Today’s precis is this: privileged moves, taken without privilege, look ridiculous.
Like many of you, I watched Iron Fist: The Series when it came out. I want to talk about what I saw there.
This is going to pretend that you’ve seen all four series already: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist. If not, there are spoilers here, though not series-crippling spoilers.
The metaseries formed by the four individual series has fascinated me from a semiotic perspective: these series play with symbols to try to illustrate a meaning, a truth about our society. The overall theme is violence, and it played out in parts.
And then there’s Iron Fist
I highly recommend DD, JJ, and especially LC; but IF only maybe, for reasons given below. And watch The Defenders if you want to tie up loose plot-ends; it doesn’t actually say anything interesting on a deeper level, as far as I can tell.
IF was widely reviled by fans and critics. Part of this was because Luke Cage and Jessica Jones had set such a damn high bar for the uberseries (and DD wasn’t bad, just not quite up to the same level).
But most of it was due to the hero — a self-sure, cocky, assholic rich white dude who seems like every other SCARWD you see on TV and in movies and in political office. When contrasted with Luke’s humble, serious, quirkily-humorous nature, or Jessica’s disaffected but deep-feeling take, or the large cast of much-better-drawn auxiliary characters in DD, it seemed lacking. This stands in sharp contrast to previous series — almost.
First, Daredevil came out, and I was very excited: possibly my favorite superhero, with a series of his own, and one that might not suck. But when I got around to watching it, I found it was hard to stomach — glorying in incredibly bloody violence, realistically remarked-upon by the camera and the performances. Just endless, brutal violence.
It was horrid until I realized that that was what the series was truly about: the violence wrought on men in our society, by other men, by their fathers, by their jobs, and the men that stand back up in the face of that violence, just keep on getting up every morning to face it again and again.
Daredevil season 1 was also about the tension between the professional* class — as epitomized by Matt Murdock, overskilled and underpaid, and his trusty sidekicks Foggy and Karen — and the upper class, the truly rich, as demonstrated by Wilson Fisk and, to a lesser extent, Vanessa.
Fisk — The Kingpin, though they never use that name — is a rich, deeply disturbed man who engages in violence because he wants to — it’s a fun diversion for him, and/or the expression of his insanity, but that’s okay, because he has the money and power to make the consequences go away. Violence never sticks to him; it is something he does to other people. Matt has no such protection: he’s a hero who gets beat up just slightly less than his opponents, a boxer in the 15th round who manages to stay upright while his opponent takes the fall. Cue up the battle between the untouchable fist and the undefeatable punching bag.
DD Season 2 was instead about the tension between the professional class and the working class: between DD and Frank Castle (aka The Punisher), and the different meaning that violence has in each of their lives. Matt chooses violence; it’s a pastime for him, but also the avocation he is drawn to when lawyering doesn’t work for justice. Frank gets paid for violence as a soldier, and then gets consumed by it: it passes from his vocation to his avocation, and that’s where they end up having a commonality. Their methods differ — The Punisher is the guy who kills criminals instead of locking them up — but that’s not really what angers Frank: it’s that he feels Matt’s judgment, his censure. That’s a narrative many social conservatives feel about the liberals they see as elite and out-of-touch, relying on them to do the dirty work. As in life, the punchline of the series is that the upper class is playing them against each other.
Jessica Jones was about the violence done to women: emotional violence always, and physical violence sometimes. Characters are continuously and repeatedly robbed of their volition by a charming (not in the conventional sense), diabolical, horrific man; they are forced to do violence to each other and to themselves, and worse, forced to enjoy it. It’s got at least three really nasty scenarios that play out for survivors of abuse to either shy away from or, if they’ve managed to survive in that way, to shake their heads at and use as illustrative examples. It starts with an involuntary violent act by our heroine, and ends with a voluntary one.
Luke Cage, then, was a bit more of a puzzle. Luke is in some ways immune to violence: he can’t be hurt. (Asterisk.) But he can dish it out effortlessly, swatting attackers as if they were flies — except when he doesn’t, showing restraint. He is what he has to be in this white America, where black men are feared and thought superhuman, and forced to be docile and subservient at all times. He rouses himself only to be a protector, the truce he’s made with these conflicting requirements. Meanwhile, the damage splashes off him — sometimes literally — onto everyone around him. The series is therefore a long examination of the societal violence done on black society as a whole, both from within and without, and the reactions that everyone has to be able to survive that situation.
The Chosen One
So with that framework in mind, I looked forward to see what Iron Fist would become.
It was cursed from the start: the original Iron Fist comic grew out of Asian-exploitation movies, the way Power Man (Luke Cage) grew out of Blacksploitation films. The main character is literally “a white dude who does kung fu or karate or some sort of asian martial arts thing but it’s cool because he’s the chosen one”.
That’s two kinds of appropriation at once, which in the modern day is Not Okay. The question is, given this situation, should you try to retain this appropriation, or rewrite it? It’d be easy enough to create a Chinese Iron Fist, and indeed, that’s where comics have since gone. But instead the writers took this head-on — let’s start with “white dude does kung fu”, and go there, and see what we can say using that.
But I think they didn’t light it up in neon, didn’t shine it brightly enough. I say this because a bunch of people complained about how it’s appropriation; which it totally is.
So what’s it about? I asked a friend who’d watched it before me and he thoughtfully responded “parental violence”, which is also true: it’s got a repeating motif of parents who are truly shitty to their children, and children who grow up to be shitty adults as a result, and of violence done by and to parents, and the children who grow up to be shitty adults as a result of *that*.
But I saw a second theme under that.
Iron Fist starts off using the “stranger in a familiar land” premise, where a character goes back to his home, but he and it are different. In this case it’s orphan boy billionaire Danny Rand — Iron Fist — and he’s returned, an adult, to reclaim his fortune, taken over by family friends when he and his parents were lost and presumed dead.
So he shows up, barefoot, wearing dirty clothing, having walked to NYC from the Himalayas or thereabouts, with nothing on him but the clothes on his back. He marches into the gleaming offices of the company with his name on it, and demands his rightful place. And they welcome him with open arms, give him his inheritance, a corner office, new clothes, and…no wait, the other thing. They throw him out on his ear — or try to, but he’s got that pesky kung fu stuff. Still, eventually he leaves.
And he ends up sleeping in Central Park, where we have the best scene of the series — the one that, for me, explained the whole thing.
Danny is resting comfortably against a tree in the park when a homeless guy hands him a slightly-moldy sandwich: an offer of hospitality. Danny refuses, though he ends up eating it anyway, and talks to the homeless man, who seems to be on the ball until the conversation goes off the wall a bit. Danny realizes he’s encountered the man’s insanity and shies away; but then, ends up telling the man his own story — that he’s the famous billionare, that he survived by living in a magical land, that he was raised by monks and killed a dragon. The other guy gives him a knowing look, yes, we are not so different.
The difference is that Danny’s story ends up being true.
The annoying part is that Danny acts like everyone should believe him, all the time. I can’t imagine how the actor must have taken this direction — “He’s, like, completely clueless? All the time?” Yes. Yes, he is, except for brief moments where he has a tiny dose of clarity — but it never sticks. He never is able to see himself how other people see him.
Privilege without privilege
So that’s the point.
Danny walks around acting privileged, all the time. He expects people to do what he says, because he said it. He expects every courtesy to be shown, all the time, and refuses to take no for an answer when they are not. He expects women to fall for him, to put up with his idiotic nature. He expects everyone to live up to his infinite expectations of them. He breaks laws and ethical guidelines continuously, confident that it’ll work out because he’s who he says he is.
What’s kind of annoying is that, eventually, Danny even manages to convince the series writers that he’s right. Somehow — and it’s a long somehow — all of the things he presses for come true. A bit of pottery here, a backstabbing gone wrong there, and before long, he’s a billionaire again, driving fast cars, buying restuarants on the spot, walking around in a tailored suit, with an army of people behind him picking up lose ends, fixing up details, making the connections, making it all work for him.
And he’s still in bare feet.
Because he’s still the same crazy-man. But with the trappings of power restored, it’s the Tony Stark / Bruce Wayne rich crazy-man, and we all do what he says.
And that’s nuts. That’s the violence that privilege does to society: this idea that some people get to DO stuff, whatever they want, and other people have to follow along behind with the broom and the checkbook and the apologies.
The series almost says this; we almost get there. But then the show shies away from it; it can’t sustain this look at the pattern that is too sharply encoded in our society, can’t look directly at the pattern of petty day-to-day abuse, microaggression, erasure. Instead it becomes a martial-arts flick, with jokes about fighting styles and knowing winks at the history of kung-fu cinema. Which is all well and good, but not on the level of the rest of the series.
Anyway. Crazy privileged dudes. They’re everywhere.
(* I am skipping over a bit on American social classes, which here are reduced to four: indigent (do not work regularly, have no savings); working (work regularly but cannot save money); professional (work regularly, can save money); and upper (don’t have to work, can’t lose money). These names suck; moving on.)