Since its full release on Netflix on March 17, Marvel’s Iron Fist (a web television adaptation of the Marvel Comics series of the same name) has received its fair share of criticism from media critics. While the series has its share of flaws in terms of pacing, dialogue, character development and the choreography of its fight sequences, our primary concern lies with its portrayal of Asian and Asian-American culture.
While Iron Fist creator Roy Thomas was open to the idea of an Asian Iron Fist, he was quick to dismiss concerns that the original conception of the character involved whitewashing (a Caucasian American superhero who is an expert kung fu practitioner), cultural appropriation and a heavy reliance on Oriental tropes:
“Now if something is really racist or degrading to a sex or race, an ethnic group or something like that, that’s something else, but Iron Fist isn’t that and never has been. It’s all about a fictitious race, a fictitious place like a Shangri-La, and one person who happens to be its emissary. There’s no reason why he can’t be Caucasian”.
Iron Fist’s superhero origins may be entirely fictional, but the inspirations behind the mystical world he lives in can clearly be traced to the cultural practices of real ethnic groups. In Netflix’s adaptation, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) was trained in the real East Asian cultural practices of kung fu, wushu, meditation and tai chi by “real deal, robe-wearing Shaolin-type bald monks”.
He spouts aphorisms that are clearly drawn from Buddhist and Zen philosophy, while referencing real traditional Chinese beliefs such as ‘hungry ghosts’. He is also depicted as being fluent in Mandarin. K’un-Lun, the mythical monastery where he was trained as an orphan, is clearly inspired from the mythological Kunlun Mountain (the Kunlun Mountains is also a real mountain belt that runs from the Tibetan Plateau to the North China Plain).
And while Iron Fist showrunner Scott Buck has claimed that Rand is “no white saviour”, his naivety about the corporate world and his emotional instability does not prevent him from besting the only other Asian martial artist in the show (samurai-trained Colleen Wing, who is played by Jessica Henwick) in her own dojo.
Later on, he uses his financial clout as the heir of Rand Enterprises to buy the very building she operates her dojo in, and saves her life.
In between, he breaks his vow of chastity with her.
Besides Colleen Wing, no other members of the show’s main cast are Asian or Asian American. With the exception Lei Kung the Thunderer (Rand’s mentor in K’un-Lun, played by Hoon Lee), the Asian recurring and guest characters are all presented as one-dimensional villains (as are most of the other African American and Latin American characters in the series, minus Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple).
- Wai Ching Ho plays Madame Gao, a sinister leader of The Hand with plenty of ninjas at her disposal. She “leads by fear”, schemes to use New York as a base to export illegal synthetic heroin to the world, uses the tactic of kidnapping children to control their parents, proves to be adept at psychological manipulation, is apparently capable of resurrecting people from the dead, claims to have “spent most of the 17th century being interrogated” and makes comments about the bad feng shui in Rand’s office.
- Henry Yuk plays Hai-Qing Yang, leader of the Hatchet Men triad who runs his underworld operations from a Chinese restaurant in New York’s Chinatown.
When one of his men punch main character Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup), he is executed by her father while disguised in ninja attire (via his shadowy alliance with The Hand).
- Jane Kim plays Alessa, the Bride of Nine Spiders. She is an arachnologist by day, and a Dragon Lady dominatrix type who fights Rand for The Hand with spider venom needles at night.
- David Sakurai plays Scythe, an eccentric Yakuza-type mercenary who is defeated by Rand alongside Alessa.
- Lewis Tan plays Zhou Cheng, a skilled practitioner of the Drunken Fist martial arts style and a bodyguard at Madame Gao’s heroin factory in Anzhou, China. While he puts up a better fight than most of the other villains, he eventually suffers a brutal defeat. It
- Alok Tewari plays Raj Patel, a Rand Corporation client who agrees to Joy Meachum’s offer of exchanging his pier in return for a black market organ transplant for his nephew.
In conclusion, Netflix’s Iron Fist stars a blond, blue-eyed white hero who masters the art of kung fu from robed Shaolin monks with questionable parenting methods in another dimension, and returns to the real world to reclaim his place at the top of the corporate ladder while staking a claim in the moral high ground at every turn.
He defeats scores of villains inspired by 70s Orientalist stereotypes of ‘inscrutable Asians’, evil ninjas, drug-based triad clans, and a venomous Dragon Lady, while becoming romantically and sexually involved with his Asian American female ally. (For an express visual summary, check out Joshua Luna’s 4-panel comic strip). If this plot seems familiar, it’s because you have undoubtedly seen it many times before.
CATEGORY OF OFFENSE: Denigration ( Reinforces Stereotypes)
MEDIA TYPE: TV Show
OFFENSE DATE: March 1, 2017