ENTERTAINMENT: Iron Fists of Color
The comic book industry has always been a marvelous force in showcasing riveting, approachable, and relatable story-telling. Morality narratives, allusions, and metaphors for real-life high-school anxiety, societal out-group exclusion, racial conflict, and political statements were all but blatant and quite beautiful. Nightcrawler's religion, America Chavez's sexuality, Magneto's narcissism, Spawn's ties to the actual devil, Green Lantern's decision not to hide behind a mask because of his race--they all speak on the realities of our actual country then and today, and to the world abound.
But whereas Fantastic Four's message on family ties in more with the X-Men, Iron Fist (the Netflix show, at least) seems to state the opposite: sometimes, family is just as toxic and poisonous as the very enemies we're supposed to protect them from. Though we'd never see Foggy betray Daredevil, or Trish Walker backstab Jessica Jones, and likely never see Misty Knight snitch on Luke Cage, here we do see the world's most recent Iron Fist, Danny Rand, holding on to a broken relationship of a pastry with Colleen Wing, cream-filled with lies and confusion, topped off with a coat of tears. And for all of what the show seems to discuss about family issues, the same could be said about the critics and fans of the show as well in the real world.
The controversy with the show is that fans have spoken out against the casting of any white males for the martial arts superhero Iron Fist. Fans have called for an Asian or Asian-American actor to fill the role of Danny Rand and satisfy to some degree the thirst of Asian and Asian-Americans who are horrendously underrepresented in mainstream American media. With the show's debut just last Friday, March 18th, online media outlets are now invigorating, and aggravating, former-hopefuls by regurgitating the same article that Marvel ALMOST cast Asian actor Lewis Tan for the role of Danny Rand, but for whatever reason decided to ultimately go with young British actor Finn Jones, who did a surprisingly great job in the role of American billionaire Danny Rand (Tan himself was ultimately cast in the show as antagonist Zhou Cheng in what is considerably the show's best fight scene with Rand).
Personally, I think this issue has gotten way out of hand. It wouldn't be that much of an issue for me, let alone worth writing an entire blog post on, if Danny Rand weren't always a white character. Iron Fist debuted in Marvel Comics in 1974, and people today are PISSED that Danny Rand isn't suddenly Asian. There are compelling, sensible arguments, sure. I'm not the guy to tell you that anyone who thinks Danny Rand should be Asian is an idiot and needs to step aside. And sure, being a minority myself, maybe it's easier for me to watch the show and catch the faintest whiff of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation, a term almost exclusively used for white people, is when one people of a certain type immerse themselves in the culture of a people of another type, seemingly "taking it for themselves" and benefiting from it without fully understanding its implications, the culture behind that force, or giving credit where it is appropriately due. White musical artists such as Iggy Azalea, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have been accused of this type of appropriation--aka "stealing black music". That argument is another tale for another time, but hopefully that easily puts the definition into a much clearer perspective. In the case of Iron Fist, the beauty, discipline, and elegance of the martial arts has been essentially stolen by the white man and used for his own purposes.
The danger of this is, as I stated before, that cultural appropriation is a term almost exclusively used for white people. If any white guy wants to learn martial arts, or happens to be good at it, then oh, it's appropriation. ("Give us our martial arts back!") Actual legitimate cases have been made for appropriation, especially where credit due has not been given--look at the history of American rock n' roll--but when one minority takes from another, where are the accusations then? Is it still appropriation? When an African-American hero was cast in the kung-fu fantasy The Last Dragon (1985), was that cultural appropriation because he idolized an Asian Bruce Lee and mimicked his behaviors and talents? Interesting thought. Another thought is this--if Danny Rand didn't know martial arts and went by a completely different set of skills that defined his superheroic status, would people still want him to be, specifically, Asian?
Likely not. Feels awfully close to the expectation that every basketball star or rapper ought to be black, every martial artist Asian, every banker a Jew, so on and so forth, in order to reinforce the comforts of pre-determined stereotypes of ethnicities that are not our own. This is not something I want to be right about, but I can honestly say that even though the enjoyable first season of Iron Fist was indeed the weakest Netflix Marvel show I have fun thus far, its mediocrity had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Danny Rand was white, or rather, not Asian. In fact, the show was quite racially diverse overall: Madame Gao, Bokuto, Claire Temple, Davos, Colleen Wing, Darryl, the Meachums family, and the previously mentioned Zhou Cheng. That's a lot of different ethnicities represented there.
Feeling so desperately that Danny Rand needs to be Asian because of his set of skills, or because of the people who surrounded him growing up, is detrimental to his personal narrative. If that were not true, then there would be a huge chance that Danny would not still be a white male within the continuity of the comics. But, unlike most situations, the fact that Danny is not Asian is crucial to who he is as a person and his respect for his abilities. The in-show runner up for the title of Iron Fist wasn't Asian, either, at least not Asian in the sense that most people are referring to in this context. Davos--the comic book continuity's Steel Serpent--is a British male of Indian descent. Again, nobody complained about cultural appropriation when Davos (or Bokuto, for that matter, who is not Asian but rather Hispanic) came onto the scene as a lethal combatant. Is there not something at least a little bit wrong, and inconsistent to boot, with this picture?
I've never been one to complain when a traditionally white character has an racially different iteration in the future. Black actors Michael B. Jordan and Chiwetel Ejiofor have portrayed the latest versions of Johnny Storm and Baron Karl Mordo, respectively. Israeli actress Gal Gadot portrayed Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman, and is set to reprise the role in at least three future films. Though Amazonian, Wonder Woman has almost always been portrayed by white actresses on screen. So, Danny Rand being Asian? By itself, no, I have absolutely no problem with the race change. It's simply WHY it would be happening, and why so many people thought (and still think) that it absolutely HAD to happen without really thinking it all through. It's this type of thinking that keeps me open-minded more and more to Scarlett Johansson playing Major Matoko Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. I must admit, it's not a bad feeling.
Go watch Iron Fist on Netflix if you haven't done so already, and see for yourself both the awesomeness and the shortcomings of Marvel's latest outing on the streaming service. These are troubling times we live in when white guys can't portray white martial artist superheroes without there being a "race controversy" that the cast members have to defend themselves against. Well....good thing they're "Defenders". They must already be good at that.