Hi all, Legion of Leia contributor Shaun Rosado here! As you may have heard, Marvel recently announced Finn Jones as their choice for Danny Rand in their upcoming Netflix series, Iron Fist. While there’s been a wide range of reactions to Jones’ casting as the titular character, the prevailing sentiment is that this casting is a missed opportunity for an Asian actor in the role. When you consider how many characters featured in superhero TV shows and movies are white, you can understand the argument: Iron Fist is a kung fu master that has roots in Tibet. Making him Asian is an easy change with little obvious impact and I agree. If Marvel decided to cast someone of Asian descent in the role, it would still work. Absolutely.
The more I thought about it though, something didn’t quite sit well with me. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on “the why”. When they announced that the West family was going to be African American on The Flash, I didn’t even blink. It was a great move that added diversity to a show that could have easily been monochromatic. As someone of Puerto Rican descent, I’m keenly aware of the lack of strong hispanic characters on superhero TV (props to Cisco) and I know that Asians are in a similar boat. So why did the proposed switch up of Danny Rand’s nationality throw me off? On one hand, if you make Danny someone of Asian descent, you fall into the stereotype trap: this character is a master of kung-fu, so clearly he must be Asian. On the other hand, if you stick to the comics original premise it could be construed as “white appropriation”. As my colleague Christina Janke said in her article yesterday Marvel is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and she’s 100% right. Every time I see a hispanic character on screen, I wonder if they’re going to make them into a drug dealer or a paper thin, stereotype parody. I can only imagine Asian’s think the same thing about another kung fu master: oh no, please no. There’s no clear path here and I think that has to do with the origins of the character and why Marvel made their choice to keep Danny Rand white. So let’s take a look at it.
The Case For A White Iron Fist
When Iron Fist was created in the mid 70’s he was quickly paired with another character: Luke Cage and for good reason. Both of these characters were part of the ongoing exploitation of the urban and martial arts scene. While interest for both of these characters started off red hot, Iron Fist quickly cooled off and Luke Cage‘s solo book was running out of steam after 40 some odd issues. So instead of losing both characters, the two were fused into Luke Cage’s long running title and became a team up book: Power Man and Iron Fist. This combination was so engaging that the series lasted another 75 issues before it’s cancellation, but why did it work?
I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that Danny Rand was a rich, affluent, white man that’s trying to find a place to fit in. Now before you start guffawing, lemme give you the quick background. Iron Fist‘s origin has to do with the fact that he is a white man that was orphaned as a child in the mountains of Tibet and raised by a mystical society that lives in the legendary city of K’un-Lun. Named “The Immortal City”, K’un-Lun is protected by The Immortal Iron Fist, a guardian who has the ability to channel their chi through their body into a single point for extraordinary effect. Iron Fist is so called “Immortal” as the mantel is handed down through a very weird ritual involving a dragon. Yes, a dragon, named Shou-Lao. By defeating this dragon, the mantel of Iron Fist is carried from one incarnation to the next. To date there have been 66 men and women that have held this title with Danny Rand being the most recent. The irony is that even though he became K’un-Lun‘s champion, he was still considered an outsider. As the anglo man, he was rejected by most children his age and when he bested the new generation of warriors fighting for the chance to face Shou-Lao he further alienated his peers. In fact this is one of the main reasons he leaves the ancient city, to find his place in the world.
Upon returning to New York he finds no solace in his vast corporate empire and eventually befriends Luke Cage as they found the “for profit” superhero team, Heroes For Hire. This is the crux of why Danny is such an interesting character. As a white, affluent, man he has all the opportunities in the world but can’t figure out where he fits in society. It’s a great commentary for radical social changes that occurred in the 70’s. When Danny meets Luke Cage he begins to see “the real New York” and the writers of the book took the opportunity to tell stories that were not easily broached back in the mid-late 70s. They addressed subject matters such as racial tensions, sexism, being poor and even homeless in one of the world’s largest cities. For suburban readers, it created a window into a world they had not seen, asking relevant questions and creating context for impressionable readers. In effect it was able to broach these issues through Danny that made it relatable without being condescending. It also created a wonderful dynamic between Luke Cage and Danny Rand that was something close to Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China.
While Danny was certainly not a bumbling idiot, he was clearly a fish out of water and a partial side kick to the more street savvy Luke Cage. Through this, comics created one of the longest lasting interracial relationships in the history of the medium. It also created one of the first interracial romances in comics in Danny Rand and Misty Knight. While that may not be notable by today’s standards it was a major deal back in the day. It showed readers a level of colorblindness most people dream of and are disappointed to see go unfulfilled, even today. The point is, that the subject of race and preconceptions about race is deeply woven into the character and keeping him white would service these story elements well. There’s also one other advantage to keeping Danny white. The incredible amount of amazing Asian characters and how at certain times in his life, they shun him. Quite frankly, it’s something most white males aren’t familiar with and puts the racial stigma on the other foot. Even if we disregard this story point the characters themselves are so interesting.
Because Danny’s story is so closely tied to K’un-Lun, the show will more than likely spend at least half of their time in the Immortal City. Characters such as Yu-Ti The August Personage in Jade, Lei-Kung The Thunderer, Davos the Steel Serpent, Sparrow, the Immortal Weapons and most of the 66 previous Iron Fists are of Asian decent. Every single one of them are critical to the narrative and have nuanced roles in the overall story. In fact, when it comes to the previous iterations of Iron Fist, their stories are narrative roads to help Danny on his journey to understanding the power of Shou-Lao. I’d be surprised if we didn’t get one or two new Iron Fist tales each season of the show. These are recurring stories that have a tremendous impact on the present. When you add that to the wide array of ethnicities of Danny’s supporting cast in New York, you find that there is very few white people in the show. In fact, if Marvel continues to stay true to the comics, this would be one the most diverse programs in their history. With a large bevy of female characters as well as people of various backgrounds, a white Iron Fist would be the anomaly in the show, not the norm.
Now, could this be accomplished just as well with someone of an Asian-American background? Of course, and if the character had always been Asian, like Shang-Chi, I’d demand it. That said, I think we need to really sit down and think about why we want Iron Fist to be someone of Asian descent. Is it because representation matters? If so, this show will be well serviced in nearly every other role (and don’t you dare tell Yu-Ti he’s not important. That guy is hardcore!). Is it because he knows kung fu? If that’s the case, is that not a serious stereotype? Wouldn’t we be better serviced casting someone else in a major Asian role (such as Ant-Man for example) or is the reason far more simple? Is it that Marvel needs more diversity in their characters and we’re beginning to notice it? I honestly think this last option is the case.
Even though we have Black Panther on the horizon, the lack of ethnic diversity elsewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming pretty obvious. I think, no matter how this shakes out, Iron Fist is a huge step in the right direction as it introduces at least twelve major characters from various backgrounds into the MCU. We need more of this, sooner rather than later. Fans want more inclusion, diversity and representation in their media and until we get it, we’re going to have these difficult “no win” situations. In the end though, I don’t think there’s a solution to the Danny Rand situation. Either way you go, some faction of your fan base is going to be upset. I think the only reasonable solution is the continually development of Marvel‘s library of diverse characters. If that means we also need to change Iron Fist to Asian-American so be it. So long as they have compelling story with rich, well written characters, I’ll be happy.