Marvel commits to white Iron Fist despite racist roots
Here we go again. Entertainment Weekly just announced that Marvel and Netflix have found their Iron Fist. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) has been tapped to play Danny Rand in the upcoming series Iron Fist. I enjoy Jones’ take on Loras Tyrell but I’d be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by this choice.
Disappointed, but not surprised.
Marvel has made a stab at diversified casting when it comes to black characters — including changing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), and Baron Mordo’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) race, adding Falcon to the line-up and the introduction of Luke Cage. They’ve even made attempts to include Latino culture with Luis (Michael Peña) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). But for some reason, they keep fumbling at the one-yard line when it comes to representation of Asian cultures. We have Skye (Chloe Bennet), Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) and Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho). But there have been several opportunities for Marvel to not only cast an Asian actor in a major role but to do so in a way that begins to repair some of the racist damage caused by the source materials 1960s and 1970s Yellow Peril.
I’ve talked at length before about how casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange was the easy way out for Marvel. Casting an Asian actor in that role would mean having to find a way write the character without crossing over into a racist stereotype. Now the same thing has been done again by casting a white actor as Iron Fist. Yes, Iron Fist has always been a white character. But looking back at both his origin and history through a modern lens, Danny Rand becomes a poster child for appropriation.
Created in 1974, Iron Fist first appeared in MARVEL PREMIERE #15. Co-creator Roy Thomas even attributed watching Bruce Lee movies as inspiration for Iron Fist’s inception. So straight out of the gate, you have a white character standing on the shoulders of a person of color. Then in his origin story, Danny Rand is the son of a wealthy American named Wendell Rand and Rand’s socialite wife, Heather Duncan. During a vacation when Danny is a child, shenanigans happened, and Danny was left orphaned in the Himalayas. The mystical K’un-Lun found and trained Danny, eventually bestowing upon him the title of the Iron Fist. Danny was 66th Iron Fist…and the first white person to claim the title. To recap: an ostensibly Asian — and alien — culture gifts a white boy with power. That’s the Mighty Whitey trope all over. Other than the standard operating procedure of defaulting stories to being about straight white men, there is no reason for Danny Rand to be white. But lots of reasons for him NOT to be.
You could dedicate whole articles to dissecting Marvel’s Asian-Land amalgamation from the mid-20th century, and the racism underlying many Asian comic book characters and settings. The source material definitely puts Marvel in a tough spot. Cast an Asian actor and risk being seen as racist…or cast a white actor and risk being seen as racist.
One would hope Marvel would err on the side of progress and find a way to simply write Asian characters that aren’t inherently racist. This was the idea behind #AsianAmericanIronFist movement on social media. Yes, Danny Rand has always been a white character, so casting Finn Jones’ isn’t whitewashing. But it IS a missed opportunity. I’ve been helping beat the drum to cast an Asian character as Iron Fist, not because the character is a martial artist, but because the character is steeped in Asian culture.
From Daredevil to Shatterstar, Marvel has a history of white martial artists. Which is fine. But imagine how much more layered Iron Fist would be had, say, Alex Wong, had been cast. He could still be the son of a wealthy American. Exploring the dissonance between a 2nd or 3rd generation Asian-American and their cultural ancestry would’ve added both a narrative angle and finally given Marvel an Asian superhero. And it’s not like Disney hasn’t dabbled in this plot structure before. Just take American Dragon: Jake Long and turn it into an adult show. Boom! Iron Fist. But no. Instead, we get another white guy.