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Fear of an Asian Martial Artist: The Thing about Stereotypes & #AAIronFist

Lately, this site has been All Iron Fist Every Thing, so apologies if you don’t give two shits about that particular character. Also, you might want to click elsewhere because we’re going to drill a little deeper into the reasons why we’ve been on the #AAIronFist train — that would be Asian American Iron Fist and not Alcoholics Anonymous, btw — for the last 20 months. Two things came up in the last week or so that have led to this resurgence in interest in an Asian American Iron Fist. First, Marvel and Netflix finally announced a showrunner for the series. Secondly, Comic Book Resources published this essay by Albert Ching on why Danny Rand shouldn’t be Asian American.

It’s actually a well-reasoned and well-written argument, and I appreciate Albert’s honesty and perspective. I just happen to disagree with it on a fundamental level. It’s also disappointing that a site as large as Comic Book Resources would come out on the other side of the debate, especially since their reach dwarfs ours, thus artificially amplifying the counterpoint and providing cover to those who have a less nuanced approach as Albert. Also, Marvel and Netflix might see that article and surmise, “See, we shouldn’t consider non-white casting because look at what the comic book community is saying.”

That last point is important because, believe it or not, Marvel and Netflix execs are listening to the chatter out there! I have it on good authority that, for a time, the studio heads were seriously considering looking at Asian American actors to audition for the role of Danny Rand and the impetus to do so was from the noise made by our site (and other sites as well — p.s., it’s not too late to sign this petition!).  It also helped that high profile people — like director Lexi Alexander, writer Gail Simone, and journalist Marc Bernardin, to name three — have been vocal about their support for an Asian American Iron Fist.

Now that the show has found its creator, the window for casting suggestions is shrinking. In fact, my sources tell me that the show will likely find a Caucasian lead, satiating many fanboys’ wishes, but also preventing another actor of color a chance to attain superhero stardom. Remember what Viola Davis said? It’s the opportunity that matters. I mean, there’s a reason why there are no Asian American movie stars.

Of course, a lot of pundits claim that casting Iron Fist is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The thinking goes like this: If we cast a(nother) white guy in the lead, Iron Fist will continue to perpetuate the “mighty whitey” trope where the white man goes off to some ancient, mystical land to become their champion. Think Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai.

Whereas, if you cast an Asian American in the lead, it means that Marvel’s only male superhero of import will be, to quote Birth.Movie.Death’s Devin Faraci, the “karate guy.” Thus perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians know karate kung fu, and that’s bad too. This is most (not all) of the crux of the CBR piece.

The thing is, though, that it really isn’t the case. “Mighty Whitey” vs. “Asians know Kung Fu” stereotypes is a false choice, mainly because, prior to AMC’s Into the Badlands, there has never — I repeat, never — been a martial arts show or movie where an Asian American character got to play the lead hero1. Sure Bruce Lee was Kato, but besides being known as “The Kato Show” overseas, ultimately, he was still the sidekick.

Meanwhile, I can name at least a dozen movies and programs in which a white protagonist goes to Asia to be the best Asian: the aforementioned Last Samurai, but also David Carradine, every Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal movie of the ’80s and ’90s, Karate Kid Part II, Kill Bill, Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, Forbidden Kingdom, Batman Begins, The Wolverine, Arrow, even Netflix’s own Marco Polo.

Not to mention the fact that Hollywood will take a role that was originally Asian and cast it white with a quickness, but the second you try to go the other way…

If it’s a battle between stereotypes, I would rather err on the side of more representation and the chance to add nuance and depth to the martial artist archetype (as it is portrayed in the West, that is) than fall back on an even more tired trope of the all-knowing, all-powerful white guy who finds himself while surrounded by the “Other.”

Because rest assured, whomever is cast as Danny Rand, the Iron Fist series will still feature a shit ton of nameless, faceless Asian martial artists who will serve as cannon fodder for the hero to dispose of. And isn’t that the reason we think “Asian martial artist” is a negative stereotype?

Before Into the Badlands premiered, I had the opportunity to speak with its star and executive producer Daniel Wu. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Wu gained fame as a movie star in Hong Kong before making his American debut on the AMC martial arts series. Created by Smallville producers Al Gough and Miles Millar, the idea from jump was to find an Asian American to play the lead.

“I knew that putting an Asian in the martial arts genre show is very stereotypical,” said Wu. “But I wanted to see what the character was like and if it was the type of Asian character that we’ve seen before.”

He goes on to say, “what we’re seeing is a strong Asian male lead who, you know, has a girl, who resists and is not just part of the team and is leading this whole story. It’s something that we haven’t seen before.”

That’s an important point. Because to my knowledge, a complex, multi-dimensional Asian American hero who, yes, uses martial arts is actually something we’ve never seen before. The best way to combat negative stereotypes is through better writing and more nuanced characters. Not by erasure. That’s how we end up with Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. And while Danny Rand is one of the Marvel superheroes most associated with the martial arts, he too is so much more. Albert Ching, in his dissent on CBR, says (emphasis mine):

And while many comics characters use martial arts — Daredevil, Batman and so many more — there’s no denying that, outwardly, it is “the” main trait of Iron Fist. That’s not fair or accurate, as there’s plenty more to the character, who’s also a Hero for Hire, an Avenger, a lifelong friend and partner to Luke Cage and a soon-to-be Defender. But he’s defined by martial arts much more than other superheroes who just happen to use martial arts — and it’s problematic if that’s the first lead white comics character to be readily accepted on screen as played by an Asian-American.

By the by, make sure you pick up “Power Man and Iron Fist” by my man David Walker and Sanford Greene!

Here’s what shouldn’t be overlooked. Danny Rand is more than “just a kung fu guy.” In addition to the things Ching lists, I’d add that Danny is a lover, a businessman, a smartass, a confidant, plus he’s the hero of the story who has freakin’ superpowers! These are not qualities that are given to Asian American protagonists. If we let Danny be Asian American, aren’t we actually subverting the “negative” Asian stereotype? Sure, he knows kung fu, but he’s so much more than that. Keeping the status quo is actually perpetuating double the stereotypes. Not only will Danny continue being mighty whitey, but he’ll still be battling a whole fleet of Asian stereotypes. As if it’s okay for Asians to be anything but the hero.

But what about Shang-Chi?

Instead of racebending Danny Rand, why don’t you just advocate for Shang-Chi to get his own series? That’s one of the other questions that frequently comes up on twitter and message boards. The premise of this argument is centered around the idea that Marvel already has an Asian martial artist superhero and calls for racebending Iron Fist would preclude the necessity of Shang Chi.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, while they share martial arts abilities, they are two wholly different characters with completely different stories and motivations.

Besides, if we were to use that logic, then wouldn’t the presence of Daredevil already mean Iron Fist is unnecessary? Why the hell do we need two white martial artists in Hell’s Kitchen? Also, why can’t we have more than one Asian superhero? We have three major Avengers being played by blonde white dudes named Chris, but we can’t get one Asian guy?

And for what it’s worth, I’m all for Shang Chi either getting his own live action series or movie. It even makes sense to have him be part of the Netflix universe and be a future member of the Heroes for Hire, but his existence shouldn’t mean there can be no other Asian characters. Unless Aziz Ansari was right about the “one at a time” rule in Hollywood.

I also want to be clear that having Danny Rand be Asian American isn’t a quota compliance. Ching’s essay also lamented the fact that the only push for an Asian American hero in the MCU happens to be the martial arts guy:

What troubles me is that this is the only superhero character that has received a groundswell of support for casting an Asian-American actor. There’s a huge number of major Marvel characters who could have easily been cast as Asian-Americans, and as far as I can tell, no one considered it seriously. Why not an Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange? When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it’ll be cause for celebration. It’s happening right now in Marvel Comics, with Amadeus Cho as Greg Pak and Frank Cho’s thoroughly non-stereotypical “Totally Awesome Hulk.” While increased visibility for Asian-Americans is a good thing, the idea that Iron Fist is “the” character to make Asian-American feels like further locking a population into a single perception, where the primary utility of an Asian in action-driven entertainment is to be good at martial arts.

Danny Rand is by no means the only character we’ve pushed for Asian American representation. You may recall we were pretty serious about Marvel and Sony looking at Asian American actors — specifically Ryan Potter, natch — to be the new Peter Park(er). And I’m actually with Albert on the lost opportunity to cast an Asian American lead in the forthcoming Doctor Strange which, like Iron Fist, is similarly wrought with problematic “white guy goes to Asia” tropes. Again, because of those issues, the powers that be decided the best way to address those stereotypes was to completely erase Asians from the movie.

Except for Wong, probably. Because we love subservient Asian sidekicks.

For all the shit we give DC and Warner Brothers for the handling of their cinematic universe, this is the one area where I have to give them credit. Without any outside pressure from groups like us, the heads at WB decided that casting Jason Momoa was the best way to approach their live action take on Aquaman.

More than that, they also decided to incorporate Momoa’s own Pacific Islander heritage to better inform and add nuance to the character. On top of that, they hired a director of Asian descent to helm the whole thing. It shouldn’t be in 2015 (and beyond) but that’s an amazing feat, and Warner deserves all the props.

This is an area where I am in total agreement with Albert’s CBR piece. There should be more Asian American characters in these superhero universes. I mean, why isn’t Jimmy Woo on Agent Carter yet?! And while I understand the hesitance around seeing an Asian American martial arts character, I’ll say again that it’s an undue concern.

Here’s Daniel Wu again:

“It’s a genre that Asians have been doing for many, many years in Asia, and I think Asian American groups that recoil [at the idea, do so] because they feel like ‘that has nothing to do with me,’ but honestly, your culture did create karate. Your culture did create kung fu, so is that a stereotype? No it’s part of your history, its part of your culture. So why not embrace it?”

Also, in a post-Fresh Off the Boat, post-Master of None, post-Into the Badlands world, the actor playing Iron Fist won’t have to carry all the weight alone. Instead, that actor — whoever he is — will be given the role of a lifetime and will be a seen as a hero and a sex symbol and a nuanced character for a whole new generation of fans.

What Asian American actor wouldn’t kill for an opportunity like that? And what’s so wrong with wanting that?

  1. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, (shout out to Russell Wong!) but the point still stands that opportunities for Asian American heroic leads (especially males) is extremely rare in Hollywood. Moreover, when compared to the number of “white men in Asia” fantasy roles, it’s no contest. 
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