Last Wednesday, CBR Managing Editor Albert Ching made some salient points regarding a campaign to cast an Asian-American as Iron Fist, the lead hero in Marvel’s upcoming Netflix show of the same name. In his editorial, Ching noted that if an Asian-American is cast as Iron Fist, that actor would be the first Asian male lead in a Marvel or DC Comics film property. According to Ching, this would be problematic because that casting would perpetuate certain stereotypes surrounding Asians in Hollywood and thus “restrict progress for Asians on screen.” While the argument presented by the piece is logically sound, I believe it does not go far enough in suggesting an alternative to the white-dominated nature of comics and comics-related media.
While Iron Fist was originally conceived as a white man, his superheroic character traits include a mastery of martial arts, which are conceived of as an Asian cultural product by the Western canon. Thus, leaving Iron Fist white in the Netflix show would raise questions of cultural appropriation similar to those that surrounded Tom Cruise’s role as the white savior in the 2003 film The Last Samurai. On the one hand, as Ching opines, making Iron Fist a character of eastern descent plays into the historically established tradition of pigeonholing Asian actors as martial arts masters* (see Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, etc.) Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. For minorities crying out for representation, the Iron Fist casting conundrum seems like a Catch-22. Ching says he does not want to settle for “good enough” when it comes to representation, but resolves the riddle by doing exactly that, saying that an Iron Fist casting would still be a “victory for diversity and representation.”
To use an old adage: just because you have lost the battle does not mean you have lost the war. While it is not wrong for minority groups to push for an Asian-American Iron Fist, it seems misguided look to the casting as the best chance to help Asian-American men carve out a greater space for themselves as action heroes in Hollywood. The very inspiration for the Asian Iron Fist campaign may well be playing into the exact stereotype Ching is rallying against. It is almost as if someone took a look at the upcoming Marvel slate and said “oh look, Iron Fist. He has martial arts skills. Perfect time to diversify casting by bringing an Asian guy in…because they are good at martial arts, right?”
This train of thought speaks to how subtle and subversive cultural stereotyping can be in an era where overt racism has become much more subdued. It is the kind of ingrained stereotyping that Aziz Ansari tackles in his own Netflix show, Master of None, where he plays an Indian-American actor who refuses to do an Indian accent for any role, even if it does not involve bodegas or taxis.
The most colloquial way to phrase the discussion surrounding Iron Fist would go like this: “Man, fans are thirsty for Asian representation in American media.” And they should be! However, there is no reason why anyone should be fighting for Iron Fist specifically. The character is C-list and has never been “race-bent” before. Conversely, when the push for Donald Glover to be cast for Spider-Man was at its strongest, Miles Morales was at his peak in the cultural zeitgeist, receiving play in Marvel cartoons and the Ultimate Spider-Man series. Ching says he would be excited by an “Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange. When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it will be cause for celebration.” In one sense, this notion is absolutely desirable. Having an Asian-American actor assume any of these roles would be a huge boon in getting Asian-Americans taken seriously in Hollywood action films and shows, regardless of whether or not they relate to superheroes. However, none of these characters have been Asian in comics before (Kate Bishop may be the ambiguous exception to this, but she is not the Hawkeye people outside of comics have come to expect.)
If superhero television and films, as they have overwhelmingly done thus far, are looking to comics as the primary source material for the stories that are told, then it stands to reason that the path of least resistance towards getting an Asian-American actor cast as a lead in a superhero show or movie is to cast Asian characters as the leads in comics. Ching points to Amadeus Cho’s recent assumption of the Hulk mantle as one example of this racial diversification happening in comics, but stops short of advocating for an Asian Hulk on screens. Granted, Totally Awesome Hulk has only just begun, but this is the kind of change that starts a movement. If comics fans cannot adequately voice their need for more Asian lead characters and/or comics creators are not willing to create such individuals, how can anyone expect more from Hollywood? The stakes are higher, both culturally and economically.
When Marvel and DC Comics hear cries for diversification, their first instinct is to turn to legacy characters like Red Wolf and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Even with good intentions, these heroes simply do not cut it because their histories are fraught with cultural and racial tension. Ask creators for new Asian heroes like Amadeus Cho, who Greg Pak created in order to present a fresh idea of what a minority character in comics could look like. Ask for stories in the vein of Ms. Marvel, where G. Willow Wilson and a team of stellar artists work deftly tell stories about Kamala Khan that combine classic superheroics with a rare window into what it means to be a Muslim American teenager. At that series’ best, the two meld and create stunning sequences that use heightened abilities to serve as metaphors for very human experiences– not feeling like you belong as a minority, and thus turning into a white blonde bombshell when you get the ability to shapeshift, for example.
When it comes to Iron Fist, it seems like fans are not simply betting on the wrong horse– they are watching the wrong race. There is something to be said for the instant gratification that an Asian-American Iron Fist would bring, but it is definitely not worth the perpetuation of a long beholden stereotype. Just because the community loses this battle does not mean they will lose the war. Instead of trying to jump over a mountain, why not climb it instead? Allow characters like Amadeus to become established. Ask for more like him. Create great comics with Asian heroes and then fight for the Hollywood representation. It’s not like the superhero genre is going anywhere. Who knows– maybe instead of an Asian Daredevil, the world might someday see an Asian character with an entirely new superhero persona up on the big screen. Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?