'Iron Fist' Has a Chance to Explore Race in America With Blindspot — It Fails
The MCU actually had a cool Asian superhero and did nothing with him.
There’s a very new, very exciting superhero hiding in plain sight in the new season of Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix. Samuel Chung, known in the comics as the vigilante superhero Blindspot, may be one of the most important comic book characters in recent history.
Unfortunately, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t see him that way.
It’s tiresome to say this again a year and a half after its controversial first season premiere, but Marvel’s Iron Fist is a missed opportunity for fulfilling Asian-American representation at a time when mainstream audiences need to see his kind of visibility the most.
Spoilers for Iron Fist Season 2 ahead.
Among the cast of Iron Fist Season 2 is actor James Chen, in a very minor role as Chung, a well-dressed volunteer for the Bayard Community Center where Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) also works.
For the most part, Sam is… fine. Just fine. He’s also kind of a coward. He’s quick to rely on someone else to fight for him, as seen in Episode 7, and his go-to solution for every problem is to call the police which isn’t a solution at all when you’re undocumented.
And with major characters like Typhoid Mary running amok, there’s no time for audiences to see Sam’s story develop, if there even is one. That’s why his ending is so abrupt; after one “Thanks, Sam” when he gives Colleen the keys to a community van, poof. He’s gone like disco.
So many questions about Samuel Chung are left unanswered. Who is he, really? What does he want? What drives him to work at the community center? What does he think of the Avengers? What’s his favorite noodle joint? Does he have a Banana Republic membership?
It’s unfortunate, because Chung has a young but powerful comic book history with so much potential for a real story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Born in the sketchbook of Ron Garney, who debuted in Garney and Charles Soule’s Daredevil in 2015, Chung is an undocumented Chinese immigrant living in New York’s Chinatown. He also dons the mask of Blindspot, a vigilante who trains under Daredevil. His main weapon is a homemade cloaking device he built alone, with cheap over-the-bodega counter tech. If Sam had any money or legal status, he could very well out-gadget Tony Stark or Peter Parker.
And just by virtue of existing, Chung/Blindspot is unique as part of a still-rare breed of Asian-American superheroes. (Try this: Without Googling, name five Asian-American superheroes. Let me know if you do.)
If Chung’s Asian ethnicity was all there was to Blindspot, that’s where the problem would end. It doesn’t. Unlike other Asian superheroes like Shang-Chi or Silk, Chung’s background as an undocumented immigrant has a lot of potential for meaning, especially in the shadow of a Trump presidency.
In the U.S., there are an estimated 1.7 million undocumented Asian immigrants, according to to AAPI Data. That’s one of every seven Asian immigrants, “a figure that shocks many people, including Asian Americans,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data told The Washington Post a year ago. Different stats show that undocumented Asians in America have more than tripled since 2000.
Despite their numbers, there’s little published research on the undocumented Asian diaspora in the United States — not even where they find employment. “Research on these communities has been very sparse,” Ramakrishnan told the Post. “Are most of them overstaying tourist visas or other types of visas like student visas and temporary work visas? What kind of work do they do? We don’t know the answer to these basic questions.”
Philip Ng, a Filipino immigrant and DACA recipient, also told The Post about the anxieties of his “invisibility,” even among allies. “In the Asian community, the stigma around being undocumented is far too real,” Ng said. “We don’t talk about [being undocumented] in our communities and many folks in the community don’t acknowledge that there are undocumented Asians, and the mainstream media and public continue to perpetuate that invisibility.”
Now imagine a character like Blindspot, whose superpower is to literally disappear, with an actual role on a Marvel TV show on Netflix.
There is no bigger pop culture force than Marvel, a brand that historically purveys and benefits from diverse representation in its stories. Marvel’s programming on Netflix traffics in grounded storytelling, and through a single character, Marvel had an opportunity to tell an honest story about an invisible populace we rarely see on TV.
In fact, that’s what Garney and Soule — who also works as an immigration attorney — aimed to do in Daredevil.
“[Blindspot] is what folks in my profession (my other one) call a dreamer,” Soule told Comic Book Resources in 2015.
“He was brought to this country illegally by his parents from China when he was young, and while he’s grown up here and considers himself pretty much American, he’s not a citizen and doesn’t really have a path to become one. So, many sections of American society are closed to him — it’s hard for him to go to college, hard to get a good job, etc. There are millions of kids in his position in the U.S. today, and I thought it was a really interesting perspective to write from. I’ve been working in immigration for a long time, and I’ve met a lot of people like Sam Chung.”
Iron Fist needed Chung. A year after the show’s creator, Roy Thomas, called Asians “Orientals” in this Inverse interview, and months after Marvel producer Jeph Loeb showed up in a kung fu outfit at Comic-Con, few people behind Iron Fist come out looking good. Even if Season 2 showed measurable improvement since last year.
There are more Asian faces in this Marvel TV show about martial arts, which is a good start. But how it handles characters like Chung, zapped of any significant identity, leaves Iron Fist a reliable disappointment.
This is more than just about representation. As Hispanic American citizens are stripped of their own passports, as young undocumented immigrants wrestle with their cultural identities and as stories like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demonstrate the power for marginalized people to be seen Blindspot can show a 2018 audience what it means to be American. Superman did it decades ago.
Asian and Asian-American superheroes exist, but their unfamiliarity toward these characters reveals a lot about what audiences are willing to pay attention to. If they don’t see them, they don’t exist.
Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.