Social Justice Warriors: On the Road to "The Defenders" - "Iron Fist"
In 2017, Netflix launched the last of the four solo Marvel series leading to the upcoming Defenders, bringing the characters together as a team. After the positive acclaim for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, expectations were, unsurprisingly, high. For Iron Fist, those expectations became baggage very early on. Jessica Jones tackled issues of gender and sexual assault and Luke Cage engaged with issues of race (though not without some problems) – two areas that comics have historically mishandled - so there was some expectation that this newest series would also engage with its own issues with race, representation, and cultural appropriation. Perhaps even more disappointing than the lackluster fight scenes and lackadaisical pacing is that the show completely ignored that elephant in the room, and in doing so, essentially leaned into it. While there will be some focus on the ways the show fell short in addressing the cultural appropriation and white savior tropes, I will also look at ways the series might have addressed them.
Marvel Comics introduced the character of Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, in 1974 in Marvel Premiere #15 (written by Roy Thomas with art by Gil Kane) to capitalize on the martial arts craze at the time. As a young man, Danny travels to the mystical city of K’un Lun, where he is trained to compete in a series of challenges which would enable him to gain the power of the Iron Fist. He succeeds, and then travels back to the United States in order to seek revenge on the man who murdered his father, and left Danny and his mother in the mountains to die. In many ways, the story draws heavily from the pulp novels of the 1920s and 30s (not to mention being a nearly straight lift from the 1940s superhero Amazing Man). The character’s ongoing series would eventually be folded into Power Man and Iron Fist, which ran until Danny Rand was killed off in the final issue (PM&IF #125 in 1986). This being superhero comics, Iron Fist was brought back to life a few years later.
When Marvel announced the series of shows that would lead to The Defenders it’s likely they didn’t expect the controversy that would come from the inclusion of Iron Fist. Even in the comic world, Luke Cage was generally the more controversial character, having remained a Blaxploitation stereotype long well into the 80s. Danny Rand was just the white guy who did kung fu, which could describe anyone from Batman to Chuck Norris. So, what changed? In large part, it was Marvel itself. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (and to a lesser extent, Daredevil) had shown a level of social consciousness such that there became an expectation of the same care being given to Iron Fist. Additionally, the fandom itself had grown more diverse, which Marvel Comics both cultivated and capitalized on in recent years. Beyond superhero comics and their adaptations, films such as John Carter, Tarzan, and Avatar received criticism for bringing outdated and racist white imperialist storytelling tropes, such as the white savior, into modern films. Much of the push for Marvel to redress this issue began with an article published on Nerds of Color by Keith Chow titled “Marvel, Please Cast an Asian American Iron Fist” in 2016. Though Marvel apparently came close, they eventually cast Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones in the role.
All of which makes the actual handling of Danny Rand and his problematic origins so much worse in the actual execution of Iron Fist. Let’s start with the smaller problems. There are so many instances of tone-deafness in the way Danny’s relationship to Asian culture is portrayed. Early in the series, he meets Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). She’s in Central Park hanging flyers for her martial arts dojo when Danny meets her. Danny, after having an entire conversation in English, for reasons that go unexplained, begins speaking to her in Mandarin. Because, of course, she must speak Mandarin (that she actually does is beside the point). Later, after refusing to take no for an answer, Danny shows up at her dojo, and eventually teaches not just her students, but Colleen herself, all about martial arts. And, determined to leave no box unchecked, they fall in love, and he eventually has to save her, because that’s how the trope goes.
Jones plays Danny as an odd combination of arrogant and naïve. He returns to New York after spending years in K’un Lun, and spends much of the series trying to prove that he really is the billionaire heir to the Rand fortune, having fought to become the Iron Fist, defender of K’un Lun. Let’s unpack this. The Iron Fist is the sole defender of an ancient hidden city. Several potential Iron Fists spend years being trained to compete for the responsibility of protecting their home. After being rescued as a child, Danny becomes one of these potentials. After doing what white people inevitably do in this scenario – that is, be inherently better than the native population who have created and wielded this power for generations – Danny receives the Iron Fist and begins guarding K’un Lun against their ancient enemy, the Hand (a group of deadly assassins last seen in season 2 of Daredevil and returning in The Defenders). He does this for, apparently, all of a couple of days until he grows bored of standing guard, and takes off.
Much of this is explained when Davos (Sacha Dhawan), the runner-up Iron Fist, shows up to bring Danny back so that he can do what he agreed to, and protect K’un Lun. Of course, Danny defeats him. When Danny does eventually return to K’un Lun, he learns that it has seemingly been destroyed by the Hand, because he wasn’t there to protect it. Because he got bored. I would love to be able to write a hot take where all of this is a subversive take on the white savior trope, by having Danny reenact the actuality of imperialism, rather than the noble myth (as a friend of mine sarcastically put it, Iron Fist neatly avoids the white savior criticism by having him be so bad at it). But the show isn’t doing that, in large part because at no point is another character held up as the real hero (see the Jack Burton/Wang Chi dynamic in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China). He’s the hero, Davos is the villain, and that’s that.
Reinforcing the idea of Danny as the hero is that the ultimate villain, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), is doing exactly the same thing Danny is. He’s using the abilities given to him by The Hand in order to retain control of Rand Industries, without any concern or care for their culture, traditions, or desires. This is where casting an Asian actor as Danny would have enhanced the theme of the show (or, potential theme, really) by reframing the conflict as the colonized versus the colonizer, rather than two colonizers fighting with each other over more money and power. Additionally, all of the characters of color in the show – from Colleen Wing (love interest/ally) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) (ally) to Davos (villain) and Bakuto (Ramón Rodriguez) (villain) – take on secondary roles to the “real” conflict.
What Iron Fist demonstrates is the need to have cultural representation not just in front of, but behind the camera, as well. Despite the problems in Luke Cage I looked at last week, that series gets much more right than it does wrong. Casting an Asian actor as Danny Rand would have helped, for the reasons Chow and others have written about. Even more, an Asian showrunner would potentially have been more conscious of the tropes and stereotypes and found ways to engage with them. It’s unlikely that much will be done to improve the character in The Defenders, though the impatience each of the other members show toward him amuses me more than it should. Much like the theatrical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s much more likely that the character development will fall to the solo outings, with the team-up being more about the action, and that’s fine. More than any of the other shows, though, I’m hoping that the second season of Iron Fist delves into the questions about cultural appropriation that the character embodies.