Iron Fist, the protagonist of Netflix’s fourth and final Marvel Comics series, is a martial arts warrior imbued with a mystical power known as the Iron First, which allows him to channel his chi to superhuman levels, giving him healing, telepathy and super-punching abilities. His alter ego is Daniel Rand, a native New Yorker raised in K’un-L’un, an alternate-dimension city where he attained those martial arts and supernatural skills.
In the comics, Daniel is portrayed as a blond Caucasian, but over the past year and a half, a grassroots movement has been growing online to urge Marvel and Netflix to cast an Asian-American actor as the titular superhero. (The idea first caught fire in March 2014 with a post by The Nerds of Color’s Keith Chow, who has continued to champion the cause on the genre blog and its Twitter feed.)
Sources have told The Hollywood Reporter that the clamor actually reached the ears of Marvel and Netflix, who met with Asian-American actors in consideration for the lead, but that the series, which finally revealed its showrunner on Monday (former Dexter executive producer Scott Buck), is now leaning toward keeping Iron Fist white. Marvel declined to comment on that detail.
Here are three reasons why an Asian-American Iron Fist would make more sense:
1) It would correct a legacy of cultural appropriation.
Iron Fist was created during the kung-fu craze of the 1970s, when Hong Kong film imports like Five Fingers of Death and, most notably, Bruce Lee’s canon — Fist of Fury, The Game of Death, Enter the Dragon, etc. — enraptured the American audience. (This trend is also responsible for turning the 1974 novelty single “Kung Fu Fighting” into a chart-topping hit and Hai Karate into a popular aftershave.)
So it was no surprise that the comic books would introduce new titles featuring chopsock-ing new characters of their own, such as Iron Fist and DC’s Richard Dragon. Both are white men trained by, and eventually surpassing, the Asian communities — or, in Iron Fist’s case, the heavily Orientalist fictional city — they found themselves in. It’s hard to know for sure whether the original writers ever considered creating lead characters native to the cultures whose traditions they were drawing from; perhaps they were concerned about “the problems [facing] a Chinese hero in an American series,” as television host Pierre Berton put it to Bruce Lee in 1971 (fast-forward to 17:00). “They think that business-wise it’s a risk,” Lee acknowledged.
“That is why The Warrior probably is not gonna be on,” he added, referring to a martial arts Western he was trying to develop with Warner Brothers Television. A year later, WBTV would premiere the ABC drama drama Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a half-Chinese martial artist traveling through the Old West. Draw your own conclusions.
In the ensuing decades, white protagonists onscreen have continually been used to tell stories steeped in non-white culture, such as Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, The Last Samurai and even Avatar (the principal Na’vi characters were portrayed by minority actors). But ironically, the comics have gotten more diverse during that span. If Iron Fist was launched for the first time today, there’s a good chance that Daniel Rand would not necessarily be white. Marvel’s current print lineup includes a black/Latino Spider-Man, a black Captain America, a Korean-American Hulk, a female Thor and a Muslim Ms. Marvel. There’s no reason why an adaptation in 2015 needs to be restricted to the social norms of forty years ago.
2) It would provide a fresh story in a cluttered landscape.
By the time Iron Fist finally comes out more than a year from now (no release date has been announced), the combined Marvel Cinematic Universe on film and TV will contain more than 50 crime fighters in lead or major supporting roles. That’s an incredible amount of superhero saturation to cut through, and that’s before accounting for all of the X-Men, whose rights are owned by Fox, and rival DC Comics’ own rapidly expanding big- and small-screen empire.
Comic-book casting announcements are no longer as rare and unique as they used to be. With all due respect to Hemsworth, Evans and Pratt, a fourth Marvel superhero named Chris probably wouldn’t grab the same kind of attention that Marvel’s first Asian-American lead would. The MCU currently has four hero characters played by actors of Asian descent: Agents of SHIELD ensemble members Melinda May and Daisy Johnson, Daredevil’s upcoming love interest Elektra (played by Cambodian-French actress Elodie Yung) and Thor sidekick Hogun (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano).
Assuming Iron Fist doesn’t premiere before 2016, Marvel will have released 14 movies and five television shows by then. Audiences will have seen incredible martial artists (Daredevil, Black Widow, Agent May) and fish-out-of-water heroes (Thor, Captain America, Star-Lord). They will even already have seen the story of a white man who gains mystical powers from an Oriental realm: Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, co-starring Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, written as a Tibetan male in the comics. An Asian-American Iron Fist would be the refreshing, progressive and surprising pick. (And not even a crazy risky one, given a television landscape where ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken are network hits and Daniel Wu is starring as — guess what? a martial arts master — on AMC’s new action drama Into the Badlands.)
3) If done correctly, it may rake in even more from an Asian market.
Anyone involved in or following the entertainment industry knows that China is a booming market. Its box office hit $6.3 billion in 2015 to date and is on track to overtake North America as the No. 1 movie market in the world within three years (just in time for Iron Fist to premiere!). And China has a huge appetite for American TV as well, turning shows like The Walking Dead and Netflix’s own House of Cards into hits abroad.
For the past several years, Hollywood movie studios have partnered with local counterparts to turn big-budget blockbusters into co-productions, and the financial transactions have proven to be less clumsy than the attempts at cultural exchange: Chinese audiences rolled their eyes at Transformers 4’s nonsensical product placement and at the insertion of China-only scenes in Iron Man 3. Yes, they still bought a lot of tickets to those movies — $320 million and $121.2 million’s worth, respectively — but don’t think that Chinese audiences can’t tell when they’re being pandered to.
Chinese entertainment executives and creatives know it, too. During the annual round of U.S.-China summits and meetings at the American Film Market last month, panelist after panelist spoke of the desire to find a story with Asian cultural elements that could be embraced by a Western audience. Iron Fist could be that story — although it’s doubtful they’d be as enthusiastic if it was fronted by the second coming of Steven Seagal.
Netflix in particular would be leaving money on the table if it fails to capitalize on such a ripe opportunity to court Chinese civilians, executives and officials. The company has been looking to expand into China, where an estimated 20-plus million people users are already accessing the service via virtual private networks. China’s massive online video market is expected to reach $14.5 billion by 2018, but heavy state regulation has made it arguably the toughest market in the world to crack.
Iron Fist could be just the hero it needs.