As a young boy, Danny Rand traveled to the mountainous region of Asia with his parents before their tragic deaths. As a result, he was welcomed into the fabled city of K’un Lun and trained to be a martial arts master as well as the welder of the power of the Iron Fist. As he’s recently been adapted to live action, he’s taken the blogosphere by storm in a way that Marvel possibly regrets: A hot and cold reaction of hate, apathy, or lackluster reception.
Created in 1974 by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Iron Fist was created as a way to tap into the Martial Arts cinema craze as actors of Asian descent (notably Bruce Lee) finally achieved the recognition they were denied in America much as Luke Cage was created to tap into blacksploitation movies. A white man becoming a master of Kung Fu (ten years before The Karate Kid became an ’80s classic) was a novelty at the time, although now its become a racist cliche. A white character becoming superior over a native populace with their own talents, or stealing parts of their culture as they become background characters in his story is now known as cultural appropriation which occurs in real life with regular occurrence as well.
When two cultures interact, there are three things that can occur: exchange, appropriation, and assimilation. Exchange occurs as the two trade ideas, beliefs, languages, religions, etc. This is good as a way for societies to evolve and advance thanks to new information. Cultural Appropriation is not so much an exchange as one group stealing from another for their own gain, such as African Americans pioneering Rock-n-Roll only to see white musicians rise to fame and fortune instead of them. Assimilation is an ideal, that when a person or groups travel to a new country they integrate into the native culture and leave their old way of life behind (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”). This is what people mean when they discuss immigrants coming to America assimilating: for them to conform to “our way” of life, learn to speak english, value democracy, and follow our laws. Conversely, if Americans decide to travel and live in other countries they’d do well to adapt to that culture’s mores and customs in order to fit in. It combines exchange and appropriation into something constructive: to help people adapt to new environments outside of their experiences.
Danny Rand is a rich, white man who travels to a foreign land, is trained in their ways and masters them to the utmost degree. So, in concept yes. Other characters like The Shadow, Tarzan, and Doctor Strange fall into the same problem. Likewise, Danny Rand, Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), and Bruce Wayne (Batman), are all rich men who as well as being superheroes, also search for ways to use their wealth to help others less fortunate. Some writers attempt to mature Danny as a person by allowing him to be aware of his societal advantages and/or his preconceived notions on women and people of color and move past them.
One way that the TV show failed his character was not giving him a compelling attribute to humanize him. The show isn’t smart enough to portray him in a self-aware method, his goals are often abstract and motivations vague, his martial arts prowess isn’t given many opportunities to shine and even then his Iron Fist power gets undercut. He’s just not written as a hero, even one by Marvel definitions. The show could’ve satirized his antiquated beliefs that he held onto from his childhood or K’un Lun, but even then the show would still need to find something to endear him to audiences.
Something that was hinted at early on but was quickly abandoned was how his time in K’un Lun changed Danny. He rattles off quotes about being zen and demonstrates Buddhist beliefs, but it’s never explored more. I mentioned assimilation earlier, and its in this way I think a character like Danny Rand could be salvaged somewhat: have him assimilate into K’un Lun (or Chinese) culture. The show isn’t able to do this, because after a few episodes Danny is able regain his “rightful” way of life: rich, influential, white. He’s under no compulsion to act any differently, and so he reverts to what those around him live like. Of course this runs the risk of becoming an example of Yellowface , but the show was already under scrutiny for its racial politics. While on that topic, I think there’s something to be said for Danny’s ipod/the show’s soundtrack being composed of Hip-Hop and Rap artists after they encountered criticism for the All-New Marvel NOW! Hip-hop variants.
Something that fans requested, repeatedly, was for Danny Rand to be played by an Asian actor. The more I think about it, the more I favor the idea. Yes, it means that there’s another Asian superhero whose specialty is martial arts. However, it would’ve opened up new avenues to explore for the character in live action. What if the Rand family was wealthy and descended from Chinese immigrants? Would that affect how they’re perceived on Wall Street? How would an affluent Chinese-American interact with a street-wise excon like Luke Cage? Would a Chinese Danny Rand be more welcome in K’un Lun than a Caucasian one?
A White guy that does marital arts like Danny Rand appeals to me personally, but not to a degree that I can’t relate to Bruce Lee kicking ass because he’s Chinese. By that same merit, Lewis Tan playing Danny Rand wouldn’t bother me in the least. I argued in this post that the actor playing Iron Fist had to be a martial artist, regardless of race. Finn Jones may look like the Danny Rand of the comics, but Lewis Tan proved to have the fighting prowess to bring Iron Fist to life as well as having an innate charisma in his acting.
Of course, none of that matters if Iron Fist can’t make Danny Rand a hero that audiences want to follow. The show’s story is disjointed, plodding, and somewhat nonsensical in depicting the hand and how Danny regains his identity. Perhaps Lewis Tan as the lead would’ve demanded more nuanced writing, or maybe the only improvement would extend to more exciting fight scenes (which by itself would help the show by 40 degrees). Iron Fist is about a Kung Fu superhero dealing with corporate shenanigans, and that is a crime.
Perhaps a finale, and more unlikely outcome, of Lewis Tan playing Danny Rand might be Marvel racebending Iron Fist to be Asian. Marvel’s comics department have made no qualms about tweeking their image to reflect the MCU. While the comics invariably are more diverse, what happens in the movies affects the comics immensely. Each member of the Guardians of the Galaxy have their own solo series (while also resembling the characters from the film), Jessica Jones has her own title once more, even the Defenders are being pitched again with a lineup identical to the show before it even airs. Lewis Tan or someone else could’ve lead to Marvel giving up a tired trope and diversifying their roster a bit more.
Which brings us to a final point about Iron Fist: does it matter if he’s White?
Consider all the martial arts oriented superheroes from the Big Two. Iron Fist jumps to the top of the list, while the “master of Kung-Fu” Shang Chi hovers somewhere below him. Iron Fist has been published intermittently since his debut, but still more than Shang Chi or Colleen Wing. It’s hard not to question if that is due to his race. That or his cool title and costume. Iron Fist doesn’t need to be white, since that’s a mantle passed from person to person. What has allowed the character Danny Rand to endure till now, may be antiquated and culturally insensitive, but he’s still endured. Danny Rand isn’t like the MCU versions of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 or the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, his casting reflects the source material if not executed properly at all.
The comics are the comics, but the Netflix shows and the MCU as a whole don’t get the same leeway to undo mistakes with continuity shortcuts or waiting until fans anger subsides. Iron Fist is a stain that Marvel will need to fix somehow, because it didn’t prove that Marvel made the right call in casting Danny or appointing a showrunner and producers. Doctor Strange could’ve fallen into the same pitfalls as Iron Fist, yet most people walked away from that film happy. It didn’t turn out that way this time, giving credibility that Lewis Tan should’ve gotten the lead role and the writers should’ve explored how Asian Americans are outsiders no matter where they are.
More than anything, the writers should’ve made Danny Rand a heroic character. For all the cultural appropriation, racist underpinnings, and cliched origins; Danny Rand is the Iron Fist and makes a point of protecting people with his skills. He doesn’t give more concern to his wealth or company, or people he had a single flashback with.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t get to see that yet from his live action portrayal, and I’m starting to doubt we ever will.