Iron Fist: The Changing Heritage of Danny Rand
Danny Rand AKA Iron Fist is a fun, layered character. As the recent Iron Fist show on Netflix reminded us, he is also an example of the white savior narrative trope, one form of which involves stories where a white guy meets another culture of non-white people and not only becomes a master of some aspect of that culture, but is considered better at it than anyone native to that culture, after which he saves the day. It’s a part of the character that is difficult to escape unless you just change his ethnicity or alter some aspects of his story. But interestingly, for the first several years of his career, it was actually implied several times that Danny Rand had mixed ancestry.
Let’s quickly review. Danny Rand first appeared in 1974 in “Marvel Premiere” #15, written by Roy Thomas and with art by Gil Kane. The story shows him as a young man, 19-years-old, living in the mystical city of K’un L’un and engaging in martial arts tests. During this, Danny flashes back on his origin. Ten years previously, we see him as a nine-year-old child traveling through the Himalayan mountains with his father Wendell, his mother Heather, and Wendell’s business partner Harold Meachum. Wendell Rand speaks of K’un L’un, a city that is only accessible to Earth every ten years for a day, and insists that he knows where to find it. Harold secretly desires both Wendell’s share of their company and apparently Heather. At the first opportunity, Harold kills Wendell, sending him falling to his death, and leaves the surviving Rands to die in the cold. Later, the two reach the bridge to K’un L’un just as hungry wolves approach, and Heather heroically sacrifices by fighting the wolves, dying in the process but buying Danny enough time to escape. Danny is then found seconds later by the people of K’un L’un, who take him in. Hence, he is here ten years later, now a martial arts master who is ready to become the Iron Fist, an “immortal weapon.”
The origin continues in “Marvel Premiere” #16, but now Wolverine-creator Len Wein takes over as writer. Len continues the flashbacks, showing the people of K’un L’un adopting the lost orphan and asking what he wishes. Danny speaks of revenge. Yu-Ti, leader of K’un L’un, speaks of how revenge hurts the person seeking it as much as their target. He suggests Danny learn martial arts in the hopes that such training and the philosophy behind it will cool his anger. It’s an interesting and very lovely idea, actually. That brings us back to the present day, where Danny is now a martial arts master and so bad-ass that he is able to face the final test, challenging an immortal dragon, and earns the title of Iron Fist. Before Danny leaves K’un L’un to find his father’s killer, Yu-Ti speaks to the 19-year-old again and reveals that Wendell Rand was his brother.
This is a pretty heavy revelation, but Danny doesn’t have time for answers when the access to Earth will soon be gone. It did give some readers questions, though. This idea is further explored in 1975 in “Iron Fist” issues #6, #7 and #8, by writer and artist team Chris Claremont and John Byrne. In these issues, we learn that Wendell was indeed a native of K’un L’un, known there as Wendell Rand-K’ai. What’s more, he was the firstborn son of K’un L’un’s previous ruler Tuan and was supposed to inherit rulership of the city. “Yu-Ti,” as it turns out was a title. Tuan’s second son, the man who rules and is called Yu-Ti when Danny Rand comes to K’un L’un, is really named Nuan.
Because I like visual aids, here’s an image (above) of Tuan as ruler, with Wendell Rand-K’ai standing next to his biological brother Nuan. The man in the mask is Lei Kung, the Thunderer, teacher to Danny Rand and father to Danny’s later enemy Davos, the Steel Serpent, who never forgave Rand-K’ai for being more worthy of being an Iron Fist than he.
But despite being deemed worthy of becoming an Iron Fist, Rand-K’ai turned it down along with rulership of K’un L’un, choosing instead to explore Earth and live in it under the name “Wendell Rand.” He is there for many years, making his fortune, meeting Heather and having Danny, when he decides one day to return to his home, to the mystical place that seems better and more peaceful than Earth, and bring his family with him. Yu-Ti confirms all this, admitting as well that he had been envious of his elder brother Rand-Kai.
We never saw Wendell Rand-Kai’s mother, so presumably she was white, but this meant that Danny’s father had mixed heritage AND a native connection to K’un L’un. This was again confirmed and further expanded on “Marvel Team-Up” #63 and #64. So starting with his second comic book story ever back in 1974, Danny Rand subverted the white savior trope by being mixed and having a legitimate connection of heritage to the culture of K’un L’un.
But this is a superhero comic universe, which means that stories and histories regularly get revised and retconned. In 1981, seven years after Danny’s first appearance and the first mention that his father was native to K’un L’un, the issue “Power Man and Iron Fist” #75 came out, written by Mary Jo Duffy, with art by Kerry Gammill, edited by Dennis O’Neil. The story featured a return to K’un L’un and a new version of Wendell’s connection to the mystical city. According to this story, Wendell is an American who, as a young man, is exploring the Himalayas when he unknowingly crosses the “border” into K’un L’un during the one day every decade that it is part of Earth. He comes upon Tuan and young Nuan, both of whom have discovered that the immortal dragon Shou Lao, against whom all Iron Fists are tested, is out of its cave and acting extremely ornery. Wendell saves Tuan and Nuan, but is injured in the process by the irritated dragon who then just wanders back to his cave because screw you. By the time Wendell recovers, the doorway to Earth is closed and he’s stuck in K’un L’un. Tuan, thankful that he and his son were saved, adopts the adult Wendell Rand as his new, eldest son and names him “Rand’Kai” (notice the spelling is also different here). Later on, Wendell is worthy to become an Iron Fist and take over, but he chooses to leave, blah blah blah.
This has been the canon backstory of Danny and Wendell Rand ever since (although later comics add in that Wendell also met and fought alongside a previous Iron Fist). This back story is a shame for a few reasons. First, even taking into account a world where mystical cities and dragons exist, it’s kind of ridiculous. There’s no reason for Shou Lao to behave the way that it did except for a flimsy excuse to put Tuan and Nuan in trouble. Wendell becoming a trusted ally to Tuan, ok, but the guy is already in his twenties, why does he need to be adopted and why does one act of heroism make his father decide to consider him now the first born and with first claim to anything Nuan might otherwise inherit? Furthermore, this actually not only brings back the white savior trope for Danny by eliminating his mixed heritage and genuine connection to K’un L’un through his father, it actually adds to it by having Wendell live out a great white hope story as well.
But that’s the way it’s been since and there’s no sign that Marvel intends to change it. Personally, I would’ve liked it if the Netflix Iron Fist series had gone back to the idea of Wendell being a warrior native to K’un L’un himself. After all, Netflix and the Marvel Studios movies play fast and loose with a lot of the origin and background elements of its characters (like making Ego into Star-Lord’s dad, making Peggy Carter British, having an Infinity Stone give birth to Vision, saying Captain America’s shield is made of vibranium instead of being a vibranium-iron alloy, and portraying Howard Stark as Steve Rogers’ armorer in World War II). In some cases, those changes have led to stories being more interesting and relevant for today’s audience. Maybe we’ll get a whole new take on Iron Fist down the line, whether it’s Danny or someone he passes the mantle to. Time will tell.