Iron Monkey Is the Cure for People Tired of American Superhero Movies

The 1993 wuxia classic Iron Monkey has everything that American superhero movie fans want and so rarely get.

Iron Monkey
Photo: Golden Harvest

A cowardly governor hides under the covers, clutching his wives and hoarded riches. Outside the governor’s guard squabbles with warriors hired to provide extra protection. They all fear a secret defender of the people, a masked hero who has never failed to escape the grasp of oppressors. The warriors and the guards draw their weapons, ready and waiting. But when a sleekly masked figure all dressed in black lands within their midsts, they can do nothing to stop him. He floats above their heads, dives below their punches, and deflects all of their attacks.

He leaps from their heads and disarms them with a single swift move, making his way to the governor’s hidden treasure. Grasping the ill-gotten plunder, the figure slips away, thanking the governor for his “contribution” to the people. The Iron Monkey has struck again.

The above description could match any number of superhero hero movies, in which a masked figure battles the ruling class for the sake of the downtrodden. But as a wuxia classic starring Yu Rongguang and Donnie Yen, Iron Monkey features a level of wonder and clarity that’s been sorely missing from most superhero flicks as of late.

The Legend of the Iron Monkey

Directed by Yuen Woo-ping and written by Tsui Hark, Cheung Tan, Tang Elsa, and Lau Tai-Mok, Iron Monkey mixes fact with legend. The hero of the film might be the titular Iron Monkey, the alter ego of kindly doctor Yang Tianchun (Yu), but its true protagonist is Wong Fei-hung, portrayed by child actor Angie Tsang.

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Born in 1847, Wong Fei-hung was a master of Hung Ga and a physician who practiced acupuncture and other healing arts in the Po Chi Lam clinic in the Guangdong Province. Wong became a folk hero because he applied those arts for the good of the people against rich oppressors, as demonstrated in multiple movies, including a portrayal by Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China. Iron Monkey heightens Wong’s story though by connecting it to two heroes. The first is Wong’s father Kei-ying, portrayed by the great Donnie Yen.

So much of Iron Monkey engages in pure spectacle. The Chinese martial arts genre of wuxia, perhaps best known to Americans via Ang Lee‘s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, features fantastic feats beyond just basic Kung fu mastery. The fighters soar through air on wireworks, they explode beams with their punches, and spring from the most unlikely of perches. In other words, wuxia has a fantasy aspect that recalls the powers of superheroes. But unlike Western action films, Hong Kong cinema puts a premium on clear choreography and legible fight sequences. In place of the heavy editing that Hollywood films rely on to make untrained actors look light top-level fighters, films such as Iron Monkey feature practiced martial artists and well-designed fight sequences.

When the climactic battle pits Wong’s father and the Iron Monkey, along with the Monkey’s sister Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) against the evil Investigator Hin-hung (Yen Shi-kwan) and his traitorous shaolin warriors, Yuen includes plenty of exaggeration to heighten the stakes. The camera zooms up at a touch angle on Hin-hung’s face, accentuating his malevolent smile. An extreme close-up on Hin-hung’s hand underscores the danger of the dreaded King Kong Palm.

Yet the battle remains completely comprehensible. Even when the heroic duo and Hin-hung stand atop of burning poles in their last battle, Yuen keeps the spacial arrangements and stakes clear. We see every punch and kick connect with its target. When one assailant dives around another or begins to fall toward the flames, Yuen provides a secondary shot to clarify the spacial dynamics between the characters. Insert shots last only for a second and accentuate punches, never muddying the action.

Super Morality

Early in the film, Yang prescribes treatments for two patients, one rich and one poor. He refuses payment from the poor patient but charges the rich one an exorbitant amount. When the rich patient protests, Yang smirks at the man’s audacity.

“You’re a wealthy man and medicine costs money,” he explains, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Surely, some would take issue with Yang’s straightforward class warfare, but such binaries should be familiar to anyone who likes superheroes. Although there are some exceptions (looking at you, most Steve Ditko creations), Superman set the model as a champion of the downtrodden with little patience for the wealthy.

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Those class dynamics drive Iron Monkey. Although an exacting father who makes his expectations for his son clear, Kei-ying also sticks up for the oppressed. A standout early sequence features Kei-ying battling a group of thieves who would take advantage of their fellow poor, beating them with only an umbrella. When Kei-ying is forced to fight the Iron Monkey (hero vs hero due to a misunderstanding, another classic superhero trope), he does so only because the governor has captured Fei-hung and will release him only in exchange for the Iron Monkey. Sensing the man’s plight, the Iron Monkey joins Kei-ying to help Fei-hung. He that they share the same fight.

Even though they always hold to a basic “good guy vs. bad guy” narrative, many Western superhero movies botch the class aspect. In the Sam Raimi trilogy, as in most of the comics (again… Ditko), Spider-Man is a down-on-his-luck working class guy who can’t catch a break. But the MCU reinvented him as a rich guy’s charity case, giving him untold resources to battle against those upset that the rich guy screwed them over. The clarity of Iron Monkey‘s moral vision adds an urgency to its action. The stakes are good vs. bad, yes, and the conflict plays out with unbelievable fight sequences, but we all know anger against the powerful rich who exploit others.

Saving Superheroes

The only thing more exhausting than experiencing superhero fatigue is hearing people talk about superhero fatigue. Sure, Marvel Cinematic Universe entries may not make the money they once did, but hits such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse prove that people still want to watch superheroes—they just won’t accept a substandard product anymore.

Iron Monkey is anything but substandard. Atop its basic moral premise is not only scene after scene of outstanding action, but also broad humor that translates across cultures. The movie is filled with punches and pratfalls that can be appreciated by anyone who knows Buster Keaton or the Three Stooges, and James Wong’s take on the bumbling governor is always good for a laugh. Furthermore, there’s the basic beauty of Kung fu in a wuxia movie. Yu, Yen, and their co-stars create visceral fight sequences, punctuated by loud slaps when they hit. But, in fact, they’re working together for carefully choreographed interactions, which gives even the most brutal moments the feeling of poetry.

To be sure, we’ll get good superhero movies again. In the meantime, anyone who wants to see good guys fight bad guys in fantastic ways should be on the lookout for Iron Monkey.