Iron Fist co-creator Roy Thomas says he has “little patience for some of the feelings that some people have.”
The most recent Netflix Marvel series, Iron Fist, has been facing some trouble lately. For one, it’s been called the “weakest Marvel-Netflix series” and “belligerently boring.” Finn Jones, who plays lead character Danny Rand, took these reviews poorly. “[T]hese shows are not made for critics,” he said. “They are first and foremost made for fans.”
However, some of those fans are leveling a far more serious complaint against the series. Danny Rand, they say, doesn’t necessarily have to be white. In fact, they said that it would be far more interesting and appropriate to make Rand Asian-American. That way, Iron Fist could properly leap out of the seventies and avoid issues like the “mighty whitey” trope. The series could help out Asian-American actors, who are frequently banished to second-tier roles.
This did not happen, however, as evidenced by the casting of Finn Jones.
Iron Fist was created in 1974. It follows Danny Rand, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who travels to the mystical Asian city of K’un-Lun. When Rand returns from the imprecisely located city, he does so with a boatload of martial arts training and the power of the “iron fist”.
Prior to the premiere of Iron Fist, numerous people pushed for a change to the character of Danny Rand. Critics said that it was awkward at best to have a white man engage with a “mystical” Asian culture, become the best martial artist there, and then leave with these cultural and physical lessons to enter into the plot of a kung-fu movie.
Iron Fist (Image via Marvel)
Creator Roy Thomas speaks
Writer Roy Thomas (editor in chief of Marvel from 1972 to 1974) and artist Gil Kane created the Iron Fist series in 1974. Thomas recently took part in an interview with Inverse Entertainment in which he addressed the whitewashing controversy engendered by the Netflix show.
Thomas pointed out the fictitious nature of Iron Fist in response to critiques.
"“It’s all about a fictitious race, a fictitious place like a Shangri-La, and one person who happens to be its emissary. There’s no reason why he can’t be Caucasian.”"
Of course, one may then wonder why Danny Rand was still Caucasian in this series. If this is ultimately a fictitious world full of fictitious people, then why must it still maintain the very real racism inherent in our own world?
Thomas also said that
"“Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.”"
“Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.” John Goodman and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (Image via Gramercy Pictures)
To be fair, Thomas admits that he has had little involvement with the Netflix Iron Fist series. Still, his reaction echoes similar sentiments shared by the series’ creators and star. At heart, their argument says that there is no need to change the basics of a longstanding character. Critics of this approach say that there is every reason to change it. The fact that Iron Fist is fictional does not mean its characters and message can’t make an impact in the real world.
By the way, some of the locations and people mentioned in the Iron Fist series are real. The Kunlun Mountains are a real mountain range in China, for instance. Also, I hope I don’t need to remind you that the martial arts have deep roots throughout Asia. Certainly, Asian people themselves exist in our world. Some of them are even actors, including Lewis Tan, an Asian-American actor who auditioned for the role of Iron Fist.
Iron Fist. Promotional Photo via Netflix
Why this still matters
Now, it’s not as if Danny Rand is dropping racial slurs left and right. The issues here are more subtle, though they are arguably as damaging as more overt discrimination. Critiques focusing on exclusion and omission are nothing to dismiss as the work of “people [who] have too much time on their hands.”
Is it better to be obviously turned away, or to be quietly excluded from the cultural life of a society? Both sound terrible.
Is it better to be obviously turned away, or to be quietly excluded from the cultural life of a society?
The truth is, there are plenty of reasons to change Danny Rand’s race. For one, we live in 2016, not 1974. While we haven’t “solved” racism, we may at least hope that our collective conscience and awareness has grown since then. Audiences can surely handle it when a character’s race or gender changes. Such a shift would have added a welcome layer of complexity to a role.
Also, complexity and racial sensitivity don’t have to make a story boring or stodgy. All too often, it seems as if creators fear that a narrative will be bogged down by “political correctness”. They act as if changing Danny Rand’s race would be like tying a metaphorical cinder block to Iron Fist and throwing the series into a river.
Perhaps an Asian-American Danny Rand would have navigated his Asian heritage while still taking part in cool martial arts scenes. Done well, it could have been visually and emotionally compelling. Certainly, sticking with the same old story and characters hasn’t made things any more interesting for Iron Fist.