Technically my posts are supposed to go up on Friday. As loyal readers may have noticed, and much to my chagrin, my tendency as of late has been to put them up on Saturday, and sometimes even Sunday. This is one of those very rare instances where I’m glad I took some time to get to a particular topic.
See, this Thursday I came across the Comic Book Resources headline “Finn Jones On Iron Fist Criticism: ‘Danny Is Not A White Savior’”, which I ended up clicking on against my better judgement.
The actor begins by empathizing with those who might be upset about Netflix’s latest upcoming Marvel project, saying:
“I understand where this frustration comes from. I understand the need for more diversity in television and films, especially for Asian actors. I understand that frustration. I agree with it, and I stand in solidarity with that voice.”
I filled my lifetime quota for Well-Meaning White Person™ responses with Tilda Swinton last year, though, so there’s only so much Jones’ attempts at allyship could do to affect me. What really riled me up, to the point where I was going to lean hard into the style of my co-writer Gordon’s profanity-laden rage posts, was what he mentioned a little later on:
“People from all over the world, all different cultures come from K’un-Lun, so it isn’t just this Asian-specific culture. You have people from Brazil there, you have people from Europe there. It’s a multicultural intergalactic alternate dimension.”
Fortunately I’ve since been able to calm down, so let’s take a few steps back and start from the top.
Where and What is K’un-Lun?
The article describes it as “the fictional training ground [. . .] where [Danny] Rand trains to become the Iron Fist”, which is accurate enough a description for the purposes of their news piece.
K’un-Lun is depicted in the comic books as a mystical city that is ostensibly hidden away in the real world Kunlun mountain range in China, likely chosen as it significantly represents the “axis mundi”, or cosmic axis, in Chinese mythology. While some might argue that the two are simply similarly named, the fact remains that the site where the Iron Fists are moulded into living weapons is found somewhere in the PRC.
K’un-Lun, as one of the Capital Cities of Heaven, only appears on the earthly plane after a set number of years. This otherworldliness might cause some to discount whether or not its citizens could be considered any particular ethnicity, let alone human to begin with. Some have even pointed to the fact that the legendary metropolis was initially founded and is inhabited by actual aliens, though I felt I was able to soundly discount that through my own research [you can read that here, since I didn’t think this post needed another 700 or so words added to it].
All of that is to say that K’un-Lun is an Asian city which, as we can see in various Iron Fist media, is populated almost exclusively by people of Asian descent.
Okay, So What’s Wrong with Finn’s Description?
First off, let’s run with the assumption that the K’un-Lun of the Netflix show is meant to be a carbon copy of what’s seen in the comics. In other words, an enchanted Chinese city that only intersects with our own world once a decade. In addition to that, its existence is largely a mystery, and perilous to travel to even when known about. Danny’s father Wendell Rand [pictured on the right] risked his very life trying to locate it, and this is after having been told about it by a man who had been to and lived in K’un-Lun for a time.
With all of that in mind, the chances of there being any kind of significant non-Chinese, or even non-Asian, population are positively minute. Given the facts it’s near impossible to imagine that you could “have people from Brazil there, you have people from Europe there.”
But Finn didn’t state that these people, however many there actually are, discovered the city. No, he says [emphasis mine]:
“People from all over the world, all different cultures come from K’un-Lun, so it isn’t just this Asian-specific culture.”
The reason for that is in spite of being located in Asia, China specifically, K’un-Lun is, at least on this show, a “multicultural intergalactic alternate dimension.” Given their interpretation there’s nothing homogenous about the city’s ethnic makeup, their creative decision appearing to be to opt for more of a melting pot.
And What’s Wrong with a Racially Diverse K’un-Lun?
This is an extremely valid line of questioning given my relentless call for an increase in diversity in all media. Standing alone, by itself, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever that is wrong with Netflix’s Iron Fist having K’un-Lun be populated by an ethnically diverse mix of people.
The problem is that nothing exists in a vacuum.
This creative decision follows after last November’s Doctor Strange, in which a White man learns mystic arts in an Asian mountain range. His training takes place in Kamar-Taj, a fictional secret compound in Nepal. In my initial review of the film I noted that:
In my follow-up to that review I found an interview with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill where he shared that:
“But when you start to see this film you’ll see that what we were able to do with Kamar-Taj, we made one of the most multicultural films most people have seen in years.”
It’s clear that the decision to have this Asian locale be filled with non-Asian people was a very conscious one. Both Doctor Strange and Iron Fist are characters that follow in a narrative tradition that began in pulp novels decades ago. What better way to avoid the bad optics of a White man learning and mastering Asian-inspired arts or practices than by never having them be exclusively Asian in the first place?
That in turn came about after 2014’s Big Hero 6, in which a comic book that was initially set in Tokyo, Japan, had its film adaptation set in San Fransokyo, USA.
As I noted that year, while the city’s name is a portmanteau of the two famous urban centres, the co-director’s comments on both the art direction and creative approach belie the fact that this is America given “a Japanese makeover”, San Francisco that has been “Tokyo-fied” as opposed to the other way around.
That’s three different settings in under five years that, in the source material, were both set in Asia and primarily occupied by Asian people, aspects that have been diluted in different ways. In the case of Iron Fist and Doctor Strange this appears to be in order to offset potentially racist narratives [which I’ve heavily covered before] or, in the case of Big Hero 6, and this is my best guess, to make it “more accessible”.
What’s even more sobering is that all three instances were created by an entertainment industry that by and large sidelines Asian people in their own stories, uses their countries as set dressing for stories about White people, or actively casts White actors in Asian roles, regardless of whether the films are fictional or based on true events.
Regardless of the reason the result is a decrease in the amount of Asian representation that could be in these films. While at times the intentions seem noble the ends are always the same.
So It’s Just Another Drop in the Bucket, Then-
Well, yes, it is. The specifics of Iron Fist’s story do add another element, though.
Leading up to Jones being officially cast as Danny Rand in Iron Fist there was a lot of conversation about having the character be Asian instead. Not only would this have prevented the troubling narrative I’ve already mentioned, it also would have given an Asian actor the kind of high profile gig that so few have access to in Hollywood.
The most common argument I found in favour of keeping Danny a White man was his fish out of water childhood, an integral part of the superhero’s backstory. Being thrown into a foreign culture is difficult for almost anyone, and your outsider status is never more evident than when you look jarringly different from everyone around you.
It’s a very effective form of visual communication as well, which is key in any medium where you want to tell your audience as much as you can in as little time as possible. I had considered an alternative that would allow him to stick out among the citizens of K’un-Lun even as an Asian person that I found very satisfying, but I’m willing to concede the simplicity that the picture above encapsulates so well.
Except that the K’un-Lun of Netflix’s Iron Fist has “people from Europe there.” His being a White man surrounded by Asian people ceases to be a novelty or point of distinction, and given that “it’s a multicultural intergalactic alternate dimension” there’s nothing to keep him from potentially blending into a crowd.
If all it boils down to is a person travelling to an otherworldly locale that’s not tied to any one area on Earth to gain superhuman abilities then I suppose that’s fine. But why is that person always a White man? And why does he have to get on a plane to Asia in order to get to that place?
Given that Netflix’s Iron Fist doesn’t air until just under two weeks from today it should be apparent that I have not yet seen it. All I can do is comment on what I’ve read from the creators involved, while not forgetting the footsteps it follows behind. Finn promises that “fans are going to be very surprised with what we’re doing with it” and imploring them to simply give it a chance.
All that being said, that is what I plan on doing. I’m hoping that they do more than merely improve upon the depictions of Asian people in Daredevil‘s second season, because that set the bar very, very low. I’m also not expecting them to accomplish for Asians what Luke Cage was able to for Black people. Given how things have gone in Marvel’s various productions what I’m looking for is a solid, definitive improvement in this regard, and hoping against all hope [and the cast list] that the chance I’m giving actually pays off.