Iron Fist is probably one of the most controversial project Marvel has produced. Many have decried the series, many calling it Marvel’s first bomb. However, a large amount of complaints were not completely based off the content of the series. The majority of complaint around the show is centered on race. Particularly, the casting of a white man as Iron Fist has upset many. People wanted Danny Rand to be an Asian, character, instead of a white man.
The big issue around Rand’s casting, for many, is the “white savior” narrative. It’s the trope of a white hero coming in to save a non-white nation. The reason it’s problematic is it implies non-white people require a white man to save them. This is the same scandal that surrounds movies like The Great Wall or Ghost in the Shell. The perception of Iron Fist, along with the previously mentioned films, was that it follows this problematic trope.
However, that isn’t the case. Once you watch the entirety of Iron Fist, you see this trope isn’t applicable. The majority of the series is set in New York City, and K’un-Lun is only mentioned. Danny Rand is, at most, a savior of other white people. Most of the time, he’s trying to save himself from The Hand, and he doesn’t always do a particularly good job of it. He also wasn’t the savior of K’un-Lun – in fact, he’s viewed as a failure. As far as the monks are concerned, he’s more of a white screw-up than savior.
So why did this conversation start in the first place? Iron Fist does not fit the description that has people in such a tizzy. Perhaps it’s the overlap of people who were angered by Doctor Strange‘s Ancient One. The Ancient One, originally a male Tibetan monk, was portrayed by Tilda Swinton – neither Tibetan nor male – in the 2016 film. The current political climate has also whipped people into a frenzy, leading to ridiculous comparisons between Danny Rand and Donald Trump. This conversation about race extends far beyond Finn Jones’ Iron Fist. The debate has been in the zeitgeist for years now, reaching a boiling point now.
Fact of the matter is, Marvel has a lot of white protagonists. Netflix has done a great job balancing out the cast of headliners, but it’s still just two out of five heroes. If you broaden the scope, to cover all of Marvel’s leading characters, the numbers become more damning. Below is a picture of 30 Marvel characters central to the MCU, most confirmed for Infinity War, along with the Netflix protagonists. Of those 30 characters, 22 are white, or voiced by white actors. Only 8 primary characters are non-white, and of those 8, only ONE is Asian. That character is Wong, one of the sidekicks in Doctor Strange. It’s no wonder people are angry about the lack of Asian representation in Marvel.
But what does this debate have to do with Danny Rand specifically? Well, in truth, it doesn’t. Danny Rand has, for his entire existence, been a white man. There’s no clear reason why Iron Fist specifically should be Asian. Focusing too much on Finn Jones weakens the overall argument around non-white representation in Marvel media. What people should keep in mind is the broader cast of Marvel characters, and how few of them are diverse faces.
Particularly, the disparity between diverse leads and supporting casts is troubling. Out of the titular Marvel heroes that have their own titles, next to none of them are non-white. It sends the message that non-white people can be sidekicks, NOT heroes. In the first Avengers movie, the only non-white, top-billed actor was Samuel L. Jackson, and he didn’t even play a superhero. Guardians features several non-white stars, but the face of the team is undoubtedly Star-Lord.
So is the answer, then, to make EVERY character non-white? This solution doesn’t make a lot of sense either. The perception of these characters would always be seen through the “race-bending” lens. No matter how good the shows were, there would always be the specter of being previously white. Furthermore, a character being non-white doesn’t automatically fix a show. If Iron Fist had been Asian, that wouldn’t have fixed the lack of a dominating, main villain in the show. Shoehorning in diversity isn’t always the best way to remedy the larger problem in the industry. So many Marvel characters were originally white guys, and race-swapping now seems more motivated by pity than by a commitment to change.
These themes are evident in the current feud around the comics. Marvel comics have recently tried replacing many of its titular characters with diverse alternates. Heroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk had their mantles passed onto women and minorities. The comics didn’t sell well, and now the originals are returning to the forefront. Marvel’s VP of Sales, David Gabriel, alleged this was because comic fans have a problem with diversity in general. However, looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem to ring true.
The larger problem with making characters diverse is that it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Making a character non-white or female doesn’t automatically make them the best. It’s wonderful that companies are trying to incorporate more non-white protagonists, and hopefully Marvel will try other initiatives. But broadly changing all the primary characters to diverse alternatives doesn’t immediately make the comic better. As important as diversity is, there’s more that goes into comics, movies, or TV series than that.
So how could this lack of diverse protagonists be remedied? One way is to give more non-white characters their own films or series. Shang-Chi, for example, could be an additional Defender. Perhaps ABC could do a spin-off series for their Ghost Rider. Or Netflix could do a ‘Hero for Hire’ series with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight. There are plenty of non-white protagonists Marvel could draw on. They just have to choose to do so.
Having a diverse cast for a television series is better than having a cast of a singular race. However, it is not the SOLE quantifier of quality. Diverse leads should be put into well-written movies and television series. Additionally, Marvel should either try to create new characters, or work of pre-established non-white characters. We live in a boom of super hero content, and Marvel is pushing out as much content as they can. It only seems right to put on for new voices, creating diverse characters that can give Marvel socially-conscious variety.