Meet Iron Fist, Marvel’s controversial “billionaire New York Buddhist monk martial arts superhero” (Updated)

How Buddhist is Marvel’s next superhero reboot, Iron Fist?

Rod Meade Sperry
17 March 2016
Iron Fist meditating.

There’s no shortage of Buddhist (or pseudo-/quasi-Buddhist) comic heroes. There’s the White Lama, the Green Lama, Wolverine, and even Spider-Man, Deadpool, and Batman too have had their Buddhist manifestations, if only in one-shots. One qualifying character who’s come and gone more than once is now back again: Iron Fist, who first appeared in 1974 and will now be getting his own just-announced series (starring Game of Thrones’s Finn Jones) on Netflix.

So who is Iron Fist? He’s Danny Rand. So who’s that? As the show-to-be’s showrunner puts it in a Marvel press release, “Danny Rand is a very complicated character. He’s a billionaire New York Buddhist monk martial arts superhero who’s still trying to figure out what exactly that all means.” His powers and training are mystical — or to put it another way, they’re a bit of a mish-mash of real and imagined understandings of chi and other originally Eastern concepts. His martial-arts training is learned, in part, to help him avenge his mother’s death after a trip with his wealthy parents to a mystical land.

How Buddhist is he, really? It’s hard to say. I recall absconding with my uncle’s Iron Fist comics when I was a little kid, but all I remember is the pseudo-mystical Kung Fu flavor, which was popular back then, and found in other comics like Doctor Strange.

[Update: In the original version of this post, I had written here, “It will be fun to see what’s in store for the 2016 reboots of both characters.” But as insightful reader Kate Goka commented on our Facebook post about this article: “Yet outside of (white) Buddhist circles, there were a lot of questions about how Iron Fist would be represented. Please inform yourself on all the problems with this character and the reboot. This is a really deep issue tied to a lot of suffering.” Kate then provided a link to an article called “Why Iron Fist Needs to Be Asian American, Not a White Savior Cliche,” which talks about the character as yet another manifestation of a tired old trope — and a campaign to undo that, which Marvel has clearly rejected. It’s most definitely worth a read, and I thank Kate for pointing it out.]

[Update #2 (April 15, 2016): It’s probably not much of a surprise that the show’s casting hasn’t been changed; Finn Jones will still be starring as Iron Fist — though we’re told now that, for what it’s worth, he’ll be prepping for the role by practicing “kung fu and wushu mixed with a bit of tai chi,” and also studying “Buddhist philosophy and meditation.”]
For more along those lines, be sure not to miss the May 2016 Lion’s Roar magazine, which features a rare look at the Buddhist journey of Benedict Cumbebatch, star of the coming Doctor Strange film, issues around Doctor Strange‘s employment of a mythologized Tibet, and a look at some of the best explicitly or implicitly Buddhist films, as picked by bell hooks, Jeff Bridges, Krista Tippett, Michael Imperioli, and more.
Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar’s online source for committed Buddhists, and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.