Thoughts on Netflix’s Iron Fist and the Campaign to Sabotage It Part 1: Dealing with the Representation Issue

Embarking in a Master degree program with emphasis on learning Biblical Hebrew and Greek among other things, I have not had much time to entertain internet social justice controversies. Although, I did spend a considerable amount of time annoyed with how the media manipulated certain people groups during the U.S. Presidential election. Still, it has recently returned to my attention that there was controversy over the casting of Iron Fist, also known as Danny Rand. Apparently, a particular group of social justice warriors advocated for Danny Rand to be cast as an Asian-American man as far back as late 2014. When Finn Jones was cast as Danny Rand, there was a bit of an “outrage” amongst this group. Also, considering much of mainstream media and entertainment media are progressive minded, they latched on to this ideology, and after the early viewing of Iron Fist, many reviews came out as negative. I suspected this was primarily due to the aforementioned push to cast Danny Rand as Asian-American and Marvel’s decision to stick with the roots of Danny Rand in the comic as a White man.  Initially, I crafted a long thought piece on this controversy with the intention of discussing the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and speculations from the Marvel Original Comic Universe (MOCU) with the intention of merging both topics after watching all thirteen episodes. However, after my wife put time into helping me edit this, she proposed I separate it into two parts. Thus, this article will be full of spoilers and primarily a response to the controversy and part two will discuss my general thoughts on the show and commentary on some of the bad reviews.

To be upfront, I want to admit and remind readers of three things: First, I am a Black man, and as usual, it always saddens me to have to qualify my “race” in these topics about ethnic controversies and ideologies. While some out there will feel like this doesn’t qualify me as someone who can critique Asian-American criticism of the show, well, at the very least I can’t be treated like SJW’s treat White people who speak up in the same regard. This truly saddens me that people who often advocate tolerance are heavily intolerant when it comes to opposing thought. Second, I am not an advent Iron Fist reader or advent comic reader of any character. I usually back read arcs and what not, after they are complete on digital applications or in trade paper backs. Third, as a Christian, I believe God created one race of human beings. Race is a concept created by man and is not truly supported even in secular science. In other words, we are all the same, but congregate into different groups of nationality, appearance, ethnicity and cultures. For instance, in the Black community of the United States, you can have Conservative Blacks and Liberal Blacks as sub-groups of people with different ideals who look the same. Hopefully, you get the point.

For those who aren’t privy to the Iron Fist Character, he debuted in the mid 70’s in Marvel Premiere #15. In his MOCU origin story, Danny is a young White boy seen with his family in the Himalayas searching for Shangri-La. After he has an accident, his father is murdered Harold Meacham and later an attack by ravenous wolves takes the life of his mother. Subsequently, the young Rand is saved by citizens of Kun’Lun. This is where he is raised from a nine-year-old boy into adulthood. During this time, he is taught their ways, their martial art and specific mystical skills which dubs him the later nomenclature, “Iron Fist.” From here, Rand eventually leaves Kun’Lun and returns to Western civilization on a path of revenge where he is the heir to a billionaire industry, but embarks in vigilante activity as said Iron Fist. Later, his story is retconned (a term utilized by comic readers and the industry to indicate a revised history written at a later date) with emphasis his father survived the ordeal and was almost the second Western Iron Fist before his son.

The Asian-American Iron Fist movement began somewhere between Keith Chow’s article over at The Nerds of Color and ricehatwarrior’s post over on reddit. Both the post and article give the crux of the Asian-American Iron Fist argument, but considering Chow wrote in 2014, I should address his points first. Chow seems to be the loudest voice for Nerds of Color about this issue. His article can be summed up into three primary arguments:

  1. An Asian-American Iron Fist moves away from the White Savior trope of a White man coming into a foreign country and overcoming all of the foreigners to become the strongest there.
  2. Danny Rand as an Asian-American Iron Fist could be viewed as a person of Asian descent reconnecting with their cultural heritage.
  3. Offering Shang-Chi as a rebuttal doesn’t make sense to Chow because there are tons and tons of White superheroes, and there is a collection already in existence in the MCU.

Similarly, ricehatwarrior on the Reddit posts, seemingly in response to previous discussions on Reddit regarding this topic, offered the following five points:

  1. There is gross underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in American media.
    1. Portrayals of Asian-Americans are stereotypical or degrading to the Asian demographic. Specifically, Asian-American males. For example, Chang in The Hangover sequels as the butt of jokes.
    2. He concludes the Asian community needs an Asian-American Danny Rand rather than another White Male melee combatant in the MCU.
  2. The “White outsider brought into a foreign or alien society who doesn’t fit initially, but eventually learns enough of that society to best the alpha males, leaders, environment or secrets of that society to become the new leader or champion” has been done before.
    1. He lists various movies such as Avatar, Last Samurai, Pocahontas (funny, this is loosely based history with a would be “White Savior” in Native American culture rather than Asian culture, but okay), Tokyo Drift and Netflix’s Marco Polo (again, another one loosely based on history) as his examples and argues Rand as an Asian-American, while keeping the core of the origin story and changing him to a second or third generation Asian, could still fit the so-called stranger in a new land trope if Rand is a thoroughly Westernized Asian-American far removed from his Asian heritage, similar to Chow’s position.
  3. Also, similar to Chow, ricehatwarrior rebutts the Shang-Chi argumentation, but he seems to be arguing against the thought of some individuals that two Asians can’t be martial artists in the same universe.
    1. I’ll say, right here, I agree with him on this point. Anyone thinking of offering this argument needs to know this is absurd. Period. Although, I will bring up Shang-Chi in a different aspect, I think arguing two Asian Martial Artists can’t fit in the same universe is highly unconvincing.
      1. An argument like that is silly also because it flies in the face of the many, many Asian martial artist characters found throughout the MOCU and also the many, many Asian martial artists existing in real life. I mean, seriously, come on…did someone actually say this? (Sarcasm not directed at ricehatwarrior).
    2. Overall, I would say he makes decent points for the coexistence of an Asian-American Danny Rand or simply, any Asian martial artist and Shang-Chi in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  4. He argues against the dispute that an Asian Martial Artist is stereotypical.
    1. Ultimately, here I agree with ricehatwarrior. Asians produce martial arts movies out of Asian Cinema (Chinese, Japanese, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, India, etc.) like it’s nobody’s business. So, I find myself raising an eyebrow when this argument is projected as Asian characters in Western entertainment who specialize in martial arts. Still, Asians like Albert Ching took this position against an Asian-American Iron Fist.
      1. One could say it’s overused, I would agree, but stereotypically offensive, that’s more of a personal issue. Yet, at the same time recalling my mentioning this as a progressive minded movement, often the same type of thought produces the argumentation that Asian martial artists are stereotypical. This is also one of the reasons why Marvel did what they did to the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Yet, you will find fans arguing against this point. It should be recalled, again, Asian Cinema has no qualms producing characters equal to the representation of the Mandarin from their own production houses. No qualms. It’s only here in the West that people get queasy about it to some degree, from my experience. I can pop in a Martial arts movie newly produced in China about characters from an ancient time, and there they are with Mandarin-like qualities represented by the very people who are supposedly offended by this so-called stereotype. Just saying, this seems to be more of an individual or small group personal issue rather than a major movement. Unfortunately, however, in the details of this point, ricehatwarrior falls back to the “White savior” issue.
    2. Also, recall what he said in point #1 that some Asian-Americans are stereotyped. It makes one wonder what stereotype was he talking about there since it’s obviously not this one or is he contradicting himself here? Or is it simply just the Chang from The Hangover type of stereotypes or the Weak-Asian-male stereotypes? To be fair, I did not read the entirety of the reddit comment thread as it ventured off into another discussion at times, so I cannot say for sure ricehatwarrior elaborated further here.
  5. His fifth point is pretty much a repeat of his second point, but with more emphasis and detail about what he presents as the dynamics and diversity among the different people groups in various Asian cultures.

Considering I offered thoughts embedded in listing the major points, it is apparent to me the argument for an Asian-Faced Danny Rand is primarily because of a lack of representation of potentially impactful, strong Asian-American males, and the perception of Iron Fist as a White Danny Rand is the resurfacing of the White Savior trope often presented in Western Entertainment.

With all that said, here are my thoughts about the controversy:

First, as a creator, aspiring writer, and possibly comic creator, illustrator, animator myself, I loathe it anytime someone comes along and wants to change an original creation of someone else for some activist purpose of the current social climate. For me, if it were done to any work I managed to release in the next year or so (as of this writing) decades removed from that release for the current social trends of that time…I’d be severely against it. Why? It was my creation, not theirs!

Yes, I realize many creators and artists don’t take this position. I do, so what others do with their own work is moot to me, but this will always be my defacto position on such things. It always annoys me when someone “reboots” someone else’s earlier material and “reimagines” it for “creative reasons.” To me, it shows a severe lack of creativity if you had to take someone else’s source material and create from that. Even worse, if you’re politicizing someone’s material by ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation changes just because you want representation from material created at a time there wasn’t so much representation of these differences.

This is where social progressivism becomes more totalitarian propaganda corrupting original author intent, thought and entertainment than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly aware people put their viewpoints in their creation. That’s what Media Observers is really all about, anyway. We examine those memes put in entertainment, but still, it seems forced and often times unnecessary even if the author is okay with it. I can get into my thoughts here about artists and those who play the “it’s all interpretive” with their work and how I feel about that, but that’s them, I’m me. Again, as someone who wouldn’t want this done to my work, that’s how I feel about the work of others. Period.

Secondly, and sadly, Marvel opened the Pandora’s box on this when they Black-Faced, Asian-Faced and White-Washed various characters throughout the MCU for this very thing, in some cases and in others for even weaker reasons. I’m thinking of the Black-Facing of Nick Fury by Samuel L. Jackson (which arguably happened in the Marvel Comic Book Ultimate universe first), White-Washing and Gender-Swapping of the Ancient One with Tilda Swinton and the Black-Facing of Baron Karl Amadeus Mordo with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the recent Dr. Strange.

NordicCulturalAppropriation

Look at this Nordic cultural appropriation and the Ethnic-Swapping of White mythical characters of Nordic (a White) culture.

Most importantly in this case, there’s the Black-Facing of Heimdall with Idris Elba and the Asian-Facing of Hogun the Grim of the Warriors Three with Tadanobu Asano in the Thor franchise and the Black-Facing of Valkyrie by Tessa Thompson in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok. All this despite the fact the character Thor and the Asgardians are based on Norse mythology, which at its core, is an argument about the hypocrisy of claims of cultural appropriation as these Ethnic-Swappings are lauded as “progressive,” and any criticism is met with claims of racism, ignorance and/or simply comic book purists not with the times. Yet, it is really cultural appropriation of Norse mythology which is a verifiable White culture, not African, not Black, not Asian, not Latino, not a mixed blend, it’s White. Their mythical beings were White. Yet, here it is, Marvel Black-Faced two of them and Asian-Faced one of them. White people are told to shut up and accept this cultural appropriation, but then people of similar thought frames, who praise this cultural appropriation of a White culture, want to complain about how a White Iron Fist supposedly steals martial culture from Asians? Huh? Hypocrisy!

Still, there is also the recent controversy over the potential Black-Facing of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming film in which James Gunn replied to said controversy that he doesn’t “believe a character is the color of his or her skin,” and that people complaining about the Ethnicity-Swapping “have lives that are too good.” Seriously? So because I prefer a White Mary Jane, although I’m Black, my life is too good, and I should shut up? Sigh. It’s apparent Mr. Gunn intended for that shot to be directed at White people complaining about the Black-Facing of M.J., and not guys like me. Nope, that creates a sort of cognitive dissonance.  To be fair, there is another rumor-mill that Zendaya Coleman may be playing Michele Gonzalez, another one of Peter Parker’s love interests aside from Mary Jane. Or Michelle may simply be some new character. Though, back in December 2016 others like TeenVogue wonder if this is all still a cover and she will still be playing M.J. Yet, back in November 2016, Zendaya insisted she was not playing Mary Jane and the Director, Jon Watts introduced her as playing a character named Michelle. Which reminds me, despite the confusion over Zendaya’s character, Laura Harrier is playing Liz Allan, one of Peter’s love interests, but she is White in the source material. Still emphasizing the point MCU has ethinc-swapped, or whatever-swapped characters before and continue to plan to do so.

Last, but not least, there is the aforementioned switching of the Mandarin from Chinese to Ben Kingsley’s British-Indian Pseudo-Mandarin, and although his true name is Krishna Bhanji of Gujarati Indian descent, his character was nothing more than a failed actor pretending to be the Mandarin. He was a distraction to Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, the real Mandarin on screen and creator of Extremis, a White man. Mike Roe discusses how plenty of fans did not like this move, and his poll has about 62% of those voting on it indicating as much as well. Also, there are those like Sean O’Connell, who admits the “yellow threat” of the 1960’s Mandarin was created on was outdated and even found entertainment in the twist. Still, O’Connell stresses what was done to the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is problematic when the entire Iron Man legacy is factored in.

With all of these “swappings,” one should be persuaded to ask the question “why,” if not just for forced representation or being skittish enough to apparently obstruct any creativity to bring a classic villain to light such as The Mandarin. Above all, however, they already opened the door for these kinds of unnecessary requests making it difficult for relative purists of the source material to argue, “But in the original comic the character looked this way, so why change it?” Generally speaking here, Marvel already started this problem and I will argue, in their comic books to begin with, they Gender-Swap, Ethnicity-Swap, Sexual-Orientation-Swap, Concept-Swap, Ideology-Swap characters already with an embedded history “just because” social progression demands it. This is why it is problematic to begin with, in my opinion, because progressives sometimes eat their own showing a sort of idealistic-cognitive-dissonance going on within the overall movement in general.

Some have tried to get around this obvious double standard by claiming it’s not the same by simply arguing there is more White representation than non-Whites. This strikes me as a weak position to take because it is like saying it’s okay if we do something so long as it’s us and not you. For instance, that’s like corrupt police officers, for sake of argument, saying it’s okay for us to sell drugs because we’re the police, but not anyone else, etc. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s okay for one group to do the very thing they feel their oppressors are doing because it is more of their supposed oppressors than it is of them. First of all, if you look at this from a global scale then there is no such thing as a minority group. Second of all, this is bascially doing the exact same thing they are complaining about. Doesn’t make any sense at all unless you justify it with faulty reasoning.

Thirdly, I need to address Shang-Chi and the general dispute raised by the Asian-American Iron Fist advocates. First, why Asian-Face a White character when you have an Asian character that fits all the requirements you are requesting from the Asian-Facing of the White character? This doesn’t make sense to me no matter what group is requesting the swap from White character to whatever if representation already exists in the universe for that group. It would be far more logical to get behind the existing character rather than impose an unnecessary change on another character. It seems the main reason advocates want Iron Fist changed is simply because of the impact the character will have in Netflix’s side of the MCU. In other words, Iron Fist will be on the starter team to use a sports analogy while Shang-Chi will seem to be second string. Yet, this is all superficial, lacking any real weight and only an argument from the perspective Shang-Chi could not come into the MCU later and make the proper waves to have an impact alongside the other characters.  In the MOCU side of the universe, he is recognized in Marvel canon as the master of Kung Fu; in fact, Black Panther considers him better than Iron Fist. See below.

Black Panther tells Luke Cage that Shang-Chi is better than Danny Rand

Even so, allowing Rand’s story to succeed opens the door for plenty of other Asian characters from Marvel, and there are many. I initially started a database on Asian characters in Marvel as part of my research for this thought piece and there were so many, I gave up on the database because it would have overwhelmed the issue. There are super powered Asians, martial artist Asians, non-martial artists Asians, SHIELD agent Asians, etc., list goes on and on. How could they show up in any Netflix series post-Iron Fist or the general MCU for that matter, if the spoiled sports succeeded in sabotaging the show with early negative reviews overhyped towards the negative?

Fourthly, we need to deal with the White Savior issue which is inherently the crux of the problem. Recalling the definition provided by Chow and ricehatwarrior, the white savior trope is simply anytime a White outsider ventures into a foreign/alien society, doesn’t fit in initially, but over time or quickly learns the secrets of that society, environment enough to best the alpha males in that society to become the new leader, champion or legend. Most assert this is what Danny Rand is as Iron Fist when he is raised as a White outsider in Kun-Lun, learns their martial arts, defeats Shou-Lau the Undying to claim the mantle of Iron Fist and the ability to utilize his energy to harden his fists.

Initially, I had written up a long rebuttal to this pulled from various examples in the MOCU to indicate that although Danny fulfills some parts of this trope, he does not fulfill it to the letter. Yet, after watching Netflix’s Iron Fist, I have to say the only part he really fulfills is going to a foreign land, learning some of their secrets and becoming Iron Fist, but even that is misleading if you didn’t watch the show. So, let me break this down:

  • Danny isn’t a fully-fledged Iron Fist. Sure, he has the Iron Fist technique and he survived the trial with the dragon, but he is missing training due to leaving Kun-Lun of his own free will which, in his mind, was an escape.

    DavosHate

    Davos looks at Danny Rand with pure disgust, hatred, and disappointment. So much for that White Savior, right?

  • Considering #1 and the fact Danny “ran away” from Kun-Lun, he is no champion to the people. When Davos finally appears on the scene, this is evident in Davos’ disappointment towards him and his words towards Danny. Davos is so upset with Danny they eventually get into a fight because Davos truly believes in the responsibilities of Iron Fist, and he feels Danny stole them from him, yet he was willing to stand beside his adoptive brother until Danny disappeared. In fact, Davos considers him a failure. He calls him this several times. How does that fit the white savior trope? Not only is Davos upset with Danny, but so is Lei Kung and according to Davos, the whole of Kun-Lun. How does this fit the white savior trope? They don’t see him as a leader or champion right now. Sure, he survived Shou-Lau the Undying, but the running theme in the show is he is a bumbling mess of an Iron Fist to the point his enemies take advantage of this situation. By the end of the story, Davos hates him so much he wants him dead. Granted, at this point Davos’ feelings towards Danny does not extend to the whole of Kun-Lun, but it indicates that instead of mastering Kun-Lun martial arts and winning favor in Kun-Lun over the indigenous peoples, he is considered largely a disappointment to Kun-Lun.
  • Danny is not the only Iron Fist, he is not the first and won’t be the last. He is in a long line of Iron Fist in which the power is handed down generation to generation. Yes, it is to one student chosen by the elders of the Order. In the comics, there are a handful of Immortal Weapons and who can utilize other skills, and some can rival the Iron Fist technique. Most of the other Immortal Weapons are Asian.
  • In the show, Iron Fist is a glorified guard, nothing more, nothing less. That’s all. His job is to go to the path of Kun-Lun once every ten years and stand guard. Period. This is the main reason Danny leaves Kun-Lun because it did not fulfill his emptiness, and when he found out that was all he would be doing the rest of his life, he felt a supernatural tug to leave Kun-Lun.
  • Along with being a glorified guard, I took from the show Iron Fist is an expendable soldier. Not some mighty champion. There is an episode where Danny goes to fight a tournament with the Hand to save a young girl on behalf of a chemist. During the tournament, he sees visions of Lei Kung, I’m guessing they were visions. Anyways, eventually Lei Kung tells Danny he belongs to him as he is nothing more than a weapon. He is expendable, created only to be utilized by the leaders of Kun-Lun. A mortal weapon who I supposed to simply do what he is told. Danny only becomes a hero due to leaving Kun-Lun and utilizing the gift he acquired while there to deal with the Hand threatening humanity outside of Kun-Lun.
  • The show never really shows Danny in Kun-Lun. Yes, you get flashbacks, but all this hype about how it will show a White guy besting a bunch of Asians at their own martial culture, you don’t ever see it this season. True, he does fight some Asians here and there, but he also fights some Black, White, possibly Latino and other ethnicities.
  • Arguing that a White man or woman cannot learn martial arts enough to surpass an Asian man or woman is in itself ignorance and problematic in its own right. In contemporary times, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Thai and Indian Martial culture has extended globally. There is evidence of various ethnicities extending to the heights of martial arts ranks, so arguing a White character should not be shown doing this and it is somehow offensive to Asians seems to be an argument which ignores real world evidence.
    1. I predict some will try to argue this point is moot in regards to the argument from representation, but I would respond with my first and second points in regards to representation in general.
  • Consider for a moment four examples of Black American men ascending to the heights of martial arts and acting in entertainment as men who excel in martial arts. RZA starred as a slave (if memory serves me well) who ends up in China in The Man with the Iron Fist 1 & 2 where he bests plenty of Asian men in Martial Arts. There was no outcry of a Black savior trope or cultural appropriation then. Jill Kelly starred in various kung-fu films in the 70’s and even starred alongside the late Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Bolo Yeung and Robert Wall, among many others in the acclaimed classic Enter the Dragon. Michael Jai White has starred in plenty of martial arts roles ranging from film to television, and Wesley Snipes is probably the most well-known Black American actor who generally utilizes martial arts in his action roles. No outcry of cultural appropriation or Black savior trope even when/if these men or others of non-White ethnicity star in a role where they learn from an Asian and best Asians later in the story. Zip, zilch, only an issue when it’s a White person. Does that tell you something? It tells me something. That something’s unbalanced with this outlook. It’s a one-sided argument tailored to only be utilized when it’s a White person because non-Whites are generally considered oppressed by Whites, so only Whites can be considered in the wrong during these situations and nobody else. Sometimes a particular group tries to be victimized by all other groups outside of that group. I call this an inferiority complex. It’s not something I try to claim, and it’s something I loathe.

Generally speaking, Danny as a White man was juxtaposed to Luke Cage, a Black hero, and through this, their relationship developed as well as their understanding of their respective cultures. I can go more into this, but others have done far better than I would since I’ve read Iron Fist randomly here and there. Yet, in regards to this dichotomy of skin color, in the comments of the previously linked Buzzfeed article written by Susan Cheng, there is a personal testimony indicating Ethnic-swapping may not always be the answer and actually far more harmful, especially if said character has positive social interactions with other ethnicities as a White person as Danny Rand does. In fact, Rand is often placed in some of the most ethnically diverse teams in Marvel. Cheng, is, of course, advocating an Asian-American Danny Rand and claiming outrage at the casting of Finn Jones, but in the comments there is a man named Andy Wise. He stresses Iron Fist’s relationship with Luke Cage as a White Danny Rand was one of the things that helped him move away from his father’s KKK upbringing and understanding such beliefs against other ethnicities were wrong. Another note, if you should take it upon yourself to look through those comments on that Buzzfeed Article, you will notice plenty of different ethnicities advocating a White Iron Fist and calling foul the hypocrisy of the issue. Plenty. So, this is not just a White fanboy movement opposed to Asian-Facing Danny Rand.

Ultimately, I want to stress I am not against representation, but I am against “just because I say so” representation of diversity. Diversity anywhere can be done the right way without forcing it on people, especially when it’s in entertainment. If there is a character that already represents you, why change another character. It makes much more sense to get behind the already existing character in order to make that character more popular. If you do that, most people won’t have much to say against it, but when you come along and want to change the characters (and usually, their stories as a result) people have a history with, they grew up on, they will contend with it. Period.

For my thoughts on the show in general go here, for my thoughts on representation in entertainment go here (forthcoming link).

Roy

Author: Leroy "BrotherRoy" Whitaker

I’m the founder of this site. I enjoy ranting, raving, analyzing and thinking deeper into the memes, tropes, and such in movies, television, comic books, etc. As a Christian, I will often bring that frame of reference to the table, but I also enjoy discussing these topics just for the fun of it. I’m an artist by nature, but I’m also an aspiring fiction writer myself.

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