With Iron Fist, Marvel and Netflix Make a White Man Lord of the Urban Jungle

Hollywood: Where whitewashing and minimizing the roles of people of color are the norm.

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immortalironfist
Cover of the first trade paperback of the Immortal Iron Fist series, art by David Aja, story by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction

David Aja / Wikipedia

You know Tarzan was a bunch of garbage, right?

The idea that some white guy got left in the middle of the jungle, was raised by apes, and somehow became the biggest, baddest, smartest guy in all of Africa is equal parts ridiculous and racist. But “white man who masters the culture, skills and talents of ‘exotic foreigners’ and then saves the day” is the movie trope that just won’t die. (Case in point: the film Avatar and just about every one of the Step Up dance movies in the 2000s.)

Unfortunately, the great tradition of Hollywood whitewashing got a boost this week when Netflix announced that its new Marvel martial arts series, Iron Fist, will star white actor Finn Jones. Proving that now Hollywood thinks black and Asian people can’t be heroes for their own communities even if the facts and data prove otherwise. 

Marvel comics—from its billion-dollar Avengers franchise to its TV universe featuring Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the critically acclaimed Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones—has been lauded for its diversity, but Iron Fist was Marvel’s chance to correct one of its wrongs. And trust me, Iron Fist has always been a problem.

A nasty, whitewashed, appropriation fantasy on steroids, Iron Fist debuted in 1974 as Marvel’s answer to the popularity of blaxploitation films and kung fu flicks. Iron Fist, aka Danny Rand, was a white man, with the money of Bruce Wayne and the martial arts skills of Bruce Lee, who had a black girlfriend who was a dead ringer for Pam Grier. Throw in a few vines and some monkeys, and Iron Fist was Tarzan all over again, this time with the lead character lording over the urban jungle of New York City.

Comic book fans of all colors joined with 18MR (18 Million Rising), an Asian-American organization, with a petition to demand Marvel cast an Asian American as Danny Rand/Iron Fist. After all, if Marvel could cast Samuel Jackson to play a once-white Nick Fury and cast Idris Elba to play a Norse god in Thor, why not fix a longtime Asian-appropriating white-savior character by finally creating something progressive?

But instead, when Netflix/Marvel announced Iron Fist, we got this description:

Danny Rand (Iron Fist) is a very complicated character. He’s a billionaire New York Buddhist monk martial arts superhero who’s still trying to figure out what exactly that all means.

He fights against the criminal element corrupting New York City with his incredible kung fu mastery and ability to summon the awesome power of the fiery Iron Fist.

In other words, the same old story. However, there’s something more insidious here than just another example of a white guy playing a role better suited for a person of color.

The problem with heroes like Iron Fist, or movies like Avatar or The Lone Ranger, is that they erase people of color. White men are placed at the center of the story in which they must rescue people of color while using the cultural history of the people they are saving. Somehow, the magic powers, potions, fighting skills and power suits that we create don’t work until a white guy uses them.

There are literally dozens of Asian-American actors who could have played the role; there are actual young Asian billionaires on which Iron Fist could be based; and with Asians making up over 12 percent of the 13 million people living in New York City, it seems likely that one of them could decide to fight crime in the Marvel universe. Heck, given that Iron Fist was originally a black-Asian hodgepodge, why not cast an African American for the show? African Americans are more likely to participate in martial arts than any other racial or ethnic group in America. There is a real, live black guy out there who’s been running through the streets in a costume fighting crime with marital arts for years. 

Part of why superhero movies and TV shows are so popular is because they give viewers the feeling that we can go to extraordinary means to take problems into our own hands. But when the heroes are always white, it makes it look as if people of color can never solve their own problems.

With all the issues around crime in the black community, for some reason, the only person in popular culture traumatized enough by crime to ever do anything about it is a rich white kid with a fetish for black leather and bats. All the black military veterans out there, and only Tony Stark comes up with a power suit?

The comic and TV show The Walking Dead takes place outside of Atlanta, and it’s mostly white people who figure out how to survive. I’m willing to bet that Spelman and Morehouse alone could’ve taken out at least some of the zombie apocalypse. But apparently in Hollywood, no amount of trauma, disaster or special skills is enough for black, Asian or Latino people to rise up and rescue themselves.

In the coming months, we’ll see Anthony Mackie play the Falcon and Chadwick Boseman play Black Panther in the new Avengers movie. Then this fall, the Netflix series Luke Cage, starring Michael Colter, will debut. These are steps in the right direction, but they are still characters that for the most part are introduced as part of some larger storyline that was centered on a white hero.

Perhaps with enough protests, as well as wiser choices about where our dollars go, people of color on film will be driven to fight crime and battle the forces of evil as much as the white guys. In the meantime, I guess we can all marvel at another kung-fu-appropriating billionaire who has mastered skills that millions of blacks and Asians have never managed to figure out on film. 

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio and an analyst for CNN, MSNBC, Al-Jazeera and Fox Business News. Follow him on Twitter.

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