In the tenth episode of Marvel’s Luke Cage Season 2, now streaming on Netflix, the eponymous hero (played by Mike Colter) teams up with an old buddy from The Defenders: billionaire kung fu master Danny Rand, known as the Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones). Together in the comics, the two are the “Heroes for Hire,” a dynamic duo of contrasts who fight crime side-by-side.
But bringing Marvel’s tag team to life on Netflix is more than an ass-kicking Easter egg. For showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, it represents the intersection where black and Asian-American pop culture meet.
In Luke Cage, Danny comes to Pop’s Barbershop to help his bulletproof BFF take down Bushmaster. On bringing Iron Fist to his show, Coker says he wanted a throwback to kung fu movies like the Iron Fist comics of yore.
“I felt if we had the chance to have [Iron Fist] in our show, it would be more like the comic book and a lot more like that friendship,” Coker tells Inverse. “Capture that Enter the Dragon flavor that comic was always supposed to have.”
But there’s more to evoking kung fu than aesthetics. “There’s so much that comes from that crossing of culture,” he says. “The reason Grandmaster Flash is called ‘Grandmaster’ is because he and his friends would come and go to the kung fu forts on 42nd Street.”
In 2018, Asian media like K-pop and anime attract a diverse audience, including many African-Americans. But for Coker’s generation, the racial crossover came in the appetite for kung fu films by black audiences. Ground zero for this intersection were the grimy theaters of Manhattan, like the Cine 42 nestled in the heart of Times Square before it became a sanitized tourist destination.
If Coker didn’t catch the Saturday kung fu marathons on local TV stations in Connecticut, the soon-to-be producer watched John Woo and Shaw Brothers flicks like The 36 Chambers of Shaolin and The Eight Pole Diagram Fighter in New York for a buck fifty.
“I’ve always wanted to do a modernized version of Last Hurrah of Chivalry or A Better Tomorrow,” Coker says.
In fact, it was in the same theaters Coker frequented where the legendary hip-hop outfit the Wu-Tang Clan was born. “I got my introduction to kung fu flicks in ‘78 or ‘79,” wrote Wu-Tang founder RZA in the 2004 book Wu-Tang Manual. “At that point, all of 42nd Street had kung fu movies.”
On one cold night, RZA and the late rapper ODB found refuge “at this funky theater at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue.” Screening that night was Gordon Li’s 1983 classic, Shaolin and Wu Tang.
“When it came on, it woke us up,” RZA recalled. “It was the best kung-fu movie I’d ever seen in my life — the fighting, the ideas, the concepts, everything.”
A variety of forces led to the crossover of black and Asian cinema in the 1970s: White flight to the suburbs, black veterans returning home from Korea and Vietnam, and the meteoric growth of Asia’s economy created a storm for artistic intersectionality.
“As white people abandoned the cities, downtown theaters became spaces for people of color,” said Amy Obugo Ongiri, author of Spectacular Blackness, in a 2009 interview with SF Gate. “Theater owners started screening stuff that was less marketable, mostly cheap imports — and that meant martial arts movies.”
But arguably no one did as much to popularize kung fu as Bruce Lee, the film icon whose achievements exude the mystique of folk hero. Among many things, Lee was a progressive who taught non-Chinese, including black people, kung fu. NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was among Lee’s students.
“In the 1970s, [Bruce] Lee was a rare non-white leading man, and an unfeasibly cool one at that,” observed Phil Hoad for The Guardian. “His creed of righteous self-reliance appealed to black audiences, who were emerging from the civil rights struggles … Martial arts films, like blaxploitation, were adrenalin-drunk revenge fantasies.”
“There was a time in hip-hop where people would actually dress like Bruce Lee,” Coker remembers. “They used to call it the kung fu suits, that black suit Bruce Lee would wear. They would walk around in the kung fu suit and maybe had nunchucks. That shit was real.”
Lee’s death in 1973, just before the release of his first and only Hollywood film Enter the Dragon, ignited a voracious hunger. Pop culture exploded with martial arts, from the popular TV series Kung Fu with David Carradine to the 1974 pop jingle “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas.
Kung fu’s popularity soon inspired one Roy Thomas. Like many comic book creators, Thomas lived and worked in New York and created Iron Fist after watching a kung fu movie in the city. While Thomas imagined Iron Fist as a white American who learns kung fu in mystical K’un-Lun (which became an issue for the Netflix series decades later), Iron Fist is still energized by the west’s obsession for Asian culture.
When sales of Iron Fist and Luke Cage’s comics began to decline, Marvel editors paired the two together, creating the iconic series Power Man and Iron Fist. Even after their series ended, the two characters often appeared together in Marvel crossovers and revivals. The most recent iteration of Power Man and Iron Fist, written by David F. Walker in 2016, ran for fifteen issues.
Now, they’re back again in the Marvel/Netflix franchise. “That was one of the things we wanted to capture in the show,” Coker says about the Heroes for Hire, “these fights having a deep kung fu base.”
“I’ve told all of my fight choreographers, I want Shaw Brothers’ type coverage, not the hyper-cut Paul Greengrass does in Bourne Identity,” he explains. “I want where you actually see people fighting in frame. The Wachowski Brothers did that. Quentin did it with Kill Bill. Those fight scenes, that’s where the fun is. That’s where the genre is. It’s important to reflect that.”
Marvel’s Luke Cage is streaming now on Netflix.