Earlier this week the world was treated to the release of Marvel’s upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series. While many seemed to be excited, I am not thrilled. As many have said before me, I think this was a missed opportunity for Marvel to create a superhero franchise with an Asian-American lead. Of course we all knew this wasn’t the direction the franchise was going since the casting announcement, but seeing the full trailer really hit it home.
Now, to be clear, casting Finn Jones in Iron Fist is not a case of whitewashing, unlike say the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell or the entire casting of Gods of Egypt. Danny Rand, the man behind the Iron Fist mask, is white in the comics, and so casting a white actor is true to the source material. So why are I and other people upset by the casting choice? Surely it would be better to save our energy and be enraged at actual instances of whitewashing?
Well, there’s some context to unpack here.
Why Asian-American Iron Fist?
First and foremost are some issues with the source material itself. Iron Fist debuted in 1974 as a response to the rising popularity of the martial arts films. However, instead of creating an Asian or Asian-American protagonist to lead the series, the writers created a Caucasian character who quickly ascends to become the best warrior in the mystical Asian realm of K’un-L’un and gains magical Asian martial arts powers. A white savior trope style story, the initial character of Danny Rand was clearly created to reach the primarily white male comic book fan base of the 1970s.
While not exactly offensive, this creative choice follows in the long tradition of erasing Asians from their own stories. It also treats Asian cultures not as distinct or rich but rather as some sort of conglomerated mess of exoticism and mysticism, which is a pretty clear case of othering, another problem when portraying minorities or foreign cultures in fiction.
In casting Iron Fist as an Asian-American, Marvel would have had the opportunity to fix the issues of the source material by removing its “white savior” aspects and perhaps bringing a new fresh look at K’un-L’un as having some distinctive cultural aspects rather than just being a strange exotic place. At the same time, an Asian-American lead would bring some much needed diversity to Marvel’s roster of on-screen heroes. The MCU already has major representation problems when it comes to Asian characters, and casting an Asian-American lead in Iron Fist would have gone a long way towards solving those issues.
Doctor Strange has already whitewashed one Asian character out of the movie universe. It is true that the Ancient One is a stereotype of the old Asian teacher, and as Marvel execs brought up, that is problematic in its own right. But I think that problem could have been solved by some clever writing or clever casting (say an Asian woman or a younger Asian man to make it more of a “buddy cop” relationship) that didn’t involve turning the character white.
Worse, Doctor Strange isn’t the only area where Marvel has hit shaky ground regarding Asian casting. Daredevil has major issues in regards to the way it portrays Asian characters, which Arthur Chu very articulately described in his own post on the subject. Since Iron Fist is part of The Defenders, having an Asian-American led show to provide a positive counterbalance to the “all Asians are evil ninjas” world of Daredevil (also part of The Defenders) would have gone a long way towards adding depth to the racial portrayal of characters in the setting.
In fact, in all the MCU, there is only one show that has a positive portrayal of Asians, and that’s Agents of SHIELD. Now, while that show is great (and I think chronically underrated), it’s also one of the least cared about parts of the MCU. The producers basically throw it scraps in terms of what comic properties it is allowed to use, and the upcoming Inhumans TV show looks to be encroaching on its storytelling sources even more. Plus, it’s an ensemble show. There’s a big difference between having a few Asian characters crop up in a larger group cast and having a property with a titular minority protagonist, like say Luke Cage or Black Panther.
*Aside: for the record, I would totally watch a Quake show starring Chloe Bennet.
So, in light of Marvel’s representation problems, specifically as they apply to Asian characters in both the Iron Fist source material and the MCU, I think we desperately need at least one property with an Asian lead. It seemed like a layup for that property to be the one actually based, if very very loosely, on an Asian culture, but apparently that was too big of a thing to ask for.
All of that being said, the Defenders (haha) of Jones’ casting keep falling back on a few arguments that I want to touch on.
The (Totally Lame) Arguments for White Iron Fist
The first is the traditionalist argument, the idea that Danny Rand should be played by a white actor because that is how he is portrayed in the comics. I’m bringing this up first because it’s difficult to argue against this point. I’ve already outlined why I think the source material is problematic, but if you still very strongly want to see a representation of Danny Rand that matches the original story, regardless of the issues that raises, then I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that point. I’m not happy about it, but I doubt there’s anything I could say that would change your mind.
One of the major recurring arguments for a white Danny Rand among comic book creatives or executives is that the quintessential aspect of Danny Rand’s character is his being an “outsider” to the world of K’un-L’un. Jeph Loeb, the Executive Vice President of Television for Marvel, told Buzzfeed in response to being asked if casting an Asian-American Iron Fist was ever a consideration:
“To answer that, just really flat out, the way the story is told and when people see the story, the importance of Danny as an outsider is something that is a theme that runs throughout the entire show,” he said. “So I think once they see it, they”ll understand why the story is told the way it”s told.”
Rob Liefeld, the famous comic book creator, added his own commentary on the call for an Asian-American Iron Fist writing in a post:
“I simply don’t understand this. Danny Rand has always been portrayed as blond-haired, Caucasian, fish out of water.” He continued later by writing, “It’s unnecessary to alter a character after 40 years for PC reasons. Period.”
I find this to be a disingenuous excuse. An Asian-American Danny Rand would be just as much a “fish out of water” as a Caucasian Danny Rand. I’m a second generation Asian-American, and I can tell you that I really don’t know a whole lot about Korean culture. I don’t speak the language, and I’ve never been to the country. If I went to go hang out in Seoul, I’m sure I would be very much out of my element.
An Asian-American Danny Rand would maintain the whole “fish out of water” characteristic and have some great storytelling upside. For example, an Asian-American portrayal would let you use Iron Fist to tell the story of a character who is reconnecting with his heritage. I think this is a story that many Americans, regardless of cultural background, would be able to connect to. We are, after all, a country of immigrants.
As it stands, we get to watch a show about white dude learning martial arts and Asian mysticism in order to beat up evil Asian ninjas. Because that’s compelling.
Another favorite of the white-casting defenders is pointing out that casting an Asian-American would be racist. They claim it would be a stereotype of Asians if the only Asian superhero was a martial artist.
On this I call bullshit.
First of all, as I pointed out above, the MCU already stereotypes Asians as purely martial artists. The Asians we see in Daredevil, probably the show with the largest Asian presence, are just evil ninja people. They don’t have much in the way of characteristics outside of being good at kung-fu. If you’re really concerned about races being stereotyped, then start expressing some concern there.
Secondly, the people who make this argument, for the most part, aren’t suggesting that perhaps, in the interest of avoiding stereotypes, Danny Rand should be white while Daredevil or Doctor Strange or Star Lord should be played by an Asian actor. They’re saying this because they think it’s an ace up their sleeve argument to get people to shut up about the topic. The same people making this argument would have a conniption if they had to watch Captain America starring John Cho.
If you really were against Danny Rand being played by an Asian-American because you were concerned about stereotyping Asian characters, then I want to see you throwing your support behind getting an Asian-American superhero on screen in another starring role.
Finally, I would ask you, is the Asian-American martial artist even really a stereotype? How many Asian-American martial arts movie or TV stars can you name other than Bruce Lee? This isn’t exactly some well-worn trope. In fact there are probably more well known Caucasian martial arts actors or characters in Western media than Asian-American martial arts actors or characters.
I mean come on, the Karate Kid didn’t even get to be Asian-American in the remake.
Would I prefer to see an Asian-American superhero who wasn’t attached to martial arts? Sure. That would be awesome. But I didn’t see people pushing for Spider-Man to become Peter Park for his latest onscreen incarnation. As I already said, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch to hope that a character rooted in Asian lore might be played by someone of Asian descent.
Which begs the question…
Is There Any Hope for an Asian Superhero in the MCU?
The other major problem with this casting is that it seems to shut the door on an Asian-American superhero appearing in the MCU. Because if not Iron Fist, then who?
It’s possible that Iron Fist will set-up an Asian lead in the MCU with a spin-off series, but both of the obvious options are lacking to me, though for different reasons.
Following the demand for an Asian-American Danny Rand and the subsequent casting of Finn Jones, Marvel announced a speculative project: a series based on the martial arts comic book hero Shang-Chi.
But who the hell is Shang-Chi?
Iron Fist is not the most well-known Marvel character, but he is certainly recognizable, someone people have heard of even if they haven’t read the comics. Casting him as an Asian-American would’ve actually meant something. It would’ve been a statement that Marvel cared about diversity and its Asian-American audience.
I had never heard of Shang-Chi until the announcement of this hypothetical spin-off, which felt very much like a “make up call” for not casting someone of Asian descent as Iron Fist in the first place. If I don’t know who he is, I have to guess that the general public has no idea who he is either, and that makes it unlikely that anyone would want to tune in for a show featuring his character.
Unlike Luke Cage or Iron Fist, Shang-Chi is really scrapping the dregs of possible show protagonists. His first appearance will be as a supporting character on Iron Fist, and then Asian-Americans have to hope that he generates enough hype to warrant a standalone show. And before you go there, don’t bring up The Punisher. Everyone knows who the Punisher is. Yeah, Jon Bernthal gave him new life and earned him a Netflix series that wasn’t planned, but that character was already very well known, he just happens to have had several bad movie adaptations that ended up dropping him out of favor for producers. He isn’t comparable to whoever the hell Shang-Chi is.
Bottom line: if we’re going to have an Asian-American superhero, I want him to be someone that people will care about and actually want to watch several seasons worth of show about, not some third-rate hero no one knows.
Which brings us to option two from Iron Fist.
Iron Fist will also introduce audiences to Colleen Wing, a female martial artist who is played by Jessica Henwick of Star Wars fame. It’s possible that her introduction leads to the creation of a Daughters of the Dragon Netflix series, in which Wing teams up with Misty Knight to fight crime. That would be awesome, and I would 100% watch that show, but that is not the same as having a series focused solely on one character…like Iron Fist.
This would basically suffer from the same problem as Agents of SHIELD. Yeah, ensemble shows are great, and an ensemble show that features two minority female protagonists is something that TV and the MCU desperately need right now, but it’s not the same as having a titular non-white character who represents an entire franchise. So should Daughters of the Dragon be made? 100% yes. Would it enough to make up for the lack of Asian protagonists throughout the rest of the MCU? In my opinion, no.
Could Colleen Wing get a solo show? Maybe. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for that either.
Maybe our best bet for an Asian-American lead in the MCU lies outside the Iron Fist cast altogether. Fans have already started asking Marvel to cast Daniel Dae Kim as Namor, the Submariner.
Submariner isn’t exactly the most well-known of the Marvel properties. I mean, he’s basically the Marvel version of the much more popular Aquaman. But I would wager he is far more well-known than Shang-Chi by the general public. And, unlike Daughters of the Dragon, he would be titular standalone hero of the franchise. Furthermore, he avoids all that “stereotyping of Asians as martial artists” since his abilities have to do with the sea and have nothing to do with any form of martial arts.
That being said, the film rights involving Namor are complicated, and Marvel has a set schedule of films for quite awhile, so even if the film is made it will be years from now. With Aquaman coming out soon, it’s possible interest in a Submariner film would be low as well. And then, after all of that, it’s questionable whether they would even cast an Asian-American in the role. Given Marvel’s track record, that seems unlikely at best.
Following the main trailer for Iron Fist, Marvel released a sneak peak fight scene that showed Colleen Wing in action. I think in many ways this rush to advertise one of the supporting characters of the show in a major way is a reaction to the #AAIronFist campaign. The optimistic part of me says that this shows Marvel is on the back foot and perhaps realizes that casting a Caucasian actor as Iron Fist was a mistake. Why else would your first big inside look at the show be a fight scene solely featuring a supporting character?
It’s possible this means that they recognize the importance of reaching out to the Asian-American segment of their audience, and that in the near-future they will put together a franchise that features an Asian-American lead. Maybe they will even do something unexpected with Colleen Wing, like give her that solo show I said was unlikely.
However, the cynical part of me recognizes this as a ploy to mollify outspoken critics of the casting by showing how “diverse” the MCU is with a spotlight on one of its few good-guy Asian characters. It seems Marvel wants to have its cake and eat it too by getting to cast a white actor as Iron Fist to play to the white-boy comic fan base, and then still drag the Asian-American viewership into the show by dangling this cool new character in front of them because, like many other minority groups, we are so starved for representation we’ll take what we can get.
It seems like a way to give Asian-American audiences a character to be excited about without actually having to do what should be done and make a show that stars an Asian-American lead.
We’ll have to see how things play out, but to be totally honest, I’m not particularly hopeful that Marvel will put together a show or movie series featuring an Asian-American or Asian protagonist. The properties they would draw on for this are scarce, and the most obvious choice in Iron Fist has already been overlooked.
In the meantime, I don’t have any plans to watch Iron Fist. If I do, it will be because Colleen Wing’s role in the show is more prominent than I’m anticipating and because she does something other than be a love interest. Honestly, I kind of hope that this is the Marvel franchise that fails. Maybe then they will recognize the mistake they’ve made in their casting choice and work to correct it with some future franchise or change to the show. But I’m not super hopeful about either of those things happening either.
In the end, I can always hope for that Quake show to become a reality. I suppose that’s about as plausible as anything else.