Marvel’s latest Netflix endeavor continues the superhero craze, but introduces martial arts and elements of Buddhism. The question is, are those elements theologically significant?
In the opening episode of Iron Fist, we open to Danny Rand, the son of a wealthy businessman who was presumed dead, along with the rest of his family, fifteen years ago. Having gained mysterious new fighting skills, he prances past the guards at his father’s old company and comes upstairs, only to find his father’s best friend’s son, Ward, in charge of the company. Nobody believes that he’s actually Danny Rand. So Danny, with a slew of martial arts skills, and the right to a company he’s not yet allowed to lay hands on, a homeless hippy ninja.
Whoa, wait a second, you might say. What about the bad ninjas? What about the glowing yellow fists? And where’s the dragon?
Those are excellent questions indeed. And yet, the show doesn’t seem terribly interested in addressing them. That’s drawn criticism from many critics (that is, the ones who weren’t already critical of casting Danny as a white male like he is in the comic books because, well, reasons), who have called the show poorly plotted and completely lacking in forward momentum. Both of those things are true to a certain extent, especially when compared to the previous Netflix Marvel shows, but the show also cares more about its characters than its predecessors. Or at least, it’s trying to care more. In so doing, the showrunners have attempted to craft a character-centered drama in the context of a superhero show. It’s a bold move, and one that doesn’t always land well, but I applaud the effort. That effort also means that the spiritual journey of Danny Rand, one that touches on Eastern mysticism, pulls a greater focus.
But as it turns out, those touches are few and far between. There are elements of Eastern culture, Buddhism in particular, that are brought out in the course of the show. Danny prays to Buddha before a meal. He’s shown meditating several times. Hollywood-ish guru jargon weasels its way into the script as well (“I was finding my center,” one character explains when he just, you know, controlled his temper). One of the only truly Eastern things that seems relatively thought-out is the core of Danny’s superpower – the Iron Fist itself. Well yes, Danny is the Iron Fist, but the Iron Fist is also in his hand. When his “chi” is aligned, he’s able to summon incredible strength to his fist, enabling him to truly become a living weapon.
That, in a nutshell, is the real connection to Eastern culture. Martial arts! And a lot of it. For this uneducated Westerner, the fight choreography, though not as impressive as in Daredevil, was the most delightful part of the show. For more
picky well-educated viewers, not so much. But those scenes, combined with the aforementioned brief touches, tells us something important about the show: it is primarily interested in an Eastern aesthetic, not an Eastern theology.
So then what exactly is the point of Danny’s arc? Put simply, anger. Despite the tumultuous circumstances of his return, Danny appears at peace in the early part of the series. This is part of the reason for the show having a lack of forward momentum in the early episodes. However, as the threat of The Hand begins to emerge, Danny eventually comes to realize (and it’s hinted for the audience even earlier) that the deaths of his family were not an accident. There was a malevolent plot at work. As that happens, and Danny’s anger over that possibility grows, it becomes more and more difficult for him to summon the Iron Fist. His chi isn’t aligning properly, and this problem becomes more pronounced as he becomes more bent on revenge for the deaths of his family.
The ideas here, couched though they may be in Eastern mysticism, have an element of truth to them. God tells us in Romans 12:19, “Never avenge yourselves.” While this is expressed in Iron Fist through his “chi” being ruined, we can apply to another realm of spirituality: selfish rage has eternal consequences. While this is admittedly rather simplistic and reductionist, I don’t mind. In a culture where revenge narratives such as John Wick receive the adoration of the masses, it’s not a bad thing to have a story very directly remind us that such actions have a cost associated with them.
But lest I be found guilty of letting my love for Marvel cloud my vision, I must offer a few negatives as well. Iron Fist is the mildest of the Marvel/Netflix shows, but still does garner a TV-MA rating. There is a sex scene in one episode (roughly PG-13 level), and once elsewhere Danny and a girl are briefly shown waking up naked in bed (sheets cover their nudity). The language is occasionally harsh, and the violence can, at times, be gruesome, although never did I feel that wasn’t being treated appropriately with context and character development.
And lastly, I will note that, yes, as much as I hate to admit it, the critics do have a point. While I connect with a lot of the characters in this show (particularly Ward, whose redemptive arc could be a post entirely its own), it is not particularly well-written and suffers from pacing issues. While the last third of the season is pretty fantastic, the tonal inconsistency and even genre inconsistency (Is this a “finding yourself” series or a psychological thriller? Is it a legal drama or a kung-fu adaptation? Do the writers even know?) will cause many to drop it before they get to that point.
If your time is limited, I would recommend Daredevil over Iron Fist. If you have a great love of Marvel, it’s not a bad show, even though there are better ones out there. And to its credit, it does not have the content issues that, say, Jessica Jones has had. But in the end all I can say is that it’s an inessential but mildly pleasing superhero show with some truth to share amidst the metaphysical chaos of a worldview.