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.

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