The debate surrounding Iron Fist’s race in the MCU is not new. There’s clamoring on both sides for a fresh new look at Danny Rand or for accurate representation from the comics. And to be fair, both sides have equally valid arguments that boil down to three basic points on either end.
Arguments for Iron Fist being an Asian actor
The first and most obvious point is the racial diversity in the MCU. In order to examine why people would want an Asian actor in the role, we should first look at why Danny Rand was first created as Caucasian in the first place. The Iron Fist was created around the height of Kung-Fu mania in the United States. Bruce Lee wasn’t a hard sell, so why not make the character Asian from the start?
Well the primary audience for comic books at the time was still young Caucasian boys, which made for the self-insert escapist fantasy element. It’s one of the reasons why most superhero movies these days are about ‘white guys’. Its not entirely about a fear of diverse racial casting, it’s just that the most well known heroes are the oldest. And the oldest were created in that particular period of American history. But modern comics are quickly moving past that since the idea that people only want to read about their races grows more archaic every day. Just look at the popularity of Static Shock of Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is an opportunity for Marvel to cast an Asian man, who don’t exactly have great representation in the media. Sure we have Melinda May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but she’s not a titular character. And Chloe Bennet, who plays Skye, had to hide her half-Chinese heritage to land gigs in Hollywood. Blacks have better representation, but there’s still a tendency for studios to check off the entire ‘diversity requirement’ once one minority is cast.
Ok, so Danny Rand wasn’t created with a white background solely to get more little boys to buy comics. A large part of it is also the fish-out-of-water narrative trope. This is almost necessary for the fantasy genre. The main character has no prior knowledge to the fighting style, to the culture, to K’un-Lun. Just like the audience. So as the protagonist learns, the audience learns at the same time. This makes the character more relatable without the unfortunate cliché of “as we all know…”. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Danny has to be white. In fact, to invoke this tool, we only have to make sure Danny hasn’t grown up with all his skills and knowledge. He could just as easily be an Asian-American living life in New York as any other average person. Hell, maybe he only speaks English. It could lead to an interesting internal struggle where Danny’s finding out about his ancestor’s culture. This would also emphasize a trait that most television skips over: Americans come in all sorts of flavors. Danny would be of Asian descent but that doesn’t make him much different than anybody else in the city. Danny wouldn’t be a representation of the audience because of how he looks but rather because of who he is.
The MCU has proven that they can rewrite characters to fit their new stories and new world. Skye’s revelation as Quake, Bucky as a mix of 616 and Ultimate, Ultron’s creation, Hank Pym’s age and history, the list goes on. Even the Mandarin, who was originally created as a Chinese stereotype complete with a fu man chu mustache, was greatly received when fans saw Ben Kingsley in costume (Opinions changed after we watched the film but that’s a different topic). And these are all done for the benefit of the story, to translate messages that would otherwise be unexplorable in the film and television medium. By making Danny Asian, we can give him a personal motivation to learning the ways of the K’un Lun. We can meet some of his family members or he could even travel to the country itself.
Of course, this could be done even if he weren’t Asian, but it would no longer be the tale of a man rediscovering his ancestry and heritage. Keeping him white would invoke the “Mighty Whitey” trope, which is usually a byproduct of making a fish-out-of-water story while appealing to the majority demographic. We see this in Dances with Wolves, Doctor Who, and countless American martial arts films. It usually isn’t created with some racial agenda, but may unfortunately come off that way. This could be the time to stamp out that trope here while reintroducing the character to a generation that has hardly heard of him.
Now that is not to say this is the one and only correct route. Fans of the comic hero have been pushing back for just as many reasons.
Arguments Against Changing Iron Fist
Again, the first point is the most obvious. Years of character history are dramatically altered or erased. This argument works best when speaking with fans of the comics. Changing the character would primarily be motivated from a desire to show Danny to a new audience. After all, the Netflix series will be the first time anyone has heard of the name Iron Fist. If there were a time to change him permanently (not in a Lady Thor or Captain Falcon type of way) now would be it. Which would be an insult to fans that have grown up with the series, the ones who gave the character the right attention and arguably the possibility of existing in the MCU at all. This change will eventually translate into the comics, similar to how Tony Stark began looking more like Robert Downey Jr. after the films. It also invokes the question: If portraying him as Asian or Caucasian wouldn’t be very different, why change him at all?
This brings me to my next point. The same arguments for Iron Fist becoming Asian for the new series could be applied to making him Hispanic, or Indian, or Black. Why go with Asian? The answer is pretty obvious: It’s where his powers originate. This would create the unfortunate implications that all those 70s movies pushed: that all Asians ‘know karate’. It would make people roll their eyes and say, “Well of course the Asian character is the one doing martial arts.” Even the thought of changing Iron Fist could be considered somewhat racist, since the debate hasn’t arisen for any other character in the MCU. At the moment, the only possibilities for an Asian guy in the MCU are Amadeus Cho (a super-genius) or Iron Fist (a martial artist). The change might backfire in public reaction as a sort of Catch-22 situation.
If Marvel chose to change Danny Rand’s background into an Asian-American, that would be the topic the media will focus most on. Such a dramatic change would cause online debates on whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad, or what exactly Marvel is trying to say. People will argue endlessly on the morality of affirmative action getting in the way of artistic history, or American population portrayal vs. sticking with original writers’ wishes. This might not even be Marvel’s intention and would turn the focus from the character’s story into the character’s representation. But most glaring of all: It would turn this new generation of street heroes into a squad of ‘tokens’. Rather than these interesting and unique characters getting their own films, they get something a step below. This makes the Netflix series comprised of the token cripple, token girl, token black, and token Asian. In essence, changing Danny would make The Defenders look more like The Burger King Kids Club.
There’s no right or wrong answer, as both sides have equally valid points. I wouldn’t be surprised if the heads of Marvel Studios have discussed the same thing. Surely the internet discussions haven’t escaped their attention and they must know about the changing depictions of characters. In the end, one side will be dissatisfied with the choice: We’ll have to wait years more for a prominent Asian protagonist in the MCU or we’ll have to see a character dramatically change from his origins. In any case, we can take solace in the fact that Marvel’s decision will be based on the narrative. Not a social message, not a historical absolute, but on what helps build the universe into something richer as is their custom.