Marvel and Netflix have released the first trailer for Iron Fist, which arrives on Netflix March 17. Iron Fist is the fourth and final member of the Defenders, comprising Iron Fist, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. The Defenders is scheduled for release later this year.
There has been simmering controversy surrounding Iron Fist for the past year regarding the race of the central hero. The role is played by Finn Jones (probably most well known for the Knight of Flowers on Game of Thrones). The character, Danny Rand/Iron Fist was introduced in 1974, and in Marvel’s comic book universe he is white. He’s a blond haired, blue-eyed son of a wealthy New York City businessman. So what’s the controversy?
Well, Iron Fist is a product of a period of 1970s stories steeped in tropes of orientalism, in which white artists and writers pulled from eastern traditions and used poorly represented adaptations to create a static, often underdeveloped culture that was available to edify western heroes only. These stories created a clear power structure of white heroes absconding with the knowledge of a culture which exists only to empower white heroes. Marvel has a slew of these stories form the era, but they were common on film and television as well (and throughout history, in all forms of art).
You know the ones, in which a white hero learns the discipline and skills of Asian tradition, only to out-master their masters and become the embodiment of a cultural heritage that really has nothing to do with white heroes or white writers in the but looks cool on camera?
The argument for racebending Danny Rand to create an Asian Iron Fist was made strongest last year by Nerds of Color editor Keith Chow. His case is well argued and worth a read. But now that the trailer has arrived, it’s plain to see that Marvel and Netflix missed an opportunity here by presenting yet another Netflix property hitting all the same measures as the stories that should be long behind us. Instead of providing Marvel their first Asian lead, instead of offering a role to a vastly underutilized demographic in Hollywood, they’ve opted for another rich white kid who learns the ways of (fill in the blank) and comes home to revenge (fill in the blank) because (_____) took over / killed (______). Add some mysticism and a mountain in Asia, and well, it’s just cliche enough to make everyone excited.
We’ve seen and read this story countless times in American popular culture, even from Marvel Studios as recently as last year, when Doctor Strange performed the very same role. Meanwhile, Asian American actors continue to fight for roles in Hollywood, and popular existing parts actually created as Asian characters, like Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell or The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, continue to be awarded to white actors.