10 Essential Kung Fu Movies to Watch Before 'Iron Fist'

From Shaw Brothers to Bruce Lee, these are the masters that paved the way for the Iron Fist.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to get a fistful with the arrival of Iron Fist on Netflix. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) brings to life Danny Rand, the heir to his father’s corporate empire who spent the last fifteen years becoming a kung fu warrior in the faraway city of K’un-Lun. With his new power, the Iron Fist, Danny comes back home to New York to assume his proper place. But before he joins The Defenders, it’s time to knuckle up for some the most quintessential kung fu movies that defined the genre.

Marvel’s filmmakers love to pay homage to influential movies to enrich its universe. Captain America, for example, has taken after classic adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark (Captain America: The First Avenger) and Watergate-era thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), while the Guardians of the Galaxy tipped their hats to pulp sci-fi like Star Wars and Alien. On Netflix, Daredevil was described by showrunner Steven S. DeKnight as leaning “toward The Wire.” Jessica Jones was a Chinatown-esque noir, and Luke Cage combined spaghetti westerns with blaxploitation.

Now, with Iron Fist, it’s the kung fu movie that gets its turn in the MCU. Here’s a list of some of the most quintessential martial arts movies to get yourself prepped before Danny Rand takes on New York.

10. Five Element Ninjas (1982)

Any old kung fu movie with “ninjas” in its title is guaranteed to be a schlock fest, but Chang Cheh’s 1982 spectacle rises above expectations. It’s still corny, wacky, and violent, as a classic kung fu movie should be, but Five Element Ninjas — from the legendary Shaw Brothers — gives something extra. Dazzling and gruesome enough to make you wince, Five Element Ninjas is the best kind of chopsocky that populates street markets on every corner.

9. Fist of Fury (1972)

Arguably, all of Bruce Lee’s films belong on this list, but Fist of Fury is something to behold. Lee kicked the door down in his debut film The Big Boss, but Fist of Fury — in which he plays Chen Zhen, a character many have taken up after Lee’s passing — is Lee damn near becoming a superhero as he takes on an entire dojo all by himself.

8. Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)

In 1978, Jackie Chan starred in Drunken Master which solidified his status as a funny leading man who can kick ass. In 1994, Chan returned to the role in the reboot/sequel, Legend of the Drunken Master, which cranks up his Wong Fei-hung’s antics to eleven. The comedy is funnier than the first film, as is the action, and it’s a rush from beginning to end. Legend of the Drunken Master brought Zui Quan, or Chinese drunken boxing, to the mainstream, so if you play Tekken or watch Dragon Ball and see a dude doing drunken kung fu, that’s all Legend of the Drunken Master.

7. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

Regularly considered one of the greatest kung-fu movies ever, Lau Kar-leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin starred Gordon Liu as an outsider who masters one specific style in 36 different chambers to become a weapon and overthrow a tyrannical government that slaughtered his family. Bearing some remarkable similarities to the story of Iron Fist, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin cannot be missed.

6. Ip Man (2008)

A modern classic that dramatically retells the life of Grandmaster Ip Man — the teacher of Bruce Lee — Donnie Yen dominates the screen in Ip Man, the movie that propelled him to international fame. You recently saw him in Rogue One, but it’s his take as the Wing Chun master where Yen glows.

5. Fist of Legend (1994)

A remake of the Bruce Lee epic mentioned earlier, Fist of Legend is a more vicious version with unbelievable choreography from famed master Yuen Woo-ping. Whether or not Jet Li actually upstages Bruce Lee is debatable, but the work on display in Fist of Legend is unrivaled.

4. Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1992)

Even now, Jet Li is a legendary name in the world of martial arts cinema, and the Once Upon a Time in China movies are rightfully his. But his face-off against Donnie Yen in the classic Once Upon a Time in China II helped popularize the “showdown” attraction of today’s biggest action movies. Sure, you can get sucked in the story, but the plain visceral thrill of watching Jet Li fight Donnie Yen? That was something special, and now every new martial arts movie hypes its climactic fights like a boxing pay-per-view.

3. Iron Monkey (1993)

Another epic starring Donnie Yen and director Yuen Woo-ping, Iron Monkey was one of the first blockbuster wuxia movies to make its way to the United States in the early ‘90s. It’s a fantastic movie in its own right, but the fact that it was one of the biggest ones to make an impression for a bigger, mainstream audience helped sustain the genre’s fandom in the West for years to come.

2. Rumble in the Bronx (1995)

From out of medieval China and into modern day New York (though it was shot in Vancouver), Rumble in the Bronx is the very movie that made Jackie Chan a bonafide star in the United States. Stanley Tong’s modern action movie is Chan in his finest form, bringing his best punches and blows to the five boroughs — to the delight of the rest of the world. Chan was known for his movies before, but Rumble in the Bronx put him on the map and established New York as a hot locale for modern kung fu. Without Rumble in the Bronx, there’d be no Iron Fist.

1. Enter the Dragon (1973)

What hasn’t already been said about Bruce Lee’s first, and only, Hollywood movie? A game-changer in so many ways, Enter the Dragon is the definitive kung fu movie of the century, with a plot that’s paper thin to let a true master shine. Bruce Lee could have been the next James Bond — he was in talks to star in a film with Bond actor George Lazenby — but the actor passed away shortly before Enter the Dragon hit theaters, which only created a legend in his absence. And it was the explosion of Bruce Lee that led Roy Thomas and Gil Kane to create Iron Fist for Marvel in 1974, which leads to the character’s Netflix series today.

Marvel’s Iron Fist will be released March 17.

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