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Not Your Asian Ninja: How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Keeps Failing Asian Americans

Originally posted at The Daily Beast

I liked Daredevil Season 2 a lot. I didn’t like it quite as much as Season 1, but it was always going to be impossible to find someone to live up to Vincent D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk (who still effortlessly steals the few scenes he gets this season). But the writing and the acting for Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, is compelling as hell, enough to spark a lively debate about the appeal of vigilante justice and gun violence in American culture.

The tangled, messy web of corruption behind the death of the Punisher’s family, the complicity of the state and the media in creating him, his turnaround in becoming a criminal defendant in the Trial of the Century, and the moral ambiguity of Castle’s past as a soldier who exposes the American public’s hypocrisy by bringing the brutal logic of the overseas War on Terror stateside — that’s all great stuff.

The problem is all that great stuff is only half of Daredevil Season 2. There’s a whole other half that’s almost totally disconnected from the Frank Castle plot, the Nelson and Murdock law firm, and New York City politics. There’s a full 50 percent of Daredevil Season 2 that’s total crap, and that half is the part with the ninjas.

(I’m going to insist on using the English plural “ninjas” and not the Japanese plural “ninja” precisely to antagonize that portion of the comics-reading audience that expects me to take comic-book ninjas as a serious expression of Japanese culture.)

Look, I, like every other Asian American geek in the country, was on board with the #AAIronFist petition, which asked Marvel to consider casting an Asian American actor as the traditionally white kung fu superhero Danny Rand. I have nothing against Finn Jones as an actor and I think he could probably do a reasonable job with a “faithful” adaptation of the Iron Fist character. Just like I didn’t think it was a necessity that the racially ambiguous Dr. Strange be cast as an Asian guy, although making his faithful manservant Chinese felt like a slap to the face.

But here’s what gets me: They did do a “race lift” of a martial arts-oriented character. They took Elektra Natchios, who, if you couldn’t tell from her name, is supposed to be Greek, and cast the French-Cambodian actress Elodie Yung to play her. In order to justify this casting choice they radically changed Elektra’s backstory, making her an adopted child of the Greek ambassador Hugo Natchios rather than his biological daughter and removing the daddy issues between her and Hugo that — in case you couldn’t tell from the not-very-subtle reference in her name — played a big role in her original characterization.

All of this is exactly the same as what people asked for when they asked for kung fu superhero Iron Fist to be an Asian guy. “Danny Rand” could easily be the name of an Asian kid adopted by a Caucasian family. All the stuff in Danny Rand’s story about him being a Mighty Whitey outsider to “kung fu” culture could be about an Asian American guy reconnecting with legends and folklore he’d long dismissed as irrelevant to him. We even have precedent for that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Selvig’s incredulous reaction to the absurdity of his childhood stories of Thor and Loki being real.

But for whatever reason, they decided against that. They were willing to “racebend” one well-known character — one who’s already had a movie where she was played by Jennifer Garner — but not a much more obscure character who, unlike Elektra, was the focus of a massive community demand for positive representation.

It’s the entire plot Elektra comes from. It’s the fact that Daredevil goes back to the familiar well of defining its warring gang families by ethnicity — the “Kitchen Irish,” the Latino “Juarez Cartel,” the Anglo biker gang the “Dogs of Hell” — but while all the other gangs are made up of human beings with human criminal motivations, the Japanese yakuza and the Chinese drug runners both turn out to be fronts for mysterious — dare I say it, inscrutable — forces of supernatural evil.

For a show that’s trying really hard to be grim and gritty and grounded in real-world controversy — gentrification, the drug trade, the war on terror — in the other 50 percent of its plot, having the yakuza turn out to be pawns of an evil ninja cult that actually go gallivanting around in ridiculously conspicuous ninja outfits feels jarringly out of place. There’s no justification given for why a quasi-realistic setting would have ninjas going around fighting with swords and bows and arrows, especially since the climactic last fight scene of Daredevil Season 2 is, in fact, resolved thanks to the Punisher demonstrating that “traditional” ninja warfare isn’t very effective against a sniper rifle.

Here’s the litmus test I used for a comparison: the Kitchen Irish play with Irish stereotypes quite a bit. The scene where they’re introduced is on-the-nose in several respects — all of them are eating cabbage and ham and drinking beer, their leader makes a speech about surviving the potato famine, everyone says the word “shite” a lot. At one point a brutal mob boss with a thick Irish accent taunts our hero, “The Irish may not have invented revenge but we sure perfected it.”

And yet, Matt Murdock, our hero, has an Irish name and comes from an Irish family and yet is a hero with no connection to the Irish mob. The turncoat character from the Irish mob, Elliot “Grotto” Grote, is a complex and flawed person we come to sympathize with.

Most importantly, even with the stereotypes on display, the Irish mobsters are normal human beings. They aren’t being manipulated by an evil cult of green-jacketed leprechauns on a mystical quest to find the Spear of Lugh. They fight with guns, as opposed to eschewing firearms in favor of the noble art of the shillelagh.

They aren’t, in other words, so stereotypical as to be stupid.

By contrast, every Asian character in Daredevil is working for some kind of demonic force — the corrupt Japanese businessmen and gun-toting Japanese gangsters are just henchmen for black-clad mystical killers right out of the Ask a Ninja videos. (The Chinese gangsters are working for the equally supernaturally evil Madame Gao, who’s played low-key in Daredevil but seems set up to be a villain for Iron Fist, boding ill for that show.)

Our token good guy Asian character, Elektra, turns out to be the evil chosen one created by the evil ninjas to be their evil ninja leader. The recurring evil ninja bad guy, Nobu, has no particular personality traits other than being supernaturally powerful and mysterious.

Most egregiously of all, the equivalent to Grotto in the ninja storyline, the Hand cult’s hapless accountant Stan Gibson, is the only visible member of their organization who’s not Asian. That’s right, the one ordinary man among the Hand, the one who shows remorse and turns to Daredevil for help when his masters kidnap his son, is their only white guy.

They had a golden opportunity to include just one Asian character who didn’t know martial arts and wasn’t a remorseless killing machine, and they didn’t — that was the one member of the Hand who had to be a white guy.

Again: Not a good look.

Yes, I’m aware that the “Secret War” between the two warring ninja clans of the Hand and the Chaste was a fundamental element of old-school 1980s Daredevil. It was silly and kind of racist then — silly enough to inspire a parody that outstripped the original by turning one of the ninja clans into anthropomorphic turtles — and it’s an even worse look now. It’s an especially bad look when the “good” ninja clan, the Chaste, is presented as a hodgepodge multiethnic coalition and the “bad” one, the Hand, is an army of identical brainwashed uniformly Japanese soldiers. Especially since the sole Asian member of the Chaste, Elektra, turns out to have been the Hand’s evil chosen one all along.

Look. Did the producers of Daredevil set out to create a storyline where every single Asian character is an agent of supernatural evil who is deeply corrupted by that evil and empowered to be a monstrous killing machine because of it? I doubt they thought of it in those terms. They just took existing tropes from the comics and ran with them without thinking too hard — and lo and behold, an army of interchangeable evil ninjas plus one sexy femme fatale is what they got.

That’s exactly what people have been complaining about. People made a big deal about black superheroes like Falcon and Black Panther and Luke Cage precisely because no one would admit to setting out to have armies of interchangeable black thugs who existed to be beaten up by righteous white heroes. But when mostly-white comics creators weren’t prodded to think about representation, that’s what they came up with.

I’m deeply disappointed in Marvel’s decision-making process with Daredevil and Iron Fist because they’ve held themselves to a higher standard elsewhere. They made Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Captain Marvel film because they’ve heard people say it’s important for women to have their own stories and not just be damsels in distress or femmes fatales for male heroes. They’re making Black Panther and Luke Cage because of how important it is to have black representation that isn’t just loyal sidekicks and nameless henchmen.

But we’ve been talking for decades about how obnoxious it is — and how damaging it is — to have Asian cultures treated as a colorful setting for white heroes to explore, how tiresome it is to live with the expectation that if you see someone like yourself on screen they’ll either be an exotic sexpot or one of an army of disposable ninja bad guys in shinobi masks.

I’m not against doing Iron Fist on principle. I enjoy a good kung fu adventure as much as the next guy. I’m not against doing the Hand storyline from Daredevil either. I just ask that if you use tired stereotypes you put a little thought into them — that you treat real Asian people with the same modicum of respect the writers give Matt Murdock’s Irish heritage and Catholic faith, that you think through the concept of “evil ninja cult” with the same modicum of creativity with which the makers of Iron Man 3 approached the idea of “the Mandarin” as a villain.

Because when you don’t put thought into how you use tropes, tropes can lead you to a really bad place without your being aware of it. The world of Marvel’s Daredevil is a world where literally any Asian face you see is going to be a member of some sort of evil magical conspiracy and therefore the smart thing to do is kill them now before they stab you with their poisoned blades.

They didn’t mean to make that implication, but it’s there. And they didn’t mean to make me feel unwelcome in this fictional universe they created, but they did.

The petition for an Asian American Iron Fist was a very simple, fairly mild ask — no one asked for taking a flagship character and changing their race, just that if the MCU played around with Orientalism they could show they were playing with some self-awareness. It’s a test that, unfortunately, the MCU continues to fail.

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