Disney’s Marvel and Netflix announced recently that Netflix would distribute via its streaming platform a number of Marvel properties: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage. (First, can I point out how annoying the “Disney’s Marvel” tag is? We know- the Mouse buys everything. The Muppets, Star Wars, Marvel, ABC. No worries- this blog is not for sale.)
For my latest installment of Geek 101, let’s look at the last two characters in that group: Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Who are they and what does this mean for the Marvel storytelling universe- on both the large screen and the small.
Both of these characters were created in the early 70’s and reflect distinct aspects of that era. Iron Fist for the assimilation of martial arts into pop culture and Luke Cage for the blaxploitation film genre. Like Captain America as a World War II creation and Iron Man as a Vietnam-era character, they merely echo cultural sentiment at the time of their creation as opposed to speaking in a unique voice. Like both Cap and Shellhead, however, the longevity of these characters in canon allows for refinement and growth. I’d say both are excellent choices for Marvel’s next phase of storytelling.
Iron Fist (Daniel Rand) is a martial artist who, orphaned as a boy, is raised in the mystical city of Shangri-La K’un-L’un. There, he masters an ancient form of martial arts and is deemed worthy to challenge the near-invincible dragon Shou-Lao- who Daniel defeats. He then plunges his hands repeatedly into a brazier containing the dragon’s heart, which Shou-Lao had removed and guarded as the secret to his power. This grants him the power of the Iron Fist- the ability to focus his chi (or life force) into a destructive strike or healing ability. (Like many characters, the need to refresh Iron Fist over the years results in a number of story, origin, and character twists that I won’t attempt to track here. Wikipedia can help if you want the extended version.) Again representative of culture’s perspective towards martial arts in the 70’s, Iron Fist is not only a highly skilled combatant but possesses mystical powers as the result of his background.
Luke Cage (sometimes known as Power Man) is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. In an attempt to gain his freedom, he volunteers as the test subject in an experiment which, because of the interference by a sadistic prison guard, nearly kills Luke. Surviving the painful experiment, Luke gains super strength and a steel-hard skin. He uses his new powers to escape the prison and returns to his home: New York City. He establishes himself as a Hero for Hire, fighting street criminals and super-powered foes alike. Luke Cage is one of the first black superheroes to have his own comic (Luke Cage, Hero for Hire which debuted in 1972).
Eventually, Luke and Daniel’s paths cross and Iron Fist joins the “Heroes for Hire” outfit. The pair, sometimes joined by other lower-powered street heroes, tackle adventures that represent both New York City’s and popular entertainment’s gritty vibe of the mid-70’s. In the early days of this duo, there are no cosmic threats from alien invaders. Many of the stories are far more grounded in urban life than faraway places (Iron Fist’s mystical adopted city notwithstanding ). So how does this fit against the big screen epics like The Avengers or realistic (in comparison) TV fare in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Well- I think this is good news for us comic fans. Disney- with a slew of entertainment properties including Marvel Entertainment and ABC Television Network- is uniquely positioned as it owns the characters and stories (with some exceptions where film rights like X-Men sit with other companies), production companies, and distribution channels (or will partner for distribution as with Netflix). Hopefully this will results in a storytelling universe- no longer the “Marvel cinematic universe” but the “Marvel living universe”- in which characters of vastly different scale appear, stories of all sizes fit, and both characters and stories can cross from movies to TV effortlessly.
I have enjoyed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far but am vaguely concerned about the scale. As a child of the 70’s, I waited every Friday night for The Incredible Hulk to appear on our TV set. Our options for superheros anywhere other than in their native comic books were bleak. Spider-Man had an amazingly short run as a TV series. Captain America had a TV movie that was as bad as you’d imagine. Wonder Woman’s TV series (hello, Linda Carter!) was good. Overall, we spent a lot of time imagining what our favorite heroes would be like anywhere other than in the pages of our comics.
The problem was compounded by the fact that, although we saw the Hulk in his emerald glory every week, we never got to see him go toe-to-toe with his enemies from the comics. Hulk and Abomination battling it out? Sorry. Better wait a few decades. Striving against the Leader’s machinations? Nope. Not on TV, not in the 70s-80s. That was our problem- we had a superhero show. But the superhero was the only thing fantastic on the show. Special effects and budgets (I assume) kept us from seeing the stories we loved in the books appear on our TV. Which brings us back to S.H.I.E.L.D.– we know they exist in a larger universe with the incredible, superhuman, and otherworldly. Will we see connections to the larger events? Or does the team remain a group of highly skilled humans equipped with James Bond-style gadgets striving against relatively mundane foes? [Disclaimer: I’m a Joss Whedon fanboy. I’m confident that he’s got a heroic path laid out for the show.]
I am optimistic with Iron Fist and Luke Cage that Disney/Netflix will be able to mix the conflicting elements of a small screen production with the fantasy of our comic book heroes. With the street-level scale of the Heroes for Hire and less-intensive special effects for their powers, there exists an opportunity to extend the width of the “Marvel living universe”. I hope that the powers-that-be see the potential synergy between all of these different outlets for Marvel’s characters. We’ve already seen teasers that upcoming episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will connect with Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier. We already know that Heroes for Hire will be joined by Jessica Jones and Daredevil then combining to form another Marvel super team: The Defenders.
This is arguably the greatest time ever to be a fan of superheroes. So until I see plans for the reboot of Howard the Duck, I’ll keep smiling. Movies, TV shows, whatever?
Make Mine Marvel!