Well folks, today’s the day that Netflix releases Iron Fist, the latest in a line of hugely popular Marvel Comics based shows. But unlike Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage – a great many nerds are wary of this latest series and how it will handle one controversial topic.
So here’s the objective of this article. I’m going to try to state what the concerns are, without hyperbole, and then I’m going to share two versions of what I’m hoping we’ll actually see in the show. No judgement, no outrage, no desperate pleas to shut up and give the show a chance – just cautious optimism and geeking out!
Oh, also, one of my two ideas will definitely not be possible. Let’s start!
What’s the (potential) problem with Iron Fist?
So what has such a large part of the internet upset? It gets a little complicated, but the basics are relatively easy to grasp. Iron Fist is a Marvel Comics character created in 1974, and was part of a 70s trend for martial arts heroes and stories. Unlike Marvel’s previous martial arts character, Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, Iron Fist was a White man, Danny Rand, son of a wealthy entrepreneur who happened upon the mystical city of K’un-L’un. There, Danny defeats the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying, and gains the mystical ancient power of the long lineage of Iron Fists.
At the time, martial arts media was hugely popular; Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong films were being received well in America despite a faltering US film career of his own (Lee did play Kato in 1966’s Green Hornet, but had limited success until he started making films overseas), Martial Art Movie Matinees were popular in theaters and on local TV stations, and the TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine in the lead, was a critically and commercially successful mix of a martial arts concept in an “traveling” Western show.
I bring up Kung Fu and Bruce Lee not just to illustrate how popular these martial arts stories were, but also to introduce the problematic nature of their popularity in that period. There’s significant evidence that Bruce Lee had pitched the original concept of the series, with him as a the lead, but the series was not given the green-light that way. David Carradine, a White man, was instead cast as Shaolin monk on a quest to find his half-brother.
Basically, along with the trend of telling martial arts stories came the trend of white-washing these stories. And there are lots of ways to white-wash a story; you can either recast Asian characters with White actors, as with Carradine playing a half-Asian character, or you can cast a White character as the central protagonist of a story that belongs to different culture – aka the White Savior Narrative.
There’s a long history of this trend that goes way past 1970s America. Effectively, if you perceive the audience of your product as being members of Culture A, and your intent is to expose this audience to the “exoticism” of Culture B, then it is relatively standard to have some anchoring character from Culture A to serve the role of audience surrogate, or less usefully, main protagonist of the story you are creating.
To some, Iron Fist is representative of a less-enlightened, less-informed, and less-interesting style of storytelling. It’s not just insulting to see White characters moving through Asian stories, it’s also unnecessary. We’re not turn-of-the-century audiences that cannot fathom “Darkest Africa” or the “Far East” – we live in a densely layered modern world forged of a vast array of influences.
Even if you believe a work of art should be interpreted through the period in which it was made, something that I can get behind, things get complicated when one work informs modern interpretations and remixes of that work. Maybe we can give early 20th century exploration novels about Shangri-La a pass as period pieces, but when those works inform 70s comics which inform present-day Netflix shows – we’re just keeping the problematic aspects of these stories alive for future generations. I get that Star Wars was inspired by old Republic Serials, but maybe we don’t need a Stepin Fetchit for the modern age? This is especially true when so much of our modern media is based off of legacy characters.
Then Why would anyone defend Iron Fist?!
Lots of good reasons! Iron Fist didn’t shy away from the question of race in the pages of the comics he appeared in. Danny Rand was most often paired up with Luke Cage in stories, and the two characters frequently had heated discussions regarding race and identity. Their team-up and in-world company, Heroes for Hire, INC. was beloved by fans and an excellent opportunity for Marvel to explore.
Iron Fist himself has been criticized and challenged by Asian-characters within his own fiction. Iron Fist is not, by default, a tiresome example of white-washing sans consequence.
The worry is that it could be.
So, what would we’d like to see in Netflix’s Iron Fist?
I’m glad you asked! With no further ado, I present to you…
Iron Fist: Stranger in a Strange Land
When the Iron Fist series was first announced, a lot of people wanted to resolve the problems they had with the character by casting an Asian in the role. Purist reacted predictably, saying that the character of Danny Rand has always been White, and that his “Americaness” and race were part of what made the stories about him unique. Effectively, Danny was a White-man trying to make sense in a mystical Asian world, and to make him Asian would be cutting off the conflict that made the character interesting.
This actually parallels issues with that 70s TV show, Kung Fu that I brought up above. When David Carradine was cast in the lead over Bruce Lee, the lead character in the show was re-imagined as a half-Asian man. Now, Kwai Chang Caine was on a quest to wander the American Old West searching for a half-brother (one must also assume that casting a White actor to play a half-Asian character was inexplicably seen as a “fair-compromise” at the time). With this new motivation in place, it seems hard to imagine the Kung Fu show without a half-Asian character as the protagonist. Why else would the character be in the American Old West? What other motivation could we give for the character’s wandering? Changing this would change the very basics of of the story you are trying to tell.
Only, it wouldn’t have. Asian’s lived in the American Old West. Caine ran into Chinese people throughout the series as extras and actors of the week. Oh, and also, Asian’s have brothers too.
There’s nothing stopping Danny Rand from being an Asian-American, raised in the US and lost to the roots of his culture like so many of us children of immigrant parents, or perhaps Danny can be the adopted child of White parents, as is also an increasing realty for so many of us. Unsure of his place in the world, Danny finds himself in the lost city and swallowed up by a culture not his own, but still his own. There are some incredibly powerful stories to be told here about identity and birthright and the weight of those two conceits. It pains me that this won’t be a story we’re getting.
Luckily, there is still one more, completely legit and canon way to do Iron Fist right…
Iron Fist: Check Your Privilege
I don’t think you can solve your problems by ignoring them. Just pretending that this White character wasn’t the savior of Mystical-Asia for four decades worth of publications, and re-imaging the role as an Asian character, isn’t incredibly satisfactory to me. I would much rather that Danny Rand be taken to task for what he is.
Have Danny Rand constantly face questions regarding his motivation, about how much good he’s actually doing, about how wielding power taken from a people is fraught with consequences. To be honest, this is already being tackled in the best of the comics! Danny has had to face his privilege time and again, and this just makes his journey more interesting and more relatable for everyone. Questioning what rights any superhero has to wield their power has become a mainstay in modern comics stories, and the fact that Iron Fist gains his strengths through a cultural legacy not his own just makes that story-arc more relevant than ever.
Discussing privilege is a complicated area. Too often people feel attacked when dealing with it, or silenced when bringing it up. We create fiction to help us deal with the realities of our life while simultaneously punching bad-guys in the face, it would be a disservice if we didn’t use this opportunity to turn an excellent character into a force for literal good, while still maintaining everything wonderful about that character.