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?