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In 1973, in a head-spinning eight month span that ran from March of that year to October, six Hong Kong martial arts films captured the #1 spot at the US box office. The collective spectacle sparked a martial arts mania that spread from downtown movie screens to comic book racks at the neighborhood drug store.
But it also created a precarious tightrope upon which the popular culture of the 21st century must more mindfully tread.
When it was released to theaters in the US, Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer) had the enviable position of being , as touted by the rights holder Warner Brothers Studios: “the first international martial arts movie sensation.” It was the first of such films to be released by a mainstream US distributor and other films of varying levels of quality quickly followed.
The most acclaimed of the half dozen box office hits was the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, released by Warner Brothers in August of 1973, five months after the studio’s initial hit. Lee, who’d met a tragic demise in July of that same year, achieved fame in the US playing the high-kicking pulp novel and comic book hero Kato on television’s short-lived The Green Hornet.
Well beyond the debut of those films released to theaters in 1973, their growing popularity would keep them playing in cheaply run theaters situated in urban markets for nearly a decade. And Five Fingers of Death and Enter the Dragon would even share theater marquees from Watts to Washington DC, billed together as a senses-shattering double feature.
It didn’t require an Einstein to measure the success of kung fu flicks. Anyone who lived in the country at the time felt their powerful effects.
Marvel Comics was among the quickest to find ways to capitalize off that popularity, producing the hybrid comic magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (1974), and the comic books Master of Kung Fu (1974) and Iron Fist (1975).
Not surprisingly, Shang Chi, the heroic "half-breed" protagonist of the book Master of Kung Fu, was patterned after the immensely popular Bruce Lee. Frankly, you couldn’t open the pages of martial arts rags like Black Belt or Inside Kung Fu, or walk past inner city school yards where litte boys pondered “Who’d kick Batman’s butt in a fight?” without hearing the esteemed actor’s name mentioned.
What may surprise, though, is that Iron Fist, the character created by Marvel Comics scribe Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, was heavily inspired by visual and thematic elements found in the box office smash Five Fingers of Death.
Well, it’s not surprising that this film was an influence on the character. It’s the film that basically ignited the whole kung fu movie craze.
What’s surprising is that today, some 40 years after the character was created, neither martial arts movie aficionados or comic book geeks seem to have recognized Iron Fist’s — to borrow the name of popular film from that same era — cinematic “Chinese Connection.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
Five Fingers of Death, the film from which the term “iron fist” originates, was released to US theaters on March 21, 1973. Twelve months later, in March of 1974, the comic book character that bears the name Iron Fist made his first appearance in issue #15 of Marvel Premiere, the comic book equivalent of a proving ground used by Marvel to “audition” new superheroes.
In the film, Chi-Hao, a promising martial arts student (played by martial arts film legend Lo Lieh) is sent away from his kung fu school to be trained under another martial arts master. He’s sent there in the hope that it will increase his chances of winning an upcoming fighting tournament, something that would bring prestige and more to both schools.
At the school of his new master, Chi-Hao keeps his head down, works hard, and eventually wins both the respect and the favor of his new teacher . Oh, yeah, when he first got there, the old guy didn’t seem to care for the young man all that much.
After Chi-Hao’s arrival, his new master was uncertain about the pupil he’d been sent, and was keen to gauge his temperament. The old master did this by giving Chi-Hao every manner of menial task imaginable so as to test his patience and “toughen him up physically.” And the young man did all that he was told to do without complaint.
As the old master lies in bed one day, wrapped in bandages from injuries suffered in an attack by a gang of challengers from a rival martial arts school, he asks that his mild-mannered student have a sit with him.
“I’m not getting any younger,” the old man says to Chi-Hao. “And in that incident earlier on today, I got quite badly hurt. So I’ll give you this Iron Fist manual. Study it carefully.”
And study it he does.
The name of the mysterious technique developed by the old master is heard at least half a dozen times in Five Fingers of Death before viewers actually see what the iron fist technique looks like in the film’s third act. After much trial, error — and some added physical challenges — Chi-Hao masters the amazing fighting method, and it’s something to behold.
Now, for anyone who’s never seen the film, bear in mind that Five Fingers of Death was produced in Hong Kong back in 1973, four years before the special EFX extravaganza known as Star Wars altered the entertainment landscape forever. On its own terms, it’s pretty awesome when Chi-Hao’s hands glow with the pulse-pounding power of focused spirit, or “chi.”
The Deadly Art... of Cultural Appropriation
Over the last few years, Marvel’s masked martial arts hero had been the focal point of intense discussion. The conversation began in 2016 when Netflix announced the development of an Iron Fist TV show for the 2017 television season. It was exciting news to old comic book fans of the character, but a point of concern for many newer ones.
Iron Fist is a throwback to another time in America, when endless lines of great white saviors — whose legends have been extolled on stage, in film, pulp novels, comic books, and on TV — could immerse themselves in the cultural traditions of various peoples and, quite predictably, rise to be the best "to ever do the damn thing," whatever the damned thing was.
In the controversial case of Iron Fist, the thing was Chinese kung fu.
In a March 2017 interview with Inverse Entertainment, co-creator Roy Thomas pondered aloud whether “people have anything better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever.” And the remark made it clear that — just as he probably did 40 years ago, when Iron Fist was created — Thomas wears his very casual racism on his sleeve.
But the revelation also helped to illustrate why cultural appropriation can be such a nasty thing: Those who dabble in the wholesale theft of various peoples’ cultural traditions often have little respect for the actual people from whom they take their “inspiration.” In far too many instances, they wordlessly refuse to even acknowledge a source.
In accordance with that standard operating procedure of privilege in America, Thomas has never offered any credit to the influential Hong Kong film that inspired both the name and the concrete crushing power of the masked martial artist called Iron Fist. But an "iron clad" case can be built to show that the fingerprints of Five Fingers of Death are all over this beloved character, and on the pages of the comic books that introduced Iron Fist to generations of kung fu loving fans.