By Guest Contributor Keith Chow, cross-posted from The Nerds of Color
Yes, I am proposing that a major comic book institution change the race of one of its popular characters as it transitions to a new form of media. In this case, I want Marvel Studios to cast an Asian American actor to play the lead in the upcoming Iron Fist show it is developing for Netflix. It seems logical enough to me, though as always, there are fans who are urging Marvel to resist changing his race.
Now, I know the topic of cross-racial casting has come up time andtime again here at The Nerds of Color. And while there are a contingent of fans who don’t think such things matter — or worse, arevehemently opposed to such casting choices — I can’t help thinking that Iron Fist gives Marvel a chance to add even more diversity to its interconnected cinematic universe. Not to mention that this is a case where changing the race of the character has the potential to actually add layers of depth to the story of said character.
First, let’s get a couple of misconceptions out of the way. My call for an Asian American Iron Fist is not meant to displace Danny Rand from the story. It is, in fact, the opposite. In my mind, casting a young Asian American in the lead role does nothing to change his classic origin: He can still be the son of a wealthy businessman. He can still accompany his family on an expedition to seek out K’un L’un. He canstill train under Lei Kung, the Thunderer. He can still seek revenge against the man who killed his father. Danny being Asian American precludes none of these things.
What does change, however, in making Danny non-white is that it removes the white savior syndrome of the original story. In the comics, it turns out Danny is the most gifted student Lei Kung had ever trained. Because of course he is. For all the fans who might decry an Iron Fist racebend, do you really want yet another white-guy-is-better-at-being-Asian-than-the-Asians story? But if Danny is Asian American, the scenes of him embracing the ways of K’un-L’un can be viewed through the lens of cultural re-connection. In fact, I’d play up Danny’s rejection of his Asian heritage prior to venturing to China. I know as someone who similarly connected to my cultural heritage later in life, that story would be deeply resonant to me. And you know what would be really dope? If the writers also played up the actual Kunlun Mountains of Chinese mythology on the show.
It also helps that with essentially a Heroes for Hire show on the horizon, appearances by the Daughters of the Dragon, Colleen Wingand Misty Knight, can’t be that far behind either. If that happens, it’ll be nice to see the romance between Rand and Knight played out on screen as an Asian male/black female relationship. There hasn’t been one of those on television since John Cho and Gabrielle Union played a married couple on the short-lived ABC show Fast Forward.
There’s also the other argument that says making Iron Fist Asian American is unnecessary because we already have Shang Chi. Well, to that I say, white folk already have Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Wolverine, Daredevil… I mean, I can keep going.
Also, while Shang Chi is cool and everything, his inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t increase the number of Asian Americans because Shang’s from China, after all. Plus, he doesn’t have superpowers. Or shoes.
Speaking of China, it seems that some folks think that cross-racialily casting Iron Fist is a crass pander to the ever-growing Chinese consumer base. My wanting Asian American representation in the Iron Fist character has nothing to do with the marketing demographics of a billion people on the other side of the world. (Also, I don’t think there’s any proof that the Chinese really care how Asian actors are portrayed in American movies anyway). Instead, I want the Marvel Cinematic Universe to reflect the demographics of the real world as much as possible. The Defenders shows on Netflix — with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones representing — is a step in the right direction. But I feel that diversity is all for naught if yet another blue-eyed blonde superhero takes center stage.
[UPDATE 2: I talk more about Marvel Studios considering an Asian American Iron Fist with Andrew Wheeler over at ComicsAlliance.]