Marvel recently revealed the casting choice for Iron Fist, their latest addition to the cinematic universe. However, the casting decision spurred a great deal of animosity from fans that hoped Iron Fist would be used as opportunity to progress in the realm of representation. There was an expectation that Marvel would cast an Asian actor as Danny Rand/Iron Fist in an attempt to do away with oppressive patterns.
So here’s a little background for those who aren’t familiar. Daniel Rand, who holds the Iron Fist title, is the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who once lived in the mystical city that is K’un-L’un. When Daniel’s father attempts to find K’un-L’un again, he and his wife die while climbing the mountains and leave Daniel to be taken in by the people of K’un-L’un like his father. While in this magical city, Daniel is taught martial arts and proves himself worthy of the power of the Iron Fist.
Now Marvel’s decision to translate another comic book story augurs great things. As of late, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded to the point of translating several characters from the comic books to successful films and television shows. Even though a majority of those characters have been white, fans still hold onto the hope of Marvel changing that pattern and bringing a nonwhite character into the central focus.Now it’s true. There are benefits to having Daniel Rand/Iron Fist be portrayed by an Asian actor. It opens the door for a talented Asian actor to be seen in popular media which progresses the push for more representation of people of color. There is also the chance to do away with the harmful themes that underpin Iron Fist’s narrative.
Part of the reason why some fans don’t want to see Daniel Rand be portrayed as non-Asian is because Iron Fist’s story is an example of Eurocentric imperialism and orientalism. To have Daniel Rand, a white male character, be regarded as the best fighter in a fictional city clearly inspired by Asian cultures promotes the harmful idea of white superiority. Casting an Asian actor instead would solve that issue.
However, here’s my thing. As much as changing Daniel Rand from white to Asian would bring progress, that’s not the decision Marvel has gone with, and they have the argument of canon to back them up. So perhaps it would be better to try a different route. Perhaps Marvel should take the opportunity to use an already existing Asian character that doesn’t have the rampant issues in Iron Fist’s narrative. Essentially, if there’s a great deal of fans that want to see an Asian character in the spotlight, then I advocate fans push for a television series with the character Shang-Chi as the protagonist.
Shang-Chi was an Asian character that made his comic debut in 1973; a few months before Iron Fist, mind you. Shang-Chi was born in the Hunan Province of China and is the son of the infamous villain Fu Manchu also known as Zheng Zu. Since he was a child, Shang-Chi was conditioned by his father to be lethal assassin. It wasn’t until Shang-Chi discovered that his father was a villain that he decided to fake his death and join forces with his father’s nemesis, Denis Nayland Smith. Ever since leaving his father and joining with Smith, Shang-Chi has used his skills to fight against his father’s villainy in true heroic fashion.
Now unlike Iron Fist, Shang-Chi is an Asian character from the comics that isn’t rooted in a mystified vision of Asia and Asian people. He’s specifically Chinese, and his origin is tied to a much more realistic section of Chinese culture and Asian culture in general.
Now of course, there is the concern about making a character who is a martial arts master be portrayed by an Asian actor. It easily slips into the territory of harmful stereotypes towards Asian people. But here is the thing to remember. Every stereotype is basically a two dimensional representation of a character. They are representations that lack strengths, weaknesses, desires, fears, and all of the other characteristics that make a character realistic.
Yes, Shang-Chi being a martial arts master has the potential to be stereotypical, but only if the writers and producers let it be by falling into habits of laziness. Shang-Chi’s story centers on him turning his back on his father after years of manipulation and forging his own path as a hero. That aspect alone is ripe with potential for a compelling narrative that features a conflict of identity and a conflict between generations.
Shang-Chi’s father can easily represent the perspective of older members of the community while Shang-Chi can represent the newer generation that struggles with marrying the aspects of their situations as Asian-American. Again, this idea would require the writers to do the necessary work of developing Shang-Chi and his father, so they’re not shallow representations.
I’m also aware of the counterargument that says Shang-Chi isn’t as well known as Iron Fist, and it is a valid counterargument. It’s also a counterargument that I refute for three reasons: Blade, Jessica Jones, and Into the Badlands.
First we can discuss Blade. Blade is an example of a comic book character whose publication history consists of a few moments where he was the central character. His prominence was mostly in horror sections of Marvel comics, and he was mostly known through appearances in other comic book titles. Despite this fact, Blade went on to be the center of a successful movie trilogy that made $400 million altogether.
Now onto Jessica Jones whose promotional tagline was “it’s time the world knew her name.” This message clearly communicates that Marvel knew they were introducing a character to an audience outside of the comic book/nerd community. Even though Jessica Jones as a character lacked a high level of prominence, the writers and producers managed to create a compelling story that attracted those unaware of whom Jessica Jones was as a character. The success of the series reveals the fact that Marvel preserves the ability to create an amazing narrative for anyone they want to create a narrative for.
Lastly, we’ll look at Into the Badlands. Into the Badlands is a recent example of a show that features an Asian character named Sunny as the lead and is incredibly successful. The show premiered last year and was well received as a show that was both gripping and entertaining. True, Sunny and his story isn’t based on a comic book from Marvel. The success of this show is meant to illustrate how a show with non white actor is capable of being successful when it has the proper writing and direction.
In the end, I’m sure the new Iron Fist show is going to be successful in so many ways, but on a socially critical level, it will still uphold regressive ideas. Unfortunately, Marvel has decided to keep this character, and they’re well within their right to do that. We as the fans are well within our right to advocate for a character that is much more progressive.
Note of importance: Shang-Chi as a series was cancelled in the early 1980s because of licensing issues over the character Fu Manchu and other concepts in the Shang-Chi story. Fu Manchu is a character that was derived from the series of novels by Max Sohmer. Now Marvel has developed ways around this in comics, and they can certainly develop ways around this for a television series through name changing and image redevelopment.