Asian Iron Fist: Point, Counterpoint, and My Two Cents

hi-yahhYesterday Entertainment Weekly revealed that Marvel had finally found their next star in Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones. The character he’ll be playing is Daniel Rand, AKA Iron Fist, the face of their fourth Netflix-exclusive series [following DaredevilJessica Jones, and the upcoming Luke Cage]. I could sum up who he is, but EW did a pretty good job with that in their coverage already:

“…Iron Fist is Daniel Rand, who at age of 9 travels with his family from New York to a lost mystical city called K’un-L’un. After some tragic twists of fate, Rand is adopted by the city’s ruler and taught advanced martial arts and the mystical power of the Iron Fist. As an adult, Rand returns to his native New York and begins a career as a superhero.”

In the comic books Danny is, much like his silver screen compatriots Captain America and Thor, White, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. Ever since it was announced that he would be headlining his own show there has been a discussion over what race he should be, with Keith Chow over at Nerds of Color making his stance clear with his article “Marvel, Please Cast An Asian American Iron Fist“. As soon as the news hit my tumblr feed was flooded with like-minded individuals, with one post in particular that caught my eye, presenting the following two tweets-

-labeled “Point” and “Counterpoint”, respectively.

Now I have no intention of dedicating a large portion of this post to Liefeld, known in many comic book circles as being a man incapable of drawing feet [though now probably vastly more famous for co-creating Deadpool]. He also had just the two words to share, as opposed to a full article that Wheeler penned on the subject, so instead I’ve chosen to have Albert Ching of Comic Book Resources take his stead.

POINT: “I Don’t Want An Asian-American Iron Fist”

Ching is the Managing Editor at the comic book news site his opinion piece was hosted on and, if his name wasn’t an obvious indication, is an Asian American himself. He doesn’t waste any time and comes right out of the gate proclaiming, in his first paragraph, that  he “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.” His concern, however, and thesis statement of sorts is that:

“making the first Asian lead of a Marvel 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.”

To wit, he points to Iron Fist being “the only superhero character that has
received a groundswell of support for casting an Asian American actor.” Which is a true fact. While a vocal portion of fans were calling for Doctor Strange to be played by a person of colour, it was Chilean-American Pedro Pascal as the popular frontrunner. Iron Fist is the sole recipient of support when it comes to Marvel racebending a canonically White character to be Asian. Not, as he lists, Daredevil. Nor Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, or Hawkeye.

fistbump

Ching name-drops Greg Pak and Frank Cho’s Totally Awesome Hulk, starring a Korean-American, as an ideal nonstereotypical Asian hero.

While obviously a three-dimensional character after decades of publication, some in books he headlined, Ching points out that “[Iron Fist is] 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.” In essence it’s the same argument that many proponents of a comics-accurate Iron Fist have been rolling out, that an Asian martial artist is a stereotype in and of itself.

Where Ching differs from these [let’s be fair, mostly] men and women is that he has no issues with a “Black Iron Fist, Latino Iron Fist or Middle-Eastern Iron Fist”. Each would be a point in diversity’s favour. He even clarifies that it’s the hero’s status as being “the first major Asian-American superhero in a modern comic book-based property.” Not to discredit the presence of Chloe Bennett and Ming-Na Wen in the ensemble show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but as a solo venture this is a significant first step.

mingnawenbennett

Having that ground be broken by a role like Hawkeye, or even Iron Man, would be a strong statement: Asians can be anyone. It wouldn’t be couched in the potentially ugly trappings of stereotype. As a closing note he states that Danny Rand isn’t his ideal when it comes to representation in the media; “it will still be a victory for diversity and representation, even if it’s not quite the victory I’m hoping for.”

COUNTERPOINT: “Why Iron Fist Needs To Be An Asian American Hero, Not Another White Savior Cliche”

Wheeler is the Editor-in-Chief at ComicsAlliance, and a White Englishman who happens to live in the very same city that I do. While he takes a few paragraphs providing context for the conversation he’s going to be taking part in, he lays out plainly one of the largest criticisms leveled against the very idea of Iron Fist as a character, namely that [link provided by yours truly]:

“It’s a standard example of the white savior trope, commonly associated with movies Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even The Help, in which a white visitor becomes the only one who can save a culture that’s framed as ‘less civilized’, while he or she also learns valuable lessons from the uncorrupted spirituality of the people. These stories treat non-white or non-Western cultures as exotic playgrounds for the improvement of white people, and they assuage white colonial guilt by turning indigenous cultures into grateful beneficiaries of Western ‘discovery’, while also reducing the people in those cultures to props.”

https://i2.wp.com/static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/phantom_02_350_2379.jpg

More to his point, however, is that an Asian American Iron Fist not only dismantles the trope, but actually “enriches the story”. While some may disagree with this particular assertion, he also mentions that “an Asian American Danny Rand gets to reconnect with [his Asian heritage]”, in contrast with a White one who would instead be appropriating it. In fact, the entire article works as a counterpoint to every argument one might make against the idea of an Asian Iron Fist.

“But an Asian Iron Fist wouldn’t be seen as an outsider in K’un-Lun!”

“an American visiting their historic familial homeland is not going to be homogeneously reabsorbed into that culture. The word ‘American’ in ‘Asian American’ is not a cosmetic affectation. It signifies a collection of distinct cultural identities.”

“But his looking like an outside is a big part of that!” 

“one might ask why that wasn’t a problem when Thor visited Oklahoma in the comics, or when he landed in a startlingly white New Mexico in the movie. Thor didn’t need to have a different skin color to be regarded as an outsider.”

Pictured: just another White dude fitting in.

“But isn’t the Asian martial artist a damaging stereotype?”

“Martial artistry is also one of the fundamental power sets in superhero fiction […] If [Asian heroes] were well represented, you’d expect martial arts to be as prevalent among them as it is among white heroes.”

Among the many final points he makes is that there are only so many major roles left in the Marvel canon. “…if you want to see an Asian superhero with their name in the title, and you don’t want that name to be Iron Fist, you may be waiting a long while.” Until such a time he points out that the alternative is watching another White saviour trope play out on screen, which even at its best is still exactly that.

MY FIRST CENT: You Get a Counterpoint, and You Get a Counterpoint!

I want to be clear that I stated Ching and Wheeler’s ethnicities to provide a little bit of context as to where they might be coming from, and not to invalidate either of their stances as a result. Both of their arguments make excellent points that hopefully reveal that this is far from a cut-and-dry conversation. Diversity and representation are clearly valued, which is what makes their opposing viewpoints so interesting to read.

My first issue actually addresses both men, and their lack of focus on the importance of buoying up existing minority characters [Ching doesn’t at all, and Wheeler barely does in passing]. If I had to say it once, or even twice, I can still say it again: I am 100% all about Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu-

shanghci

Secret Avengers #18 (Vol.1). Written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by David Aja.

-and to have neither Ching nor Wheeler consider the idea that he may be featured in Netflix’s Iron Fist is a tragedy in my book. If only because his potential inclusion would do a lot in off-setting the idea that Danny Rand is the best martial artist in the Marvel Universe. With his chi powers he may have a slight advantage, but when it comes down to sheer level of skill . . . well, I think “Master” always comes out on top.

As for a great point that both men make, albeit running in different directions with it, is an Asian Iron Fist’s status as the first or only martial arts hero having the potential of falling into stereotype. Whereas Ching sees this as a potential step back, and Wheeler as an obstacle to overcome, the validity of their concern can be seen in the reactions to Michael B. Jordan’s casting as the Human Torch. There are vastly more Black heroes in film than Asian ones, yet one of the primary criticisms was that he was perpetuating a trope of the hot-blooded Black man [pun more often intended than not].

Another thing that Ching also seems to overlook is the idea of ownership that many Asians, myself included, to an extent, might feel when it comes to martial arts. It’s not inaccurate to say that rap music has a global reach and has impacted cultures the world over. That said, if the first hip hop film that Hollywood decided to green light starred a White artist I think that many Black people would have something to say [no, 8 Mile wasn’t the first]. While he certainly mentions time and time again the importance of diversity I think he removes himself too far from the topic at hand. There’s an emotional resonance that’s strangely absent, especially considering that he’s writing about what it might mean to see heroes that look like him in a medium he loves so much. While it’s good to maintain a level of professionalism it’s certainly more than okay to mention your feelings in an opinion piece.

As for Wheeler, a lot of his points appear to purposefully overlook the fact that K’un-Lun is a mystical fictional city, and as such is not a specific heritage that any outsider would be able to truly relate to, Asian American or otherwise. That said, as a whole his article is very sound, and in particular the decision to opt for an Asian American Danny Rand is refreshing compared to how Hollywood typically chooses to fix racist narratives. That said, his focus on that solution causes tunnel vision which in turn results in a mention of exactly one canonically Asian character who might be paid more attention. Given Chow’s article [mentioned far up above] it makes sense for him to latch onto that idea, but viewing it as the only solid alternative seems limiting, especially when-

MY SECOND CENT: Iron Fist Doesn’t Have to Be Asian American [He Can Just Be Asian]

I typically tend to keep my creative writing out of these posts, choosing to present only the facts, but while brainstorming exactly how to go about covering this I stumbled upon the following picture in an image dump on imgur-

-and that’s when it struck me.

Many defenders of White Danny Rand cite his relationship with Luke Cage, a Black man, as being of particular importance. Danny comes from old money, and the privilege he gains from both his wealth and skin colour create a compelling dynamic with his friend and teammate. As unfortunate as it may be, the truth is that anti-Blackness isn’t relegated to White people, and Iron Fist need not be White for his connection with Power Man [Cage’s alias] to bridge a divide between two very different worlds.

blondeUltimately one facet of Iron Fist’s story is alienation, and having an Asian [preferably Chinese] Danny experience that on every level would be incredibly compelling. Being a wealthy foreign student in America would cause him to have trouble fitting in, and this feeling would only grow exponentially when he’s thrown into the fantastical setting that is K’un-Lun.

What struck me as being particularly brilliant was the idea that he would be able to keep his trademark  bleached blonde hair, which is a common feature for many rich Chinese students. This would allow him to stand out [even more] easily in crowd shots while in the mystical city, and could be the way he chooses to set himself apart from those around him. Anyone who has spent years moving from one country to the next knows the importance of assimilating while retaining your identity, and I don’t see why that shouldn’t also be true for this character.

While some might state that this is too far a departure from the source material I can point to literally so many things in Marvel’s television and film that deviate from the comics. If what’s important is the core of the characters then these people need to just take take it and go.

My final point is that even as I continue this conversation, the topic is absolutely nothing new. While we have our extremely broad [and extremely topical] comments about Iron Fist and who he is-

-this has been going on far longer than the past few years.

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4 responses to “Asian Iron Fist: Point, Counterpoint, and My Two Cents

  1. Pingback: For Your Consideration: Asian Doctor Strange, Courtesy of Kurt Busiek | Culture War Reporters

  2. Pingback: Asian Comic Book Fan Watches Doctor Strange…: An Addendum | Culture War Reporters

  3. Pingback: The K’un-Lun of Netflix’s Iron Fist [Within the Larger Context] | Culture War Reporters

  4. Great read. Excellent points made.

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