Welcome to Pitch Meeting, a monthly column in which we suggest an IP ripe for adaptation, then assign the cast and crew of our dreams. This month, we want to see a couple of comic book masters flip the script of the kung fu genre with their new Image Comics sensation Fire Power.
Robert Kirkman does not need another TV or movie project on his plate. He already birthed the empire that is The Walking Dead. His kitchen sink superhero saga Invincible is inching forever forward to mainstream acceptance with its Amazon animated adaptation. He has two more apocalyptic scenarios heading to the big and small screen with Oblivion Song and 5 Year, respectively.
So, no, Robert Kirkman does not need another TV or movie project on his plate. We’re the ones who need the feast. Unsatisfied with sticking to one genre, Kirkman jumps into the kung fu arena with Fire Power, his latest comic book. The experience of devouring the initial trade paperback that launched the series, as well as the first three single issues published monthly by Image Comics, felt revelatory.
Kung fu rarely receives the respect it deserves in American cinema. Usually, the martial art amounts to a few wire-fu set-pieces or pale, awkward imitations. In the wake of Enter the Dragon and the Bruce Lee phenomenon, we have seen so many wannabes and various pretenders crawl out of his tremendous shadow.
On the comic book front, two of the most famous Bruce Lee copycats were Marvel’s The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu and The Immortal Iron Fist. They have their charms, and over the years, many, many, many writers have shaped quality stories around their personalities, but misguided or ignorant points of view scar many of their narratives.
Iron Fist stumbled his way through adaptation as one of Netflix’s kinda-sorta-not-really Marvel Cinematic Universe sister shows. In its failure to excite, and through its success in callously appropriating Chinese culture, the Iron Fist series stayed true to its roots. Shang-Chi is scheduled to make a big splash in Marvel’s next phase of films. Hopefully, what the MCU accomplished with Black Panther can be replicated in Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings by director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham.
Whether Shang-Chi triumphs or not, the movie will resemble the bombast of all MCU adventures and not the grace and athleticism of kung fu cinema. While Hong Kong continues to unleash radical martial arts extravagances with the IP Man series, Dragon Tiger Gate, and Kung Fu Hustle, America appears incapable of mimicking the artistry or appeal of the genre. And, yes, that’s probably for the best, but we always need bridges like Enter the Dragon, The Matrix, or Kill Bill to connect the cultures and expand the possibilities of both audiences.
Fire Power begins as if Kirkman — and his illustrator partner, Chris Samnee — are looking to right the wrongs committed by the myriad Shang-Chi and Iron Fist tales. Owen Johnson scours China in search of information regarding his birth parents. His mission starts at the orphanage from which his two white, well-meaning parents acquired him. He follows various clues until he finds himself scaling the icy wastelands of the Himalayas. When he can’t crawl another inch, or breathe another lungful of air, he collapses at the footsteps of a mysterious dojo, The Temple of the Flaming Fist.
Under the tutelage of Master Wei Lun, a man of mysterious age and hunger for the modern technologies that exist below the base of the mountain, Owen discovers his part in a Chosen One prophecy involving the ability to throw fire from his palms. Just as he begins to connect with fellow pupil Ling Zan, gain the respect of local bully Ma Guang, and learn the secrets of the dragon buried within the mountain, the dojo is invaded by the Scorched Earth Clan.
The prelude graphic novel concludes with an all-out rumble between the opposing forces, and Samnee excels in detailing the intricacies of kung fu combat. As you race through the last few pages, you reach a conclusion that you’ve read an incredibly satisfying bout of action that maintains the outsider wonder of the Chosen One trope without falling into the usual gross whitewashing. That’s when Kirkman and Samnee pull the rug out from under you, and if you want to maintain the surprise, stop reading and purchase the kick-off graphic novel now.
Pulling an Avengers: Endgame plus a decade, Fire Power propels its story fifteen years into the future. Owen is no longer on the mountain. He’s a family man, married with children. The proper comic book series pulls back its epic canvas to reveal its true purpose as an intimate story of a family in peril.
Papa Owen did not find what he thought he would at the monastery. His true calling didn’t reveal itself until his children were born, but such serenity and contentment cannot last. As he once stepped on the doorstep of the Flaming Fist Temple, they now step on his. Ma Guang arrives in the night to battle him back to where he belongs, but Owen will have none of it.
He speaks of betrayal and death and heartache. We try to piece together familiar phrases and references to those we met during the prelude, but Kirkman is not looking to shovel exposition. The answers will come, but they will come slowly.
Only a few issues are currently available to read, but it’s clear that Kirkman is up to his old tricks, using compelling genre backdrops to tell the more engrossing saga of character. Fire Power starts as a mystery: who is Owen Johnson? While that question lingers, we are given another one stacked atop it: what happened fifteen years ago?
The war to obtain the abilities of the Flaming Fist suggests that our world is at stake — the dragon could rise — but Kirkman knows to lower the threat level, and place targets on Owen’s wife, son, and daughter. However, the Johnsons will not go down without a fight. Owen’s wife, Kellie, is a totally capable street cop who’s picked up a thing or two regarding Shaolin badassery. Even his kids are in training and ready to defend themselves from ninja homewreckers.
Fire Power offers a chance to adopt the Dark Tower franchise strategy that never came to be. Make the prelude graphic novel into an utterly engrossing cinematic actioner, then dive to the small screen, where the mythology and characters can be blown out into epic proportions. As the single issues begin the domestic story, so could the week-to-week episodes.
The brilliance of the prelude idea (as long as it’s crafted into an incredibly addictive confection) is how it instantaneously fosters a fandom. You complete the first chapter and you’re hooked, guaranteed to buy issue after issue of the regular ongoing affair. This strategy has not been successfully adapted to film and television, but it’s sound as long as the creatives bring the quality. A feat that is easier said than done even when you have proven source material begging to be followed.
To spearhead the Fire Power film, we need Justin Lin. He’s a master of thoughtfully crafted kineticism. There is nothing on his resume that quite looks like Fire Power, but his Fast & Furious endeavors demonstrated his ability to maintain character across multiple entries without ever losing the thread on the action. Lin’s Star Trek Beyond looks unlike any other Star Trek film while also being firmly rooted in the spirit of the original television series. We desperately need to see his kung fu movie.
For Owen Johnson, give us Henry Golding. He was one of several actors we wanted to see under the cape and cowl of The Batman. If he can’t have that comic book butt-kicker, then he’s a perfect fit for this one. Golding is handsome and suave as hell (see Crazy Rich Asians), can swing a mean attitude (see The Gentlemen), and can no doubt wield a mighty katana (see the upcoming Snake Eyes production).
For Kellie Johnson, the equally capable defender of the clan, cast Krysten Ritter. Her time on Jessica Jones was cut too short. Watching her brutalize fools was a total delight and could have sustained that series for three or four more seasons. Fire Power provides another gladiatorial arena for Ritter to dominate baddies.
Kirkman and Samnee concocted a devilish trickster adventure in Fire Power. What launched as an homage to kung fu comics and movies, supplied with contemporary wit and humor, transformed into something slightly askew. The creators flip the script, revealing a much larger and longer story, of a man who found himself only to kick the revelation to the curb and uncover a deeper purpose impossible for his younger self to even comprehend. Family.
We’re so early in the unfurling of this comic book series that we might not actually know what we’re observing. Kirkman and Samnee could easily flip the script again. Kellie could die. The kids could die. Owen could die. The Walking Dead and Invincible existed in a pair of uncaring universes. Why should Fire Power be any different?
What’s most obvious is that one movie or two movies could not possibly cover this series. It’s already a massive narrative demanding a willing platform. Adopting the Image Comics strategy of offering one massive, self-contained storyline first before unveiling an ongoing series seems like a no-brainer, even if we haven’t quite seen it work on the movie and TV front yet. If not for such a shoddy first outing, The Dark Tower could have made that leap. Give us a damn good Fire Power Part 1, and we will follow a television series to HBO, Hulu, or wherever.