Monday, November 20

Second Take: Asian representation in Marvel universe shouldn’t hinge on Iron Fist


Marvel recently cast a white actor to play Iron Fist in the forthcoming Netflix series, despite public demand for an Asian actor to play the superhero.
(Courtesy of Marvel)

Marvel recently cast a white actor to play Iron Fist in the forthcoming Netflix series, despite public demand for an Asian actor to play the superhero. (Courtesy of Marvel)



The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Samuel L. Jackson made his first appearance as Nick Fury in "Iron Man 2." It should be "Iron Man."

The wait is over – and boy, are there some disappointed people out there.

On Thursday, Entertainment Weekly was first to report Marvel’s casting of Finn Jones (“Game of Thrones”) as Danny Rand, better known as his masked persona, Iron Fist. The decision comes in spite of long-drawn controversy centered around wanting an Asian actor for the role, and the recent reports have only rejuvenated that discussion. For the record, the photo used in the petition is of the wrong Iron Fist – Orson Randall.

But honestly, a large portion of the dissension is misplaced and even grounded on benevolent prejudice.

Ever since rumors surfaced that Rand would be a character making his way onto Marvel’s Netflix shows, there’s been an online plea for Marvel to retool the character’s race by casting an Asian actor. Disgruntled posts have sprouted on forums and even hashtags of “#AsianAmericanIronFist” and “#AAIronFist” have surfaced on social media. Now with the news about Jones, cries have escalated into threats to boycott a series that hasn’t even begun principal photography.

But why would there be an uproar about not casting an Asian actor for the role of a blond-haired white character? Probably because a large part of the hero’s identity is in his mastery of martial arts.

Hold up.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who sees the hypocrisy here.

A prominent argument from these detractors is that Marvel passed up on a chance to introduce some diversity. How exactly? By defaulting to an Asian actor based on the virtue that a large part of the character’s identity comes from a mastery of martial arts, thereby reinforcing one of the most common Asian stereotypes?

Suggesting that casting an Asian actor is a “no-brainer” only adds credence that the calls for an Asian Iron Fist come from implicit prejudice towards Asians. The frequency of critics lamenting a “missed opportunity” make me question why the possibility of an Asian superhero necessarily has to live and die with Iron Fist.

To be fair, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already set precedent showing Marvel Studios doesn’t have an aversion to casting people of color in the roles of white characters, but not in a way that panders to stereotypes. Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and British actor Idris Elba were cast as Hogun and Heimdall, respectively – both characters are from the Thor mythos based off Nordic mythology. Its TV series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” features half-Chinese actress Chloe Bennett playing a white character, Daisy Johnson, also known as Quake.

The most noticeable decision, based on the character’s prominence and the actor’s renown, has to be Samuel L. Jackson who in “Iron Man” made his first appearance as Nick Fury – a character who has been mostly portrayed as a white man since his creation in 1963.

Perhaps the casting was already put to pen and paper since Bryan Hitch penciled the Marvel Ultimate Universe’s director of S.H.I.E.L.D. after Jackson’s likeness in the 2002 comic book series “The Ultimates Vol. 1” – which happens to be one of my favorite comic books and coincidentally enough has panels discussing a lack of Asians in Hollywood. Marvel can take credit for making the decision to run with a black version of the character rather than attempt a version 2.0 of David Hasselhoff’s Fury in 1998.

Marvel’s comic book pages have seen an influx of Asian superheroes like Cindy Moon, who masquerades as the spider-themed hero Silk, and Kamala Khan of the critically-acclaimed Ms. Marvel series, who is of Pakistani descent. Even the mantle of Hulk has been recently relinquished by Bruce Banner and taken over by Korean American prodigy Amadeus Cho.

I’ll admit that the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood is a big problem. When the topic is narrowed to Asians on screen, the problem is possibly even more egregious, with few prominent roles in Hollywood, much less so in superhero films.

But if we really want to see more Asian inclusion in superhero films, we need to start hoping and asking that characters like Cindy Moon, Kamala Khan or Amadeus Cho make the transition to live-action roles. Or even ask for Marvel to consider casting an Asian actor in a non-Asian role based on merit, not cultural association.

The answer doesn’t lie in strongarming Marvel into changing the race of a white martial artist superhero to Asian.

For the people who remain skeptical that demands for an Asian Iron Fist implicitly reinforce stereotypes, try finding a similar level of outcry about the “missed opportunity” of casting an Asian actor for Daredevil or Punisher.

Good luck.

– Aubrey Yeo

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  • DBZ *King Goku*

    What I was thinking, where was the outcry for an Asian daredevil ? Jessica Jones ? Luke Cage..

  • Truthbot

    Looking forward to your article on the lack of black and browned skinned people in asian media.

  • Joe Smith

    Excellent article, though I’d argue many martial art movies are superhero movies. Also, we have a nice influx of shows starring Asian actors at the moment. Into the Badlands, Fresh off the Boat, Master of None, Dr. Ken, Mindy Project, Quantico, Shield (which was mentioned), Elementary, and Hawaii 5-0 to name a few. That’s a great step in the right direction with Asians and Asian Americans getting a chance to do more than play a martial artist.

    Back to the Mavel, another character they could think about without changing anything would be Nico Minoru or if an Asian martial artist is really what everyone wants, Shang-Chi is a possibility. There are many more options but those are two I’d really like to see brought to life.

  • Richard

    What hypocrisy? The fact that it’s iron fist it’s going to have asian
    people doing martial arts regardless. Nothing changed, But casting an
    asian actor as iron fist versus none at all will be a change. That’s an
    asian actor in the lead role and as a hero. There’s more pros than cons.
    So somewhat racist asian martial art story with asian lead or somewhat
    racist asian martial art story with white person in the spotlight?