Marvel’s Netflix series have exceeded all expectations, not only doing justice to big names like Daredevil, but successfully translating less well-known figures like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones to television screens. But with the upcoming Iron Fist, there’s a racist elephant in the room (thankfully, a metaphorical one) that the show has been forced to acknowledge.
Namely, that hero Danny Rand, master of martial arts, is white. First appearing in 1974 at the peak of the Bruce Lee-led kung fu craze, the superhero’s origin begins when he returns to New York after being presumed dead for 15 years. He’s spent his time in the mystical city of K’un Lun, essentially going through a vague mashup of various strands of Eastern mysticism and learning kung-fu. The theory goes that 1970s comic book audiences wouldn’t buy comics with an Asian protagonist, hence the very blonde-haired and blue-eyed Rand.
It’s widely believed though that the character would make a lot more sense if he were Asian, with people pointing out that at least he’d have some genuine connection to the culture he’s appropriating. So, when Finn Jones, rather than an Asian actor, snagged the lead role in the Netflix series, some fans were deeply disappointed.
Now, in an interview with Buzzfeed, Jones has responded to the criticisms:
“I get where that frustration comes from. I get the need for diversity and equality in television and film… well, actually in every aspect of life. Right now we live in a culture and a world where we are very unequal in politics, in economics, and in culture. There needs to be more diversity in television and film, especially for Asian actors.
With this instance in particular, what I struggle with and what frustrates me is that people are commenting on the headline without understanding the full picture, without understanding the full story. What you’ll find with the way that we’re telling this story is we’re addressing the issues that people are very concerned about in a very intelligent and modern way.
Danny Rand is not a white savior. Danny Rand can hardly save himself, let alone an entire race of people. He is a very complicated, vulnerable individual. He doesn’t just show up, like, ‘Hey dudes, I’ve just learned martial arts! I’m going to save the world, Actually, it’s the complete opposite. He’s gone through and suffered immense trauma and he is struggling to claim his own sanity and identity back.”
For my money, I think if Marvel cast an Asian actor as a character who harnesses mystical kung-fu sorcery, it’d play into icky racial stereotypes and become offensive in a completely different way. It seems as if the studio is damned if they do, damned if they don’t with Iron Fist. Still, the fact that they’re aware of this cultural minefield gives some hope for the show, especially as Rand concludes his interview with the following:
“Just because we have this color skin, it doesn’t mean we have to conform to preconceived notions of our culture, we are human beings on this planet, and we all individually have different attributes. We’re not stereotypes, and hopefully, that’s what the show does. Hopefully the show doesn’t — I don’t think it does — deal in stereotypes, which I think people are worried about.”
Iron Fist will punch its way onto Netflix on March 17th, 2017.