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Marvel So White: What’s the Deal with Iron Fist and Other Heroes?

Being a fan of Marvel and anything related to it is a recurring roller coaster of excitement, dread, and then resignation. That isn’t to say that the House of Ideas doesn’t make hits or that they’re bad, but they’re quickly becoming that friend you want to just shake and berate until they realize they need to get their crap together.

Last week, it was announced that Game of Jones’ Finn Jones would be taking up the role of Iron Fist, the final hero in the Netflix/Marvel TV series that will eventually tie into the Defenders series due possibly next year. Fist, real name Danny Rand, is a master martial artist who learned his abilities by basically going to China and becoming the best there is, despite not being a native and in a world where the locals have had way more experience than his blonde, white boy self. In media, this is commonly referred to as the “white savior” trope, where a typical dough bread white person shows up to an exotic locale and becomes the best at whatever’s a big deal or saves the locals. See also Far Cry 3, James Cameron’s Avatar, or The Last Samurai.

Naturally, the reception to this casting was pretty mixed. Some folks were okay with it, while others weren’t so jazzed with the idea of yet another white guy taking up the leading role in the MCU. As of now, there’s only about six things that don’t have a strong jawed white guy in the title role–Agents of SHIELD (debatably), Agent Carter, Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones, and Captain Marvel–one of which may be cancelled by the time this comes out, two of which aren’t even out yet, and one whose existence is very debatable. A lot of folks, myself included, were looking forward to the possibility of a Danny played by an Asian man, given his whole martial artist origin and the sketchy undertones that come with it. What certainly didn’t help matters was the fact that hours before this announcement, a trailer for the new season of Daredevil had plenty of Asians in it…just as ninjas and villains for the white protagonist to beat to a pulp.

I’ve often heard that it’s just as, if not more racist to cast an Asian man as a kung fu master than go the white boy option, but I don’t entirely buy that. For one thing, that’s a pretty cynical outlook on things, and more than a little dickish to claim that, especially if you’re not Asian yourself. At this point, the MCU is so iffy on representation that while it’d be sketchy, it would at least be a better effort than to have him be white. With the exception of Agent May and Skye from Agents, along with Elektra being played by half-French, half-Japanese Elodie Yung, the representation of Asians in the MCU is heavily skewered as them being villains. Definitely makes for a jarring message of representation; “You’re cool enough to be in this universe, but as a hero? God no, just as a villain to get beaten to near death. Enjoy!”

Making Danny Asian would’ve been a great subversion that Marvel’s heroes are famous for being. There’s no perfect reason for Danny’s story to not be about an Asian American exploring the culture of his ancestors. Each of the Marvel products has an underlying theme–Jessica Jones was rape culture, Winter Soldier about drone warfare and government corruption, and so on–so why couldn’t Iron Fist be about identity and reconnecting with family roots? And if they were worried about pissing people off either way, why didn’t they try to find a compromise by having Danny just be a person of color that wasn’t Asian? Like maybe a black or Latino Danny Rand?

Maybe this would be a smaller pill to swallow if the MCU’s racial politics weren’t already something awful. Folks still aren’t happy about casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a character who’s frequently been drawn to look Latin and whose powers are rooted in Asian mysticism. Even more troubling is the fact that Strange gets a movie before Black Panther, despite the King of Wakanda showing up in Captain America: Civil War in about three months. And T’Challa’s solo movie got pushed back to make room for another Spider-Man movie with white boy Peter Parker, because that’s something that we all need to see play out for a sixth time. As plenty of people have pointed out, there wasn’t any real reason for them not to just go “hey, here’s Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Peter died”. That’s pretty much what they did in Ant-Man, after all. It’s hard to feel jazzed about Peter joining the MCU when there’s already a teenage Spider-Man ripe for the picking.

While speaking about his film Triple 9, Chiwetel Ejiofor said that casting a film that’s essentially all white was “doing something very directly…that is a choice”. While it’s primarily about the film industry as a whole, it definitely applies to the MCU. There’s only so many times that folks are gonna be willing to accept that yet another white dude with a crackling wit and a hot girl at his side will save his section of the world and eventually be paired with other members of the same ilk.

If DC’s willing to go “screw it” and give us an Isreali Wonder Woman and Polynesian Aquaman simply just because, why isn’t Marvel willing to do the same? They’ve been perfectly willing to change other aspects of long established canon from their comics, like the origin of the Vision, the Mandarin, the gender of the Ancient One, and the heritage of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. How come they aren’t willing to just add in some color to their monochromatic world? At this point, it should’ve gotten through their heads that telling people to wait will only hold them for so long.

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