Marvel’s Iron Fist Casting

So recently, an actor was chosen to star in upcoming Netflix series Marvel’s Iron Fist, a Finn Jones who appeared in HBO series Game of Thrones.

First off: who is Iron Fist? To put it simply:

  • Name: Daniel “Danny” Rand
  • Powers and abilities: martial arts master, and has incorporated mysticism into his combat, focusing his chi to enhance his strikes – the eponymous “Iron Fist”.
  • Backstory: to cut a long story short, he was trained in a mystic city accessible only by magic called K’un L’un.

Should someone else have been picked for the role? A vocal portion of the comic geek community – including one of Marvel’s own writers – have lashed out at the casting, many of them, such as pop culture site Nerds of Colour, calling for an Asian American to be cast in the role. And perhaps not without good reason.

So far, Marvel hasn’t exactly had much presence when it comes to casting Asians – off the top of my head, I can only think of Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Claudia Kim in Avengers: Age of Ultron…and that’s it. There may be random other characters, but those are the only ones I can think of that have had significant screen time. The Mandarin, a Chinese man in the comics, one of Tony Stark’s greatest enemies? All due respect to Ben Kingsley, but that was a shockingly abysmal presentation of the character.

Given that K’un L’un and its inhabitants are very clearly Oriental-influenced (it is even located in the Tibetan mountain range), it would be a proverbial gold mine to have the character be a second, or third, or perhaps even fourth generation Asian American. People have argued against this proposal, saying that keeping the character white, to be crude, emphasises the fact that he is an outsider in K’un L’un far better. And on the surface of it, sure, that seems to be true. But having an Asian American Danny Rand has the potential to be just as compelling a character as a white Danny Rand – arguably, even more so, I think.

By casting an Asian American Iron Fist, there would have been potential to weave in discourse on heritage, on cultural identity, and family diaspora, creating a scintillating narrative on the level of Phillip Noyce’s excellent Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Personally speaking, I am an Asian in a non-Asian country, as are many of my friends – by which I mean that the majority of people in my home nation are not Asian. We, all of us, hold at least dual identities – some of us feel closer to Asian values, others to Western values, others simply don’t care, or cherry pick. As a nation built on immigrants, diaspora has long been a key part of its history; my father is a boat person. For many of these refugees, they have raised their children according the same values that they themselves were raised to abide by. For their children however, born in Western countries and generally having not personally suffered the hardships that drove their parents to emigrate, they tend to assimilate into Western culture, leading to an inner war between the values they were raised by, and the values of the culture that they were born into. And for many, this inner struggle, this pull between how we were raised, and where we live, results in them feeling conflicted a lot of the time.

Moreover, with today’s problems with illegal immigration, Islamophobia, and Donald Trump, there would have been potential to mirror real world drama, albeit on a smaller scale, in the vein of films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier with global surveillance in a post-Snowden world and Captain America: Civil War re: the accountability of law enforcers, by reconciling Rand’s struggle with his own cultural heritage, his upbringing in America versus his family heritage in K’un L’un…ultimately culminating in his acceptance of himself and his cultural heritage.

The sentiment here is, of course, that it was a wasted opportunity – not only for the potential story-telling goldmine, but also the much needed increased Asian representation in the MCU. Not to mention, having Danny Rand be a white American swanning into the mystic city of K’un L’un and mastering the Iron Fist reeks somewhat of old-fashioned colonialism, perpetuating the stereotype of the white saviour, a patronising account of cultural appropriation.

A far cry from the sensitivity of Daredevil‘s intellectual discourse on morality, or Jessica Jones’ discussion on trauma and coping, no?

Of course, there are arguments against an Asian American Iron Fist:

  • Feeding the Asian kung-fu master stereotype. When one thinks about this though – martial arts proficiency is a trope that applies to almost every single superhero. It doesn’t really matter who they are – if they’re a superhero, chances are that they’re halfway decent martial arts prowess.
  • Offending the fan base that, more often than not, reacts rather explosively when facets of their characters are changed from what they perceive to be the ‘true’ depiction of the character (just look at Man of Steel!!!)

Ultimately, we all know that this isn’t going to change Marvel’s casting. And I’m sure that Marvel thinks that Finn Jones has the chops to pull off Iron Fist. As long as it remains true to the spirit of the character – well, I guess that’s all one can ask, right?

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7 comments

  1. I commented on the changing of races once before (see: http://merlinsmusings.com/2015/10/15/the-right-and-wrong-way-to-change-a-characters-race/ ) but, in short, I tend to take things on a case by case basis, depending greatly on the context of the material.

    Making Nick Fury black, I kind of tilted my head a moment, but it works, so I don’t particularly care.

    In this particular case, my initial reaction is, “Seriously? They can’t even have a white characters, who has always been a white character, stay a white character, without someone crying ‘racism?’ Please. Enough.”

    Now, I know there’s more to it than that, at least for some people. In your case, it’s perfectly valid to want an Asian lead somewhere in the mix at last. And there are ways to do that, but I’ve always appreciated it most when it’s a quiet thing, not proclaimed at the top of people’s lungs. For a comparison: lead female protagonists.

    We have Supergirl, which, I didn’t make it past the first episode, but was going, “FEMALE EMPOWERMENT! FEMALE EMPOWERMENT! FEMALE EMPOWERMENT!” Nothing wrong with female empowerment, mind, but crowing it out like that just makes it annoying. By contrast, Marvel delivered Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, the female Agents of Shield (including Melinda May), and is working on Captain Marvel, all without commentary. Much like Joss Whedon delivers strong female characters in Buffy, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity, and his view is that it should not be a big deal, and most of the men in his works don’t feel the need to comment, and neither do the women need to scream about it. These women are strong, they know they are strong, the men know they are strong… and it’s no biggie.

    So, I heartily endorse and hope for other ethnic groups and nationalities being represented (personally, I’m fan of White Tiger), but I also feel it would be a mistake to do so by changing the race of a character who has always been white, to turn this honest entertainment into a political platform. When it’s done, it should simply be done without a fuss.

    …am I making sense, or sounding like a lunatic? 😉

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    1. I do understand where you’re coming from re: your little Supergirl anecdote (though I do hear that it’s picked up in quality). It is certainly annoying when something’s being pushed as in-your-face as it was in Supergirl’s pilot episode. But at the same time, given that Hollywood is Hollywood, the #AAIronFist movement is rather reasonable I think. Without some kind of impetus…well, the status quo remains. And if there is even a 1% chance that a little campaign can alter the status quo for the better, then it’s our job as Netizens to make it an absolute certainty!

      And altering Iron Fist’s race isn’t something like changing, say, Luke Cage’s, or Storm’s. Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin serves as an allegory for African Americans’ resilience against prejudice, Storm’s race is used to highlight racism again by contrasting her position as a queen and god in Wakanda/Africa. Iron Fist’s story was, is, a direct appropriation of Asian culture, and while it may have passed muster in the 1970s or whenever he debuted in comics, it’s my sincere hope that it wouldn’t now. And I’ve already explained how casting an Asian American Iron Fist could enrich the tale.

      Given that Marvel Studios has done gender and racebending already – with the Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, and Daisy Johnson as being half-Chinese, I personally found no issue with the campaign (for the reasons outlined above). Not to mention, Marvel Comics has already begun changing up the roster for its characters. We have a black Spider-Man and Captain America, and a Pakistani girl serving on the Avengers. It’s not too unreasonable to think that in this modern world, we might be able to hope for some more diversity, truly representative of our society as a whole.

      As I’ve said, I’m under no illusions that this will change anything, but I do mourn the lost opportunity. After all – how many Marvel Comics heroes, or even just normal characters, can you name that are Asian? Off the top of my head, I can only think of…three. I don’t follow the Oscars, but I have heard of the #OscarsSoWhite thing trending on social media – how many Asians were nominated in the entire history of the Oscars? How many won?

      Diversity isn’t a quota, and it shouldn’t ever be. We live in 2016, an age where diversity should be the goal to strive for. It was a natural, golden opportunity for Marvel Studios to realign Iron Fist in an organic manner, to truly commit itself to diversity.

      PS: Sorry for the delay, getting back into gear and settling admin stuff for university took a lot longer than I thought, but I should be more or less back to my old availability…until exams hit, that is.

      PPS: Sorry about the even more terrible BvS jokes, I’m just really excited – just under 3 more weeks till it comes out!!!

      PPPS: I may have some grammar issues in this comment, but I’ll take care of them soon enough – really couldn’t justify making you wait any longer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey, no worries! Is all good! 🙂

        I do believe we can respectfully disagree on this issue. (ah… I love talking with mature adults!) You raise some valid points, but concede that there’s more than one side to consider, which is quite refreshing. (ahhh… I LOVE talking with mature adults!) 😉

        I do want to say, when Marvel changed the races of several of their classic characters, that felt, to me, very much like they were pandering to the invisible race quota. My feelings on the matter are strong (and long) enough that I won’t go into them here. I will simply say, it’s one thing to create new Asian heroes, or push their existing Asian heroes more strongly, more publicly, give them a greater, stronger, more visible presence (this, I would encourage). Changing their existing race, however, that is quite another. I do try to take it on a case-by-case basis, but changing so many of them wholesale, just like that? It really does not impress me.

        While I don’t believe we are defined by our race, I believe we do gain something from it. Similarly, our various heroes give us something by being the race(s) that they are. You mentioned Luke Cage, and his invulnerable skin being a symbol of black strength and resiliency. While I don’t recall ever hearing anything about that symbolism being deliberate, if you are correct… what would it mean if he were changed into a white man? It would be a big deal, yes? With or without that symbolism, but especially with it, it would be a big deal. We gain something from him being black which would be lost if they made him white, or Asian, or Hispanic.

        Now, take that, and apply it to Iron Fist. Perhaps you are simply asking the wrong question about why his race is important. By that I mean, if it’s important enough to change, then it’s important enough to leave as is. Perhaps the question is: what do we, the audience, gain from the story of a white Iron Fist which would be lacking if he were Asian?

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  2. “…perpetuating the stereotype of the white saviour” Sadly, that is the sentiment that is typically portrayed in Hollywood these days. I see no problem in casting an Asian American in the role of Iron Fist but you do make valid points against it. Perhaps producers cast certain people in roles because they feel that is what majority of the audience want to see – and possibly relate to seeing a familiar face with familiar backgrounds.

    It was certainly a good opportunity to cast an actor of Asian descent into this role, given the way the plot and setting of the comic and film goes. In a sense it would be stereotypical to cast someone in such a role. But then again, cultural stereotypes have their place in their world and not all of us are ashamed of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another thought has occurred to me.

    I have barely a superficial knowledge of Iron Fist and his story, but as I understand it, there is a theme of diversity and multiculturalism, of bridging the gap between two very different cultures. I doubt that would be so effective if they cast him as an Asian, trained by other Asians. Instead, they have a white man finding, and earning, acceptance as an equal. Were the races reversed, with an Asian proving himself the equal of whites, I imagine people would applaud it. I certainly would. But when it’s the white man proving himself, and coming to love this culture that was once foreign to him, it’s a controversial issue. Isn’t that a double-standard?

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    1. I don’t think that it’s a controversial issue/double-standard in itself – I certainly wouldn’t fault someone for appreciating cultures outside of one’s native environment – but the fear is, I suppose, that it’ll be done in a ham-fisted way that inaccurately portrays Asian culture, and perpetuates the out-dated ‘white saviour’ trope.

      As for your other point, personally – and this is just my opinion here – I feel that in terms of storytelling potence, having a disconnected Asian American rediscovering their native culture would be more powerful. And then when Iron Fist moves back to the US, he’s been immersed into his native culture long enough that now even in the USA, where he was born, all that was once familiar is now strange. The contrast between old and new, nature versus nurture. I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You raise a valid point, on both counts. 😉

        I will say, in response to your fears… I’ve had a number of fears about the MCU over the years. Justifiable fears, mind you. I had my doubts about Iron Man, Thor, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, Daredevil, and, above all, Ant-Man. All of these doubts I had were well-justified, I believe, in every single case. Also in every single case: my fears were for naught. Basically… at this point, I actually trust Marvel, quite a bit.

        In that spirit, I don’t believe the same people who gave us Daredevil and Jessica Jones will do any great injustice to Asian culture. Or make Iron Fist a “white savior.” I just don’t see it happening.

        Of course, I will also be keeping my fingers crossed! 😉

        As for your other point… hmmmm… speaking as a descendant of Vikings (northern barbarians in general) I can dimly relate to appreciating the culture of my ancestors. Of course, Viking ways died out quite awhile ago, so it’s not like I can be truly immersed in it, as you say. Still, even if I could be, I wouldn’t call it my “native culture.” No, America is my native culture, as is Alaska (where I grew up), and my religion, and so on and so forth. I am not my ancestors, I am me, myself, and I.

        Also speaking as one who grew up in Alaska, where we were pretty diverse (being an international waystation), I don’t believe balance and unity and cooperation are fostered by alienating ourselves from our own “native” setting. I believe it is found in acknowledging and embracing both what makes us similar and what makes us different. We are all unique. Yet we often turn each other into outcasts for superfluous reasons, even when we are amazingly similar, as if we were foreigners in our own land. If Iron Fist is to be about bridging the gap between cultures, then I can only imagine it will be far more potent when Iron Fist himself is racially distinct from his fellow disciples: a foreigner. Otherwise, what’s there for him to overcome, and for his fellow disciples to see past, if not for his visible uniqueness?

        Speaking as one who has been the outcast just for not being like everyone else… well, I find that possibility to be perfectly inspiring: people working together no matter their differences.

        …hey, isn’t that sort of what Avengers, Defenders, and the Agent shows are all about? Overcoming our differences?

        But, as you say, we may just have to agree to disagree on this point. 😉

        Like

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