Should Marvel’s Iron Fist Be Re-Imagined For the Screen as an Asian American?
Back in November Marvel Studios announced a deal to make five TV shows for Netflix; four solo series based on the Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage characters, and a Defenders series that brings them all together.
Filming on the first of these, Daredevil, begins in July in New York City. No casting announcements have been made, but they're sure to come soon, and some fans see this as an opportunity to make a change to one character. They've created a petition asking that an Asian American actor be cast as Iron Fist.
Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in the pages of Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974. He was one of a number of comic characters inspired by the early '70s passion for martial arts movies like Enter the Dragon and Game of Death, along with fellow Marvel character Shang-Chi (created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in 1973), and DC's Richard Dragon and Bronze Tiger (created by Dennis O'Neil and Jim Berry, and by O'Neil, Berry and Leo Duranona, in 1974).
Iron Fist is Danny Rand, an entrepreneur's son who was orphaned during his father's expedition to the lost mystical city of K'un Lun. Trained by the monks of K'un Lun and given the power of the Iron Fist, Danny Rand returned home to avenge his father and become a superhero.
Like so many other Marvel heroes, Danny Rand appears in the comics as a dinstinctly Anglo-Saxon-looking blond, white male. Earlier this month Keith Chow of the website The Nerds of Color wrote an article calling on Marvel Studios to cast an Asian American actor as Rand in the Netflix series. The column inspired 18 Million Rising, an advocacy group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, to create a petition to the same effect.
Chow is the co-editor of two Asian American superhero anthologies, Secret Identities and Shattered, and he believes there aren't enough opportunities to see Asian Americans in heroic roles. He also thinks it would help solve some of the problematic aspects of the character without changing anything too fundamental.
"In my original post, I lay out how an Asian American Danny Rand can still be all the things from the comic: the son of a wealthy businessman on an expedition in China, student of Lei Kung, lover of Misty Knight, friend to Luke Cage," Chow told ComicsAlliance. "Danny being white is not essential to any of this.
"In fact, his whiteness is the most problematic thing about the character. The parts of the classic Iron Fist story I have the most problems with -- its Orientalism and cultural appropriation -- can be alleviated if an Asian American actor is Danny."
Chow acknowledges that casting Rand with a non-white actor would likely upset the same fans who objected to the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the next Fantastic Four movie or the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor movies. Yet he notes that "studios cross-racially cast characters of color as white all the time," citing the examples of The Last Airbender, The Lone Ranger, 21, and the recently announced casting of Rooney Mara as Native American character Tiger Lily in Joe Wright's in-development Peter Pan movie. "I don't know why fans lose their minds whenever a traditionally white character is portrayed by a non-white actor."
The Netflix model -- a subscription service for streaming media -- has allowed the broadcaster to shake off the idea that all media needs to appeal to the broadest possible advertising demographic, as evidenced by the success of the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, which boasts a racially diverse and largely female cast. Netflix will already put one non-white superhero on the screen with Luke Cage; there doesn't seem to be any business reason why it couldn't give audiences a second non-white hero in Danny Rand.
Chow specifically wants Marvel to cast an Asian American actor in the role. "I think folks forget that being Asian and being Asian American are two different things," he said. "Danny can still be a fish out of water in K'un Lun, especially if he's Asian American. It's why the 'but you already have Shang Chi' excuse that doesn't fly with me. I don't want a foreign-born actor to play Danny Rand... I want an Asian American."
Casting an Asian American actor fixes the perception that Iron Fist is a "white savior," a white person who steps in to a non-white world to become its champion. "The white guy who goes to Asia and is better than the Asians is also a pretty tired cliché," said Chow. "Never mind Danny Rand, you have Snake Eyes, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Daniel-san [in The Karate Kid], Wolverine, every Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movie ever, hell, even Batman for chrissakes!"
But is there a danger that casting an Asian American actor would play into the stereotype that all Asian heroes are martial artists?
"I don't think so. Look, the problem with the Asian martial artist stereotype is not the art itself. The problem has always been how Asian martial artists have been portrayed in Western media. As someone who has practiced martial arts and admires and respects it, I don't run away from that aspect of my heritage.
"As I said earlier, Danny Rand is a fighter, a lover, a hero, a friend, a son, etc. He is a multifaceted, three-dimensional person -- who's also a superhero with superpowers! Why can't an Asian American actor get the chance to play all of that? But silent ninjas who are canon fodder and get no speaking lines? Yeah, that's a problem. I'll take a three-dimensional martial artist over a one-dimensional anything any time."
As for who might play Danny Rand, Chow's suggestion is actor and dancer Harry Shum Jr., best known for his appearances on the TV show Glee. "Someone on twitter suggested Cole Horibe who's currently portraying Bruce Lee on Broadway," said Chow. You can see Shum in action in the short film Three Minutes alongside fellow dancer Stephen Boss -- "There's your Heroes for Hire, right there," noted Chow -- and you can watch Horibe in his audition for So You Think You Can Dance.
Whether Marvel takes notice of the petition or not, Chow hopes that this can helps start a conversation. "There is a real bias out there that prevents people of color from getting good roles. If nothing else, I wanted people to really investigate how these comic adaptations are opportunities to reflect the real world. Superheroes don't have to be the sole domain of white men."
If you want to support the campaign to have an Asian American actor cast in Marvel and Netflix's Iron Fist series, sign the 18 Million Rising petition here. You can read more about the petition at The Nerds of Color.