There’s a new outrage over a comic book character. More on that in a moment. (Might want to grab some popcorn, this is going to ruffle a few feathers, and not mine.)
I have no problem with changing a character’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs for a new medium (or even a new comic universe) as long as you are not changing the core of the character. A Black Nick Fury? A Black Kingpin? A female Jeri Hogarth? a Gay Mr. Terrific? No problems with any of these because not one of them affected the core of the character.
I have a problem with a change being made to a character when the character’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs are compromised in the name of political correctness. There are numerous examples of this, but I will leave off listing them here, as I don’t want to draw attention away from the situation at hand.
The current controversy is about Danny Rand, AKA Iron Fist, and the fact that Marvel has chosen to cast a White actor. Let me go ahead and point out that the character has been White since his introduction 4 decades ago. That is not an argument, by the way, just a simple statement of fact. As already established previously, I don’t hold that to be a reason in and of itself for keeping a character to canon.
So there was a small movement to have an Asian-American cast in the part. Marvel even considered it, and met with several outside people about an Asian-American Danny Rand, but in the end decided to go with about the Whitest White actor they could find, which says to me that Marvel (who have been addressing serious issues in the Netflix series thus far) has some plans which are likely to make everyone a bit happier.
Unfortunately, there are several factors at work here which give the critics of this casting choice some legitimate ammunition. The first is the simple fact that Marvel does not have an Asian lead character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which includes a lot of the Marvel movies coming out, as well as four TV shows that are already out (and as a sub-note, Marvel doesn’t have many Asian characters in the comics)). The second is the entire Cultural Appropriation/White Saviour feel of Danny Rand. The third is that martial arts and Asian characters are a possibly toxic stereotypical mix.
The first one is indefensible, and Marvel needs to step up on this one. Ms. Marvel and Amadeus Cho are the only ones that come to mind right now that have their own books, and I doubt either of them is coming to the screen anytime soon. Where is Jimmy Woo? He should have been all over the various movies and the SHIELD TV series, but he’s been strangely absent. Why? The people calling for an Asian-American Danny Rand win all the points on this one.
The second one is more interesting as there are some aspects of the White Saviour trope that are present in the origin story, but since this is not a bunch of noble savages we are dealing with, but rather an extra-dimensional race with superior powers to our own, it kinda falls apart in the closer examination. In the end, I doubt that the exact origin story is what we’re getting, since Marvel doesn’t play that very often. Any speculation about the White Saviour trope is premature at this point.
Cultural Appropriation is something else entirely. The idea that any use of another culture is inherently bad is a new one to most people. Having a person of non-Asian ethnicity learn martial arts be automatically a bad thing is a scary concept. In the end, this term means exactly what the person using it wants it to mean, but by the measure the people in this argument are using, anyone taking a Yoga class is engaging in Cultural (Mis)Appropriation. By the same logic, there can be no winning this argument, since the argument is totally subjective unless one takes an absolutist view, and then it suffers from self-imposed Reductio Ad Absurdum.
For the last argument, the idea that Asians who know martial arts is a potentially toxic and prejudiced mix. They are correct. This has been done too many times, and there have been too many examples of characters who only have two discernable traits: Being Asian and Knowing Martial Arts. So this one is also a clearly indefensible position. One can point out the number of characters who have those two traits as well as a slew of other ones, but they will fall on deaf ears.
By the way, for those of you who are paying attention at this point, yes, the arguments contain an inherent logic contradiction. We have a character who is named Iron Fist who’s primarily a martial artist. If he’s White, then it’s Cultural Appropriation, if he’s Asian-American, then it’s a toxic stereotype. But never mind with that, let’s move on.
Let’s be honest for a few moments shall we? There are very few ways for Marvel to win in this one, but here’s the road map I would use. Take a mainstream Marvel hero who happens to be White, and cast an Asian-American in the part. Make sure that this character is not a martial artist (which is why I am not suggesting Shang-Chi), not influenced by Asian culture in name or abilities (Ronin would be a bad choice, as would say, Moon Knight with the nunchaka and throwing moons), doesn’t have a character concept that depends on the character’s ethnicity, and run with it. There’s already a good number of Asian-American supporting characters in the MCU (though try convincing Agent May she’s a supporting character), so after that point, bring in Shang-Chi. We avoid the criticism of (and you know it’s coming) “Oh, Asians have to be Martial Artists, right?”
So, that’s the opposition’s argument. Now time for the comics fan argument.
Danny Rand is a White guy. A rich White guy. A spoiled rich White guy. A 1%er through and through. Unlike a number of comic characters where the ethnicity makes little or no difference, in Danny Rand’s case, the ethnicity is one of the defining characteristics of the character. His origin story is due to his being rich and White. It’s a tale of a child of privilege getting dumped into a mystical/legendary city and going from that to a hero. It’s a story of a sterotypical rich White guy gaining some understanding of his own advantage, privilege and place in society, and doing it by experiencing prejudice and disdain due to being who he is. This loses a great deal of its oomph if he is the same ethnic group as his tormentors.
Changing Danny’s ethnicity means that the entire relationship with Luke Cage loses some of its impact. Because of the relationship with Luke, he becomes a social reform advocate, who’s best friend and partner (no sidekick issues here) is a Black street guy and an ex-con. They compliment each other perfectly, (which is a surprise since they were both failing solo acts who got tossed in the same comic in a last ditch effort to avoid cancellation). It was only after they were thrown into the same book that they grew into their potential. Casting Danny as a person of colour of any type diminishes this as he has to be that stereotype of a complete opposite for the pairing with Luke to work.
It also plays with the upcoming Defenders show, since that looks like it will be put together out of Heros for Hire and Daredevil. We might get Electra and/or the Punisher, but in any case Danny Rand as an Asian-American means that the whole team starts looking like an exercise in shoehorned diversity box checking. Disadvantage blind White guy, check. White female with severe issues, check. Black streetwise tough guy, check. Asian-American martial artist, check. It looks bad any way you slice that.
Playing with Danny’s ethnicity changes the character. This is not the same as applying a new coat of paint. He is tied up in his skin colour, the same way Luke Cage is in his. You can’t make the same statements with the Luke Cage character without him being a wrongfully accused Black man from the streets. Even the false promise of a pardon in return for medical experimentation loses part of the poignancy if he is anything other than Black due to the historical references.
For these reasons, leaving the character of Danny Rand White is the sensible thing to do, and gives the writers the most room to play with the hard-hitting issues that the Netflix series are becoming known for. They know what they are doing, so let them do it. We have not been disappointed yet, nor have they shied away from controversial topics.
And then there’s this.
Marvel already has an Asian martial arts hero. His name is Shang-Chi (which means “Rising of the Spirit”). He pre-dates Iron fist by 6 months, has had success, both commercial and critical (better sales than Iron Fist during times when they were competing), and is a member in good standing of Heroes for Hire. The man has been an Avenger. He’s also good friends with Danny Rand. I wouldn’t want to see him on the screen right now, since the fallout would be horrible. However, as an Asian martial arts hero, there is none better. There’s no need to make Danny Rand a Shang-Chi knockoff.