Published in collaboration with The Nerds of Color.
We’re continuing our look at how Marvel can adapt Iron Fist for Netflix, and while our previous article looked at the supposed difficulties of incorporating the mystical elements of the Iron Fist mythology into the Netflix world, perhaps Marvel’s issue is a more basic one – the challenge of how to introduce a character to a new audience given a complicated and convoluted continuity.
This is of course an issue any comic book adaptation must grapple with, but Iron Fist has a particularly convoluted and dense continuity. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the basics of the character – a young boy shaped by the trauma of the death of his parents, trained in a mystical city, who returns to Earth to seek vengeance, is a phenomenal origin story for a superhero. Rather, its the labyrinthine and often contradictory history that has been built up around the character over time. Any adaption will necessarily make changes to smooth out continuity, and I have five small but crucial suggestions on how to do just that. Best of all for purists, these changes leave Danny Rand himself almost completely unchanged – instead, they focus on his father, who presents the majority of the backstory issues.
Make Wendell Rand Asian
Ah yes, the dreaded racebending! Before you jump into the comments to complain about PC Social Justice Warriors running amok, allow me to explain my rationale. While I certainly agree that Iron Fist should be Asian (and Asian-American specifically) for thematic reasons – we’ve even suggested a few actors who could play an Asian-American Danny Rand – in this case I’m arguing for it from a purely narrative perspective (for other excellent arguments in favour of an Asian-American Danny Rand for diversity and thematic reasons, check out this follow up interview with the author of the initial article, this insightful reddit post and this gif filled piece from Sublime Zoo).
After all, it is established in Immortal Iron Fist that Orson Randall meets Wendell in a tavern in the mountains of Nepal. Apparently he is some kind of slave to the eternals. This begs the immediate question: what the fuck is a 10 year old white boy doing in the hills of Nepal as some kind of mystical slave? It’s never explained.
For the Netflix series then, Wendell’s origin can be shifted so that he is an orphaned boy named Wen-Kai – a nod both to the original character’s name and to the name he is given in Kun’Lun (and which just so happens to be a real Chinese name), a boy who believes in the legends of Kun’Lun. Orson Randall, after fleeing the fury of the seven heavenly cities, stumbles across a village in the mountains of China (rather than Nepal – I agree with the idea that the mystical Kun’Lun be linked to the real Kun Lun mountain range in China), where he meets Wen’Kai. Just as in the comics, Orson takes him under his wing and raises the boy, teaching him the art of Kung-Fu.
It’s worth noting that, like for Danny, little needs to change in Orson Randall’s origin. He can still be the son of an eccentric billionaire inventor who crashes his flying airship into Kun’Lun when it is on Earth; who is raised in Kun’Lun and becomes the Iron Fist; and who abandons the mantle of Iron Fist when he witnesses the brutality of war (though updating the war to be Vietnam rather than World War I probably makes sense).
One major change I would suggest, however, is that Orson should not be considered “the outworlder,” and here’s my continuity adjusted rationale: Kun’Lun should have birthright citizenship. While Kun’Lun is frequently portrayed in the comics as deeply xenophobic, looking down upon the regular citizens of Earth, because Orson was born in Kun’Lun, he is accepted as a full citizen (the picture above is of Orson, from Immortal Iron Fist #4). Indeed, perhaps Orson is required to remain in Kun’Lun, while his parents must return to Earth.
This will provide a wonderful contrast to Danny, who, despite being Asian, is viewed as an outsider (which is in fact often true of Asian-Americans living in Asia) while Orson, though white, is fully accepted as part of Kun’Lun. This would mean that Danny remaining in Kun’Lun after the death of his parents would be a deep break in tradition, and would mean that he is always viewed as an outsider.
But what about Wendell Rand, that other outsider who comes to Kun’Lun and studies there, despite being born on Earth? Well that brings us neatly to our next point…
Wendell Should Never Visit Kun’Lun
In the comics, Wendell is raised on the legends of Kun’Lun by Orson, but is continually told by Orson not to seek out the mystical city, feeling that the legacy of Iron Fist leads to nothing but death and misery. Of course, Wendell being a stubborn asshole (something his son inherits), he proceeds to go do exactly that.
Wendell can and should still have the same adversarial father-son relationship with Orson, who he sees as a bitter old man lost in his own demons. But rather than betray the express desires of his adopted father, it would be a more interesting arc for Wendell if he actually honoured Orson’s wishes and does not journey to Kun’Lun, despite his deep desire to do so.
The dream of Kun’Lun – a representation of a better life than the one he was born into – should still have a powerful draw on Wendell, so much so that he does indeed seek out Kun’Lun despite Orson’s protestations. But during his journey, he should learn of Orson’s (supposed) death, and reading Orson’s last will and testament, he chooses instead to honour his adopted father’s wishes, and seek out life, not death.
As established in the Immortal Iron Fist Annual, the Rand family fortune is actually built on that of the Randall Empire. Using this inherited fortune, Wendell should journey to America and build a family, life and business, making the life for himself that Orson would have wanted for him. In fact, it’s suggested in the comics that the name Rand is in fact a homage to Orson Randall, given that Wendell Rand is a name Wendell chose for himself. I see the young boy from rural China journeying to American to remake himself, changing his name from Wen’Kai to the more English friendly Wendell Rand, not only to better fit in to America, but also to honour the legacy of Orson Randall.
Despite his wonderful new life, however, the dream of Kun’Lun never truly leaves Wendell. He passes on the legends and stories of Kun’Lun told to him by Orson to his own son, and becomes obsessed with studying any and all accounts of the mystical city. From these studies, Wendell believes he knows when and where Kun’Lun will next appear, and so with his best friend and business partner, his wife, and their young son, goes out to seek the city he has been dreaming of all his life.
This change – Wendell in fact never reaching Kun’Lun – not only makes Danny’s journey unique as the only true outsider to be allowed to remain in Kun’Lun, but more importantly provides a more satisfying rationale for why Wendell himself never became the Iron Fist. In the comics, Wendell earns the right to face Shao-Lao the Undying and become the Iron Fist, but instead turns away from the legacy of the Iron Fist and flees Kun’Lun (how exactly he returns to Earth is never explained). The reason provided is that the words of Orson continue to haunt him, and with doubt in his heart, he decides he is not worthy.
Personally, I found this a deeply unsatisfying explanation, doubly so because Wendell then later decides to try to return to Kun’Lun with his family. To what purpose exactly? To raise his son to adopt the legacy he himself turned from? By having Kun’Lun remain an unachieved dream for Wendell, we not only have a more satisfying and coherent arc for the character, but we are also able to contrast the fantasy of Kun’Lun as a magical Shangri-La paradise imagined by Wendell with the brutal, Sparta-like reality of Kun’Lun that Danny grows up in.
This change works on a thematic level as well – it means that Orson’s dire prophecies were true. Wendell dies, leaving his son as an orphan, forced to be raised in the punishing environment of Kun’Lun. Shaped by his childhood trauma, Danny Rand becomes a living weapon, an instrument of death, and the tragedy and trauma – the legacy of the Iron Fist Orson warned of – is again renewed.
Danny is driven solely by a desire to seek vengeance on the man who he blames for his father’s death. But is this all consuming passion based on a false childhood memory born of trauma? Well, I would suggest…
Meachum Shouldn’t Murder Wendell.
Harold Meachum is a character central to Danny Rand’s origin story, and as depicted in Marvel Premiere #15 (Iron Fist/Danny Rand’s fist appearance) he’s a pretty gigantic asshole. Meachum comes on the expedition with the express purpose of murdering Wendell, so he takes full control of the company and steals his wife. To be fair, Wendell should have seen this coming – the mustache is a dead giveaway.
Wendell’s death is pretty brutal – having slipped and fallen on the icy mountains, and hanging on an outcropping for dear life, Meachum proceeds to smash his spiked boot onto Wendell’s hand, causing him to fall to his death. The scene in the comic is quite graphic – Danny narrates in flashback saying “my father fell for a long time…and the last you could see of him was a view of something very like a broken doll, caroming ludicrously from an outcropping of jagged rock”, alongside a striking full page spread (the comic is really worth reading, and is only two bucks on Comixology).
It’s an event that, unsurprisingly, continues to haunt Danny for the rest of his life, and is the the principal reason why he trains to become the Iron Fist – so that he can return to the world and seek vengeance upon the killer of his father. But it’s also clearly a source of deep unprocessed trauma, a theme which is brilliantly explored in the the latest Iron Fist series, the phenomenal Iron Fist: Living Weapon (written, drawn, colored, lettered and with covers by Kaare Andrews – the first artist ever to do so on a Marvel comic!).
A future piece will discuss in greater depth the central role of trauma to Danny Rand and the mantle of Iron Fist, but for the moment I want to focus on another important addition Andrews makes to the Iron Fist mythology – that the events depicted in Marvel Premiere #15 may not be a fully accurate account. It’s worth noting that none of what’s shown in Living Weapon is a formal retcon, but rather an alternative perspective, and a key element of Living Weapon is the exploration of the way in which trauma frames one’s memory.
Living Weapon makes a number of key changes to the story told in Marvel Premiere #15, both in terms of characters and events depicted. One of those changes is the depiction of Meachum, who is much more sympathetic in this incarnation. We see Heather (Danny’s mother) asking Meachum to prevail upon Wendell; Meachum begging Wendell to turn back for the sake of his son and wife; and Wendell’s fall is shown as the result of an avalanche accidentally triggered when Meachum sets of a flare – but which causes Meachum to proclaim “you led us to this moment Randall. You’ve killed us all!”
Furthermore, it’s suggested that Harold Meachum and Heather have an ongoing affair, revealed in a flashback that Andrews describes as a “repressed realization” of Danny. After all, it’s rather absurd that Harold would journey to the Himalayas for the purpose of trying to murder Wendell so that he can steal his wife. Living Weapon’s alternative explanation makes far more sense, which Andrews elaborates on in an interview with Comic Book Resources:
“There must have been some kind of romantic tension between Harold and Danny’s mom, Heather, because why else would he follow her into a dangerous situation and then basically propose to her after murdering her husband? There’s no other explanation other than maybe he’s insane, but there’s no evidence to support that he’s crazy. So what would make sense?
What we had was an emotionally detached husband on an obsessive journey, a wife who’s desperately looking for connection, a business partner who offers it to her and the consequences of those choices on the isolated mountains of the Himalayas.”
And it’s not only Meachum who is portrayed differently in this version – Wendell is also transformed. Andrews describes him in the interview as “emotionally detached” but in the comic itself it goes far by beyond that. Danny narrates his memory of his father’s death by saying “I remember seeing my father for the first time just then. For what he was…a dead man walking around in my father’s skin…the look in his eyes said it all. He was insane.” Indeed, it takes a certain level of madness to drag one’s wife and ten year old child in search of a magical city (which works even more effectively in the context of my suggested changes, given that Wendell has never been to or seen Kun’Lun). In the same interview, Andrews provides further context for Wendell’s state of mind:
“I think Danny’s father did love and care for Danny and he was a family man, but he grew obsessed with this magical place. And not in a selfish way — he really thought he was going to take his family to better place [and] reveal a real Shangri-La, a place where he could finally be at peace and reconnect as a husband and father. But he basically dragged his family to their deaths.”
It’s just as crucial what is not not shown, namely the iconic scene of Meachum stamping on Wendell’s foot. It’s clearly suggested that Harold let go of the rope – itself a far cry from the brutality of the scene as depicted in Marvel Premiere #15 – but why would he do that?
Could it be, perhaps, that he let Wendell fall, knowing that if they were to continue following him, they would all die? Was he perhaps simply trying to save Danny and his mother? Imagine further if, rather than simply leaving them to their fate, that he went to try and get help; that he uses considerable resources to attempt to find Danny and Heather, only to have found the skeletal remains of Heather and no sign of Danny; and that this event has haunted him for the rest of his life, much as it has Danny? Indeed, that he has maintained the name of Randall-Meachum to honour Wendell’s legacy, and even keeps a photo of the Rand family on his desk? How would this change not only the audience’s perception of Meachum from a caricatured villain to a complex character, but Danny’s perception of a man he has spent the past ten years hating?
So why this deep dive into this one specific scene? Because again, this moment is central to Danny Rand’s desire to become the Iron Fist. But what if he learns it was all for naught? What a heartbreaking revelation for the adult Danny to discover when he goes to New York – that the desire for vengeance that has animated him for over a decade is false, that the villain he has constructed in his head is in fact a kind man, who lost his legs trying to save him, and has kept the legacy of Rand going.
In the Marvel Premiere series, Meachum is described as “a broken, wasted shell of a human being” but it’s put even more brutally in Living Weapon. Danny describes his long dreamed of meeting with Meachum by saying in Living Weapon #5
I returned to the world of the living and found Meachum waiting for me in Rand Tower. A paraplegic, reeking of bourbon and fear. In essence, he was already dead. Guilt, regret, and terror had already taken him. I looked into his hollow eyes. It was like looking into nothingness. I had become a weapon without a target. A worthless exercise. A lie. My fist wasn’t forged in iron…but irony. An orphan of two worlds. Two families. Stuck in that place in between.
In the comics, Meachum is a broken man because he has been consumed by the fear of Danny returning to kill him. But by absolving Meachum of Wendell’s murder, that in fact, he was a good man all along, and that Danny’s memory of events was a false one shaped by trauma, is far more compelling. The vengeance he has long been seeking, in many ways his very reason for being, is rendered moot. The journey of Danny Rand then becomes one of finding out who he is, having lost his central purpose in life. That’s a compelling hero journey.
Davos Should Defeat Danny For The Right To Fight Shao-Lao
Speaking of unhappy legacies of vengeance, it’s worth turning our attention to Iron Fist’s principal antagonist, Davos, also known as The Steel Serpent. In the comics, Davos grows up and trains with Wendell Rand, and Davos’s vendetta against Danny is driven by a bitterness stemming from his relationship with Wendell. But given in this Netflix series Danny now has an origin closer to that of Wendell, it makes sense that it is Danny who trains, grows up with, and becomes friends with Davos.
I touched on this in the second point about Orson’s dire prophecies in regards to the legacy of trauma for Iron Fist, but it’s worth remembering that growing up in Kun’Lun is a rather brutal existence. Again, Kaare Andrews himself puts it best:
“K’un-Lun is a world of warriors and fighters like Ancient Sparta, and Spartans lived a very hard life. It takes a forge to create a sword. You need to hammer the blade to imbue it with strength, fold the metal over and hammer it out again. So you can imagine his upbringing living in a world like that would be hard, especially as an outsider — someone who’s unwanted and maybe resented by the locals. “
The particular challenge of being an outsider – or in this case, outworlder – is particularly salient in regards to Danny’s relationship with Davos. Davos is the son of Lei Kung the Thunderer, one of Kun’Lun’s most revered fighters, while Danny is a boy from America allowed to remain in Kun’Lun despite centuries of tradition because Yu-Ti took a shine to him, so naturally Danny would be treated with hostility and suspicion. What might cause these two young men to become friends?
My suggestion would be that Lei Kung forces his own son, Davos, to go sit with Danny at meal time, which Davos is none too pleased with. Then in training – and remember, Danny was trained in Kung Fu by his father – he is forced to spar with Davos. And Davos absolutely whoops him. Just beats the ever-loving shit out of this little kid. Later, again at meal time, we see the battered and bruised Danny painfully slurping down his noodles. Davos sits across from him. Weakly, Danny says “next time I won’t go so easy on you.” Davos smiles. And a friendship is born.
Fast forward to adulthood. We see both Danny and Davos succeed in the trial of many, and the trial of one. This is unprecedented! Many years no one wins the trials, and so no one earns the right to face Shao-Lao that year. But here there are two! So they face off. It’s a brutal battle, but Davos wins. Yu-Ti observes the winners…and tells Davos he is not yet ready, that he sees in him a pride that would be his undoing.
Davos is furious and he storms out of the arena. Danny rushes after him, tells him he doesn’t know what Yu-Ti was thinking. Davos rounds on Danny and says he knows what Yu-Ti was thinking, that he wanted it to be Danny, because Danny is his favourite. In my mind, this works much better because his bitterness in the comics was unearned – Danny really did beat him! But if instead it was Davos who won, but was still not allowed to fight Shao-Lao, than his sense that Yu-Ti favours Danny is far more reasonable.
And so, just as in the comics, Davos awakes in the middle of the night and goes out to confront Shao-Lao. Danny awakes, see Davos missing, and figuring out what he is up to, goes to try and stop him. But he is too late – Davos is already fighting Shao-Lao, and losing. Davos is badly burned, on the ground helpless, about to be killed. Danny leaps to Davos’s defense, standing between Shao-Lao and his intended victim – and rather than slay Danny, the dragon stares into his eyes, and turns away, sensing, perhaps, that their battle is for another day.
Davos is bitter, and has been shamed – he could not even achieve an honourable death. Yu-Ti exiles him to Earth, and Davos swears revenge on Danny who he blames for his misfortune. It will be a year before Danny returns to Earth as the Iron Fist, in which time Davos can become the Steel Serpent, the immortal weapon of K’un-Zi, the Legendary City of Heaven ruled by Crane Mother, who also seeks vengeance on Kun’Lun.
These small changes make for a much richer relationship between Danny and Davos. They grow up together and form a bond of brotherhood, only to become mortal enemies. Every hero needs their dark mirror, and Davos can serve as exactly that for Danny – while the series will show Danny maturing and moving beyond the burden of vengeance, Davos is a man forever consumed by it, unable to let his bitterness go. That is a great arc for a character, and a classic villain genesis.
Skip The Nonsense with Nu-An and The Randall Gate
With the previous suggested changes, I’ve taken powerful concepts from Iron Fist’s complicated continuity and reworked them in a way that is more straightforward but retains the core of the Iron Fist mythos and its powerful themes. In the case of both Nu-An and his relation to the Randall Gate, I don’t think this is worth doing at all. These ideas are terrible and should simply be abandoned in the adaptation. However, having painstakingly assembled relevant images, I will go through the needlessly convoluted continuity, hopefully illustrating why these elements are hot garbage that mainstream audiences should be spared.
The first relevant (and confusing) piece of info is that Yu-Ti is not in fact a name, but rather a title for the leader of Kun’Lun. The comics have shown us two Yu-Ti’s – Tuan, the Yu-Ti who welcomes both Orson and Wendell, and Nu-An, his son, who inherits the title when Tuan dies. Tuan is apparently a kind, benevolent leader, while Nu-An is a power-crazed tyrant, who uses secret, illegal technology and has his own private army of terror monks. The second arc of Immortal Iron Fist shows Danny, Lei Kung, and others stage a revolution and oust Nu-An from his position.
It’s needlessly complicated, but also nonsensical – given that all the citizens of Kun’Lun are in fact immortal, what causes Tuan to die? In the adaptation, there should be only a single, kind Yu-Ti – referred to simply as such – who allows Danny to remain in Kun’Lun. Multiple Yu-Ti’s is silly, hot garbage, and should be tossed.
Further adding to complicated continuity, in the original Iron Fist series (i.e. Marvel Premiere) we learn that Wendell was in fact the son of Tuan, and brother to Nu-An. It’s not completely clear if this means natural born or adopted son, but either way, Danny learns that his father was meant to have become Yu-Ti, and it’s suggested that Wendell’s death was somehow Nu-An’s doing. This has been retconned in Immortal Iron Fist, and all for the good – it’s hot garbage. Ditch it.
Nu-An’s devilry is even further established by adding yet another needlessly complex element to the Iron Fist mythology, by establishing that Phinneas Randal built a teleporation gate between Kun’Lun and Earth, and that the Randall fortune is in fact a result of Nu-An having paid off Phinneas Randall to keep it secret. It’s not clear for what purpose Nu-An uses the gate, and it’s irrelevant. Why? Because it’s hot garbage! Case closed.
Like Unto A Thing Of Iron: The Heart Of Iron Fist
The trick to adapting a comic book figure is to understand the core of the character. Iron Fist is more than just a Kung Fu jokester – he’s a boy who witnessed the brutal death of his parents, trained for a decade to pursue vengeance, and ultimately discovers that a life lived in the service of violence is a hollow one. That is a brilliant, brutal, and compelling arc, one that not only new audiences will easily be able to grasp, but will expand possibilities of what a superhero story can be. We haven’t ever seen a character quite like Danny Rand in the MCU, and with just a few small changes Iron Fist can be adapted in a way that I think will likely make him one of the most iconic superheroes to have appeared in film or television.
You’ve got the road map now, Marvel. Time to make it happen.