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The outrage over Marvel’s Iron Fist casting, explained

Actor Finn Jones attends the Game Of Thrones season 4 New York premiere at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, on March 18, 2014, in New York City.
Actor Finn Jones attends the Game Of Thrones season 4 New York premiere at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, on March 18, 2014, in New York City.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
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.

On Thursday, I was accused of being racist against white people. (The man who called me racist has since deleted the six tweets accusing me of it.)

Some of my best friends are white people. I work with white people. I've totally dated a white person, and I went to a predominantly white college. I listen to Taylor Swift and enjoyed The Notebook. I like meatloaf, and I read comic books. I will vouch for The Corrections. I fucking love SoulCycle.

But this comment didn't come as a surprise to me.

The reason I was called an anti-white racist was that I tried to explain why Asian-American comic book fans were upset that Marvel's Iron Fist is going to be a white man. I also made a Macklemore joke.

On Thursday, the Hollywood Reporter and EW reported and confirmed that the role of Iron Fist, Marvel's next Netflix hero, will be played by Finn Jones, a.k.a. Ser Loras Tyrell on Game Of Thrones.

Marvel's decision upholds 40-something years of comic book canon, but it's also a disappointing shock to some comic book fans — particularly Asian-American comic book fans who hoped that Marvel might take the opportunity to cast an Asian or Asian-American actor as Iron Fist. Their disappointment has been met with some sniping from comic book purists who believed their beloved source material was under threat and now feel vindicated.

The response to Marvel's casting exhibited an ugly, unyielding side of comic book fandom, and the comic book community displayed, once again, why people refuse to take it seriously.

There's nothing wrong with wanting a television show or movie to be faithful to its source material


If someone announced tomorrow that the X-Woman known as Storm, a.k.a. Ororo Munroe, was going to be an Asian-American woman, I would be livid. Such a change would be a disgrace to the comic book character. It would also betray years and years of comic book canon, and thousands of pages of hard work from writer Chris Claremont.

So I understand the protectiveness that fans feel over comic books. Comics are powerful pieces of art and fiction that have shaped childhoods and realities for the people who read them. And there's an expectation that showrunners, directors, producers, writers, actors, and actresses will be loyal to these precious things.

What's a little more difficult to understand, and what I'm still figuring out, is that when those folks tweak or change the race or sex of an established character — like black Human Torch or a female Thor or Jeri Hogarth from Jessica Jones — sometimes the only argument being made against their decision is that the original version of the character "is canon."

It's not that canon isn't important. With characters like Storm and Luke Cage, who are both black, the color of their skin is essential to their characters. Cage's indestructible skin is a powerful allegory of racial injustice that still resonates today, decades after the character was debuted in 1972. There's a similar resonance with Storm. Writer Greg Pak and artist Victor Ibanez's 2014 solo series showed the juxtaposition of being considered the queen of Wakanda (a fictional African country) and a goddess with being considered a black, mutant criminal in America.

And honoring canon isn't just paramount with respect to characters of color, either. Magneto's background as a Holocaust survivor is essential to his worldview.

Indeed, these characters prove that canon is crucial. But canon isn't perfect. And it can be changed while staying true to the essence of a given property. The film adaptations of The Godfather, Jaws, and Game of Thrones, as well as many Marvel movies, have all lopped off pieces of their respective source material without suffering in quality.

There have also been racial tweaks made to certain characters that have initially been met with raucous vitriol but ended up being fine, if not better than canon. For example, Idris Elba and Samuel L. Jackson both excelled in playing characters (Heimdall and Nick Fury, respectively) who were originally white according to comic books. Michael B. Jordan's black Human Torch was fine (though that movie was a garbage fire). And Carrie-Anne Moss as a gender-swapped Jeri Hogarth on Marvel's Jessica Jones Netflix series is chilling and fantastic.

When it comes to Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, his story is essentially one of being an outsider in a mystical Asian city and learning the ways of the city's people. (It's steeped in Orientalism, but that's lengthy, separate discussion on its own.) Obviously Rand being white makes him stick out, and there are elements of his backstory, like his wealth, that are key to his experience — a hero forged from painful experiences and having everything taken away from him.

What's tricky is coming up with a reason other than "this is the way it's always been" to explain why Rand must be a white guy to fully tell Rand's story. A half-Asian American boy or a black teenager or even a Latina girl from pretty much any American city would be just as freaked out and feel just as isolated if they were dropped into a magical Asian city. (Other characters, like Misty Knight, Rand's love interest, have already been cast. Changing Rand's race and gender would inevitably alter that story, and interactions he has with other characters. But let's just go with the hypothetical here.)

I don't buy that Danny Rand's whiteness is as integral to his character as Storm or Luke Cage's black skin, or Magneto surviving the Holocaust.

But I can understand why white people, and white dudes especially, can relate to the story of a white man feeling like an outsider. Still, I don't believe that white people, and white dudes especially, need Rand to be a white man to be able to relate to his story of being an outsider.

This fight isn't about changing things for the sake of change — it's about representation

I was never a gigantic Iron Fist fan as a kid, and I wasn't alone. Immortal Iron Fist, a series that's been lauded as producing some of the most complex and best stories for the character, regularly hovered in the lower half of the top 100 North American comic book sales from 2006 to 2009. And the last issue of Iron Fist: Living Weapon, a series that debuted in 2014 and ran until May 2015, came in at a meager No. 142 on the best-seller list of its final month.

Iron Fist doesn't have the same cachet as the X-Men, Batman, the Avengers, or Deadpool. He's probably a second-tier, maybe even third-string Avenger.

What's currently drawing so much attention to the character is Marvel's upcoming Iron Fist Netflix series, particularly because Marvel and Netflix have done such a great job of bringing Jessica Jones and Daredevil to life. At the same time, there's been a newfound appreciation for the character, especially Matt Fraction and David Aja's run on Immortal Iron Fist in 2007-'08 — which feels in step with the darker, grittier world of Marvel's Netflix shows.

With its Netflix shows, it seems like Marvel has been more willing than ever to push the envelope and tell stories it wouldn't normally tell. And for Asian-American comic book fans, the casting of Iron Fist was an opportunity, the biggest one in years, to see an Asian-American superhero onscreen, at the center of his or her own show. While there are a litany of Asian and Asian-American superheroes in the Marvel comic universe — including Karma, Psylocke, Mantis, Shang-Chi, Surge, Ms. Marvel, and Sunfire — none of those heroes have their own Netflix show coming up (though some of them will make appearances in upcoming Marvel movies).

Marvel's Iron Fist Netflix series will have to be written in a way that corrects the Orientalist fever dream feel that's present in the source material, to update the story for 2016 audiences. Some Asian-American comic book fans believe one way Marvel could do this would be to make the character Asian-American.

"[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," Keith Chow, creator of the site Nerds of Color, wrote in a 2014 post explaining his desire to see Iron Fist be Asian. "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."

One of the main counters to Chow's idea is that an Asian superhero who is good at martial arts would be racist. And, yes, in the hands of a terrible writer, an Asian-American person who's good at martial arts and only defined by his or her fighting skills could be extremely racist. But that's not putting any kind of faith in Marvel or Netflix. (Also, there will definitely be Asian people, mainly extras, doing martial arts on the new show, and that will be their only presence on the show.)

The debate over Iron Fist speaks to the idea of Asian-American identity and its severe lack of representation in pop culture. Martial arts might be the most well-known Asian contribution to American entertainment. But in large part, martial arts and the Asian (Chinese and Japanese) cultures they come from are seen as separate entities — and while martial arts are often celebrated in movies and music, the cultures that originated martial arts are not.

"When brothers in Harlem like Kung-Fu, it's never like 'You think you're Chinese,'" Eddie Huang, chef and author of Fresh off the Boat, said in a 2015 interview with Time. "No, you like Kung Fu."

Huang was making a point about liking hip-hop, but it works reflexively, too — there's a severe dearth of moments in American pop culture where being Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, Korean, or Vietnamese is seen as something to be proud of.

This reality is slowly changing, and Marvel's Iron Fist Netflix series could have helped continue that change. But at the same time, frustration over the lack of Asian-American representation in pop culture runs much deeper than Iron Fist.

Iron Fist is just one piece of a much larger puzzle

There are generations of Asian Americans (including me) who grew up not seeing themselves in American pop culture. And that frustration manifested itself in Iron Fist. For purists, it seems like an attack on source material, like something is being taken away by dour complainers. For a subset of those purists, it's Asian Americans being "racist" toward white men.

What's disconcerting is the lack of understanding.

There's more interest in shutting down the conversation than in extending generosity towards it. Comic book creator Jon Tsuei summed it up on Twitter (AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islanders):

The irony of this situation is that Iron Fist's story is, at its core, a story about an outsider who feels isolated and lost. And fans of the original comic who insist that the character can't be Asian can't seem to understand the real-life frustration felt by Asian and Asian-American comic book fans who feel like outsiders because they believe their culture is being borrowed and taken away.

There is no rule that says wanting a comic book to remain true to its roots means you lack compassion for the argument in favor of change. Likewise, there is no rule that says wanting to see more representation in comic-based movies and TV shows and advocating for change means you can't enjoy or respect the source material.

If there's an underlying theme to Marvel's comic books, it's hope and empathy, and the possibility of living in a world that isn't bound by our frustrating realities. Unfortunately, as the fight over Iron Fist has shown us, even something as amazing as comic books has its limits.