Why Iron Fist Needs To Be An Asian American Hero, Not Another White Savior Cliche
A few months after Marvel and Netflix first announced plans for a live action Iron Fist TV series as part of their Defenders slate --- which also includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Luke Cage --- the website Nerds of Color launched a campaign calling for an Asian American actor to be cast in the lead role. We covered that campaign at the time, but interest has surged following the recent appointment of former Dexter writer Scott Buck as Iron Fist showrunner, and a conversation has emerged around the #AAIronFist hashtag on Twitter. Yet, according to one report, Marvel has already considered the fans' appeal for an Asian American Iron Fist and rejected the idea.
Hopefully this is not the end of the conversation, because the conversation itself has exposed an uncomfortable truth; Iron Fist is a troubling concept to sell with a white guy in the lead. Comics fans have debated the pros and cons of turning a white martial artist into an Asian hero, but the debate has largely ignored the reality that Iron Fist's whole origin and conception belong to the past --- if he's a white guy.
Created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, and born out of the martial arts movie craze of the 1970s, Iron Fist is an Orientalist fantasy of a white American whose father "discovers" a mystical and otherworldly Asian city. The young Danny Rand is raised to become a master martial artist, and fights a dragon to become a superpowered champion.
It's a standard example of the white savior trope, commonly associated with movies Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even The Help, in which a white visitor becomes the only one who can save a culture that's framed as 'less civilized', while he or she also learns valuable lessons from the uncorrupted spirituality of the people. These stories treat non-white or non-Western cultures as exotic playgrounds for the improvement of white people, and they assuage white colonial guilt by turning indigenous cultures into grateful beneficiaries of Western 'discovery', while also reducing the people in those cultures to props.
Stories like this are still told today, but audiences are increasingly savvy to the implications, and a large portion of those audiences just isn't going to buy it anymore.
Being an example of a bad trope doesn't make Iron Fist a bad character. Great stories can be built around him, and he's not the first comic character to overcome a difficult or problematic backstory. Yet an Iron Fist TV show has to start from scratch; it has to establish the character anew, for a different audience, and it will most likely focus on his problematic origin. Iron Fist's comic book origin is a museum artifact; his TV origin will be a new product for a new audience, and that audience won't greet that story with indifference.
An Asian American Iron Fist not only solves the white savior problem; it enriches the story. The comics version of Danny Rand has ties to K'un-Lun because his father brought him there. An Asian American Danny Rand could have more direct family associations with the place itself or its traditions. A white American Danny Rand has to appropriate Asian heritage; an Asian American Danny Rand gets to reconnect with it.
One of the popular counter-arguments I've encountered to the idea of an Asian American Iron Fist is that Danny Rand is an outsider in K'un-Lun, and an Asian American wouldn't be seen that way. That's an argument that misunderstands the immigrant experience; an American visiting their historic familial homeland is not going to be homogeneously reabsorbed into that culture. The word 'American' in 'Asian American' is not a cosmetic affectation. It signifies a collection of distinct cultural identities.
Outsider status is important to Iron Fist's story, because it's the device that introduces the audience to this world, and it makes Danny unique. But an Asian American Danny Rand is just as much an outsider as a white American Danny Rand, with an added layer of tension between old and new worlds that makes the show more compelling. A superhero show about heritage, cultural identity, and family diaspora has resonances for a wide audience.
(Casting an actor of another ethnicity besides Asian or Caucasian would solve the white savior problem, but it wouldn't offer the same thematic strengths, or address the cultural appropriation.)
If the objection to an Asian American Iron Fist is that this version of Danny Rand won't look as much like an outsider, one might ask why that wasn't a problem when Thor visited Oklahoma in the comics, or when he landed in a startlingly white New Mexico in the movie. Thor didn't need to have a different skin color to be regarded as an outsider.
The more popular counter-argument to an Asian American Iron Fist, and the biggest potential problem it creates, is that the connection between Asia and martial arts has become a cliche. Having a martial artist as Marvel's first big Asian superhero could perpetuate a tired stereotype. But it doesn't have to be so limiting.
Martial artistry is also one of the fundamental power sets in superhero fiction, from Captain America to Batman, via Daredevil, Nightwing, Black Widow, and Elektra. There aren't actually a huge number of significant and enduring Asian martial artist superheroes in the Western canon, because there aren't a huge number of significant Asian superheroes of any kind in the Western canon. Asian heroes are massively underrepresented. If they were well represented, you'd expect martial arts to be as prevalent among them as it is among white heroes.
That doesn't change the fact that "Asian martial artist" is a common cliche, and in the case of Iron Fist it's a cliche that's underlined by a relationship to mysticism, dragons, and "harnessing chi"; elements that are far less central to characters like Batman or Daredevil.
Yet that stuff probably isn't going away. The show can try to downplay the stereotypes, or make great efforts to present its characters with complexity and respect, but at its core this is a show that depends on the connection between martial arts and Asia, and making the lead guy white doesn't fix that; it makes it worse, relegating Asian martial artists only to the roles of villains, mentors, and goons, rather than letting an Asian martial artist lead the story.
If martial arts is a non-negotiable part of Iron Fist, what do you want that story to be about?
Even in the best case, a white Iron Fist gives us a story about a tourist appropriating Asian culture --- and using what he's learned to beat up some Asians, in all likelihood. In the very worst case, an Asian American Iron Fist gets us an Asian American lead actor in a major Marvel superhero role.
You may have noticed that Marvel has a lot of white men in its productions, even in the ensemble movies. Seven Marvel movies star white men named Chris, and that number is still rising. The only Asian or Asian American actors in heroic Marvel roles are Chloe Bennett as Daisy and Ming-Na Wen as May in Agents of SHIELD; Tadonobu Asano as Hogun in the Thor movies; and Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita in Captain America: The First Avenger. (Big Hero 6 uses Marvel properties, but was not a Marvel production. It also changed the race of several previously Asian characters, including making Marvel's only Ainu superhero a white guy.)
You don't need to be told that Marvel leading men are sex symbols, role models, and cultural icons. Having an Asian lead actor in one of those roles would be inspiring, and would help elevate audience appreciation for Asian actors in leading roles. I think those are victories worth having.
So why does it have to be Iron Fist? Why not another superhero? Why not a new character?
That question presents a false binary. Demand for better representation isn't limited to one character; it's just that this one character compels a response. In the unlikely event that Marvel announced tomorrow that its next ten movies would have Asian leads, the awkward question of how to handle cultural appropriation in Iron Fist would still need an answer.
Yes, an Asian actor should have been cast as Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man (because her mother is Asian in the same Ultimate comics that inspired the black Nick Fury). Dr Strange or The Punisher could have been Asian, and if there's another Fantastic Four reboot, Lucy Liu should certainly play Reed Richards. Namor should be Asian if he ever makes a movie appearance, and the lack of Jimmy Woo as a character and love interest in Agent Carter remains baffling to me. No-one has ever said that an Asian American Iron Fist would be enough.
The sad truth is that there aren't a lot of truly major roles left to cast in the Marvel Universe, and while new characters are great, limiting calls for diversity to just new characters means surrendering a lot of ground to a fifty-year-old vision of how the world should look. Proponents of diversification need to consider all the options. Casting Asian actors as Carol Danvers, Black Bolt, and Medusa, would be great, but beyond that, are we keeping our fingers crossed for a Moon Knight show with an Asian lead in 2020? A Wonder Man movie with an Asian lead in 2021?
Those aren't impossible dreams (if a Wonder Man movie sounds like a dream to you), but why wait? Netflix in 2016 is a pretty good place to put an Asian American superhero.
Marvel has had great success with Daredevil and Jessica Jones on that platform, and that success will likely continue with Luke Cage. What's interesting about these shows is their intelligence and sensitivity. Daredevil was considerate of the character's disability, and offered an extended discourse on violence and guilt. Jessica Jones placed the experiences of women at its center, and offered a profoundly important text on surviving abuse. We don't know what shape Luke Cage will take, but we know that the show has an African-American showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, and a largely African-American cast; it seems that Marvel wants a show attuned to African-American experiences.
Then there's the show about a white guy getting a dragon tattoo.
Marvel's onscreen track history with Asian characters is not great. Anglo-Indian actor Ben Kingsley was cast as Marvel's most famous Asian villain, The Mandarin, and a white woman, Tilda Swinton, will play The Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. Strange's other Asian supporting cast member, Wong, doesn't seem to have been cast at all. Marvel may have made these calls because these characters can feel like awkward stereotypes, but Marvel's fear of misrepresentation has led to an abysmal lack of actual representation, and that's the same strategy at work in denying an Asian American Iron Fist.
Thankfully Marvel seems to be course-correcting. Daisy, aka Quake, didn't used to be Asian in the comics; now she is, both on the page and on the screen. Elektra in the upcoming second season of Daredevil will be played by Elodie Yung, who is half Cambodian, and Korean-Canadian actor Pom Klementieff is likely playing Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. (Both characters are martial artists; neither is unique in that regard within their respective stories.)
But if you want to see an Asian superhero with their name in the title, and you don't want that name to be Iron Fist, you may be waiting a long while. In the meantime, you may get to enjoy a patronizing colonialist narrative about cultural appropriation, in which Asians teach a white man how to better than them. The lead actor will probably be called Chris.