Although Marvel is hardly scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the kinds of heroes whose shows they’re green-lighting these days, it’s hard to argue that they’ve been diving headlong into increasingly obscure properties in order to round out their cinematic roster. Not having access to two of your richest comic franchises — Fantastic Four and X-Men — will do that to a company. And while I’m bummed that I won’t see Wolverine or The Thing team up with the likes of Iron Man or Captain America anytime soon, it does open Marvel up to a wealth of stories and characters that would have invariably been overlooked otherwise.
As amazing as The Inhumans are, I doubt Marvel would have ever let them feature so strongly on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — let alone get their own dedicated TV series — if the company had access to Xavier’s Mutants. I doubt that characters like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange would have gotten their own movies so soon if the company still had The Fantastic Four to play around with.
Nowhere has the oddball diversity of Marvel’s more obscure properties been put to good use than on Netflix, where they have already produced three popular and critically acclaimed series that do the thankless, everyday world-building that gives the meta-franchise the incredible depth that it now has. So far, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and a rebooted Daredevil have depicted the kind of street-level adventures that the Avengers simply don’t have time to tackle: organized crime, corrupt local governments and sadistic psycho-stalkers.
Although the series thus far have been beyond reproach, it’s the latest — Iron Fist — which has me worried. It’s not that the character isn’t interesting (he is) or comparable to the other soon-to-be Defenders (he is) or can’t work on TV (he already has). The potential problem with the property is the uncomfortable level of whitewashing and cultural appropriation inherent in his design.
In their own way, each of Netflix’s heroes have come from a minority background. Although white and male, Matt Murdock is a devout Catholic. Jessica Jones is a woman. Luke Cage is Black. Not only does each diversify Marvel’s largely strong-jawed, male WASP cast of characters, but do so by delving into their unique cultural backgrounds.
Danny Rand — the titular Iron Fist — is a bit of a different beast altogether. He’s a rich white guy who has visibly appropriated Asian cultural motifs. Specifically, he is a martial artist trained by an ancient order of secretive warriors. He was specifically created as part of Marvel’s attempts to cash in on the Kung-Fu boom in the 1970’s, and his core concept hasn’t changed in the ensuing decades.
He’s basically Batman if Bruce Wayne decided to go full-on ninja. It’s uncomfortable in ways that his fellow Defenders simply aren’t. Sure, Luke Cage was made around the same time to cash in on the popularity of Blaxploitation, but he at least belonged to the demographic he was drawing from. Iron Fist is a white guy cherry-picking the most marketable pieces of a rich culture and carrying on as a rich white dude. While it might not be glaringly offensive, it’s at least a little uncomfortable for everybody involved, especially when there are so few parts written for Asian actors (see also: the controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One).
Consider also that Iron Fist is more a title passed down throughout the generations rather than a masked identity that Rand created from the ground up. Sure, he might be the iconic Iron Fist, but anybody whose picked up The Immortal Iron Fist can tell you that numerous warriors have held the title over the centuries, frequently by those of the culture surrounding the property.
I am fully sympathetic to Marvel’s plight here. Rand is the iconic Iron Fist. He’s best buds with Luke Cage and in a relationship with Misty Knight. Unlike other Iron Fists, he has a reason to be in New York and will probably tie into The Hand — the villainous ninjas from Daredevil — to kick off whatever The Defenders will ultimately be up to. There’s no denying, however, that he’s an uncomfortable character choice all the same.
Now, I am still looking forward to Iron Fist. Marvel as does an excellent job with their other Netflix series and I have no reason to suppose that they won’t do so again with this one. I’m just worried that this might end up being the one that gets away from them. Maybe the world needs a different Iron Fist.
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