An Asian American Iron Fist Would Course Correct Marvel’s History With Race-Changed Characters
When it comes to the Marvel Netflix series, we’ve met Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and (soon) Luke Cage. So now there’s only one more new Defender to introduce—Iron Fist. But while the previous series have dropped a few hints here and there for eagle-eyed comic book fans, we still know very little about what’s to come when we actually meet the guy.
That said, now that the series has a showrunner in Scott Buck (Dexter, Six Feet Under), it’s only a matter of time before a lead is finally cast—and many fans on social media are clamoring for Buck and Marvel TV to introduce the world to an Asian American Iron Fist, instead of a traditional (to the comics) White American one.
Why #AAIronFist should happen? The MCU’s lack of diversity is exactly why the DCU is going to be a major threat next year.
— Dennis R. Upkins (@drupkins) December 9, 2015
— Lou Dameron (@kingloupa) December 8, 2015
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) December 11, 2015
Iron Fist was the product of America’s mid-’70s obsession with Kung Fu movies, which were being imported from Hong Kong for the first time. Writer Roy Thomas borrowed the term Iron Fist from one of those films, and partnered with Gil Kane to create Danny Rand, a New York City born white man whose father discovers a lost city—K’un L’un—in Tibet. In his origin story, Danny is orphaned on a second expedition to the city, and trained in martial arts so he can exact vengeance upon his father’s killer—except he becomes so good at it that he’s able to defeat an actual dragon, and obtains the supernatural powers of the Iron Fist. Which he then uses to become a superhero. You know, like you do.
Although Iron Fist wasn’t the first Kung Fu master Marvel had ever created (that honour goes to Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, who would eventually team up with Iron Fist and the other heroes in regular crossovers), he’s certainly the one that most comic fans know… Which is most likely why he’s getting his own series in the first place. But for many cultural critics, his story encapsulates a common and uncomfortable trope that’s existed in Western art for centuries: the white male outsider coming into a native culture, adopting their ways, and become better at leading them than any native member of the culture could ever be.
“When you boil down his origin it doesn’t really preclude being Asian American,” Nerds Of Color writer Keith Chow told MTV News. He first began the #AAIronFist campaign in March of last year and has seen it grow exponentially thanks to an 18 Million Rising petition and a collaboration with MCU Exchange.
“I think a lot of people tend to fall back on the idea that Danny is an outsider and the people of K’un L’un don’t accept him readily,” Chow continued, “and as an Asian American person I’m like, that doesn’t mean you have to be white for that to happen. Plenty of Asian American people who grew up in America, if they were to stumble into this mystical Asian city, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be accepted right away either.”
And according to rumors, it at least seems that Marvel has at least entertained the idea of casting a different type of Danny Rand. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that the studio was actively auditioning Asian American actors, and a leaked casting call for two of the show’s characters described one as Caucasian, but didn’t list the other—who’s presumed to be the lead—as any particular ethnicity. According to Chow’s sources, though, this was all lip service… And agencies who represent Asian American actors are being told not to audition.
“The fact that they won’t even consider Asian American actors—it’s like a slap in a face,” Chow said, adding that he was told by The Maze Runner actor Ki Hong Lee not to hold his breath. “At least give Asian Americans the chance to [audition for] the role, and if you’re closing auditions to them or only calling for white actors, it’s not a fair process.”
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) December 17, 2015
Obviously if Marvel decided to change its tune and succumb to the will of the #AAIronFist activists, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve changed the race of a character from comics to either reflect a more diverse world, embrace a capable actor of colour, or attempt to smooth out problematic stereotypes in the source material. That said, there have also been times Marvel’s attempts at changing a character’s race didn’t always work out as intended — especially for traditionally Asian characters.
With that in mind, let’s take a brief look back at the studio’s history with race-bending in the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
2008: Ho Yinsen
In the comics, Tony Stark was originally captured by a Vietnemese communist warlord and helped through the ordeal by Doctor Ho Yinsen, another Vietnamese. When the origin story was updated for a modern audience in later issues, it was retconned that Stark and Yinsen acually met as prisoners of the Taliban—but in the comics, Yinsen’s ethnicity remained the same. In the movie version, he was played by Iranian actor Shaun Toub instead.There aren’t very many Middle Eastern characters in the current MCU either, of course, and the updated story certainly added to the emotional power of Stark’s introductory film. But despite this, the casting change also set a very odd precedence for erasing East Asian characters from the MCU, which continued well into Iron Man 3.
2008: Nick Fury
The very first modern-era Marvel movie also introduced its first race-bent character—although not really, if you know your comics history. In 2001, Marvel Comics launched a rebooted, younger take on the Marvel Universe, including a spin on The Avengers called “Ultimates.” As part of this, writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch created a new version of S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury who looked exactly like actor Samuel L. Jackson. “Sam is famously the coolest man alive and both myself and artist Bryan Hitch just liberally used him without asking any kind of permission,” Millar recounted to Business Insider on the decision.
Jackson definitely noticed, though, and approached the company. But rather than suing them for likeness rights, he used it as leverage to get himself a role. “They were kind of like, ‘Yeah, we are planning on making movies, and we do hope you’ll be a part of them,’” Jackson recalled to The LA Times. And the rest is history.
While he’s a relatively minor character in Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Heimdall was the centre of an all-too familiar debate when director Kenneth Branagh chose to cast actor Idris Elba in the role—to the point where a white supremacist group even started a petition against him.
“I was cast in Thor and I’m cast as a Nordic god,” Elba told TV Times, via the Guardian. “If you know anything about the Nords, they don’t look like me, but there you go. I think that’s a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that’s good.”
2013: The Mandarin
The Mandarin is one of the most iconic Iron Man villains—but as a Chinese communist with magic powers, he was also a fairly egregious example of the “Yellow Peril” trope, where Asian characters are depicted as cunning and Machiavellian conquerors a la Fu Manchu. Iron Man 3 chose to subvert that by making their version of the Mandarin a fictional figurehead who appropriates ancient warrior cultures, but in the process they also gave the role to Ben Kinglsey, a British Indian actor with no East Asian ancestry.
As director Shane Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce explained to Screenrant, this version of the villain was meant to be a condemnation of fear against “very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what’s behind them.” However, for many critics, Pearce and Black’s attempt to re-contextualize the Mandarin came at the cost of Asian representation, which Chow especially feels is possible even while setting him up as a villain.
“The fact that you feel like the only way you can address stereotypes is by erasing Asian people from the story is the wrong way to go. You can make villains complex characters,” he said. “Look at The Joker in The Dark Knight or even Loki. Who’s the most well regarded character in the cinematic universe—it’s Loki! So of course The Mandarin is a problematic trope, but there are ways of addressing that.” “If you’re a smart writer, there’s ways you can address that.”
2015: Daisy Johnson
In the second season of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. it was revealed that Skye (Chloe Bennet) was actually Daisy Johnson, a minor character from Marvel’s comics who was previously coded as white. At the Super Asian American panel at Comic-Con this year, Bennet addressed how being able to play Marvel’s first “on screen Asian American superhero” (not counting super-agent Melinda May, of course) affected her.
“Daisy Johnson in the comics is not Asian,” Bennet said, also telling the crowd that going by the name “Chloe Wang” often made it difficult for her to get cast when she first came to L.A. “And they made the conscious choice to make her an Asian American superhero. Which is amazing.”
2015: Ben Urich
In the comics, Ben Urich is white, but Daredevil instead gave the role to black actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. Which was great, because he really brought the world-weary savviness that the character needs—until he was murdered by Wilson Fisk, something that does not happen in the original source material and which struck many viewers as a needless example of PoC characters being disposable in high-stakes stories (otherwise known as the “black dude dies first” trope).
The entire cast of Big Hero 6
While this collaboration between Marvel an Disney Studios was an adorable, inclusive, racially and ethnically diverse cast of characters that featured a personable Asian lead, there were some who criticized the film for deviating from the All-Asian team, from Marvel’s source material. Especially in the case of Fred, who started out as member of the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic minority in Japan, and was turned into a white character for the movie. Still others pointed out that the original characters were themselves offensive stereotypes, and lauded the film’s attempt at diversity.
2016: The Ancient One and Baron Mordo
While we know little about how Doctor Strange (which, like Iron Fist, also involves a white lead becoming the ultimate power in Eastern mysticism) will manifest next year, we do know that Marvel is experimenting heavily with changing how they cast the characters of the film. Baron Mordo, a traditionally white villain, will be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and The Ancient One, a Tibetan character who serves as Strange’s mentor, is being played by Tilda Swinton.
Already, critics have complained that erasing the Tibetan ancestry of The Ancient One isn’t the right way to address how “he” reflects the outdated “wise old mentor” trope—and that includes Chow, who thinks there’s a better way to approach these characters—by moving past the stereotypes and creating deeper, more complex characters to both inhabit and subvert them. In particular he cited Mr Miyagi from Karate Kid, who’s one of the most celebrated and interesting Asian characters in Western Cinema despite; or Amadeus Cho, a Marvel Comics character who started out as a high school math genius and grew into a fully realized
“The way you deal with stereotypes is not through erasure,” Chow said. “You don’t erase people in order to address stereotypes. The way you address stereotypes is giving those characters nuance and depth and layers.”
So while Marvel has made a reputation for itself recently by updating their roster of heroes to include more people of colour, when it comes to their self-produced movies and TV shows they’ve only really dared to change the races of the characters who don’t appear as prominently—and in the process they’ve whitewashed some of their most prominent Asian characters, too. The only exception to this so far is Daisy Johnson in S.H.I.E.L.D., who has arguably grown into the series’ lead (and it shouldn’t go unnoticed that S.H.I.E.L.D. is the only story that’s produced by an Asian creator, showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen, and that the show also features another prominent Asian American who can kick just as much butt as any Avenger—surprise, more POC creators lead to better POC characters!)
Of course, as a story set in a fictional Asian country, Iron Fist will have more opportunities for Asian actors than any other Marvel property to date even if Danny Rand is white. But that’s not enough according to Chow and the rest of the activists rallying behind the #AAIronFist hashtag. As with all Western-produced martial arts-specific stories, they fear a scenario where Asians play the mentors, villains, and “faceless goons” that the hero must encounter (think the ninja subplot in “Daredevil” for a more recent example), but almost never the leading man himself.
“If you don’t cast an Asian Iron Fist, the show’s still going to be full of those [goons],” Chow remarked. “Those things are still going to be there, so you’re not really subverting any stereotypes. The way you subvert that stereotype is if you make the lead protagonist, who’s funny or kind of a smart-ass or flawed or who makes mistake or is romantic—if you make that guy Asian, you subvert every single martial arts stereotype.”
So will an Asian American Iron Fist win out in the end, as Chow and so many people on the Internet hope? Right now, it doesn’t seem likely. But at least we can hope that, as in the case with Daisy Johnson, Scott Buck, and the rest of the Iron Fist team recognize the importance of creating nuanced, complex Asian characters in their show… Even if they don’t consider someone Asian American for the lead.