“Iron Fist” proves Marvel is obsessed with rich white men—and it’s ruining their superheroes

We’ve seen this story before.
We’ve seen this story before.
Image: Netflix via YouTube
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The final trailer for Netflix’s Iron Fist—scheduled to be released on March 17—is so formulaic it veers into self-parody.

Finn Jones as superhero Danny Rand/Iron Fist has all the presence of a codfish, and his martial arts moves aren’t much more exciting. In the trailer, portentous voice-overs talk about destiny as a flashback shows Danny’s billionaire parents being tragically killed.

Sound familiar? The plot redundancies don’t end with Batman. Next Iron Fist learns ancient Eastern secrets like Dr. Strange. Then he argues with the lead actress about whether she gets to fight alongside him like Daredevil—or like any other superhero, really. A villain makes threats. Hip hop music plays in a desperate attempt to convey urgency. Swords are brandished.

Many activists and critics had hoped that Marvel might cast an Asian-American actor in the role of Iron Fist. Danny Rand was created as a white character in the 1974 comic books, but he gets his powers from his studies in China’s Kunlun mountains. It would be nice if a hero with Asian origins could, for once, be Asian himself. Marvel nixed the idea, though. Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel TV, explained that Iron Fist couldn’t be Asian because, “the importance of Danny as an outsider is something that is a theme that runs throughout the entire show.” Asian-Americans aren’t outsiders in Asia, supposedly.

This explanation is problematic. First, Danny is not an outsider in any meaningful sense—which the hackneyed railer makes painfully clear. Danny is a billionaire white guy with superpowers, a tragic backstory, and a destiny.

Rich white dudes saving the world—that’s Iron Man, Arrow, Batman, Dr. Strange, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and, for that matter, Bill Gates. Yes, those rich white guys are often presented as lonely or isolated. But it’s an awfully crowded white savior island. As far as American pop culture goes, Iron Fist’s origin story is about as insider-y as you can get.

The second problem with Loeb’s explanation is that it suggests that Asian Americans somehow aren’t outsiders. This isn’t true, as Shaun Lau, an Asian-American activist and co-creator of the “No, Totally!” podcast explains. “I don’t think people understand the extent to which ‘outsider’ describes the life of an Asian-American,” Lau said. “When I walk down the street, I’m not perceived as an American because of the way I look. But I did a family trip to China, Japan, and Hong Kong, when I was 19, and I didn’t fit in at all in any of those places. I don’t speak the language, just looking at me the people who live there knew that I was American.”

Unlike Rand, Asian Americans are perceived as aliens both in the US and abroad. “Asian-Americans really are this level of outsider that would work really, really well with the character of Danny Rand,” Lau said.

Ultimately, Lau argued that casting a white actor to play Danny was a “missed opportunity” for creating a new narrative. Casting an Asian American “would open up a lot of avenues for pretty unique storytelling because that story has so rarely been told.”

Recent Asian-American superhero stories like Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Green Turtle and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel have examined what it means to be an American, and the generational tensions around assimilation and heritage. Such concerns could have anchored Iron Fist, and given it a reason for being in the same way that black community anchored Luke Cage, and women’s experiences with domestic and sexual violence anchored Jessica Jones. What does it mean to grow up in a country that is supposed to be yours and isn’t? What’s it like being an American hero while also being an immigrant person of color?

But Marvel decided it wasn’t interested in those questions. So instead, we get a series that seems committed to asking and answering nothing. The trailer promises little except rote repetition and second-drawer martial arts; This is Daredevil with a less charismatic lead.

Diversity is important because of justice and representation. But it’s also, as the Iron Fist trailer proves, important creatively. If you always tell stories about the same people, unsurprisingly, you will always tell the same stories. There’s only so much you can say, and only so much anyone wants to hear, about billionaire white guys and their destinies. The world is filled with different people, different perspectives, and different narratives—Marvel should take an expedition outside its tired box, and find some.