This year at New York Comic Con, Marvel went hard promoting Iron Fist, a show that’s gotten under my skin since it was first announced. I found myself standing in line for the Iron Fist photo booth, getting strapped to a heart monitor, when a young woman of Asian descent told me I had to “harness my chi” in order to take a good photo. She told me this through her teeth, as if annoyed at what she just said. I realized it was part of Marvel’s script for her.
“This is more involved than I thought,” I said. She laughed. I like to think she was acknowledging what I saw: that Marvel promoting a story about a white guy who learns learns kung fu in a fictional city somewhere in Asia is a little uncomfortable. I waited in line until a white guy working for Marvel ushered me into the booth, where I was told to “meditate” while the multi-lens camera warmed up.
Did I leap into the air when the guy told me to? Yeah. Do I love the photo that resulted? I mean, of course.
People do a lot of weird things in the name of Comic Con, and Marvel’s Defenders feel especially relevant to fans who live in New York City. A half-hour ride on the B Line takes you south from New York Comic Con into Chinatown, one of the most historic East Asian enclaves in the city. Like Brooklyn before it, Chinatown is undergoing rapid gentrification. The Defenders have always called the five boroughs home, but Marvel’s Netflix shows are either impressively faithful, or disappointingly lazy in portraying the people who have lived on its streets for generations. It’s difficult to describe how much of a bummer it is that Iron Fist won’t do for Asian Americans what Luke Cage attempted to do for Black Americans in New York.
Iron Fist’s problems don’t just center around casting Finn Jones as a kung-fu superhero. That decision, by the way, made most of the members of New York Comic Con’s #WhiteWashedOut panel audibly sigh. The real issue is that Iron Fist doesn’t seem to care about the very unique, rarely explored nuances of modern Asia-America, nor the neighborhoods associated with the multifaceted, blended culture. Iron Fist will fight in New York, sure, but based on Marvel’s released information, he won’t explore the neighborhood between Broadway and Essex. (Production hit up Liberty Street, which is close, but it’s still not really Chinatown.)
Hell’s Kitchen, once considered an Irish slum and the long-time territory of Matt Murdock, was kind of a wash in Daredevil. Unlike the real Hell’s Kitchen, it was a generic “rough neighborhood” which always seemed to be going through a power outage. Although Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen was absent of its Irish roots, that history was presented through Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock, a blue-collar vigilante plagued with deep Catholic guilt. Cox himself is of Irish ancestry, making him an organic and interesting choice to play the character.
Harlem in Luke Cage anchored another, better story. Vibrant, lively, and proud of its identity, Harlem as illuminated by Hodari Cheo Coker framed Luke Cage’s journey in a way that felt emotionally resonant to thousands of viewers. Barbershop conversations evocative of early Spike Lee, a soundtrack featuring Method Man and Run the Jewels, and the cathartic image of Mike Colter’s bulletproof black man in a hoodie all made Luke Cage the definitive superhero show 2016 needed. It was a show by Black America, portraying Black America, and it mattered to everyone.
Iron Fist is also a show engineered for everyone, but so far it appears to ignore the identity that could have made it truly significant. In geek culture, adaptations that stay true to the comic book source material often win loyalty among die-hard geeks, and that’s a group that can count me as a member. But, what worth is loyalty if artistic risks aren’t made in service of a better tomorrow? So Iron Fist was a white guy in the comics. Fine. Those comics were written in 1974.
Iron Fist, created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane a year after Bruce Lee passed, was engineered to capitalize on Lee’s popularity and the wave of kung-fu movies he inspired. But because of leftover resentment from World War II, the disastrous Vietnam, and centuries of Chinese exclusion since westward expansion, a cocktail of prejudice brewed in the center of the story, making cultural appropriation the only commercially appropriate way to tell a kung-fu story. White America liked Asian culture, but not Asian people enough to follow them as heroes. Because of that disconnect, Danny Rand has been white even through Ed Brubaker and Matt Faction’s definitive run, which renewed the character for a modern fandom.
2016 has been a landmark year for the heated discussion of including more Asian representation in Hollywood, and Iron Fist crashed into it like a truck full of Wonder Bread. The argument against an Asian Danny Rand is that Iron Fist, Marvel’s kung-fu hero, will only enforce antiquated stereotypes. Then again, Bruce Lee is sometimes argued to have created stereotypes instead of destroying them. Pre-Lee, Asian men were simply depicted as sneaky, unattractive businessmen (that caricature, thanks to Trump’s “We want deal!”, has resurged), and post-Lee, we’re only strong, silent karate masters. We aren’t allowed to be funny dudes in romantic comedies, and we’re definitely not allowed to become Marvel superheroes.
Asian-Americans live between two worlds, belonging to neither and needing to communicate with both. Iron Fist’s origin — an orphaned wealthy heir is taken in by monks in the fictional K’un-Lun to learn a magical martial art — is a story about outsiders. But Iron Fist’s definition of “outsider” is the kind that could only exist because of western supremacy in the 20th century. It’s not a story that belongs in the 21st century.
An “outsider” Asian-American Danny Rand, by today’s standards, easily could have been an Asian-American national who discovers his cultural heritage. That’s a real journey which many American-born Asians experience. To see that illustrated through the now-universal superhero myth would be unspeakably refreshing in the sea of Caucasian-led superhero shows like Arrow and The Flash. It would also be cathartic for real Asian-Americans who don’t get to see their experiences reflected in TV as often as their friends can.
There isn’t one way to “fix” Marvel’s Iron Fist, but a walk through Chinatown is a start. Who knows, maybe Danny could meet Shang-Chi. As for me, I’ll keep going to Comic Con, hoping for something more interesting.
Photos via Netflix