Iron Fist has caused quite a controversy since the Netflix series announcement, with the casting of a white male and — basically, that was it. The main complaint against Iron Fist is that they cast a white male in the role.
Some you might be confused as to why, seeing as Danny Rand, a.k.a Iron Fist has always been a white male in the comics. So what exactly is the controversy? Before we can even attempt to debunk the issue, we need to look at both sides and the argument.
Here Is Why Some People Are Angry, And Some People Are Not
People were very angry when the casting of Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones as the titular hero was announced. With many people crying whitewashing in regards to a lot of other recent casting controversies, this was not the case. Instead, the claim was made that Marvel owed it to the Asian community to turn their major martial arts hero, who has deep connections to Asian culture, into an Asian American.
So the problem wasn’t whitewashing; people felt that because Iron Fist is a martial arts character and is connected to Asian culture, he should be Asian. We also have to acknowledge that the idea of cultural appropriation has been a hot topic in the US.
Cultural Appropriation Definition: the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture
Just to define what counts as cultural appropriation and what doesn’t is a minefield. Some have very strict rules regarding the topic, believing that adapting aspects of a culture you aren’t born into is an insult to the people of the culture because you take the good of the culture without the bad.
The other side argues that nobody owns a culture and it isn’t necessarily connected to an ethnicity, making the point that different cultures who live closely together in communities naturally influence each other and borrow aspects from each other. They also believe that this isn’t a bad thing, but something to be celebrated.
It Was Bad Timing
Many fans would agree that Iron Fist caught so much criticism because it was pulled into the controversy of a different Marvel property, Doctor Strange.
Marvel Studios was already under attack regarding its supposedly insensitive treatment of Asian culture after the casting of white British actress Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who is an Asian man in the comics. Many called it whitewashing, but Marvel pretty quickly explained why casting a Tibetan character is currently impossible, with the political climate surrounding the autonomous region of Tibet. Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill said on a Double Toasted podcast that whatever Marvel did, it would have caused controversy and might have even gotten the movie banned in China, one of Marvel Studios biggest markets:
“The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet … If you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
But most fans didn’t care about the reason why Marvel made the change. The casting of Iron Fist, a white character connected to Asian culture, was just another point for outrage and an opportunity for certain groups of people to write a pattern of discrimination into the matter.
Should Iron Fist Be Asian From a Story Perspective?
Now that you understand the complicated nature of the controversy, let’s take a look at this situation from a standpoint only a few may take: Does it make sense for Iron Fist to be Asian?
To be quite frank, not really. Iron Fist being a white upper-class American is, essential to his story. You can argue for him to be black, or from any other minority group, but to argue that Iron Fist should be Asian because his story is connected to that culture (a fictional and mystified version of it) shows a lack of understanding of the character. That’s why we have to go through the story of Iron Fist to understand why not being Asian is important to his narrative.
The Story Behind Iron Fist
Iron Fist, when you boil it down, is an outsider story. Danny’s father Wendell was an outsider, an orphan discovered in the city of K’un-Lun and saved by that city’s ruler Lord Tuan, who adopted Wendell and placed him under the tutelage of Lei Kung, who saw potential in the foreigner. Wendell trained hard in this foreign culture to become the Iron Fist, but this would mean having to fight his closest friend and the son of his mentor, Davos.
Wendell won the fight, but Davos couldn’t accept that his friend, an outsider, could beat him or carry the mantle of the Iron Fist. This hatred spurred Davos to try to take the power of the Iron Fist for himself — but this attempt caused his brutal “death” (it’s comics, people) at the hand of the mystical dragon who grants this power. This led to Wendell departing K’un-Lun without becoming the next Iron Fist. Back on US soil, Wendell made a fortune by founding his own company.
Many years later, Wendell decided to visit his adopted home with his wife and son. But a freak accident resulted in the death of the elder Rand and his wife. The now-orphaned Danny was rescued by the people of K’un-Lun, who took him in and gave him the chance to prove he could become the next Iron Fist just like his father did.
The Importance Of Iron Fist Not Being Asian
To pull this all together, Danny and his family being outsiders to an Asian culture and to K’un-Lun are one of the driving forces behind the story. While you could argue that an Asian American could still be seen as an outsider, the counter argument is simple. Having a White American, makes him physically an outsider, if he was an Asian American he might find common ground with the people of K’un-Lun and he would eventually just fit in with the rest of the people, but a White American will never completely fit into K’un-Lun, even if he adapts to the culture, he is truly an outsider who doesn’t share any cultural or ethnicity based similarities with the people of K’un-Lun. They will always see him as different.
At its core, it’s the story of a person you would expect to never come into contact with discrimination or many big struggles to gain success. A white American born into fortune, being thrown into a situation where he is the minority and who has to prove himself twice as much to his adopted community, is actually something people should celebrate. This is a story that shows everyone can be an outsider somewhere and why we shouldn’t deny people opportunities on the basis of not fitting the image of what they want to do if they have the ability. Which is a common theme between all the Defenders. They break expectations.
Asian American actors asking for more representation and more leading roles is a valid wish and shouldn’t be ignored, but Iron Fist is a show with a long list of Asian actors attached to it. Complaining about lack of diversity especially in regards to Marvel Netflix seems to be almost pulled out of thin air. After all, this partnership gave us shows for these two.