Amidst the most contentious launch of an original property in the Marvel/Netflix partnership, Iron Fist looks to distinguish itself as its own unique entity in the serialized superhero drama world. Before we jump into the series proper, there’s something we should probably all talk about first.
Over the past several years, few companies in the geek landscape have made as much of a concerted effort to culturally diversify their core roster of characters as Marvel. From the Asian-American Hulk to the black female (and teenage? Does that count as an underrepresented cultural group?) Iron Man, the introduction of these legacy characters has allowed the company to reach out to people of all faiths, nationalities and cultural makeups and show that these often marginalized groups are an important part of the Marvel tapestry. Naturally this has been pretty controversial to comic purists who felt that the 60+ years of canon that many of these characters represented shouldn’t be messed with in favor of forced multiculturalism–whether that sentiment comes from some level of ignorance and prejudice or a feeling that the introduction of characters like Kamala Khan or an openly gay Ice Man is a transparent cash grab. This wasn’t unique to the comics either, as there was a ton of backlash when it was announced that uber talented Michael B. Jordan would be playing Johnny Storm in the (admittedly garbage) Fantastic Four movie.
With the newly launched Iron Fist series on Netflix, we see the door swing the other way. Much like the source material, the series follows Danny Rand, a wealthy white guy who went missing when his family’s plane crashed somewhere over the mountains of Tibet, only to return to society several years later as a master of some mystical form of martial arts. Now given the socio-political climate that we find ourselves in nowadays, and particularly within the context of Marvel’s efforts to represent a more diverse cultural landscape, an uproar is surrounding the casting of Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones rather than naming an Asian actor into the role. This movement, combined with the relatively low profile of the character, has led many commentators to blast the show prior to its release for being yet another show mired in cultural appropriation.
The argument has reached such a fervor that even the show’s star has been forced to weigh in in a series of unfortunate Twitter exchanges that have done little to help the show. To his credit, Jones managed not to take these conversations to any inappropriate level, yet the fact that this was a privileged white male biting the head off of people of color to defend his role as a kung fu master in a TV Series based off a comic did little to endear the masses to a show that–despite the character being a prominent part of the Marvel Universe since the ‘70s–may be a bit of a hard sell for the casual fan. As such, most of the reviews you’ll read of the series will focus on its casting rather than the actual content. As a longtime fan of professional wrestling (and the A Song of Ice and Fire books for that matter), I long ago learned that getting mad at a piece of fiction for not unfolding the way you saw it going in your mind is pretty juvenile and will really only end up in either a disappointingly predictable story or a sort of self-imposed frustration with the content.
That being said, I definitely agree with sentiment that Asian actors are underrepresented in the modern media – though many of Marvel’s “ethnic” characters with any degree of backstory fall into potentially troubling stereotypes. Even when those characters are awesome, like Luke Cage or Shang Chi, they either utilize archaic and offensive phrasing (“sweet Christmas?”) or hew too close to exploitation era tropes (Chi is essentially just Kane from Kung Fu).
In the case of the Iron Fist Netflix series, the series’ premise is nearly identical to the source material, and as a fan of those stories (however flawed they may be) I am choosing to go into the show from a fan’s perspective. I’ll be viewing the series from a critical point of view, commenting on the pros and cons of its cinematography, acting, writing and more. But the fact that the show’s protagonist is a white man of privilege utilizing a skillset that is most closely associated with another culture is a central conceit for the character, and not something I personally view as a Scarlet Letter for the show. The only way Finn Jones’ casting will be an issue with me is if his acting sucks.