After nearly two years of speculation, Marvel announced last week that they had cast the titular role of Danny Rand in the upcoming Netflix series Iron Fist. While one would think this would be a time of celebration for fans of the character, the company’s choice of English actor Finn Jones (best known as Loras Tyrell on Game of Thrones) has instead brought on a firestorm of controversy due to Jones’ ethnicity.
Since the series was first announced, there have been numerous calls for the main character to be portrayed by an Asian American actor. In response, there have been rebuttals to the concept, most of which hinge on the idea that Iron Fist has always been white in his comic book incarnation.
To understand the furor over the casting, one must first learn the background of the character. Introduced in 1974 by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Iron Fist debuted at a time when Asian martial arts films were a pop culture phenomenon in the U.S. To capitalize on the trend, Thomas and Kane gave Danny Rand an origin steeped in Eastern mysticism. After the betrayal by a business partner leads to his parents deaths while on a Himalayan hiking trip, Rand discovers the ancient city of K’un L’un. Vowing to get revenge on the man who caused the death of his parents, Rand begins training under the tutelage of Lei King. After defeating an ancient evil known as Shou Lao, Danny gains the mystical powers of the Iron Fist. He moves back to the United States, and becomes a well-regarded superhero within the Marvel Universe, frequently teaming with Luke Cage and adventuring with The Avengers on numerous occasions.
Iron Fist’s origin has been controversial since its introduction, as it fits into the classic “white savior” trope with Danny entering an Asian land, using the native culture’s practices more effectively than they themselves do to save them from evil. On top of that, he appropriates their culture as his own when he departs. Many of those who hoped that Marvel would cast an Asian-American in the role felt that said casting would remove those elements, and give Marvel their first live action Asian hero. Comic writer and novelist Majorie Liu spelled out that view succinctly after Jones was cast, tweeting “Iron Fist is an orientalist-white-man-yellow-fever narrative. Asian actor would have helped subvert that offensive trope, and reclaim space.”
On the other side of the debate, there are those who feel that casting an Asian actor in the role is not only unnecessary, but would actually damage the character. As mentioned earlier, many of these arguments circle back to the cliche that the character is white in the source material, an argument that’s trotted out every time the race of a character is changed for an adaptation outside of comics, and frankly one that seems less and less relevant as the years go by. However, there is another argument given by some as to why Iron Fist shouldn’t be portrayed by an Asian actor, that being that having Marvel’s first on so far only major live action Asian hero be one whose defined by martial arts and mysticism wouldn’t subvert tropes at all, but rather feed into them more so.
Personally, I initially found myself torn on how to feel about the situation. I absolutely believe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs more diversity, and I have no issue with deviating from the course material. In fact, I believe Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Nick Fury to be a highlight of the MCU, and wish Marvel had taken that same approach to other characters in their films including Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Janet Van Dyne/The Wasp and the upcoming Spider-Man. On the other hand, I can see how introducing an Asian hero whose defining characteristic is doing martial arts while wearing traditional Asian garb could be problematic, especially to general audiences who aren’t familiar with the character’s history and would simply take him at face value.
There’s no easy answer to this debate, however, I find myself feeling that I wish Marvel had cast an Asian-American actor in the role. After much consideration of both sides of the issue, my desire to see the MCU diversified was stronger than any fear of Iron Fist being portrayed as an Asian stereotype character, especially with the strong writing of the other Marvel Netflix series; Daredevil and Jessica Jones.