The Hand has always been one of the more prominent evil alliances in the Marvel Universe. Created by Frank Miller in the 1980’s as an homage to his love for ancient clandestine Japanese history, the Hand made its mainstream live-action debut in 2005’s Elektra to half-assed results and it wasn’t until the two seasons of Daredevil that the organization got its live-action due in a peripheral role. In this month’s Iron Fist, not only does the Hand take center stage for the very first time but a lot about the organization is revealed, namely the factions and structure within it.
In the second season Daredevil episode Guilty as Sin, Stick tells Matt Murdock the legend of the Hand; an ancient clandestine group of corrupt warriors from the far East who dedicated their lives to satisfying their primal compulsions which ranged from anything between raping, pillaging, stealing, and slaying whoever and whatever came their way. These warriors take a turn for the worse when one of them discovers the occult and supernatural. Their belief in the primordial and esoteric is what allows them to perform a feat no one has ever heard of: bringing the dead back to life. It is through this philosophy that they founded their entire empire on centuries ago. Even in present day, their ideologies remain the same and alive in the three factions that live by it.
Bakuto and the Crossfit Commune
One of the few great things Iron Fist did to expand the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was introduce the idea that there was more to the Hand than ninjas. It’s a fairly recent concept in the comics which was retroactively introduced during Andy Diggle‘s Daredevil run leading up to the events of Shadowland (the story I believe the Defenders will primarily draw inspiration from) that works well in a modern TV adaptation. The concept is simple – there are different ruling warlords or Daimyos of the Hand and each has their own specific agenda in furthering their evil cause.
In Iron Fist, we’re introduced to this mysterious dude named Bakuto, who first appeared as this sort-of-sleazy sensei to Colleen but later revealed to be a leader of a seemingly independent Hand faction. Bakuto in the comics is the rogue leader of the South American chapter of the Hand. It’s never specified what his objective in the comics was but in the show, it’s implied Bakuto is in charge of a school/wellness/fitness retreat that resembles nothing like the terrifying portrait of the cult in Stick’s legend. This iteration of the Hand feels more Hydra than ninja order. Instead of an undead group of ninjas, it’s an ethnically diverse of troubled youths heavily into fitness. Instead of being taught how to ritualistically harvest blood from children, the youths are educated on how to assimilate and enter the American workforce.
Bakuto’s branch deals with the administrative/recruitment aspects of the Hand. Indoctrinating (or empowering, depending on you) wayward youths with a precarious and cryptic sense of purpose is how empires amass manpower devoted to them and that probably what was listed in Bakuto’s job description. If you want to get silly with it, Bakuto is a glorified Hand version of a human resources representative. But trivialization aside, Bakuto’s branch is of significance because not only is he responsible for recruiting warriors, but it’s also making sure the Hand’s influence is far-reaching in the world, the same way Hydra has moles planted in pretty much every facet of industry there is.
This seemingly mundane portrait Bakuto’s faction is painted in a more horrifying light when you consider the possibility of these kids being turned into the ninjas that sacrificed those kids and attempted to assassinate Matt Murdock. Suddenly, the CrossFit commune of Bakuto doesn’t seem too silly anymore. Darryl, the juvenile training under Colleen who gets his knee busted by Davos, becomes a tragic character when you understand the trajectory of his eventual fate. With the Defenders big bad Alexandra rumored to be a high society person of political influence, I can’t help but wonder if she went through the same thing in this faction.
Nobu and the Black Sky
One of my all-time favorite aspects of Daredevil in the comics are the Asian mystical trappings of the mythology. From the Hand and the Chaste’s debut to characters like Kirigi and Stone, it’s no wonder the moments that stand out to me the most in the Netflix shows are the introductions of Nobu, his ninjas, children blood banks, and the Black Sky. Nobu’s faction is arguably the most relevant to the story leading up to Defenders, with its seeds being sowed by the creative geniuses behind this project for the past two years.
When we first meet Nobu, he’s a shady businessman, thought to be Yakuza, heavily interested in a piece of land referred to as Midland Circle. We later find out that Nobu isn’t some greedy business nor was he part of the Yakuza. We learn that he’s actually a 300-year-old ninja working for the Hand in charge of digging a bottomless pit in the middle of New York which I’m betting has something to do with establishing a nexus for the Hand; a vantage point for their shady efforts.
The Black Sky is something we don’t know jack about it except that it’s a weapon referred to as a bringer of shadows. Ominously name-dropped by Stick during his first reunion with his prized pupil Matt Murdock, we see an initial version of the weapon in the form of a child being smuggled into New York by our chum Nobu. Stick kills the boy, referring to the child as “it”, kicking off a morality play between Matt and his mentor. Things become even more complicated when Elektra is revealed to be a Black Sky and that Stick took care of her for this very reason. The whole debacle ends with the death and eventual resurrection of Elektra, guaranteeing her return in The Defenders as the compliant weapon of the Hand.
Between the human sacrifices and their made-to-order ceremonial tombs, it’s no secret that Nobu’s faction ministers to the little known arcane traditions of The Hand. Practitioners of these arcane traditions are known in the comics as the Snakeroot, a super exclusive cabal of priests who are masters of everything ninjutsu and are dedicated servants to the Beast, the being worshiped by the Hand. Much like the Hydra order dedicated to the Inhuman Hive, there’s an independence to their ritualistic undertakings. A disconnect from the rest of the nut-and-bolt factions of the organization. An abstraction that holds larger implications for the Hand in their overarching plan. It’s less about Nobu’s cause serving the other factions than it is them serving Nobu’s cause. With Elektra’s resurrection and Sigourney’s Alexandra serving as the big bad in the Defenders, signs are pointing to them being the Hand’s key figures, respectively the Black Sky and the Beast. Should this end up being an accurate prediction, it’s Nobu’s faction that will prove most powerful.
Madame Gao and the Serpent’s Heroin
More enigmatic than any other Marvel Television villain in the MCU, Madame Gao was introduced in the very first episode of Daredevil as a stoic gangster that gave Leland Owlsley the eye when he inquired if anyone understood her Mandarin. Throughout the series, we slowly learn about her Steel Serpent heroin and are shown her supernatural abilities, prompting fans and Ed Brubaker himself to speculate whether she was secretly playing the fabled Iron Fist villain Crane Mother.
It isn’t until the 2nd act of Iron Fist that we get a dose of what her whole deal is about: she’s working for the Hand just like Nobu and always has been. It was an unceremonious weird twist that left some fans baffled at the power dynamics that were established in the preceding two seasons of Daredevil; there was never a hint of Nobu working with Gao in Season 1 nor was there any semblance of her working with the Hand when Daredevil visits her in Season 2. She is uncooperative with Bakuto, slyly aids Danny against his fight with the Hand and even refers to them as “the real threat”. Because of this, fans have been wondering whether Gao is at all completely affiliated with the Hand. Does she have actual ties to K’un L’un? Could she be legitimately affiliated with the Crane Mother of legend, banished from the heavenly city for sins erred? Is she merely outsourcing her drug operations to the Hand?
Out of all the Hand factions we know, it’s Gao’s group that’s truly baffling. From her own alliances to the purpose of her drugs, almost nothing is known. It’s one of the weird inert storytelling aspects of Iron Fist; we get so many episodes featuring Gao but almost nothing about her. And the one significant thing we learn is utterly unconvincing. Wealth could be her group’s objective but with an organization as far-reaching as the Hand, they’d surely have more efficient means of getting rich.
Because of this, I’m of the theory that her true purpose with the Hand lies in the heroin she’s selling. Like the Black Sky, Madame Gao’s heroin has been a long running plot device for the Netflix shows. We’ve seen it go through a few iterations in the past 2 years, beginning with the packeted sachets manufactured by people that have been literally blinded by Gao’s men to the more recent transdermal adhesive patch peddled by mysterious hot women. And we’ve seen the citizens of New York fall to its poison, most notably Ward Meachum. What remains a constant in the different iterations of this drug is the mark of the serpent, which some fans will recognize as the Steel Serpent symbol. But what significance could her magical heroin hold?
It’s a peripheral weapon they’re using in preparation for what Nobu’s faction is bringing. Or at least that’s what I think. The heroin could be a way of preemptively striking at the people of New York by means of poisoning them and weakening their will, with the Steel Serpent symbol functioning as a brand and nothing else. We know that these Hand cats serve a higher power. Could this higher power require the weakened resolve of the people before rising out of that pit in Midland Circle? The clan I mentioned above – Snakeroot – derived its name from the plant believed to have healing properties against snake (serpent!) bites during olden days. Barring the science behind the creation of actual heroin, the idea of her special heroin containing mystic snakeroot could work, further tying the TV and comic book lore together.
An objective such as this, I think, would justify a lot of the mystery surrounding Madame Gao’s loyalties. Instead of being a true blue Hand devotee, Gao is instead working for the Hand via freelance drug manufacturing, making her commitments to the Hand professional at best, albeit with an underlying grudge against them. Knowing her mystical background, her drugs are probably unlike any other (suck it Gus Fring) which is why the Hand hired her in the first place. Similar to what the League of Shadows did with Scarecrow’s fear gas to cripple Gotham in Batman Begins, Madame Gao could be doing to New York for the Hand.
It’s tough to make something out of an entity as ambiguous as the Hand. The veil of secrecy surrounding this plot thread is frustrating just as it is exciting. We’ve had 26 hours worth of television tackling the group head-on and have so little to show for it. At the same time, it’s the nebulousness of this arc that makes the unraveling worthwhile. I’m hoping that come Defenders, we finally get to see the Hand in its entirety when rear its ugly head with all its bells and whistles. And I’m hoping that when it does, its done in a way that isn’t ashamed of what it is. Is it so much to ask for a Ghostbusters-inspired possession scene with Sigourney Weaver?