It seems that Marvel Studios has finally failed me.
For a long time now, my favorite Marvel superhero has been Iron Fist – don’t ask me why, he just is. So when Marvel announced they were partnering with Netflix to do five TV series based on more grounded characters, and that Iron Fist was going to be one of them, I was ecstatic.
From what I’ve heard, I shouldn’t have been. Apparently the show, debuting this Friday, is bland and uninteresting, more soap opera than action drama. It doesn’t help that the star of the show is out making stupid claims like they “made it for fans, not critics” and that everyone doesn’t like it because Trump is now president.
It’s a bummer, for sure. But I’ll still watch it, hoping it’s not as bad as critics say. But for those of you that can’t get through the muck, go read a story about Iron Fist that’s actually worth your time and blends both street-level action with otherworldly kung-fu adventures: The Immortal Iron Fist.
Launched by writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, along with artist David Aja, Immortal Iron Fist expands the mythology of the character to places no one thought to take him. Originally seen as just a singular B-list hero, the series explores the idea that Danny Rand is, in fact, the latest in a long line of Iron Fists, dating back hundreds of years.
The first arc, “The Last Iron Fist Story”, explored Danny at a crossroad moment. Trying to figure out his purpose as a hero, he meets Orson Randall, a World War II veteran and the previous Iron Fist who has slowed his aging through techniques unknown to Danny. The two are forced on the run as the Steel Serpent, the nemesis of Iron Fist, reappears to do battle against them. The second arc, “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven”, saw Danny brought to the place he trained, K’un-Lun, to take part in a martial arts tournament against other “Immortal Weapons” with powers similar to his, all the while navigating the political machinations of the rulers of these other “Heavenly Cities.” These stories are interspersed with “Tales from the Book of the Iron Fist”, featuring Orson in his prime before he became disillusioned with his own life.
Brubaker and Fraction really manage to build this new world for Danny into something spectacular. While writers before them had taken the route of straightforward martial arts action, these two dove deep into not just the history of Iron Fist, but also of Danny Rand. The opening arc sets up the story that will be told, slowly revealing that there is more to this history than readers previously knew. The second arc then allows them to cut loose and fire on all cylinders, showcasing not just crazy kung-fu action and political intrigue within K’un-Lun but also revealing what Danny’s father went through when he tried to become an Iron Fist himself, setting up the eventual path Danny would have to take.
While Danny is the proverbial heart and soul of the series, the supporting cast adds great, varying flavors to help showcase the unique tale this creative team offers up. There is the group of Iron Fist’s allies from his decades-long history, including former flame Misty Knight, ex-“Hero for Hire” partner Luke Cage, and martial arts compatriot Coleen Wing, each of which is a reminder of the past adventures Danny has lived through. Later issues introduce and flesh out the new “Immortal Weapons”, including such characters as Fat Cobra, Bride of Nine Spiders, and the Prince of Orphans, each of which plays on tropes of old martial arts films. Each “team” Danny works with helps to not only add to the fusion of grit and fantasy the series excels at, but also acts as an homage to the character’s history while setting the stage for new action to come.
All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of artist David Aja to the book. Aja choreographs the fight scenes in the issues just as well as any action movie, the freewheeling motion of the characters coming across as they leap across panels and throw wild jabs at one another in battles to the death. Each fighter even has their own style of fighting – Danny and Steel Serpent are more willing to utilize multiple martial arts styles, while someone like Fat Cobra has a grappling style more akin to a sumo wrestler. Each adds another layer to the respective character, with Aja contributing his own stamp to their development.
Aja might also be the key to selling the blending of street-level and mystic adventures to this book. His art style is evocative of rain-soaked streets and dark alleys, utilizing heavy ink lines and detailing the many real-world injuries the body would suffer from fighting like this. But when he draws large coliseums filled with people and the mystical powers of the Weapons, his skills showcase a fantastic element that fits the history of the character. Without him drawing it, this mashing of worlds would feel a bit silly.
Unfortunately, Aja is not the kind of artist to handle a monthly book well. His later Hawkeye issues dragged in release because of his pace of drawing, and so too did his Immortal Iron Fist issues. A majority of “Seven Capital Cities of Heaven” isn’t even pencilled by him, Marvel brass electing to bring in guest artists and co-artists to help ease Aja’ workload. The result is a book that, while still looking good, loses something whenever Aja is replaced. Even though this second arc is, in my opinion, more creative than the first, the varying art styles drags it down from feeling like an instant classic.
The series also loses a step once Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja leave after “Capital Cities.” Later writers, such as Duane Swierczynski and Cullen Bunn, elect to not push the envelope and try new things like the previous creators did. Instead, they play in the same sandbox left to them and follow plot threads leftover from Brubaker and Fraction. It’s difficult to be as creative and fresh as the first two arcs were, but to see later stories lacking some of the same excitement as the original issues did is a bummer. They’re still worth reading, but serve more as a showcase as to what previous Iron Fist stories had been before this renaissance.
Even if Netflix’s Iron Fist is the garbage people are already saying it is, I’ll at least have this series to soothe the pain. There are ways to tell a strong, compelling Iron Fist story. Just go out and pick up this run to see one in action.
The entirety of Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja’s Immortal Iron Fist run is collected across three graphic novels as well as an “Ultimate Collection”, which are available now in comic book shops, bookstores, and digital retailers.