Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Today, Marvel’s Iron Fist premieres on Netflix. By all accounts, the series is Marvel TV’s first critical failure, earning bad reviews for trite and plodding storylines and a lead actor described variously as wooden and lacking charisma. Since long before the show garnered critical vituperation, it’s been the subject of heated debate over the source material’s Orientalism and cultural appropriation.
This is a problem that Marvel will continue to struggle with for the simple reason that comic book canon – that venerated source which fandom (supposedly) holds most holy – is very much the product of the era from which it sprung. And as long as we allow ourselves to be bound by canon, we will be inevitably held back by the racism and sexism of the 1970s.
Even to those who have never picked up a single issue of Iron Fist, the broad strokes are familiar and easy to grasp. Our white American hero is beset by life-changing tragedy, masters martial arts during his time in the Orient, and returns to reclaim control of his family’s billion dollar company. As many reviewers have pointed out, the premise is indistinguishable from Arrow or Batman and only slightly off from the origin stories of Daredevil or Doctor Strange – white superheroes fighting crime with skills from Asia.
The problem with this storyline is that it reduces Asian culture to set dressing, something to add flavor to an otherwise boring character by spicing him up with the exotic. Danny Rand enters the mystical land of K’un Lun and becomes the Chosen One. Inevitably, the Asian characters in this scenario end up pigeonholed, flattened into narrow categories in a way that white characters are not. They serve either as instructors to help him “master” their culture or as less-competent rivals jealous of Danny’s preternatural, mighty whitey gifts.
The problem is not limited to Iron Fist and extends to virtually the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, including other series in Netflix’s MCU. Think of the Irish and the Russians in Daredevil. Though stereotyped, the Irish and Russian thugs are still given human motivations and drives, ambitions and passions. When Fisk brutally murders one of the Russians, his death becomes a central turning point for the first season.
In contrast, the writing for Daredevil‘s Nobu is completely lacking any depth. He’s simply supernaturally evil with no explanation, a ninja without any human connection. He’s so flat in characterization that when he’s (first) killed in season one, our famously self-flagellating Catholic crime fighter doesn’t even bat an eye. In the pilot, Matt Murdock tortures himself over beating up a group of human traffickers. There isn’t so much as a skipped beat when an Asian man is burned to death. Foggy later asks Matt if he’s ever killed anyone and Matt answers “no” without hesitation – this answer is correct only in that he hasn’t been responsible for the death of anyone white.
The fault isn’t even entirely with the writers, who are only building off the terrible tropes running throughout Marvel comic book canon. Wolverine wanders through Japan, rescuing women from the clutches of domineering Asian men. Daredevil fights relentlessly against the Hand’s sinister and inscrutable machinations. Iron Man wields the might of technology against the arcane powers of the Mandarin. Danny Rand rises to become the Chosen One of K’un Lun.
Even with these storylines, there could be room for humanizing tired stereotypes to elevate them from the original cardboard and mire of the source material. There was certainly an effort to do so with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Similarly, Daredevil could have given Nobu a backstory to explain how an ordinary person might end up becoming an unstoppable supernatural force. Was he motivated by family? Wealth? Power? Love?
The problem is that when it comes to Asian characters, so many Marvel writers have become transfixed by the window dressing: the culture and the ninjas and the mystic arts. Asian people simply become another set of objects, absent of motivation and characterized no deeper than the stereotypes non-Asians have of us and our culture.
With the Netflix adaptation, Marvel had an opportunity to free Iron Fist of its deeply problematic origins. Rather than perpetuate the tired tropes of “mighty white man” fiction – from The Last Samurai to Last of the Mohicans to Avatar – there was an opportunity to reclaim Asian culture rather than appropriate it. An Asian American Danny Rand would have been a refreshing take on the “white billionaire kung fu master” trope played out by countless other properties, a chance to genuinely explore and bridge Asian and American cultures.
It wouldn’t have even been the first time Marvel altered the race of one of its characters. Ben Urich is portrayed in Daredevil as African-American. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One was changed from an Asian man to a white woman. And fandom purists did not decry the decision to cast Elektra with an actress of Asian descent – perhaps because Frank Miller’s original run on the character was essentially a Greek dragon lady.
Although many fans and critics have supported modernizing Iron Fist into an Asian American character, one of the persistent arguments against this racebending has been that Danny Rand is a “canonically white character” and that “canon” should be preserved in this adaptation.
But Netflix’s Iron Fist doesn’t even hew close to canon. It discards it at its convenience.
They’ve changed Danny’s costume, his love interest (from Misty Knight to Colleen Wing), even the villains he fights. Inexplicably, Danny’s sworn purpose in being the Iron Fist is now destroying the Hand, for seemingly no other reason than the fact that the Hand is Asian and Danny’s origins are steeped in pseudo-Asian mysticism. K’un Lun was changed to have “South America, Europe, Asians, and Caucasian people” instead of only Asians, a misguided attempt to dilute the Orientalism by adding more white extras to a Tibetan monastery-inspired setting.
Numerous reviewers have pointed to Finn Jones as a weak link among the cast: a stiff performer completely lacking in the physical charisma and skill needed to believably portray one of the greatest martial artists in the Marvel universe. So despite the defense of Jones as “simply the best actor for the role,” his acting and screen presence have fallen far short of the task. His casting is not a triumph of authenticity, but of white mediocrity.
The most disappointing thing about this entire debacle is what we’re missing in the debate about canon. Devotion to canon also exposes important truths about Marvel’s history.
The character of Iron Fist was derived from Amazing Man, a 1930s pulp hero with a eugenics-heavy back story. Amazing Man was imagined as a “white orphan raised by enlightened Tibetan monks to achieve ultra-manhood.” Fans have called out Marvel for making Iron Fist white from the moment the character was created. In 1974, Marvel even published a fan letter from William F. Wu.
“Marvel continues to turn away from Asian protagonists,” Wu wrote 43 years ago, “even when the heart of the storyline is Asian in basis.”
Marvel Premiere #17, Fan Letter (1974) – source
In the 1970s, Marvel licensed the rights to the 1910s Fu Manchu novels and created the character Shang Chi, the son of Fu Manchu. The original artists were so troubled by the racism and the Orientalism that they left the series.
Starlin said, “I had a friend who was Oriental who looked at it—he told me flat out he found the whole thing insulting. That was enough for me.” When the first issue came out, fans wrote in to complain about Fu Manchu’s bright yellow skin, prompting a laborious explanation about the color printing process. By then, Starlin had walked. Englehart soon followed.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, p. 144-146
Nearly 50 years ago, fan activists and conscientious artists questioned the anti-Asian racism behind Marvel source material. It’s unfortunate that we’re fighting the very same battle today. But that tradition – of pushing for adaptations to not just match the originals but to exceed them – is also a part of comic book history. To me, it’s a far more sacred part of Marvel “canon” than Wolverine’s height or Aunt May’s age or even Hank Pym’s history of domestic abuse.
Otherwise, if the only unassailable aspect of Marvel canon is that white leads must remain white, the question we must ask is: What’s really being Defended?