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In the shadow of Luke Cage, Iron Fist better be relevant

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Luke Cage debuted on Netflix last week, and the reception has been warm — in some quarters, even rapturous. It’s been called ambitious, complex, and resonant. It’s a perfect and necessary follow-up to Jessica Jones, Marvel’s last great series on the streaming network. Where Jessica Jones examined abuse and trauma in the lives of women, Luke Cage gives its audience an authentic portrait of blackness in its superhero narrative.

Iron Fist is the next series Marvel has planned, and the company’s track record makes it a promising prospect. By now, fans have been treated to a few shots of Danny Rand (Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones) in action, and yesterday, Marvel announced that the show would hit Netflix on March 17th, 2017. But given the scrutiny the series has received regarding diversity and Asian representation, it’s already on the back foot compared to its predecessors. If Iron Fist — a show about a white man who becomes a kung-fu master — has any hope of receiving the kind of acclaim Marvel has become accustomed to, it needs to find a way to be relevant.

Let’s be perfectly clear: Marvel’s Netflix shows are great. Each one pushes the envelope in its genre. Daredevil, despite getting woefully obsessed with ninjas in its second season, is a solid action thriller. Jessica Jones is a smart neo-noir. Luke Cage is an effective update on ‘70s blaxploitation. Iron Fist, which will see billionaire Danny Rand returning to New York City after living in the mystical land of K’un L’un, promises to be reminiscent of 1972’s Kung Fu, with a dash of Arrow thrown in for good measure. That sounds halfway compelling, and with Scott Buck, who won a Peabody for his work on Six Feet Under, serving as showrunner, it’s reasonable to expect the show to reach a high bar of quality, at least on a technical level.

Danny Rand is yet another white billionaire superhero

But there’s a reason why, in just the year and a half since Daredevil’s debut, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have emerged as better shows than their predecessor. Daredevil is a dark, character-driven crime drama, but it doesn’t speak to any larger issues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the secret sauce in Marvel’s follow-up series is the way they grapple with difference as an ongoing theme. These are shows about othered people and the contexts they live in. The attention paid to the lived experiences of their subjects elevates Luke Cage and Jessica Jones beyond their genres. That’s why, for instance, Luke Cage’s view on gentrification is so much more forceful than Daredevil’s, since black heroes and villains dealing with the loss of their community carries more weight in the real world. And both shows also feel exceptional because black and female superheroes are still so rare in film and on television.

Iron Fist, a story about a white billionaire martial artist with mystical abilities, can’t hope to wrestle with similar themes, and that’s a big problem. Danny Rand may very well be a fun and interesting character in the same way other white billionaire superheroes like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, and Oliver Queen are. But unless Marvel finds a way to make his perspective fresh and interesting, he can’t break any new ground. Making matters worse, Iron Fist is a product of Orientalist appropriation, and that already has the potential to be more offensive than inspiring, especially at a time when Marvel has styled itself as the standard-bearer for diversity in superhero stories. When fans are already up in arms about how Doctor Strange whitewashes major Asian characters, it’s clear that audiences are more sensitive than ever to how their cultures are presented.

'Iron Fist' needs to stand out

The bottom line is, Iron Fist needs to stand out in an important way. I’d personally like it if the series explored sexuality in a way that Marvel hasn’t done before on-screen. If a supporting character like Jeryn Hogarth can be rewritten as a high-powered lesbian lawyer on Jessica Jones, maybe there’s room to explore Danny Rand as anything beyond heterosexual. (Yes, I know he's supposed to date Misty Knight.) But I also know any decision the studio makes should be in service of a good story, and not to check off a box. Good storytelling can and, in this case, should come from a place where new perspectives are being mined and risks are being taken. From this vantage point, it’s not clear that’s happening yet.


What you should know before watching Marvel's Luke Cage