The problem with Marvel’s Iron Fist

The Marvel universe on Netflix is expanding. We started with Daredevil in 2015, which made
waves as Netflix’s best show at the time. Then Jessica Jones depicted a complex story
about an abuse survivor that accepts, rejects, and comes to tentative terms with her superheroine
status. Luke Cage followed and was no less important:
the story of a black man that can’t be shot, trying to find his place in the cultural hub
of Harlem. It’s been a great — albeit, bumpy — ride
so far, and we’re finally getting the fourth Marvel hero to complete The Defenders: Iron
Fist. Iron Fist is a pretty beloved superhero. He’s also a rich white savior, propped up
by a generic oriental “culture” to become a mystical master of Kung Fu. Yeah. We need to talk. His real name is Danny Rand, and he’s one
of the finest warriors in the entire Marvel Universe. He’s the sole survivor of a plane crash
that killed his wealthy parents in the Himalayas. Since then, he spent 15 years training with
the monks of K’un-Lun to become the Immortal Iron Fist. With the power to summon superhuman strength,
speed, and agility — and a powerful, glowing fist —
he returns to New York City to save it from an evil, mystical ninja clan known as the
Hand. Weird, right? Maybe even a little familiar? So what we have here is a web of pseudo-Asian
mystic martial arts, ninja enemies, and a handful of white men ready to save the day. This is a trope, or an accepted convention
in storytelling. But… why? Let’s break it down. First, there’s the issue in Orientalism. Orientalism in fiction means depicting characters
of East Asian or Arabic descent as exaggerated and exotic others as compared to their white
counterparts. So, if you see Asian men and women in robes
talking a lot about honor and karma, or if they’re solely there as ninjas or martial
arts experts, then the show is reinforcing Orientalist stereotypes. Filmmakers get away with this because of presumed
ignorance from the audience: Martial arts are obviously real. Himalayan temples actually exist and people
really do adhere to mystical belief systems all over the world. The problem comes in assuming those ideas
can sum up whole groups of people. Even worse, those ideas are usually meant
to empower white heroes: If you study in the Himalayan Mountains, you
will gain mystic magic to affect the universe, If you’re blind and study under a blind
sensei, you can basically regain your sight and become a ninja,
…And if you study enough Kung Fu, your fist will glow with the power of an immortal dragon. This is especially problematic when characters
of this stripe are often the only roles people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent can get
in film or TV. And, spoiler: casting a white person to this
poorly developed kind of role does not solve the issue. It makes it worse. The second problem is the idea of a white
savior. White saviors are white people, usually men,
who enter an exotic society and come out as a “chosen one” figure. They’ve absorbed the stereotyped culture
and have emerged as the best person among those people. But this marginalizes people who don’t often
get a chance to see themselves as the main character while also subtly implying that
all of the people from these fictive cultures can’t defend themselves because they need
saving. Thankfully this white person showed up to
study and use their culture to save the day. So what’s Marvel to do? A lot of the problem comes from adapting source
material from the 1970s with baked-in racism that refuses to go away. Characters like Iron Fist – and his early
forebear Shang-Chi – capitalized on the Kung Fu craze of the era. Back then, the characteristics of martial
arts film were arguably empowering for marginalized audiences: Featuring a long-suffering, non-white
protagonist on a righteous quest against a foe that was amoral, colonial, and sometimes
white. But by 1972, efforts like Kung Fu helped co-opt
a genre for white America. Even though characters like Iron Fist and
Doctor Strange have come a long way, their origin stories are steeped in some pretty
offensive ideas. The film version of Doctor Strange, for instance,
tried to sidestep that problem by casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, but that
gave fans the impression that Marvel was whitewashing the character. For Iron Fist, which appears relatively faithful
to the source material, it might just be laziness. A vocal group of Marvel fans protested the
casting choices of Iron Fist, explaining how an Asian-American Danny Rand could benefit
the story. It was smart criticism that showed how far
we’ve come since the ‘70s. It’s a genre problem nearly 50 years in
the making, and we’re sadly still struggling with it to this day. Food for thought during your next Netflix
binge. There’s been some Twitter drama surrounding
the show, of course. Actor Finn Jones, who plays Iron Fist, tweeted
out a link to actor Riz Ahmed’s talk about the importance of representation in film. Jones was quickly struck down by fans, given
the irony of his statement. In response, he deleted his twitter. But he’s back now.

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