By: Daniel Brown
For this case study, I’ll be delving a bit more into the character’s original comics.
First appearing back in 1974, Iron Fist was created as a response to the growing popularity of kung fu action movies. Thus, the story of Danny Rand, a wealthy business owner from New York whose parents died tragically in front of him, draws heavily from the then foreign and mystical Asian culture. Danny found his way into the pocket dimension of K’un L’un; a society of Asian people where the aforementioned mystical side of Asian culture thrives; and was trained in the arts of combat as one of them even though he was an outsider. After the extent of his training, Danny was given the chance to challenge Shou-Lao; the dragon protector of K’un L’un; for the power of the Iron Fist; a power and title that many within Danny’s lineage have held, that his father declined long ago, and that many within K’un L’un desire. He won so now he’s the Iron Fist.
In hindsight, the premise and portrayal of Iron Fist was pretty defective. A rich, white orphan (already, we’re dealing with an overused formula), stumbles upon an entire society of people who live and breath martial arts. But sucks to be them, because CFA Danny ends up being the best magic ninja in all of magic ninja town. Writers of Iron Fist today try to distance themselves from the character’s origin as much as possible, because they realize how problematic it was to essentially say he’s the “best Asian.” Additionally, take a look at this picture from one of the old comics. Taking the art style, the depiction of American Iron Fist in comparison to his Asian sparring partners, and the content of the dialogue into account, it’s plain to see the influence of the, as said, then foreign and mystical Asian culture, and how over-embellished it was.
None of this negates that Iron Fist is a cool character, who has played a huge role on several occasions in the over-arching Marvel Comics Universe. As much as he may seem like just another superhero, the mystical elements of K’un L’un and the power of the Iron Fist are a fresh and welcome addition to a world where aliens and robots are all too often the norm. What’s even more exciting is that Iron Fist is going to be getting his own 13 Episode Netflix series next year, and will eventually fight alongside the other Marvel Netflix vigilantes (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage). But, up until recently, there has been a notable lack of announcements as to how pre-production is going, which is unusual for Marvel. This led fans to start speculating, as fans do, and also to start a petition. The petition requested that an Asian actor be cast to play Danny Rand.
What!? Blasphemy! Comic book purists will have none of this. But let’s think this through: We have yet to see a live action Asian superhero. This may be in part because they’re hard to come by; not too many come to mind that really play off of their heritage and are worth having their own titled movie/tv show. Danny Rand in the comics is a blonde haired New Yorker, but saying he was an Asian-American would still allow for pretty well all of his character specific traits to remain intact. Billionaire, dead parents, trained from youth in magic ninja town; who’s to say that Danny Rand can’t just be Asian instead?
On top of this, one of the major themes throughout Rand’s origin story is that of being an outsider. Today in our diverse Western world, we have an abundance of various cultures and lifestyles, all living within a short distance of one another. Look no further than UPEI’s International Student boom. These people coming from many different and unique places, based on who I’ve talked to, totally notice the difference in living, and in many cases would feel like outsiders. So if a young boy of Asian descent, who was raised in New York, suddenly found himself in another world steeped with orientalism and that which he never truly knew, he’d have every right to be just as freaked out as a white dude would.
A potential problem with this petition is that, by casting an Asian actor, it may simply encourage the racial stereotypes that occur within kung fu movies. Why does the Asian guy need to be a martial arts master? Why can’t he be a gunslinging cowboy? These questions ultimately don’t matter anymore, however, as Marvel finally came forward a couple weeks ago announcing that white Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones had been cast as the live action incarnation of Iron Fist. And as expected, people are pretty bummed out. What’s important is that even though a race-swap would have been a welcome addition, the character and the story will remain true.