The Martial Arts of Marvel

By Ian Wilson

Word Count: 1028

Rating: G

Summary: Martial Artist Ian Wilson dissects the use of martial arts in Marvel’s Netflix series.

Copy of Daredevil copy 5
Image Credit: Ian Wilson 

So I just earned black belt in Shorin Ryu Karate. I am by no means a martial arts expert. A black belt simply means that I have mastered the basics to the satisfaction of my Sensei (teacher). It does not mean that I can perform near superhuman feats like you see on TV and in movies. Speaking of which, since starting Karate three years ago, I’ve noticed a few things about how martial arts are portrayed in TV and movies. Of particular interest to me are the Marvel TV series Daredevil and Iron Fist, both of which can be viewed on Netflix. Since I’ve mastered the basics, and I think I can shed a little light on how martial arts are portrayed in both these shows.

First of all, I want to talk about terminology. In Japanese Martial Arts, there are two central concepts known as the Do and Jutsu. Jutsu means the science or mechanics of martial arts. You’ve heard of Jujutsu, or Ninjutsu; well, these are essentially studies of combat science. That’s all it is. Do means something like “discipline” or “the way of” and it covers not only the science, but also the philosophy of martial arts and what is sometimes called the “martial attitude”. You’ve heard of Judo or maybe Kendo or Aikido; these are primarily concerned with developing the character of their adherents so that they may use the skills of martial arts responsibly.

Master Gichin Funakoshi was an important figure in the development of modern Karate. He wrote the Twenty Precepts of Karate-Do, which were twenty guiding principles of the martial attitude. No one exemplifies these values better than Daredevil. The third precept states that “Karate is an aide to justice”, and this is what spurs Matt Murdock on to become Daredevil. He continually sees people falling through the cracks of the justice system, and is compelled to help them. He dons the mask and uses the training taught to him by a man known simply as “Stick” to fight their oppressors. But he always uses restraint. He never kills, even when it would be easy for him to do so.

Daredevil probably has the most realistic portrayal of martial arts I’ve seen yet. All of the strikes and movements used by Daredevil are strikes that I’ve done in the dojo (with varying degrees of success). Plus, he gets hurt. A lot. Whenever you take up martial arts, you should expect to get hurt. Maybe not as much as Matt, but bruises are to be expected. Stick actually reminds me a lot of my Sensei. Now, my Sensei is not nearly as strict, but he’s pretty old school. Also, I’m sure if there was a secret ninja war going on, he would tell me.

Funakoshi’s seventh precept states “Accidents arise from negligence”, and Danny Rand learns this precept pretty darn quick. He’d gone to all that trouble to become the Iron Fist, protector of Kunlun, and then what does he do? He abandons his post. He had a duty to perform, and he blew it. Yeah, I get it; he wanted to go home, but if he just wanted to go home so bad, why did he go to all the trouble to become the Iron Fist? If it were me, and I just wanted to get out of there, I’d keep my head down, stand back, and let somebody who actually wants to stay become Iron Fist. But no! Danny has to go back to New York, leaving Kunlun vulnerable. And look where that got him. When Danny appears again in The Defenders, he’s a complete jack-wagon. He has no regard for the other members of the team, he behaves recklessly, he flatly refuses to take advice. He’s so arrogant, I’m just hoping somebody will knock his teeth in!

Some of the martial arts portrayed in Iron Fist are fairly accurate. He performs Tai Chi every morning, which is a pretty integral part of Kung Fu. There are certain Asian martial arts which claim to be able to focus their Chi to certain parts of the body to make them virtually invulnerable, much like the Iron Fist. Can they actually do this? I’m gonna go with no, but this is a comic book show, and we can’t expect 100% accuracy.

Colleen Wing, Danny Rand’s love interest, teaches some form of Karate at her dojo (school) in New York City. She also teaches kendo, or Japanese sword fighting. It’s a beautiful traditional martial art, but it’s extremely impractical. Who’s gonna walk around with a sword?! You’re literally asking for trouble! You might as well have a sign on your back that says “fight me”! Plus, it’s illegal in the state of New York. If you’re a martial artist and you are going to and from your dojo, you can have your sword, but only in transit. Now, if this were set in Burlington, Vermont, that wouldn’t be a problem. It’s perfectly legal to carry a sword in Vermont. But this isn’t Vermont, now, is it? Plus, Colleen never wears a gi (uniform). What kind of example is that setting? My Sensei wears his full uniform year round, regardless of temperature! It’ll be 85℉ in the dojo, and he’ll be wearing a thick, heavy, long-sleeved uniform, dripping with sweat. Show some respect, Colleen, and suit up!

In the Beatitudes, Christ says that the meek shall inherit the earth. The modern understanding of the word meek gives us the entirely wrong impression of what Christ was actually trying to say. The Greek word that is translated meek actually means something like “those who have weapons and know how to use them, but are determined to keep them sheathed”. Meaning, there’s a time to fight, and there’s a time to stand down. Matt understands this. He sees it as his Christian duty to stand up for the oppressed. Danny, on the other hand, shirks his duty, and simply tries to take over his father’s business, while Kunlun burns. He has mastered Jutsu, but not Do! To be perfectly frank, Danny Rand gives martial arts a bad name.


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