to fight, and left it without a champion for another generation when he poisoned Wendell’s confidence and Wendell ran away. Moreover, the conspiracy that Danny eventually foils relies heavily on the transporter invented by Randall’s father and his own father’s financial largess. Thus, where the usual racist narrative features a white savior who protects the native peoples from themselves, Danny Rand, at best, fixes the problems caused by other interloping Europeans.
The story frames Danny’s achievements as heroic and noble, to be sure, but they occur largely within the realm of the Randall/Rand trio. No longer an epic clash of civilizations, Danny’s heroics simply atone for the sins of his fathers.
A Hero in Someone Else’s Story
Even as it tightens focus on the Rand family, The Immortal Iron Fist retains an epic scope appropriate to a multigenerational battle involving mystical cities, secret armies, and coups. These plots involve a number of players, including Marvel’s premier terrorist organization Hydra, an evil Chinese industrialist, corrupt K’un-Lun leader Yu-Ti, Iron Fist’s archenemy Davos (now the champion of rival city K’un Zi), and Lei Kung’s secret army of female warriors lead by Orson Randall’s daughter.
While they do use Danny as the means to address all of these various elements, Brubaker and Fraction make the villain Davos the prime mover and connective tissue between them all. Although he makes relatively few appearances outside of The Immortal Iron Fist, Davos has all the makings of an arch-enemy: he is the disgraced son of Lei Kung and rival to Wendall Rand, with an insignia, costume, and power set similar to those of Iron Fist. More importantly, Davos fits an archetype common to mighty whitey stories, that of the native who swears revenge after being shamed by the white hero.
However, the writers expand his back story in a way that gives him more complexity and a level of humanity reserved for Danny. Like Danny, Davos receives his own extended family plot, focusing on his resentment toward both his father Lei Kung and toward Wendell Rand, the best friend who becomes like a brother. Their friendship shatters when Wendell defeats Davos, thus earning his generation’s right to face Shou-Lao and become Iron Fist. Again, the writers do repeat some earlier characterizations of Davos, couching his hatred of the Rands in their outsider status, a motivation common to mighty whitey antagonists. However, by fleshing out his backstory, Brubaker and Fraction connect the lost Iron Fist title to Davos’s relationship to his father and his identity within K’un-Lun. Davos’s anger comes from a larger set of conflicts within K’un-Lun and its factions, of which Wendell and Danny Rand are part, but not central.
The writers further distance Davos’s motivations from Danny’s whiteness by having him take on a new identity. In most of his appearances, Davos used the name “Steel Serpent;” but in The Immortal Iron Fist, Davos takes the title Steel Phoenix, to acknowledge his new allegiance to a different city of heaven, K’un-Zi. By joining a city other than his home and becoming its Immortal Weapon, Davos becomes a mirror image of Danny Rand. Villainous inversions of superheroes are fairly common in comic book fiction; but where Bizarro or Sinestro contrast with their counterparts to emphasize the heroes’ nobility, Davos’s mirroring of Danny puts the Iron Fist title in a larger context. Through the lens of Davos’s narrative, Danny’s adoption of the Iron Fist identity represents not the work of a white hero redeeming native mysticism, but an accepted practice within the seven cities. Anyone can become the Immortal Weapon from another city, not just Danny Rand.
By making Davos more of an equal to Danny and further developing his familial relationships, Brubaker and Fraction shift Davos from a bad native whose defeat by the white hero solidifies the hero’s mastery and righteousness. Instead, the Davos of The Immortal Iron Fist is part of a larger, multigenerational struggle between factions within K’un-Lun and the cities of heaven in general. Danny Rand gets involved in all of these plots because, well, his name is on the cover of the book. But he’s neither the cause nor the solution.
None of this is to suggest that Danny Rand is not the hero of these stories. He absolutely is, and he does, in his own way, “save the day.” Thus, these two series alone are hardly enough to address the Eurocentrism that comic books inherited from their pulp and adventure fiction forefathers, and too often repeat. Supporting books by creators of color and featuring non-white protagonists would more directly address this problem; I recommend Marvel’s own New The Ultimates and Ms. Marvel, DC’s defunct imprint Milestone Comics, as well as independent books like Black.
But with The Immortal Iron Fist, Brubaker, Fraction, Aja, and their collaborators prove that exciting and thoughtful stories can be told using characters with racist origins.