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The fight over Marvel’s Iron Fist, its next Netflix hero, explained

Iron Fist.
Iron Fist.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Marvel's Iron Fist has appeared in the comics juggernaut's various stories and superhero teams for the past 41 years.

The character is a skilled martial artist whose abilities are right up there with those of the greatest superheroes alive; he can tap into a mystical energy called the Iron Fist, a craft he honed in the mystical city of K'un-L'un with the master known as Lei Kung. His defining feat is defeating Shou-Lao, an event that left him with a dragon tattoo burned into his chest and the power of the Iron Fist. He even helped save the world when the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix threatened it.

On paper, Iron Fist's origin story and the names, places, and symbolism associated with the character make him sound like a prominent Asian-American hero in the Marvel comic universe.

Instead, he's a blond, green-eyed man named Danny Rand. And now there's a movement to rewrite his comic book portrayal and make him Asian American when the character lands on Netflix in 2016.

The stakes for Iron Fist — one of five planned TV series in a multi-show deal between Marvel and Netflix — are high. Marvel has carved out a nifty little pocket for itself on the streaming service, where it can tell darker, more isolated stories (at least in comparison to its blockbuster movies). The two Netflix series it's launched so far, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, are daring and tragic, full of prestige and swagger.

And so its next two series, Luke Cage and Iron Fist — the last two before Jones, Daredevil, Cage, and Iron Fist team up to become the Defenders — will be met with a lot of anticipation and hype.

Regardless of the character's race on the new show, Iron Fist will be huge. And rewriting him as Asian American would be history-making for Marvel: Iron Fist would be the first Asian-American superhero to appear onscreen. But doing so will mean fighting against 40-plus years of comic book canon.

Iron Fist is a lot like the worst parts of The Last Samurai

The fundamental thing to understand about Iron Fist is that he's a conceptually flawed character; his origin story presents him as both a "white savior" and a "best Asian" figure. He's a blond boy who travels to a pseudo-Asian land, where he trains as a martial artist and becomes the best fighter among an entire society of Asian people — so good that he takes down the baddest bad guys. There's no reason why an Asian man or woman from K'un-L'un, someone who's trained her whole life, couldn't do what he does. Yet it's the white Danny Rand who saves the day.

This type of story — a white man feels like an outsider in a society that doesn't understand him, but eventually becomes the alpha dog of said society — is something we've seen time and time again, in films like Avatar, Kill Bill, and even the tire fire that was Aloha.

A lot of this stems from the era in which Iron Fist was created. Editor Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane debuted the character in 1974, in Marvel Premiere No. 15. That year marked the beginning of the martial arts movie craze in the US, as Bruce Lee films like Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1973), and Enter the Dragon (1973) became popular. Marvel's comic book would reflect this monumental moment in culture.

Kane's kinetic art is steeped in stereotypical Asian imagery, and Thomas's words were stylized versions of what was presented in the movies: dragons, jade, fighting stances, and names like Yu-Ti and Lung-Wang:

Marvel Premiere No. 15. (Marvel)

There's a hefty bit of Orientalism here, as Kane and Thomas imagine this pseudo-Asian society to be a mystical land of martial artists instead of a modern Asian civilization. In 2016, we have a much better understanding of why this depiction of Asia is shopworn and clichéd, especially given that some Asian countries are just as technologically advanced as the US (if not more). And today's superhero movies reflect as much; just look at the depiction of Korea's technology in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But at the time, Thomas and Kane were reflecting and amplifying a vision of Asia that was common in pop culture:

Of course, this isn't to say that Asian culture (K'un L'un is a composite, Orientalist view of Japan and China) and Asian people are the only victims of cartoonish, casually insensitive comic book portrayals (see: Captain America No. 186, when Sam Wilson is turned into a pimp). Writers and artists are imperfect creatures. Sometimes they make mistakes, which many of them go on to learn from. It's just easier to see them in hindsight.

The curious case of Danny Rand

Rand's story isn't so different from that of heroes like Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker. While Danny is hiking in the Himalayas with his father Wendell, his mother Heather, and his dad's business partner Harold Meachum, Wendell suffers a freak accident that leaves him hanging off the side of a mountain. Meachum has the chance to save him, but instead backstabs him and lets him fall to his doom. Meachum then abandons Danny and his mother. And just when it seems things can't get any worse, his mother sacrifices herself to wolves so that Danny can survive:

Marvel Premiere No. 15. (Marvel)

Just as Danny is watching his mom become wolf chow, the mysterious dwellers of K'un-L'un materialize and take him in. Then, like any good superhero, Rand vows to avenge his parents' death and take out Meachum. He does this by pledging his life to martial arts under the tutelage of his master Lei Kung:

Marvel Premiere No. 15. (Marvel)

Through vanquishing bad guys, Rand ultimately fulfills his role as the "best Asian." He eventually joins the Avengers, and since becoming a member of the team, he's vacillated between the second and third tiers of its heavy hitters.

He's even helped save the world a few times — most notably in the 2012 Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, where he played a pivotal role in teaching the story's protagonist, Hope Summers, how to control her powers and prevent the destruction of the planet.

In more recent years, writers have begun to calibrate the character and to treat the Asian aspects of Rand's life with respect. The writing has improved and become more aware. One of my favorite Iron Fist arcs is from writer Matt Fraction and main artist David Aja, which ran from 2007 to 2008 and featured a more human iteration of the character. Immortal Iron Fist No. 16, one of the best stories the two produced, seems tailor-made for the Netflix series to adapt, as it sees Danny pondering love, his life, his destiny, and his own mortality:

Immortal Iron Fist No. 16. (Marvel)

In the best Iron Fist stories, K'un-L'un and the "Asian" parts of his story don't just exist for Rand's betterment. But sometimes that has meant ignoring the training aspects of his origin story and distancing the character from his own background as writers and artists began to realize how awkward his past portrayal was.

The case for making Iron Fist Asian

The main argument is simple: Netflix's Iron Fist should be played by an Asian or Asian-American actor because the character's story is an Asian or Asian-American one. Granted, the myth of K'un L'un and Rand's world were created by white men who were pushing out a mythologized view of Asian culture. But that doesn't mean it can't be improved.

One of the most vocal advocates in the fight to make Iron Fist an Asian man is Keith Chow, founder of the website the Nerds of Color. In 2014, Chow put forth an idea for how Marvel can do so:

[I]f Danny is Asian American, the scenes of him embracing the ways of K’un-L’un can be viewed through the lens of cultural re-connection. In fact, I’d play up Danny’s rejection of his Asian heritage prior to venturing to China. I know as someone who similarly connected to my cultural heritage later in life, that story would be deeply resonant to me.

Chow's idea makes sense. His vision could do away with the problematic exoticism and "white savior" complex associated with Iron Fist in the past. There isn't any part of Danny's background, other than the way the character was originally drawn, that makes him explicitly white or explicitly not-Asian. And there are many arguments to be made, based on his values, the people he looks up to, and the people he calls family, that he should be an Asian character.

Switching Iron Fist's ethnicity would also make him Marvel's first Asian or Asian-American superhero. While the company's comics have become beacons of diversity in recent years, the superheroes we see in movies and on television — mediums which are much more visible to the general public than the comic books they're based on — are still dominated by white men.

It won't be until the releases of Black Panther in 2018 and Captain Marvel in 2019 that a nonwhite Marvel superhero and a female superhero, respectively, will have their own solo films. Meanwhile, the upcoming Dr. Strange flick has been criticized for whitewashing a character called the Ancient One, who is historically Asian but will be played onscreen by Tilda Swinton.

And while superhero television shows are already a bit more diverse and representative thanks to series like Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Luke Cage, Asian or Asian-American superheroes are still lacking. (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be the exception, with Chloe Bennet playing an Inhuman named Daisy and Ming-Na Wen playing a special agent.)

But if Iron Fist isn't the first Asian superhero Marvel to get a solo show, it's unclear when there will be another opportunity for the company to debut one, or if there'd ever even be one.

The Tiger Lily conundrum: the case against making Iron Fist an Asian man

Whenever a comic book superhero's race or gender is changed and that character is put in a movie or on television, there's often uproar from comic book purists who believe the movie or show isn't being respectful to the comic book source material.

And that feeling unfortunately has the tendency to devolve into out-and-out racism. Look no further than the hate Michael B. Jordan faced when he was cast as the Human Torch or that Idris Elba faced when he was cast as Heimdall in Thor. Not all comic book purists are racists, but these racist attacks are usually couched in comic book purism.

This irrational ugliness is something the comic book community hasn't yet figured out how to solve.

A more compelling argument about keeping Iron Fist a blond white guy is rooted in what I call the Tiger Lily conundrum. In the original story of Peter Pan, Tiger Lily and her Piccaninnies are dated, offensive caricatures of Native American people. But rather than remove or rewrite the character of Tiger Lily, there seems to be a general consensus that someone of Native American descent should portray her; in 2014 some people felt that the character was whitewashed when Rooney Mara was cast to play her in the 2015 film Pan.

It's a no-win situation without a rewrite: You either have an actress in redface or you have a Native American actress playing a Native American trope.

You can make the same kind of argument with Iron Fist.

"[H]e'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," Albert Ching, Comic Book Resources managing editor, wrote in a recent op-ed, arguing that the character is built on Asian stereotypes and that casting an Asian-American actor in the role would be predictable.

"Why not an Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange?" Ching asks. "When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it'll be cause for celebration."

But Chow might counter that argument by saying that Asian people should feel some sense of ownership or pride — that an Asian superhero who is gifted in martial arts doesn't have to be a cliché.

"Making the lead guy white doesn’t fix that; it makes it worse, relegating Asian martial artists only to the roles of villains, mentors, and goons, rather than letting an Asian martial artist lead the story," he wrote at Comics Alliance.

The fight for Iron Fist is bigger than what's on Netflix

Over the past few years, there's been a concentrated push by many people in the entertainment industry for all works of American pop culture to reflect what America's population actually looks like. As part of that push, there's been a yearning for Asian-American representation, and for more shows like ABC's Fresh Off the Boat (which focuses on an Asian-American family) and The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (where the show's romantic interest, Josh, is Filipino). And with these shows, there's been a closer examination of what the Asian-American experience means.

Last month, Marvel announced that Scott Buck (who served as a producer on Six Feet Under and Dexter) would be Iron Fist's executive producer and showrunner. Currently, there are rumors floating that he'll be keeping the character true to the comics, though no official casting has been announced.

It's not yet clear when the casting decision will be made, but regardless of who lands the role, as long as people feel that superhero movies and TV shows aren't diverse or representative enough, this fight won't stop with Iron Fist.

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