From CBR (Albert Ching):
I am an Asian-American pop culture enthusiast who longs for greater diversity in all respects, and greater representation of my own culture on screen and in comics, where Asian-Americans are often much too difficult to find. It's a major problem and something I've opined passionately about for years, including on this site.
But I don't want an Asian-American Iron Fist.
Yes, we need more Asian-Americans in live-action superhero fare and pop culture in general. Yes, we need more non-white male lead characters in superhero fare. But making the first Asian lead of aMarvel or DC Comics-based project a character primarily identified for proficiency in martial arts would be a move that could potentially further stereotypes and restrict progress for Asians on screen.
Iron Fist is a complicated character. He was created in 1974 by comics legends Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, and introduced by Marvel Comics during a period where the publisher was looking to capitalize on the success of martial arts films. Like most Marvel characters up to that point, he's a white male -- despite the fact that the stars of those martial arts films were not. That became a part of his story, with Danny Rand seen as an outsider in that world, and the "Mighty Whitey" trope was deliberately subverted during Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and David Aja's acclaimed run on "Immortal Iron Fist," which established Danny as one of multipleImmortal Weapons -- not simply a white guy who was better than all Asians at something that had been part of their culture for centuries.
It's likely that Marvel Television and Netflix are close to announcing a lead actor for "Iron Fist," which will debut as the fourth Marvel-based Netflix series following the currently in production "Luke Cage." Just this week, Scott Buck was confirmed as the showrunner for the series, the first firm announcement connected to the show. There has been a very positive campaign for the live-action Iron Fist to be cast as an Asian-American actor, with sites such as Nerds of Color leading the charge, and fans offering up several richly deserving potential candidates for the role. The argument, and it's a sound one, is that casting an Asian-American Iron Fist would be a way of course-correcting what could be a problematic character -- something of a "white savior" -- while also adding much-needed diversity to Marvel's live-action roster.
Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja and Travel Foreman's "Iron Fist" series touched on the problematic overtones presented by a white character who is better than all Asians at something that had been part of their culture for centuries
What troubles me is that this is the only superhero character that has received a groundswell of support for casting an Asian-American actor. There's a huge number of major Marvel characters who could have easily been cast as Asian-Americans, and as far as I can tell, no one considered it seriously. Why not an Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange? When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it'll be cause for celebration. It's happening right now in Marvel Comics, with Amadeus Cho as Greg Pak and Frank Cho's thoroughly non-stereotypical "Totally Awesome Hulk." While increased visibility for Asian-Americans is a good thing, the idea that Iron Fist is "the" character to make Asian-American feels like further locking a population into a single perception, where the primary utility of an Asian in action-driven entertainment is to be good at martial arts.
To be very clear, my stance isn't driven by a stodgy devotion to the source material. I'd prefer it if Iron Fist weren't Asian-American, but that doesn't mean I think the character has to be white. A Black Iron Fist, Latino Iron Fist or Middle-Eastern Iron Fist all could be compelling, would similarly add diversity and further challenge established perceptions of the character, and what a Marvel superhero represents. Also, there would be no issue with an Asian-American Iron Fist were it not to be the first major Asian-American superhero in a modern comic book-based property. If we already had, say, an Asian-American Ant-Man, an Asian-American Iron Fist would send an entirely different message at that point. Marvel has made great strides on its "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." TV series, which stars two Chinese-American performers in non-stereotypical roles as major parts of its ensemble -- Chloe Bennett as the superpowered Daisy Johnson/Quake, and Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May -- and DC is on the verge of introducing a Hawaiian Aquaman with Jason Momoa, but there still isn't a major headlining superhero played by an actor of East Asian descent, creating an opportunity to do something progressive and unexpected.
It's not just a martial arts thing, either -- yes, martial arts are a major part of Asian culture and there's no reason to deny or diminish that. It's not the only part of Asian culture, though, and in action-based genres, it frequently feels like the only part Asians are allowed to participate in. And while many comics characters use martial arts -- Daredevil, Batman and so many more -- there's no denying that, outwardly, it is "the" main trait of Iron Fist. That's not fair or accurate, as there's plenty more to the character, who's also a Hero for Hire, an Avenger, a lifelong friend and partner to Luke Cage and a soon-to-be Defender. But he's defined by martial arts much more than other superheroes who just happen to use martial arts -- and it's problematic if that's the first lead white comics character to be readily accepted on screen as played by an Asian-American.
I'm keeping an open mind about whatever Marvel and Netflix choose to do with Iron Fist. Given the stellar track record established by "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones," the two entities likely know exactly what they're doing and how to make "Iron Fist" a high-quality product. If Iron Fist is cast as an Asian-American, it will still be a victory for diversity and representation, even if it's not quite the victory I'm hoping for. An Asian-American Iron Fist could very well be very good -- but when it comes to pushing for greater diversity and greater representation, there's no reason to settle for "good enough."
Hello everyone! I don't know if Albert reads the forums, but I registered specifically to post this response, as another Asian American who has grown up on comics. The most important thing is that a diversity of voices should be chiming in on this subject. Asian Americans are not a monolith and we don't all have the same opinions on things. Albert is also clearly an authoritative voice on the field.
With all that said, and with all due respect, I completely disagree with him.
I'm actually all for Asian Americans being cast as martial arts experts because I believe in reclaiming our culture rather than rejecting it. Eastern martial arts have been so blatantly appropriated in western media that the biggest and baddest fighters in both the DC and Marvel universes are white men. It reeks of Mighty Whitey and it's also typically accompanied by Mellow Yellow.
And Albert even acknowledges this, and yes, Immortal Iron Fist subverted these tropes, but the fact remains that Danny Rand is still a white Iron Fist and he's still the star of the show. That's what matters. It doesn't matter that he isn't the best Iron Fist and there are loads of Asian Iron Fists that have been better than him. It matters that he's yet another white man in comics being represented, and no matter how you dress it up, the fact that he's white carries a lot of imperialist baggage. Could you imagine the mantle of Black Panther being taken up by a white successor? Even if he was an inferior Black Panther to T'Challa? A move like that would be very harshly criticized by comic book fans, and very rightly so, yet there's always a magical exception when this same trope gets applied to white characters and Asian culture.
Yes, there are lots of other characters we could reboot as Asian. I've had a 15 year running joke with my Korean geek friends that Peter Parker should be rebooted as Peter Park -- a science geek from Queens with strict parents, a penchant for photography, goes to an Ivy League school (Empire State University is based on Columbia University), and has a wiseass sense of humor. That describes like half of the Korean American dudes living in NYC. But let's face it, that hasn't been happening. Did Marvel announce a new Totally Awesome Hulkmovie starring an Asian American lead? No, but maybe they would if an Iron Fist show with an Asian American lead becomes a big kid.
Growing up as a kid, there were only two shows I remember starring Asian male leads. Those shows were Mortal Kombat: Conquest and Black Sash. Both were short-lived, both the protagonists were martial artists, but their characterizations went beyond that. Martial arts was just something they were good at it. It wasn't who they were. Both of those shows depicted their Asian leads as three dimensional characters with struggles, romances, and hopes. I am completely fine with the Asian martial arts master trope if it doesn't (1) define the character, (2) dehumanize the character (by making him emotionless, sexless, etc), and (3) opens up the market to get Asian American actors more work. If kung fu is the buy-in for all those things, then I'm willing to pay.
Speaking of which, the only two videogames I've ever played starring Asian American leads were True Crime: Streets of LA and Sleeping Dogs. In the case for Sleeping Dogs, the developers went all-out making an amazing Asian American/Canadian production, and I mean aaaaalllll out. Will Yun Lee, Edison Chen, Kelly Hu, Elizabeth Sung, Ian Anthony Dale, Tzi Ma, Robin Shou, Lucy Liu, James Hong, Steph Song, Celina Jade, Parry Shen, Ron Yuan -- the list goes on. I had never seen so much Asian diaspora talent in one piece of media before. What I think Albert is failing to see is how Iron Fist can be a great stepping stone to other diverse roles. I absolutely think someone like Dr. Strange would make a fantastic reboot as an Asian character, and one day I'm looking forward to that happening, but I also think an Asian American Iron Fist is the best shot we have to making that happen.
Michael B. Jordan started getting attention when he starred on The Wire and was identified as A-list potential for Fruitvale Station. In The Wire, he plays an inner city Baltimore kid who becomes a drug informant and in Fruitvale Station he plays a former prison that gets gunned down by police. Are those stereotypes? Absolutely they can be, but only if the writing in those movies made those characters one-dimensional. But they didn't. Those characters were fully fleshed out. In most of these cases, it's not the tropes that condemn the characters to being one-dimensional but rather what the writers do with the tropes.
Luke Cage was a character inspired by blaxploitation movies. He's a former gangster and ex-con from Harlem who rages out and is super strong. That's a minefield of problematic content but the writers prevent that from being a stereotype. That important thing is, despite those tropes, a black man is getting three-dimensional treatment in a genre that's still overwhelming straight and white male. Asian Americans need someone highly visible in comics and Iron Fist is the perfect opportunity.
With the work that Marvel has demonstrated on Daredevil and Jessica Jones, an Asian American Iron Fist won't be a stereotype. He'll be a reclamation. The white dude in exotic foreign land trope has been done to death, especially when it involves martial arts and the white guy becoming a samurai or ninja or whatever other bullshit. Let's have a story about an Asian American guy regaining a culture that was robbed or hidden from him, and the psychology and drama that goes behind navigating that.
Coincidentally, this is also why Superman is my favorite DC hero. He's the last of his kind, he's always hungry to learn more about his parents and the people he never got to know, he's always collecting Kryptonian relics, etc. I think Superman has a lot of deep parallels with the Asian American experience but that's for another post.
An Asian American Iron Fist will also mean a lot more Asian actors in general being involved in the casting. I've been watching Sleepy Hollow with a friend of mine, a show which has a lot of important characters of color, arguably more than the white characters. Lieutenant Abbie Mills, one of the two protagonists, is a black woman. What does that mean? Well, it means that Abbie's sisters, parents, and extended family are all black, so they have to cast black actors for all those roles. The premise of Sleepy Hollow is about two fated saviors that will stop an upcoming apocalypse and the story spans different time periods. What does that mean? Well, it means that Abbie's ancestors must also be black. It created a domino effect that led to a lot more minority characters and thus minority actors being represented. That was a small but very profound observation.
There's a more riding on an Asian American Iron Fist than "Asian guy does kung fu". It means more opportunities for Asian Americans, more representation for Asian Americans simply on the basis that you have to make Iron Fist's family Asian, and a much more interesting story about an Asian American kid discovering a culture that's been hidden from him all this time rather than the hundreds of stories we've already seen about a white guy going to some Asian country, mastering martial arts in a few years, becoming the white savior, and hooking up with the native girl. An Asian American Iron Fist would actually directly subvert all the problems we've been saddled with.