Racebending Iron Fist

Iron Fist: The Living Weapon #1, cover by Kaare Andrews.
Cover excerpt from Iron Fist: The Living Weapon #1

This is a response to an editorial written by Alexander Lu regarding rumors about the possibility of casting of an Asian-American male to play the part of Iron Fist. Lu’s objections are understandably about not wanting to perpetuate the “Asians know martial arts” stereotype. ‘It is almost as if someone took a look at the upcoming Marvel slate and said “oh look, Iron Fist. He has martial arts skills. Perfect time to diversify casting by bringing an Asian guy in…because they are good at martial arts, right?” This train of thought speaks to how subtle and subversive cultural stereotyping can be in an era where overt racism has become much more subdued ... it is definitely not worth the perpetuation of a long beholden stereotype’ Lu proclaims. He also mentions that Iron Fist is a C-list character and any attempt to recast him as Asian won’t be greeted as cause for celebration as a major character like when Miles Morales became Spider-Man. It would be better to rally behind certain newly-minted, popular Asian American characters, such as fan-favorite Amadeus Cho.

I find this part of Lu’s argument to be his weakest point. Who’s to say that Iron Fist won’t become a more significant lead character once he makes the transition to the screen, just like other C-Listers Jason Quill, Jessica Jones, Nick Fury, or Scott Lang for that matter. They all received a huge bump in name recognition from when they were simply confined to the pages of the comics. And sure, it would be nice if Amadeus Cho and any other character originally written as Asian were to receive similar treatment instead of racebending a pre-existing character like Iron Fist or Daredevil or Spider-Man. But I’m not sure why pursuing one desirable course of action has to exclude the other? Shouldn’t all options be put on the table?

And there is a pretty good reason to fight for an Asian American Iron Fist specifically, or at least as good a reason as any. Namely it’s the very problematic nature of Danny Rand as a white savior figure. According to Lu, “When Marvel and DC Comics hear cries for diversification, their first instinct is to turn to legacy characters like Red Wolf and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Even with good intentions, these heroes simply do not cut it because their histories are fraught with cultural and racial tension.” He then goes on to explain how the new Ms. Marvel - Kamala Khan, successfully uses her “heightened abilities to serve as metaphors for very human experiences– not feeling like you belong as a minority…” Well, it seems to me that an Asian American (or even a biracial) Iron Fist would not only get past the white savior trope, it could also be used to examine similar themes found in Ms. Marvel. I’m disappointed that Lu seems closed-off to those possibilities. Given that Marvel intends to produce an Iron Fist series for Netflix anyway, not asking Marvel to consider an Asian American actor to fill the role feels at the very least like ignoring the issue.

And when it comes to the issue of onscreen Asians practicing martial arts, I think this needs to be approached with more nuance than being forced to choose between the two unsavoury options of white savior or pigeonholing Asians as martial arts masters. Regarding the latter, 2015 has been a watershed year for Asian representation in the American media. It’s not perfect, but Asians are starting to break away from traditional stereotypes. These shows aren’t simply re-inventing Enter the Dragon. And any role filled by an Asian actor no longer bears the brunt of being “the one” to represent the entire Asian American community to the mainstream audience. That would include a theoretical Asian American Iron Fist series. Not everyone with an Asian background knows kung fu or karate anymore than every Caucasian knows how to box and wrestle. Martial arts are a part of the Asian cultural mileau. But the more varied and well-written the onscreen roles played by Asian talents, the less entrapping the image of the Asian martial arts master.

But the martial arts genre in the West tends to be somewhat marginalized. Like superheroes before them, the martial arts films that came out of Hollywood after the kung fu craze developed a reputation for being cheaply-made, disposable crap. And if anything can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about any race or culture, it’s the image of simplistic, poorly-conceived, incompetently produced films featuring actors sleepwalking their way through forgettable characters. Doesn't that contribute to the negativity surrounding the trope of the Asian martial arts master? With some exceptions, live-action martial arts fiction has generally faded from the small screen, which is kind of a shame since the martial arts genre is a lively component of popular Asian media, whether it’s wuxia novels, kung fu movies, or anything produced in Japan featuring ronin and ninja. Having an Asian American Iron Fist won't be enough if the series itself unquestioningly preserves some of the source material’s orientalist assumptions. The Western martial arts genre could use a bit of evolution, given added depth and richer characterization in order to deconstruct a few old-fashioned formulas and be made more relevant to a modern, diverse audience.