Ever since Daredevil arrived in 2015, Marvel and Netflix’s portrayal of street-level superheroes in New York City has been highly praised. Despite what was said about a sub-par second season of the series, it produced a spin-off that was never part of the original plan: The Punisher, starring Jon Bernthal, which is set to exist outside The Defenders scope. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage also debuted to an overall positive reception; but Iron Fist has been mired in controversy for well over a year before it ever aired.
The push to cast an Asian-American actor as Danny Rand began very shortly after The Defenders was announced in 2013. As with all movements in the digital age, it gained a great deal of momentum with a hashtag (#AAIronFist, created by Nerds of Color) as the Iron Fist series loomed closer to production. It wouldn’t have been the first time a comic book character’s race was changed in adaptation: Marvel revamped Nick Fury in 2001, a few years before Samuel L. Jackson made his first appearance in the role in Iron Man; the late Michael Clark Duncan was Wilson Fisk/Kingpin in the 2003 Daredevil film; and more recently, Heimdall (Idris Elba) in Thor, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) in 2015’s Fantastic Four, and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Dr. Strange were all recast as a different race (and, in the latter case, a different gender) than their original comic counterparts.
It’s worth noting that these changes speak to film, specifically (with the exception of Fury, whose race was changed in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up comics). Debates have raged since the dawn of geekdom over whether or not all mediums should adhere to source material. However, would changing Danny Rand’s race have changed his backstory and the Iron Fist narrative that was originally brought to life in the early 1970s? Not in the least. Iron Fist is proof that change starts from within; making it all the more problematic when influencers and decision makers are tone deaf. Ignoring the voices of some of the most powerful spenders in the entertainment genre doesn’t seem very wise either.
Though there are plenty of other elements wrong with Iron Fist as a whole, whitewashing may not be the right word. If anything, the series suffers from the same white savior complex that is baked into Danny Rand’s origin story from the comics. While the trope may have been readily accepted (though already pretty overused) when Iron Fist was created in the 1970s, it feels retrograde and awkward in a show made more than four decades later.
Series showrunner Scott Buck rebutted this criticism in an interview with Gadgets 360, arguing that Danny Rand is “no white savior.” He went on to say that he’d never heard of Danny Rand before he was approached by Marvel. In researching the character, one of the things that Buck found was that there wasn’t exactly a huge Iron Fist following, which left a lot of room for them to shape the series. “One of the many things that appealed to me about Danny Rand was that… there wasn’t this great big backlog of information and story,” Buck explained. “If you do go back and read the comics, they have completely different origin stories from one series to another. It did give us that freedom to create the character we specifically wanted.”
This statement runs counter to claims that Iron Fist is simply trying to stay true to the comics. In truth, Buck had the freedom to get creative with the character and change things but, with regards to the most problematic elements of the comics, chose not to.
Iron Fist co-creator, Roy Thomas, had some very colorful opinions on the whitewashing controversy as laid out in a lengthy interview with Inverse. “I just think some people have too much time on their hands,” he says, adding that Iron Fist was created “at a different time” and that older comics are “bound to be not quite PC.” Yet when speaking directly about show, Thomas appears to casually throw in that, “if they had decided to make Iron Fist an Asian, that would have been fine with [him], too.”
Series star Finn Jones wasn’t immune to putting his foot in his mouth either. In an interview with Vulture, Jones made similar comments to Thomas in citing the original series was written in the 70s, which was “a very different time.” However, his biggest issues with online criticisms seemed to stem from “unjust” outrage without anyone having seen the show yet – a valid argument, but one that holds little water that the show has been released and, if anything, has only confirmed people’s misgivings about the casting choice.
Iron Fist has even attracted criticism from within the Marvel family. Comics writer Marjorie Liu (X-23) was not a fan of the casting choice and was vocal in her refusal to watch the series. She tweeted, “Iron Fist is an orientalist-white-man-yellow-fever narrative. Asian actor would have helped subvert that offensive trope, and reclaim space.”
What hasn’t helped is the fact that the show has been a critical bomb compared to the rest of the Defenders shows. Rotten Tomatoes has Iron Fist at 18 percent from critics, but up at 84 percent from the fans. Despite the disparity between the two groups, Iron Fist is another hit according to Netflix. Plenty of other people have laid out the good, the bad, and the ugly of Iron Fist, but does Marvel finally have its first Netflix dud? Luke Cage embraced its opportunity to creative diversity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, telling the story with an African-American perspective from showrunner to cast. As a result of the added authenticity, both Marvel and Netflix were rewarded with one of the most watched original series in the streaming service’s history.
Whether Marvel got diversity right at all with this series is debatable. With the exception of Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), all the Asian characters we meet in the show are villains. There are, however, a great variety of people of color in Bakuto’s (Ramon Rodriguez) faction of The Hand, and there’s something refreshing in Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) being such a powerful woman. But these characters are fleeting, and most of them we don’t meet until the back half of the season (like with Davos, played by Sacha Dhawan).
There is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, which can be seen in Colleen Wing’s story arc and her adherence to Bushido Samurai code. She’s a complex character that doesn’t come off as over-the-top or cliché. Marvel Studios has demonstrated that race-bending can be done well on the big screen, yet Marvel TV chose not to take a chance with this small-time hero series. Would an Asian actor as Iron Fist have made for better TV? No one could ever know; but it certainly looks like Marvel missed an opportunity here.
Iron Fist is currently available on Netflix.