Iron Fist made it’s debut and it sure did make a splash. From the get-go, it’s littered with a myriad of issues from weak writing, nonsensical character choices, and, of course, the inherent problems due to the white savior trope being played out yet again.
Besides Finn Jones generally being miscast, the argument for an Asian American Iron Fist still holds up. Coupled with the lack of an Asian American show runner and writers (we were lucky to get a few Asian American directors, but they could only do so much) we’re truly given the white man who knows how to be a better Asian than the rest of us story.
To the nay-sayer purists who say changing Danny’s race would have “ruined the character” or “destroyed the outsider narrative,” I say, get out. If anyone is an outsider it’s most definitely not the white guy practicing kung fu and immediately speaking Mandarin unprompted to the first Asian person he sees on the street.
I’m also very aware that Danny Rand was originally conceived as White. Let’s just get that one out of the way.
It’s been said over and over but, by casting an Asian American Danny Rand it would have reinvigorated the material. That choice could have given a new depth and perspective to a highly problematic character born out of the 1970’s kung fu craze and created by a man who still refers to us as “Orientals.”
Daredevil made use of film noir, Jessica Jones looked to P.I. noir, and Luke Cage turned its blaxploitation roots on its head, while Iron Fist was never able to find itself. They could have at least embraced kung fu and martial arts films to inject a sense of style and identity for the series, but y’know, the white savior was perhaps the only thing it had to go off of.
With an Asian American Iron Fist themes of identity, culture, and reconnecting with your roots becomes readily available. At the same time it would have allowed them to take the martial arts film genre and layer it into the show without it being appropriation. They could have really looked at what it means to be seen as an outsider in the United States, where you may be born here but viewed as a foreigner or an “other” because of your race.
What’s really sad is we came super close to this being realized. Then Marvel passed on actor Lewis Tan and instead cast him as a villain (shout out to the Yellow Peril holding strong over a century later).
That being said, we’ve had a movie that does what Iron Fist should have. As ridiculous as it sounds, Disney Channel did the Iron Fist we’ve been clamoring for. They did it with Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.
Ok, so, it’s a Disney Channel Original Movie from 2006, there’s no way it could have tackled issues of grappling with one’s own culture, the disconnect between being Asian American and American, and, heaven forbid, had Asians doing martial arts without it being a “stereotype.”
Oh, wait, it actually does all that.
Wendy Wu coincidentally has a similar idea driving its plot as Iron Fist (the “chosen one” storyline isn’t exactly a new idea). Wendy’s a popular self-absorbed high school senior and only has one goal in life, to be Homecoming Queen. Little does she know, she’s next in a long line of reincarnated Chinese female warriors, destined to battle an ancient evil spirit and save the world every 80 years. Kind of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The rest of the movie deals with a young Chinese Monk, Shen, (also reincarnated every cycle) trying to convince Wendy to embrace her destiny, train her to be a badass, and then help her save the world. Long story short, she does it, becomes selfless, compassionate, strong, and saves the world forever defeating the big bad and ending the cycle of warriors.
Potentially, this could have fallen into many writing traps that would have only perpetuated tropes and stereotypes about Asians, Asian Americans, and martial arts.
Yet, it didn’t.
Wendy Wu skillfully gave us a story about what it means to be an Asian American. The Wu family is not filled with immigrants. The Grandmother, played by Tsai Chin, is the only one in touch with her Chinese culture while the rest of the family are American born Chinese who don’t have much interest in their cultural roots.
Whether it’s Wendy’s parents who work as a museum researcher and in advertising, to Wendy’s lunkheaded football jock brother, the movie sets us up for a very American family who just also happens to be Asian. Once, Shen arrives, and begins to inject more of their Chinese culture into their lives, they suddenly come to grips with their cultural identities.
Moments such as Wendy’s parents admitting that they let go of their roots and the regret of it emphasize this point. We even get a microggression from Wendy’s best friend when she suggests that should Shen go around in his monk garb handing out chopsticks with Wendy’s name for her Homecoming Queen campaign.
Details such as Wendy’s Mom being dumped with the Chinese art exhibit because her boss thought she’d know everything about it because she’s Chinese or Shen jokingly quoting Jackie Chan when teaching Wendy how to fight shows that the movie isn’t shy about exploring real life instances we face and how these kinds of characters are often portrayed.
It’s not a perfect movie (some how Wendy changes into her warrior outfit in the middle of a battle in 5 seconds flat…), but it does what not many have been given the chance to do. It gives us characters, not caricatures of Asians and Asian Americans. They’re real characters who can be flawed, have insecurities, and learn from the choices they make. They find empowerment in rediscovering a part of their identity and culture.
The thing is, it’s not a stereotype to have anyone Asian doing martial arts on a screen. It’s when they lack any dimension and are only defined by this skill that we fall into that trap. It’s 2017 and we’re still doing this. It’s 2017 and for some reason I’m using a Disney Channel Original movie that’s over 10 years old called Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior as an example of how to at least try to get it right.
By continuing the tradition of white saviors, Iron Fist found itself full of cringe-worthy moments like Danny showing Colleen that he’s constantly more in touched with her culture than she is, microaggressions galore, and once again, regulating Asian Americans to the sidelines and as villains.
In the end, we had everything to gain by reimagining Danny Rand. We had nothing to lose–except maybe a few decades long of erasure and misrepresentation. At least we can add this series to a long list of white savior and white washing flops, among the likes of The Great Wall, The Last Airbender, and hopefully soon, Ghost in a Shell.
Essential Reads on Iron Fist from The Nerds of Color: