After months of speculation, Marvel Studios has cast Finn Jones as the kung fu superhero Iron Fist. Best known for his role as the dainty Ser Loras Tyrell on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Jones is a British actor who is very, very, very white, which is very accurate to Danny Rand, the Iron Fist of Marvel’s comics.
And that’s always been kind of a bummer.
Marvel is a brand that’s historically built on progressivism and inclusion, a tradition that continues today in its comic books and its TV shows. (Its movies are still kind of white and coded towards men, but that’s been a consequence of playing by Hollywood’s rules.)
But it’s been hard to compromise that openness when you see some of Marvel’s characters that err on the side of cartoony stereotypes à la Street Fighter. Kamala Khan wasn’t Marvel’s first Muslim superhero (Muslim-American, no doubt), but Sooraya Qadir, an X-Man by the name of Dust who had the ability to change and control a sand form. She was created by Grant Morrison of whom I’m a huge fan, so understand that when I say: Yikes. Another X-Man, Sunfire (who was also made by Iron Fist’s creator Roy Thomas) was a Japanese man whose powers were defined by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His costume bears the Rising Sun insignia, a symbol connected to Imperial Japan and its war crimes that detractors say is as offensive as the Nazi swastika or the Confederate flag.
As others have pointed out, Iron Fist was made to capitalize on the ’70s explosion of kung fu movies that hit big after Bruce Lee and his breakthrough movie Enter the Dragon. The star’s untimely death before the film’s premiere created a feverish search for the next star, which created the surge of martial arts movies at the time. Marvel saw the trend and added to it, creating their own kung fu hero (two, including the lesser-known Shang-Chi) to play in its comic book universe.
But for whatever reason, Thomas and Kane didn’t make Iron Fist Asian, even though Bruce Lee shattered stereotypes (and created new ones). Instead, they borrowed from other characters like Batman and the pulp era, resulting in Danny Rand. The son of Wendell Rand, a wealthy American magnate who learned kung fu and magic in the faraway city of K’un-L’un, Danny would be orphaned after his father and mother died returning to K’un-L’un. He’s placed under the care of Lei Kung, who teaches him to become the superhero Iron Fist, and returns to New York to fight crime. He later teams up with Luke Cage, forming the Heroes for Hire and the Defenders.
In 2016, media representation of minorities is at the forefront of modern racial politics, but the way it’s understood in regards to geeky pop culture or occurrences like whitewashing is kind of broken broken. (This Reddit thread on the Last Week Tonight segment is straight up embarrassing.) The Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty absent of Asian heroes — Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a monopoly on all two of them — so it should all but make sense to make the superhero closest to East Asian culture (just barely) actually be portrayed by an Asian actor.
Except, Marvel would have likely faced equal backlash for perpetuating stereotypes and not breaking them. Bruce Lee did a lot for reversing the image of Asians in American popular culture (before Lee, Mickey Rooney’s angry Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the most popular image), but he left behind another stereotype that was as limiting and problematic as Mr. Yunioshi.
There were no winners for Marvel, who allegedly heard the concerns and considered it in the casting process. It was an unenviable decision to make, and with many in Hollywood fighting whitewashing and image stereotype reinforcement, Iron Fist character backed Marvel into a corner with no easy way out.
Of course, there was one solution: Danny Rand, like Kamala Khan, be Asian-American, removed from his ethnic heritage.
A crucial point about Iron Fist is that Danny Rand is an outsider learning the ways of an indigenous culture that holds power above the modern world (which screams white savior, another nasty popular trope). Many third- or fourth-generation Asian-Americans have grown up removed from their motherlands, and it’s a phenomenon explored by filmmakers like Justin Lin and Wong Fu Productions, who have tackled the millennial Asian-American psyche through very complex (and often fun) movies like Better Luck Tomorrow.
It’s not a perfect solution — nothing about Iron Fist would be — but as a second-generation Asian-American myself, I can tell you how resonant that story would be for obsessed fanboys like myself who found Marvel’s and DC’s stories about extraordinary weirdos a little more resonant than the casual fan.
I’m sure Marvel saw something in Finn Jones, whom I liked in Game of Thrones. I wonder if his pretty boy looks will add a fresh nuance to the MCU and the genre as a whole. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen are wealthy and white, yes, but they look like they can take a beating. Jones looks like he can be broken in half by a high school linebacker, so to see him become a superhero could be the real change of face the genre needs.
Here’s hoping Marvel will use Shang-Chi somewhere.