(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
So Netflix and Marvel dropped the first season of the IRON FIST series last week and the reaction to it has been harsh–not to mention the continued criticism of it being yet another Hollywood project with a white savior protagonist who out Asians the Asians. Plenty of people have written about this issue already including my fellow Offender Dominic in blogs like this and this so I won’t re-tread familiar ground, but let me take the argument that Danny Rand aka Iron Fist would’ve been more interesting as an Asian American character one step further and add that he should’ve also been an Asian American adoptee.
But before I get to the whole “adoptee” part, I can safely say–having now watched all 13 episodes of season one–that I agree the character and the series would’ve been more compelling had Danny Rand been Asian American. Some have argued that making him Asian or Asian American would’ve made the character a “stereotype” considering how often Asians are portrayed as martial arts experts. I think there is some validity in that perspective, but stereotypes are only stereotypes in that they are reductive and one-dimensional–so an Asian martial artist by itself isn’t a stereotype, but oftentimes Asian martial artists in Hollywood movies and TV shows are stereotypes because the roles tend to be under-developed and bland. However, a character like Iron Fist would’ve afforded an Asian American actor an opportunity to play a martial artist who is the three-dimensional lead with more complexity than the parts Asian males are usually offered. That is the opposite of a stereotype.
But why an Asian American Danny Rand/Iron Fist would’ve been more interesting for me has nothing to do with the martial arts angle. As others have already pointed out, we’ve seen countless stories about super rich white dudes becoming superheroes–Batman, Arrow, Iron Man, the Green Hornet, etc…–and much of what makes IRON FIST feel so pedestrian is that we’re seeing this same story again, and without any new or original twists to it. But when was the last time you saw a super rich Asian American character go through that same journey to superhero-dom in Hollywood? The answer to that is probably…never.
I think that just making Danny Rand an Asian American would’ve automatically made the series more watchable even if the story and scripts remained relatively the same. We’d be seeing a familiar story from a fresh and different perspective. While that alone would’ve also most likely made IRON FIST better than it is, what would’ve really made it more interesting would’ve been to make him an adoptee on top of that.
When Marvel TV’s Jeph Loeb was asked if he ever considered an Asian Iron Fist, he suggested that wouldn’t work and explained it this way: “To answer that, just really flat out, the way the story is told and when people see the story, the importance of Danny as an outsider is something that is a theme that runs throughout the entire show.”
But actually, this is one of the reasons the show doesn’t work. The Finn Jones hipster white boy version of Danny Rand isn’t really an outsider. Sure, we first see him as a barefoot Phish groupie reject and about as out of place as can be in 2017 New York after having spent the past fifteen years in the mythical K’un Lun, but he’s still a privileged pretty white boy. Within a few episodes, he’s a billionaire in a suit and fancy sports car and as much as the script wants to tell us otherwise, he doesn’t feel like an outsider to this world.
But imagine this version of Danny Rand:
He’s an orphaned Asian baby of unknown ethnicity adopted by the Rands who are unable to have children of their own. As in the series now, he grows up with Ward and Joy–the children of Harold Meachum, his father’s business partner. It’s never really clear in the show why the young Ward bullies the young Danny, but in this version it would make complete sense: Danny is not one of them. Not really. To Ward, he’s not a “real” Rand. The fact that this imposter to the Rand name is going to end up with majority ownership of the company Ward covets would be enough motivation to make him treat Danny like shit. Danny is a genuine outsider in this scenario.
And when the plane carrying Danny and his parents crashes in the Himalayas and Danny is taken in by the Asian monks at K’un Lun, I would argue that he’d be even more of an outsider there than the Finn Jones Danny Rand is. Adoptee Danny would physically resemble the Asian monks, but otherwise have nothing in common with them. There’s something about looking like everyone else around you, yet being completely different from them that I think creates a stronger sense of isolation–you should be like all the others in your community but aren’t. Yes, Finn Jones is an outsider too but because he’s white, his outsider status is better understood and expected. There’s no surprise there. But for every Asian American who’s had an experience where they were made to feel they weren’t “Asian” enough, well, that “double” outsider status is a whole other thing.
When adoptee Danny Rand comes back to New York that double outsider status would be more pronounced. He didn’t fit in growing up, he didn’t fit in in K’un Lun, and he’s certainly not going to fit in the mostly white bread corporate world he’s thrust back into–especially being back at the company that bears his last name, but that he’ll always feel distant from because of his adopted status and the way he’s treated by the Meachums and others because of that. Seems to me that’s a perfect way to embody the “outsider” theme that Loeb talked about for the show.
I’ve heard other petty arguments for why Danny Rand can’t be Asian American like how it wouldn’t make sense for an Asian guy to be named “Rand”. Well, making him an adoptee would solve that if you’re concerned about stupid shit like that. And even those offensive moments like when Danny busts out the Mandarin to talk to Colleen Wing in the pilot would make more sense if Danny were an Asian American adoptee–after all, this would be the first time he’s interacted with an Asian person outside of Asia since he was a kid and his awkwardness about how to communicate with a fellow “Asian American” would be totally justified.
Look, I understand the show is done, it’s out, and it is what it is. But let’s not forget this is a comic book series and in comics, heroes constantly change, get retconned, assume completely new identities and narratives. Hell, IRON FIST already established there’s a whole line of Iron Fists with different people taking on the mantle at different times so it wouldn’t be so weird to find ourselves with a new Iron Fist, would it?
Which is to say, it’s not too late, Marvel and Netflix, to course correct. With DAREDEVIL you gave us a blind superhero facing his fears, with JESSICA JONES a woman fighting to survive past sexual trauma, with LUKE CAGE an African American man confronting the violence that comes with his “unbreakable” black skin, and with IRON FIST…uh, a hipster white boy coming to terms with being a billionaire? Come on, you can do better than that.