Marvel’s Iron Fist doesn’t premiere on Netflix until Friday, but the show’s racial politics have already sparked debate for years.
As far back as 2014, a vocal contingent of fans have called for the traditionally blond-haired, blue-eyed martial-arts superhero, created by comic book writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, to be realized onscreen by an Asian-American actor. The website Nerds of Color published a plea for Marvel to consider the change that year, and helped launch an online movement in the hashtag #AAIronFist.
The piece, by writer Keith Chow, laid out the case: By casting an Asian-American lead, Marvel and Netflix would avoid the uncomfortably dated tropes of the character’s 1970s origins. Orientalism, cultural appropriation, and the “white savior” fantasy (in which a displaced white foreigner comes to a new land, adapts to its ways, often surpasses the natives in skill, and becomes their leader or last hope/samurai/Mohican, etc.) would go poof.
The parts of Iron Fist’s backstory integral to his identity, meanwhile, could be preserved: his parents’ tragic deaths, his New York billionaire upbringing, his gift for martial arts, and his difficulty fitting in. Even his training in the mystical Asian city of K’un-Lun would be lent more depth, as writers like Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler argued: “A white American Danny Rand has to appropriate Asian heritage; an Asian-American Danny Rand gets to reconnect with it.”
Still, Netflix and Marvel chose to stick to the character’s comic-book depiction, casting Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones for the part. Onscreen, little about comic book Danny has changed. He’s still orphaned in a plane crash and raised by the monks of K’un-Lun, where he defeats a dragon and becomes the latest in a long line of Iron Fists. He returns to New York 15 years after his supposed death and becomes a chi-harnessing, Buddhist-quote-dropping, kung fu-wielding superhero. With blue eyes.
Yet Jones, for his part, asserts quite passionately that he sympathizes with fans’ frustrations at Hollywood’s penchant for white saviors. While Iron Fist comes at an awkward time—so soon after the debacle of Matt Damon’s Great Wall and just before Scarlett Johansson’s manga-originated role in Ghost in the Shell—he insists this story is different.
“I am the first to stand up for more diversity in television shows, especially when it comes to Asian actors,” he says, sitting beside his Iron Fist co-star Jessica Henwick (who plays Japanese martial artist Colleen Wing) on a wintry afternoon in New York. “I get that and I stand up for it. But I think people will find that what we’re doing with the show addresses those issues intentionally. We actually talk about those issues and we try to address them, rather than just being the white savior and coming in and going, ‘Oh, Danny’s gonna take care of everything!’”
“Well, actually,” he continues, breaking into a chuckle, “he tries, but that’s one of his flaws. We don’t celebrate that. Danny may come in and be like, ‘I can fix this!’ But it’s not something the show celebrates.”
In the first six episodes released to critics, Danny does exude a kind of childish naivete. He’s earnest, idealistic, and often overly confident. He waltzes into complicated situations with what he believes are easy solutions, whether at high-stakes business meetings or in Colleen Wing’s dojo. He’s immature, a bit of a mansplainer, and severely lacking in self-awareness.
“Danny Rand can’t even save himself, let alone an entire race of people,” Jones says. “And I think that really is what runs through the storyline. So I understand the issues, I respect them, and I stand up for what people are shouting against. But I just wish that people would see the whole picture before commenting on the headline, you know?
“I understand it,” he reiterates. “We live in a world right now which is incredibly unequal. Incredibly unequal. That knee-jerk reaction is because of a much wider injustice politically, economically, and culturally. So I get where that comes from. I just think, in the world there’s a larger picture right now that people need to see before they just comment on the headlines.”
No explicit acknowledgment of cultural appropriation issues comes in those first six episodes (there’ll be 13 total this season). But both Jones and showrunner Scott Buck (Dexter, Six Feet Under) say a key change to the demographics of K’un Lun, the city where Danny trains and which is only accessible through a secret portal in the Himalayas, helps diffuse the situation.
“What you may not know about K’un-Lun yet is that in our version of the story, K’un-Lun isn’t predominantly an Asian culture,” Jones says. “K’un-Lun is a diverse place with people from all over the world—South America, Europe, Asians, and Caucasian people all reside in this place.”
“It’s a celestial city that exists in another dimension and because of that there’s nothing that we felt made it specifically Chinese or Tibetan,” says Buck, in a later phone conversation with The Daily Beast. “We certainly modeled it after Tibetan monasteries, but it felt like we just naturally wanted to open it up to make it a little more diverse just because it gives us a lot more options in writing about it, I believe.”
“The entry to the city is somewhere in Asia but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an Asian city, wholly,” he concludes.
On the issue of casting, Buck says he wasn’t aware of fans’ calls for a nonwhite lead until after Jones was cast—despite early reports that Marvel and Netflix did meet with several Asian American actors, before ultimately deciding to keep Danny white.
“To me it was just about finding the best actor for that,” says Buck. “It wasn’t until after we cast Finn that I became aware that there had been, you know, some controversy over that.”
“I understood where it was coming from,” he says, “but we just weren’t thinking in that way, at least I certainly wasn’t. I was just concentrating on the story and who would be a great actor to play this character.”
Buck says he and his writers “certainly wanted to avoid any stereotypes” in their treatment of Danny and Colleen, but their No. 1 priority was always to write simply “the best story we possibly could about these two complicated characters.”
“For me at least, that was part of the reason I wanted to make Colleen such a strong character,” he says, “because here we do have an Asian lead who is a martial arts expert and is every bit the match for Danny Rand. Even without that added pressure, I would have done the same thing because it was a character I found really compelling and fascinating.”
Jones goes a step further: “Danny needs Colleen I think more than Colleen needs Danny,” he says. “Danny is in complete pieces and he needs the strong women around him to kind of hold him up and help him get through this adjustment in his life, this transition of coming from boy to man and taking hold of his responsibility.”
His first point, at least, rings true. In the first six episodes, Colleen Wing is the show’s real street-level hero: she’s steel-tough, complicated, and invested in her community. While Danny breaks into luxury brownstones and strolls through Midtown high-rises trying to take back his family’s billions, Colleen runs a dojo that keeps at-risk youth off the street.
Like Danny, Colleen’s life is also split between two cultures, in her case Japanese and American. For Henwick—best known for her roles on Game of Thrones (she plays Nymeria, one of the Sand Sisters) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (as rebel X-Wing pilot Jessika Pava)—this is something of a departure.
“I’ve always made a point to play roles that aren’t specified by their ethnicity,” she says. “With [Colleen], it was the first role in quite a while that was defined by her culture. She was raised in Japan and now she lives in New York, and those are two polar opposite cultures.”
Henwick has heard fans’ concerns about cultural appropriation in Iron Fist, she says. It’s an issue she broaches delicately.
“Look,” she begins, slowly. “I am Asian.” (Jones bolts up next to her in faux-shock at this, making her laugh: “Whaaaat?”)
“I am Asian and I am an actor,” she continues. “If anyone understands, it’s me. I have faced it in my career. I’ve been working eight years and I’ve experienced it firsthand, the disparity when it comes to Asian representation—even more than that, Asian misrepresentation.
“But I also have seen what Finn’s done in this role and I honestly, honestly think that he smashes it out the park.”
Jones promises that, as Iron Fist progresses, new characters from “all over the globe” join the action. “Like, we have a very diverse cast,” he says, to nodding agreement from Henwick: “I think we have the most diverse cast out of all the Netflix Marvel shows,” she says.
“I remember just working with [the actors], thinking, ‘Fuck me! This is great!’” Jones says. “Like, look at all these powerful female roles. I think this is essentially a feminist fucking show.”
He then turns to Henwick, eyes wide and gesticulating. “I think it’s also really important that people can identify with roles like yours,” he tells her. “With female roles or Asian roles, so people can look at television and be inspired by what they see because they’re being represented in a very strong and not-stereotyped way.”
“I really think the show is gonna, hopefully, transcend all of the noise that is out there at the moment,” Jones says, a touch of Danny Rand-style earnestness in his voice. “Because that was the intention. The intention was never to create something that didn’t represent people, that didn’t represent cultures.”
Henwick nods again, this time adding an emphatic “Yeah.”
“The intention has always been good,” he says. “So I just hope people will understand that.”