I am an Asian-American pop culture enthusiast who longs for greater diversity in all respects, and greater representation of my own culture on screen and in comics, where Asian-Americans are often much too difficult to find. It’s a major problem and something I’ve opined passionately about for years, including on this site.
But I don’t want an Asian-American Iron Fist.
Yes, we need more Asian-Americans in live-action superhero fare and pop culture in general. Yes, we need more non-white male lead characters in superhero fare. But making the first Asian lead of a Marvel or DC Comics-based project a character primarily identified for proficiency in martial arts would be a move that could potentially further stereotypes and restrict progress for Asians on screen.
Iron Fist is a complicated character. He was created in 1974 by comics legends Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, and introduced by Marvel Comics during a period where the publisher was looking to capitalize on the success of martial arts films. Like most Marvel characters up to that point, he’s a white male — despite the fact that the stars of those martial arts films were not. That became a part of his story, with Danny Rand seen as an outsider in that world, and the “Mighty Whitey” trope was deliberately subverted during Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and David Aja’s acclaimed run on “Immortal Iron Fist,” which established Danny as one of multiple Immortal Weapons — not simply a white guy who was better than all Asians at something that had been part of their culture for centuries.
It’s likely that Marvel Television and Netflix are close to announcing a lead actor for “Iron Fist,” which will debut as the fourth Marvel-based Netflix series following the currently in production “Luke Cage.” Just this week, Scott Buck was confirmed as the showrunner for the series, the first firm announcement connected to the show. There has been a very positive campaign for the live-action Iron Fist to be cast as an Asian-American actor, with sites such as Nerds of Color leading the charge, and fans offering up several richly deserving potential candidates for the role. The argument, and it’s a sound one, is that casting an Asian-American Iron Fist would be a way of course-correcting what could be a problematic character — something of a “white savior” — while also adding much-needed diversity to Marvel’s live-action roster.
What troubles me is that this is the only superhero character that has received a groundswell of support for casting an Asian-American actor. There’s a huge number of major Marvel characters who could have easily been cast as Asian-Americans, and as far as I can tell, no one considered it seriously. Why not an Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange? When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it’ll be cause for celebration. It’s happening right now in Marvel Comics, with Amadeus Cho as Greg Pak and Frank Cho’s thoroughly non-stereotypical “Totally Awesome Hulk.” While increased visibility for Asian-Americans is a good thing, the idea that Iron Fist is “the” character to make Asian-American feels like further locking a population into a single perception, where the primary utility of an Asian in action-driven entertainment is to be good at martial arts.
To be very clear, my stance isn’t driven by a stodgy devotion to the source material. I’d prefer it if Iron Fist weren’t Asian-American, but that doesn’t mean I think the character has to be white. A Black Iron Fist, Latino Iron Fist or Middle-Eastern Iron Fist all could be compelling, would similarly add diversity and further challenge established perceptions of the character, and what a Marvel superhero represents. Also, there would be no issue with an Asian-American Iron Fist were it not to be the first major Asian-American superhero in a modern comic book-based property. If we already had, say, an Asian-American Ant-Man, an Asian-American Iron Fist would send an entirely different message at that point. Marvel has made great strides on its “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV series, which stars two Chinese-American performers in non-stereotypical roles as major parts of its ensemble — Chloe Bennett as the superpowered Daisy Johnson/Quake, and Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May — and DC is on the verge of introducing a Hawaiian Aquaman with Jason Momoa, but there still isn’t a major headlining superhero played by an actor of East Asian descent, creating an opportunity to do something progressive and unexpected.
It’s not just a martial arts thing, either — yes, martial arts are a major part of Asian culture and there’s no reason to deny or diminish that. It’s not the only part of Asian culture, though, and in action-based genres, it frequently feels like the only part Asians are allowed to participate in. And while many comics characters use martial arts — Daredevil, Batman and so many more — there’s no denying that, outwardly, it is “the” main trait of Iron Fist. That’s not fair or accurate, as there’s plenty more to the character, who’s also a Hero for Hire, an Avenger, a lifelong friend and partner to Luke Cage and a soon-to-be Defender. But he’s defined by martial arts much more than other superheroes who just happen to use martial arts — and it’s problematic if that’s the first lead white comics character to be readily accepted on screen as played by an Asian-American.
I’m keeping an open mind about whatever Marvel and Netflix choose to do with Iron Fist. Given the stellar track record established by “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” the two entities likely know exactly what they’re doing and how to make “Iron Fist” a high-quality product. If Iron Fist is cast as an Asian-American, it will still be a victory for diversity and representation, even if it’s not quite the victory I’m hoping for. An Asian-American Iron Fist could very well be very good — but when it comes to pushing for greater diversity and greater representation, there’s no reason to settle for “good enough.”