After a protracted delay, Netflix and Marvel announced that Finn Jones, the actor best known for playing the Knight of Flowers on Game of Thrones, would play Iron Fist. Aesthetically speaking, he looks like the original comic-book character, Danny Rand: He’s a blond-haired, blue-eyed pretty boy. But for many, casting Finn Jones was a missed opportunity. The story of Iron Fist is one steeped in a familiar exoticism: Danny Rand journeys to the mystical land of K’un Lun, where he learns ancient martial arts only to become — surprise! — better than the original practitioners.
The idea of casting an Asian-American Iron Fist became a cause célèbre within the Asian-American community due to the article “Marvel, Please Cast an Asian-American Iron Fist,” written two years ago by Keith Chow, the founder of the pop-culture site Nerds of Color. From there, the blog 18 Million Rising began a petition to cast an Asian-American in the part, and a spirited, if not heated, conversation started around it. Vulture spoke with Chow to begin answering some of the questions you might have about what’s at stake in this debate. Here are answers to six questions you might have about why there was a push to make Iron Fist Asian-American.
1. Wait, so, who exactly is Iron Fist?
Most people, including casual comics fans, likely hadn’t heard of Iron Fist until Netflix announced they were making a television show. “He’s not an A-List Marvel superhero,” said Chow. “You have Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, and Iron Man, and then you have another level below them, which is like Daredevil. Iron First was probably, at best, C-level in the Marvel universe.”
In the comics, Iron Fist is the nom de superhero of Daniel “Danny” Rand, a rich kid from New York who gets imbued with magical powers in K’un Lun (an actual mountain chain in Asia with its own mythology), only to go back to New York to avenge his father’s death and fight crime. He was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in the 1970s, when martial arts movies were all the rage. At a certain point, he teams up with Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter in the Netflix/Marvel universe). “It was like this buddy cop kind of thing,” said Chow, “where you have the street-smart black dude and the clueless white guy kind of coming together and having these adventures.”
2. Why would you want to change the race of the original character?
Simply speaking, recasting Iron Fist as an Asian-American would not only have created the first Asian-American lead in the Marvel cinematic universe, but it would have offered a simple solution to the much thornier problem of orientalism in the show. “For me, the whole idea of an Asian-American Iron Fist has been less about the character specifically but the trope more broadly,” said Chow. “Like you have a ton of these stories already. If you need that story told, go watch The Last Samurai! Go watch The Karate Kid 2!” Instead of a white man appropriating the qualities of Asian mysticism, it could have been a story of an Asian-American going back to his parents’ homeland as a way of reconnecting with them — a feeling that many second-generation Asian-Americans can relate to.
There aren’t yet plot details from the show, so it’s possible that the series would skip Rand’s origin story entirely as a way to avoid its icky implications — but the fact that he’s a white guy powered by Asian magic would remain.
3. Would casting an Asian-American fundamentally change the story?
“The funny thing is, the story wouldn’t have to be that different,” said Chow. “All the basic story points could be the same: that he’s the son of this rich industrialist who’s obsessed with the mystical K’un Lun mountains. If the fundamental thing about Daniel Rand’s character is that he is an outsider when he enters K’un Lun, nothing about that is dependent on his whiteness. If you think that’s the case, then that is a very shallow reading of what it means to be an outsider.”
The point, of course, is that second-generation Asian-Americans (and beyond) would still feel out of place in a mystical Asian realm, and the story could explore other nuances of identity if the person were an adoptee or a mixed-race Asian-American. Their relationship with a place like K’un Lun would be fraught, personal, and immediate.
4. But shouldn’t you remain faithful to the “canon” — that is, the original source material?
One of the frequent arguments you’ll hear when a person of color plays a traditionally white character is that it isn’t in the “canon,” but even that is a complicated idea. “Canon is subjective. No movie adaptation of anything has ever been 100 percent faithful,” said Chow. “There are always liberties taken when adapting anything. Even Deadpool hasn’t done that. Everyone loves Deadpool, but there are so many versions of the character in the comics already. Like, which one is considered canon?”
The question instead pivots to one about the essence of a particular character, and whether you believe race is a necessary component. “Making Danny Rand Asian-American does not change the essence of who he is,” said Chow. “Now, if your argument is that the essence of who Danny Rand is, is that he is a person who has benefited greatly from white privilege and entitlement, then okay, maybe that’s probably right.” The more uncomfortable question, too, is that if the canon is inherently something sexist, racist, or homophobic, then why is it something that we need to remain faithful to?
5. Is it stereotypical to just see another Asian-American as a martial-arts superhero?
“There has been some pushback from Asian-Americans about how choosing Iron Fist to be the cause to fall behind is actually problematic because you’re choosing the one martial-arts guy,” said Chow. Indeed, beginning with Bruce Lee, the main vehicle for stardom for actors of Asian descent in the West has been as martial-arts stars. But actually the problem isn’t the martial artist, it’s the portrayal. “The reason that’s considered a negative stereotype is because that particular type of character in Western stories is never given depth. He’s only the bad guy or the mentor or the cannon fodder. That’s it,” said Chow. “So actually calling for an Asian-American Daniel Rand, that’s not actually falling into those stereotypes, because what that means is that your lead character becomes flawed, cocky, sexy, funny, and has a love interest. If you give an Asian martial artist all of those textures, that’s what disrupts the martial-arts stereotype.”
6. Are comics more diverse now?
In some senses, yes. The tentpole series have gotten reboots with people of color: Spider-Man is now Miles Morales, the Hulk is Amadeus Cho, Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan. On screen there’s Jason Momoa who will play Aquaman, who people originally might know as the blond guy who talks to fish. “[DC Comics is] like, ‘You know, we’re going to make Aquaman a Polynesian character — not only are we going to cast a Pacific Islander, we’re going to imbue his story with Polynesian mythology,’ which is actually kind of awesome,” said Chow. “That’s how you do it. That’s the type of thinking that I think there needs to be more of in Hollywood.”