Two Questions About Netflix’s Iron Fist Adaptation

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It’s been an issue that’s hung over the series like a dark cloud since it was first announced in 2014. No matter the other elements such as mysticism, tone, and plot, there’s been a very big question about the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series that revolves around one thing quite simply: race. It can’t be avoided, and frankly it shouldn’t. Since the character’s debut in 1974 as a young, rich man who returns from a mystical Asian land as a martial arts master, there’s been a lot of debate over his race and how it might, and in some cases should, be portrayed on the page as well as in his first ever live-action appearance. There’s a lot to dig into, from his background to the connotations behind a white man proving himself to be superior above all others in one aspect, to whether or not it would be further stereotyping to make him a “token” Chinese character. This has only been further spurred on with the introduction of more East Asian characters in the Netflix Daredevil series, as well as the more recent announcement of Scott Buck (Six Feet Under, Dexter) as showrunner and executive producer. Many have weighed in on the issue from all sides of the discussion, however we felt it necessary to venture even further with the concept being argued over. So those of us willing to tackle two very important and blunt questions about Danny Rand, the title of Iron Fist, and the upcoming series itself, have gathered to hash it out and give our thoughts.

Do you think Iron Fist’s origin story should be changed to avoid his being a “mighty whitey” stereotype?

Emma Houxbois: No. Iron Fist’s origin is pretty much that he completed a series of challenges that culminated in punching a dragon. Nothing else is essential, which Ed Brubacker and Matt Fraction demonstrated pretty handily when they revised it from Danny being “The” Iron Fist to “an” Iron Fist. As long as Danny’s portrayed as being white, there’s no getting around it.

Jules Low: This is such a tough call. On one hand, eliminating the “white saviour” aspect to his story would immensely improve my feelings about how any adaptation is handled, however a huge part of what makes Iron Fist a martial arts hero is what he goes through. The challenge, the trials, the struggles he faces to take on the mantle are what make him unique in that regard. You could try and find a way to work around the idea that Danny’s father “discovered” K’un-L’un and maybe the nature of how Danny comes to find himself in the city, but you can’t erase what he endures in his training and his success in that regard without fundamentally changing what Iron Fist is, in my opinion.

Desiree: I agree with Emma, there’s really no way around the problematic aspects of his origin. He’s a white guy who found a magical indiscriminate Asian city and learned kung-fu because his originators — Roy Thomas and Gil Kane — really liked kung-fu movies. The way Thomas tells it, the movie had a “ceremony of the Iron Fist” in it, which is where Danny’s superhero name comes from. His entire origin, from his very creation as a character, is inspired by a very specific view of Asian culture. Much like Dr. Strange’s origin, you can’t remove the Asian inspired aspects of his origin and overall narrative.

Instead of removing his origin to avoid the “mighty whitey” trope, update it and include an Asian actor instead.

Jamie Kingston: A man of any race could have completed the series of challenges that resulted in him punching the great dragon and getting the powers. K’un-L’un is a magical dimension that’s kinda Asian flavored. It can be done with an Asian or Asian-American guy just as easily as the white guy they’ve used so far. His white dad could still have discovered K’un-L’un, and his part Asian child could still be the one who grows up there. He can still face all that without it being “extra special white boy gets the training from the non-white mystics until he gets his powers.” I don’t think it’s all that shoe-horned.

Do you think an Asian American actor should be cast as Iron Fist?

Emma: Asian yes, American, not necessarily. Presumably his introduction is going to have something to do with the Hand’s presence in New York, so there’s no reason why he couldn’t be portrayed as coming to Hell’s Kitchen directly from East Asia. With that said, I’m incredibly sympathetic with CBR Managing Editor Albert Ching’s position in saying that he doesn’t want an Asian American Iron Fist. To me, the real crux of his argument, the most compelling point, is this: “[…] he’s defined by martial arts much more than other superheroes who just happen to use martial arts — and it’s problematic if that’s the first lead white comics character to be readily accepted on screen as played by an Asian-American.”

The key here is that if Iron Fist were to be played by an Asian, American or otherwise, actor, he would be the first lead role in the MCU played by an Asian actor. That would effectively be the public face of what Asian men are to superhero comics. Being white, I can’t commiserate, but it feels one hell of a lot like I do about Jessica Jones. The problem with Ching’s position and how it’s being received is that it’s like the Kobayashi Maru, a situation whose parameters have been artificially adjusted into a no win situation. Netflix is making Iron Fist one way or another. The likely outcomes have been reduced to one: the character is cast white and it keeps the same racist orientalist lens it always had, or two: the character is cast Asian and does precisely fuck all to advance the type of roles that Asian actors get in American film and further essentialize how Asian characters are viewed within the superhero genre, especially with Psylocke and Katana headed to theaters next year.

When I look at the conversation around Jessica Jones, it’s largely been hemmed into how much the wider culture needs stories that confront rape and intimate partner violence, which, is valid to a point, but is by no means the whole of the conversation around the series. When I first started writing about comics a decade ago, and trying to impact the way people looked at them, rape was everywhere to the point that it was beyond nauseating. Around that time, Kevin Smith wrote a rape into Black Cat’s past that reoriented her entire motivation for being a catburglar behind it. It was right around then that Kate Bishop’s backstory was rewritten to involve her being raped, and hell, even Dick Grayson got raped within a year or two of the other examples.

From my perspective, I’ve been railing against the perception in superhero fiction that women need to be raped or otherwise experience intimate partner violence in order to aspire to anything great for a decade. This past year I had to sit by while my favourite super hero, Kate Kane, got raped repeatedly in an identical context to what The Purple Man/Kilgrave did to Jessica, then have her own twin sister gaslight her over it. So seeing Jessica Jones be chosen as the MCU’s first female driven narrative, making it the public face of how Marvel sees women’s narratives in this space made me sickened and distraught.

Executive Producer Jeph Loeb has been quoted as saying that Jessica Jones is a very aspirational story. It terrifies me that someone thinks a story that revolves entirely around someone being kidnapped, raped repeatedly, and forced to commit a murder is aspirational. So I really, absolutely do get and sympathize with Ching not wanting to be represented by Iron Fist, especially considering how cartoonishly racist all of the supporting Asian characters in Daredevil were. Presenting an Asian American Iron Fist in this context, from my admittedly outside point of view, looks a lot more like trying to salvage a shitty situation than something to get genuinely excited about because like Jessica Jones, it’s just repeating old patterns instead of breaking out of them.

Jules: Yes. I respect the aforementioned Albert Ching’s perspective. I even agree with some points he makes, especially the idea that the martial arts hero being the first Asian protagonist in the MCU can be seen as too stereotypical. However, there is such a dearth of decent Asian representation in the MCU that I cannot stand the idea that we have to lose this opportunity. We had Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin (sort of), we have Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and we have the complete mishandling of the Asian characters in Daredevil. Keeping Iron Fist white, retaining his “white saviour” backstory, dealing with the possibility of him killing even more Asian foes in the series, it all just gives me an enormous headache.

I can sympathise to an extent the idea that it only stereotypes us more when we have Asian people play martial arts experts, however that is such a core element to our culture and history, even with fictional handlings of those philosophies and practices. Is there more to Chinese people than kung fu? Yes! Can the same be said of Japanese people with karate as well as judo? Definitely. What about Indians and yoga? Of course. However to essentially strip us of any possibility that Asians as a whole can have heroes directly tied to our culture is more damning than us getting the chance at that sort of representation, even if it could end up being fumbled. I feel it’s us throwing out the baby with the bathwater before we’ve even turned on the faucet. It’s an argument in good faith, but there’s no getting around the idea that people who already have bigoted orientalist views on Asians have already made their minds up and for those who haven’t formed any opinions on that whatsoever, casting a white man as a martial arts master surpassing all others does more harm than any Asian representation ever could.

I also don’t want to limit the idea of Iron First being Asian American to just East Asian folks. There is a rich history to martial arts and its origins and developments across all of Asia, from India to Thailand to Korea to the Philippines as well as Indonesia. There’s such a huge variety to pull from, and I think there’s still an opportunity to keep how K’un-L’un is depicted as being quite mixed and fluid rather than it remaining a cemented and rigid concept of pseudo-mystical-Chinese-only-city. There’s even more variety when you consider the idea of Danny Rand being Asian American, at least from my perspective as an Asian Australian. A major factor in my life has been the fact that I was raised outside of China and Hong Kong, with no strong ties to my ancestry or background aside from occasional family visits. Even amongst people I should consider to be “my own kind” I’ve felt like an outsider. There’s also another possibility: Simply make him mixed-raced. That has such huge potential to speak to so many mixed kids out there, struggling even more so with cultural identity, and it adds another layer to Danny as a stranger in a strange land.

A lot of the arguments I’ve seen that disagree with the idea of Iron Fist being Asian American really generalise and flatten the complexity of that identity and how that could help make a character quite strong narratively-speaking and what that character could stand for in a societal sense. Not all Asian folks know how to use chopsticks, speak their native tongue, read their own language, know their own customs, or have even visited where their family is from. And no, not all of them know martial arts. However having a major property owned by a major company produced and distributed by a major entity depict an Asian character dealing with all of that and maybe even learning some of those things is better than playing it “safe” and keeping him white, after all these decades. Casting Iron Fist as Asian isn’t the end of it, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Desiree: I’m in complete agreement with Jules. I can understand what Emma and Ching are saying, this situation is certainly a double edged sword. However, I’d rather see a character reclaiming their cultural identity than seeing a white man inheriting it.

I can fully understand the wariness behind having an Asian actor — American or otherwise — portraying the first big named MCU superhero. However I’m more uncomfortable with the thought of a white man, yet again, inheriting a title dripping with Asian mystical culture and then essentially fighting against the scary bad guy people of color. It’s what we’re seeing happen in Dr. Strange, with the white-washing of The Ancient One, and how the only character of color, that we currently know of, is playing the villain against the white hero. It happened in Iron Man 3 with how the Mandarin was stripped of his title — he could have been updated and made into a modern day smart villain — and given to a white man instead.

So really, I don’t see how leaving Danny Rand white would be avoiding any problematic implications that his character currently holds. It certainly wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than what the MCU currently offers. Plus it’d be nice to see one more person of color on the MCU Defenders team, since right now it’ll be three white people — if they go with the obvious choice of a white male actor named Chris for Danny — and one person of color, Luke Cage.

Jamie: I would prefer a biracial Asian American Danny Rand. I also keep in mind that Marvel is more aware of racial issues now. They pulled a switch in Iron Man 3 in order to get around the 1950s-1960s view of China and Japan as the “yellow peril.” I can’t say I’m ready to trust them to get it right, but they know they need to do better. But my thinking falls more in line with Jules than aught else. They could and should take the step. Tradition and fanboy ire should not guide the decision. Being a company that wants to move forward, and do better than they have in their history, and being known for true diversity and true antiracism is in their monetary best interests, really. ( As for aspirational: I think it’s Jessica Jones growing past the damage, learning to trust, overcoming the harm that her past has done to her that’s aspirational, and I hope that’s what Loeb really meant.)

I feel like our comments raise a lot of our concerns about what Iron Fist could end up being. Marvel doesn’t have a pristine track record, and it should be criticised for its handling of certain issues that need to be dealt with to some degree, and frankly I personally don’t trust them a lot these days. That said, I want them to try, and I think a lot of us do as well. We’re living in a time where movies like Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai just don’t fly any more; the “white saviour” cannot and should not exist. It’s frankly a damaging aspect of so much fiction that perpetuates too many negative stereotypes constantly pushes people of colour to the background merely to be props to be appropriated rather than human beings. We’ve seen how much of an impact Star Wars: The Force Awakens has had by simply having two of its three leads be black and Guatemalan, I feel like that level can be achieved by casting Danny Rand as Asian. It’s definitely a no-win scenario as discussed above, there’s going to be backlash over whatever decision Netflix makes. Simply, any negative aspects that can be attribute to Iron Fist if he’s Asian just feel unavoidable. However, on such a visceral and almost indescribable level, I’d accept that over just another white man taking the lead role and being the hero again.

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About Author

Staff Writer. Jules Low is a genderfluid trans lady located in Australia. She's a Fine Arts graduate, freelance illustrator, lover of Super Sentai and Power Rangers, self-proclaimed Professor of Zoids and Digimon, raving Halo fan, and the sort of person who reaches the maximum level of characters allowed on World of Warcraft.

1 Comment

  1. This is a really interesting conversation. Thanks for sharing it.

    I think, if I was in charge of updating a comic book and turning it into a television show, I’d be terrified, lol. Trying to honor the original story while also acknowledging that we live in a world that is far more aware of diversity and the need to represent said diversity would be very difficult. I will take a “wait and see” approach to “Iron Fist” and just hope that they don’t go backwards, at least, and churn out a sort of “Kung Fu” with David Carradine thing. That show pained me in the 70s and I really don’t want to see that kind of thing ever again.

    As for “Jessica Jones”: I didn’t think it was about rape. I thought it was about a controlling, abusive relationship, sure, but the fact that rape happened was NOT the most horrifying thing. A graphic rape was not thrown out there as THE awful (but titillating!) event, like many shows would do it. And Jessica likes sex and is not afraid of men or anything. The horrible thing that Jessica had to endure was far more complex than rape, which was why it was so compelling. Jessica lost her SELF to Killgrave. The show was about her fumbling around trying to get that back. She is a character who already had a precarious sense of self thanks to a traumatic childhood, and just when she was starting to embrace her own power she ran into Killgrave. Jessica Jones is inspirational because she is fighting to find her self, really. I love that she is stumbling and bumbling her way through trying to figure out who she is, what she should be doing, always swaying between cynicism and kindness, between self-preservation and self destruction. Killgrave derailed Jessica, but she was barely on the rails when she met him. And how real is it to see a young woman who is vulnerable in that way getting into an abusive relationship? Very real! Which is why Jessica’s fight –only part of which was to defeat Killgrave’s influence — is so much fun to watch.