It’s impossible to talk about Iron Fist without talking about cultural appropriation.
There are multiple reasons for this. The most obvious are baked into the character himself, from his origin all the way back in Marvel Premiere as a white guy who travels to a mystical Asian city and becomes better at kung fu than any of the inhabitants before returning to America. There’s also very much the conversation that has been happening around the television series, which has prompted larger debates about the role of Asian performers and culture in Hollywood. Finally, there’s the fact that show so expertly puts its foot in its mouth.
Bar the Big Boss is the perfect point at which to address this. Again, for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that it represents the last point at which the most obvious aspects of Asian exoticism are in play; barring the closing scene of Dragon Plays with Fire, this episode is the end of the Hand and K’un Lun as narrative forces in the context of the larger narrative. It is also an episode that effectively allows Davos to lightly touch upon the issue of cultural appropriation before brushing his concerns aside by turning him into a stock villain.
But, really, the issue is so firmly baked into the Iron Fist mythos that it is impossible to talk about in isolation.
The origins of Iron Fist can be traced back to the interest in kung fu that gripped the national consciousness during the seventies. Indeed, there’s something to be said for the eventual pairing of Danny Rand and Luke Cage, given that Luke Cage was the product of another seventies popular culture fixation. Indeed, the union of Danny and Luke in the pages of Power Man and Iron Fist in April 1978 provides a fascinating intersection of two seventies trends that fit together better than most people would expect. After all, African American audiences loved kung fu films.
Martial arts had an interesting history in cinema. There were some flirtations with martial arts in Hollywood films of the forties and fifties. Even then, the techniques were the source of some controversy. Censors were apparently concerned about the use of martial arts in Bad Day at Black Rock, worried that kids might try to emulate the antics of the gruff one-armed hero played by Spencer Tracy. There would always be a whiff of moral panic around the response to martial arts on film, the British Board of Film Classification even banning the depiction of certain weapons.
However, martial arts cinema exploded as its own cultural entity in the seventies. This was spurred by an economic and cultural boom in Hong Kong, that saw the release of kung fu films like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. (Both starring Bruce Lee.) Those films did well enough to secure release in the United States and to attract the attention of American studios. Bruce Lee had worked in Hollywood during the sixties, most notably playing the hyper-competent sidekick Kato on Green Hornet, but his success in Hong Kong allowed him to return as a bona fides leading man.
Released in the middle of 1973, Enter the Dragon was a phenomenon. Produced by Warner Brothers, the film broke down any remaining cultural barriers between American audiences and the martial arts genre. Although Bruce Lee tragically died of a brain edema shortly before its release, the film secured Lee’s place in the cultural canon. The film was a massive success, earning more than ninety million dollars world-wide on a budget of under one million dollars. It was a phenomenon.
However, the influence of Enter the Dragon cannot be measured solely by reference to its one-thousand percent return on investment. The film radically shaped and adjusted the cultural consciousness in ways that were readily apparent, but hard to measure. As Sascha Matuszak argues:
Enter the Dragon was also the spark that lit the worldwide martial arts blaze of the late 1970s and 1980s. When Shaolin Temple was released in Mainland China, millions of Chinese took up martial arts and thousands more trekked to Henan and knocked on the temple doors, starting a process in motion that led to the modern Shaolin Temple. Enter the Dragon had a very similar effect on kids in the US. Theaters began playing kung fu films on a weekly basis, dojos sprang up all over California and New York, spreading inland like wildfire. Another process was set in motion, this one leading eventually to films like Bloodsport and The Matrix, a slew of instructor’s manuals and books on Jeet Kun Do, and a martial and fitness culture that would give birth to modern MMA.
Few films have that sort of impact on the popular consciousness. Bruce Lee only made a handful of martial arts movies, a filmography that can be readily consumed over a weekend by an eager viewer. But he made a big impression.
There are a lot of theories about why the martial arts craze caught on in the way that it did, why American audiences were so suddenly and so excitedly engaged with concept of Asian martial arts as a form of cultural entertainment. After all, kung fu cinema had not emerged overnight. It had a long and rich history in Hong Kong and China, drawn from a cultural tradition of wuxia (“martial chivalry”) storytelling that infused both novels and feature films. The genre had been growing and evolving since the thirties at the latest, so why did it only land with American audiences in the seventies?
There are any number of theories about why the fad emerged when it did. Part of it was undoubtedly down to ease of distribution, with an increasingly globalised world order in the wake of the Second World War making it easier for distributors to reach audiences abroad coupled with a broader appetite for foreign art forms within the United States. Part of it was also due to the emergence of a figure like Bruce Lee who could straddle both American and Hong Kong cinema to create a bridge between the two.
However, some historians would contend that there were broader cultural factors at play, as much to do with American audiences as the films that they were watching. As Martial Arts Films in American Masculinities argues:
Although glimpses of the martial arts can be seen in American film since the 1940s, true martial arts movies made their first significant impact in the United States in 1973, when a wave of kung fu movies produced in Hong Kong met with unprecedented box-office success. Most scholars agree that their sudden popularity was a response to U.S. failure during the Vietnam War. The spectacle of a physically small Asian male defeating seemingly insurmountable odds – of an Asian masculinity characterised by quasi-mystical fighting prowess – represented a way of coming to terms with a perceived failure of American masculinity and military might in Vietnam. In an atmosphere increasingly open to Asian religions and philosophies and distrustful of the U.S. government, martial arts films of the 1970s offered disaffected American males a countercultural heroic model.
Certainly, it seems reasonable to position the kung fu craze in the context of broader seventies anxieties. Vietnam seems an obvious point of overlap, in terms of rough chronology and rough geography.
Naturally, the influence of this seventies martial arts craze extended beyond cinema. Other aspects of popular culture also tried to tap into that appetite for kung fu content. Carl Douglas brilliantly tapped into that intersection of blaxploitation and martial arts mayhem with the release of his single Kung Fu Fighting a year after the success of Enter the Dragon. It sold eleven million copies world-wide. The television series Kung Fu overlapped with the fad, launching as a weekly series in October 1972 and running until April 1975.
It seemed inevitable that Marvel Comics would try to cash in on the fad. The comic book publisher had found great success in the sixties by reinventing superheroes for a contemporary audience, updating the genre conventions of the forties to speak to a new generation of readers. During the seventies, Marvel tried to branch out and court audiences interested in genres outside of superheroes. Horror comics were one such avenue; Tomb of Dracula debuted in April 1972, Werewolf by Night launched in September 1972, The Monster of Frankenstein began in January 1973.
Martial arts films were a perfect fit for the publisher. After all, producer Paul Heller would concede that Enter the Dragon had a decidedly comic book aesthetic to begin with:
Comic books played a big part in Enter the Dragon. When we first started thinking about the look of the film, there was a comic strip called Terry and the Pirates, and that became sort of the genesis of the whole look of the film. It was about a Dragon Lady and Chinese pirates, and it was a wonderful moment in time about adventure. But it has a wonderful, brilliant color scheme of golds and blues and reds, and if you think about Enter the Dragon, that’s what we did. And that was very, very conscious. It just felt like it would be very right for the film.
Although martial arts lent themselves to a medium that could capture movement, there was also something to be said for slowing down the action in a medium like comic books. Enter the Dragon famously shot some of its stunt work with a slow motion camera just to capture the grace of Lee’s movement.
Danny Rand was not Marvel’s first foray into the world of martial arts comics, and that is something very important to remember about the character that often gets glossed over in discussions about cultural appropriation within the Iron Fist mythos. Marvel’s first bona fides Marvel martial arts star was Shang-Chi, who was introduced in Special Marvel Edition in December 1973, almost half a year before Danny Rand would make his debut in Marvel Premiere in May 1974. Although less well-known, Shang-Chi got there first.
Indeed, Shang-Chi was quite pointedly modeled on Bruce Lee’s screen persona. The character even had a long-standing association with MI-6, recalling the plot of Enter the Dragon that tied Bruce Lee’s character to the CIA. As future Master of Kung Fu writer Mike Benson neatly summarised, “He was this wonderful combination of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon and James Bond.” He was also most pointedly not a superhero. Master of Kung Fu never really pitched the character as equivalent to Spider-Man or Captain America.
However, Shang-Chi never embedded himself into the fabric of the Marvel Universe in the same way that Danny Rand would. There are any number of reasons for this. Most obviously, Shang-Chi is not a superhero and so he makes a tougher fit with the other characters than Danny might, although Ed Brubaker deserves a lot of credit for bringing Shang-Chi back into the fold as part of his short-lived Secret Avengers run that pitched itself as a secret pulp history of the Marvel Universe from H.P. Lovecraft to Edgar Rice Burroughs and up to the Golden Age.
There were also rights issues, in that the character of Shang-Chi was tied up in a mythos that Marvel did not own outright. Shang-Chi was the son of the supervillain Fu Manchu, a character licensed from the Sax Rohmer estate. The fact that Marvel lost the rights to Fu Manchu understandably made the character of Shang-Chi less practical. Again, the writer Ed Brubaker did Shang-Chi quite a service during his Secret Avengers by disentangling him from that mythology and allowing him to branch out into the wider Marvel Universe.
However, the shift from Shang-Chi to Danny Rand did not happen in a vacuum. It was part of a broader cultural context. Although the martial arts films of the early seventies were largely imported from Hong Kong and used Hong Kong talent, there was an eventual shift towards white American characters within these narratives. In The Kung Fu Craze, David Desser positions the re-release of Billy Jack in May 1973 as a key moment in the genre’s evolution:
It is not the capitalist conspiracy that is responsible for the kung fu craze, but rather the traumatic stock-taking that the Vietnam War engendered. The kung fu craze is just one cinematic signifier of a post-Vietnam stress disorder on the cultural level. Other signifiers include the spate of films focusing on troubled returning Vietnam vets (of which Billy Jack was a the martial-arts paradigm), the Vietnam War films themselves of the late 1970s and, more precisely, the rise of the white male martial arts stars who, in a sense, co-opt the Asian martial arts for the American action hero, for the American movie star, for the American man. It is no coincidence that the kung fu craze could be critically dismissed as long as it consisted of badly dubbed foreign films, remained the province of black and youth audience, and as long as it was confined, afterward, to blaxploitation. But it is no coincidence that the genre takes hold in American cinema precisely when a white star not only enters the genre but situates his persona within an Asian context: Vietnam and the Vietnam War. The kung fu craze of the 1970s is a deceptively complex moment in American cultural history, when a foreign cinema grabs hold of the box-office as never before and eventually gives rise to a new and significant genre in American cinema.
If the Hong Kong martial arts star was a handy representation of the defeat of American machismo by Asian dedication, then the white American kung fu star would seem to be an attempt to reclaim that lost prestige; to appropriate that power and incorporate into depictions of American masculinity. In the late seventies and into the eighties, the martial artist became increasingly white and increasingly American; Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Michael Dudikoff.
Danny Rand and the Iron Fist exist within that context. They are not part of the first wave of kung fu cinema, but the second wave of kung fu reinvention. Like Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal, Danny Rand is an all-American hero who can do kung fu as well as any foreign action star. He is also quite consciously designed to incorporate that martial arts aesthetic into a conventional superhero framework. Whereas Shang-Chi was a character who was difficult to integrate into the shared Marvel Universe, Danny Rand was practically pre-packaged to blend in.
After all, it could be convincingly argued that Danny Rand’s defining attributes were stock superhero tropes; his dead parents and origin story, his memorable costume, his comic-book-isation of martial arts prowess through a literal glowing power fist. One of the stock criticisms of Danny Rand, both in the context of the show and as a comic book character, is that he is remarkably bland. There is very little original about Danny beyond his martial arts, which feels like the answer given under “powers” in the stock superhero generator machine Marvel kept around the office.
When I saw my first Hong Kong kung fu movie in the early ’70s (Five Fingers of Death) and it contained a ritual called “The Iron Fist,” I decided that would make a good name for a Marvel hero to take advantage of this coming trend, and asked Gil to work with me on it. Except for the name, I had not fleshed out the idea.
Gil, a lifelong admirer of Bill Everett’s (there’s that name again!) pre-Sub-Mariner hero Amazing-Man from the Centaur Comics Group, reeled off for me the origin of “A-Man,” which contained a Shangri-La clone and a group of enigmatic figures headed by the hooded Great Question. All these elements were incorporated into our joint plot, though we stuck around only for Iron Fist’s origin (in Marvel Premiere #17) then turned the feature and a few basic concepts over to Len Wein, who worked with artist Larry Hama on the second story.
In a very weird way, the character of Danny Rand seems consciously designed to serve as the Chuck Norris to Shang-Chi’s Bruce Lee, a more conventional and more palatable (and more white American) alternative to an Asian martial artist.
It should be noted that this trend of erasing Asian people and characters in favour of white Americans is not something exclusive to martial arts stories, which might be why the production of the Iron Fist television series reopened all of these wounds. The movie 21, released in 2008 and based on a true story, changed the race of the primary characters so that British actor Jim Sturges played the leader of what had been a group of Asian students in the events that inspired the film. Scarlett Johansson is headlining an adaptation of the manga and anime Ghost in the Shell.
Even in the context of these seventies martial arts films, white washing was a point of contention and discussion. Kung Fu launched in October 1972, starring white American actor David Carradine. Carradine did not know any martial arts at the time that he was cast, although the series turned him into a global icon who could give kung fu lessons to Bob Dylan. However, Kung Fu arguably owes its creation to The Warrior, a television series proposed by Bruce Lee following a remarkably similar premise. (Justin Lin is reportedly reviving Warrior for television.)
Interviewed by Pierre Berton for Canadian television, Lee candidly acknowledged that media companies were worried about audiences appetite for stories about Asian culture starring actual Asian performers:
Let me ask you about the problems that you face as a Chinese hero in an American series. Have people come up to you in the industry and said, ‘Well, we don’t know how the audience is going to take a non-American’?
Well, the question has been raised. In fact, it is being discussed, and that is why The Warrior is probably not going to be on… They think, businesswise, it’s a risk. And I don’t blame them… If I were the man with the money I would probably have my own worry whether or not the acceptance would be there.
There is something disheartening about how little progress has actually been made on this front, to the point that Matt Damon is still needed in order for The Great Wall to be considered an internationally viable production.
So, this is the context of the debate around the character of Iron Fist, which became a massive issue almost as soon as the series was announced. Before Finn Jones was cast, there was a concerted effort to convince Marvel to change the race of the character and cast an Asian performer in the role. After all, this sort of cultural appropriation was the character’s original sin. Comic book purists were quick to cite canon as a defense, because canon is increasingly seen as scripture and a barrier against the outsiders.
Truth be told, it often feels like the logical thing to do would have been to drop Iron Fist from The Defenders and replace it with Shang-Chi. (Although, to be honest, Master of Kung Fu is a much catchier show title.) After all, Iron Fist has shown itself remarkably disinterested in the superhero trappings of Iron Fist, from costume-wearing to dragon-punching to K’un Lun itself. Strip away the superhero trapping from Danny Rand, and it seems like the only appreciable difference between him and Shang-Chi is that he’s a white billionaire. Which is not a good basis for this choice.
In fact, Shang-Chi would certainly work a lot better within the tone that Iron Fist is trying to set for itself. Iron Fist doesn’t want Danny wearing a costume and won’t show him in K’un Lun, instead preferring to cast Danny as a gritty and angsty martial artist grounded in something closer to the real world but with more hand-to-hand combat. That seems like a much better fit for Shang-Chi. In fact the rights issues tied up in Shang-Chi’s back story present an opportunity; just make him Madame Gao’s son rather than Fu Manchu’s, or maybe tie him to Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders.
Certainly, Shang-Chi has done more to earn that fourth Marvel Netflix slot than Danny. By any appreciable measure, Shang-Chi has outperformed Danny Rand, from the outset. Shang-Chi would lead Marvel to rebrand Special Marvel Edition as The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu in April 1974, more than a year and a half before Danny Rand would launch his own self-titled book Iron Fist in November 1975. However, Shang-Chi not only started (and blossomed) earlier, he lasted longer.
Since his creation, Danny Rand has been lucky to carry a solo run for thirty-issues and change, with the Marvel Premiere and Iron Fist run adding up to twenty-six issues in total (with a two-part coda in Marvel Team-Up making twenty-eight) and The Immortal Iron Fist running for twenty-seven issues and a variety of tie-in specials. In contrast, Shang-Chi headlined one hundred and eleven issues of Master of Kung Fu over almost a decade of publication, including four giant-sized specials and an annual. He was also a fixture of the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine.
Even today, it seems like Shang-Chi’s back catalogue carries more prestige than that of Danny Rand. The production and broadcast of Iron Fist was met with a modest push for Danny Rand in the company’s monthly line-up, but it also coincided with a highly prestigious reprinting of the entire runs of Master of Kung Fu and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu in glorious oversized hardcover. This impressive six-tome reprint was undoubtedly tied to Marvel securing the rights to Fu Manchu, but the point stands that Danny did not get an equivalent high-profile push.
So there’s very little about Iron Fist that makes a compelling case that the fourth defender needs to be Danny Rand. Indeed, using the character of Shang-Chi would have skillfully defused a lot of the controversy around the show from both sides of the divide. Fans concerned about the appropriation of Asian culture would at least be given a prominent Asian character headlining a high-profile television show. Fans concerned with continuity and canon would avoid that whole viper’s nest of “… but Iron Fist is white in the comics!”
Of course, like almost every other creative decision made during the development of Iron Fist, the production team made a poor choice. They settled on Danny Rand. However, this problem was not fatal of itself. The production team could still make any number of creative decisions that would mitigate the cultural appropriation narrative. The most obvious decision, and the one advocated by a large number of journalists and critics, would be to reinvent Danny Rand as an Asian American character.
After all, adaptations had made similar alterations to characters before. If the real-life Asian Americans who inspired 21 could be reimagined as white people, surely a white character could be reimagined as an Asian American? Marvel certainly has form on this point. Daredevil cast Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin, a character who had always been white in the comics. Claire Temple was white in the comics, and is played by Rosario Dawson. Even Iron Fist recast the usually white Colleen Wing as Jessica Henwick.
Comic books themselves have become increasingly aware of the fact that characters created in the forties and sixties do not reflect contemporary America. So Marvel has turned many of these characters into legacy heroes. Jane Foster took over from the Odinson as the Mighty Thor. Miles Morales is a spiritual successor to Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Sam Wilson inherited the title of Captain America from Steve Rogers. Riri Williams replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man. Roberto Reyes is a new Ghost Rider.
Of course, these are all explained within the framework of comic book continuity. In theory, so is the African American version of Nick Fury from The Ultimates, although it is probably best not to worry too much about how it makes sense in terms of continuity that character’s race can change between dimensions without altering their role or fundamental identity. However, the simple truth is that film and television adaptations of these characters are largely starting from scratch, and so there’s little need for the insulation provided by legacy.
After all, movie-goers don’t care that the version of Nick Fury who first appeared in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos in May 1963 was a white guy who apparently looked surprisingly like David Hasselhoff. To most people, the name “Nick Fury” conjures up images of Samuel L. Jackson, to the point that there’s entire extended joke in xXx 3 that all characters played by Samuel L. Jackson might secretly be Nick Fury. This does no harm to the legacy of Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, nor does it devalue the original comics. But it does make the Marvel Universe more vibrant.
There are those who would argue that none of this is relevant. That Danny Rand was created as a white character, and so he should remain a white character to remain true to the text. Roy Thomas, the character’s co-creator, seemed to suggest that attempts to recast Danny Rand were political correctness gone mad:
I have so little patience for some of the feelings that some people have. I mean, I understand where it’s coming from. You know, cultural appropriation, my god. It’s just an adventure story. Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.
He was a character for a comic book at a different time. It’s very easy to second-guess anything. You can argue about Tarzan, you can argue about almost any character who came up then is bound to be not quite PC by some later standard or other. Okay, so you can make some adjustments. If they wanted to kill off white Iron Fist and come up with one who wasn’t Caucasian, that wouldn’t have bothered me, but neither am I ashamed for having made up one who was. He wasn’t intended to stand for any race. He was just a man who was indoctrinated into a certain thing.
I just think some people have too much time on their hands, I guess. They have an infinite capacity for righteous indignation. By and large, that tends to be misplaced quite often because if you’re becoming all upset over things that are just stories, and if you don’t like it, instead of trying to change somebody else’s story, go out and make up your own character and do a good job of it. That’s just fine, but why waste time trying to run down other people’s characters simply because they weren’t created with your standards in mind?
The interview prompted Jessica Henwick (who has found herself in the middle of this debate) to cast some shade, tweeting, “Oriental is a term used to describe rugs, not people.”
Of course, the truth is that adaptations change all kinds of things about the source material. That is the art of adaptation. Translating a story from one medium (and one era) to another is an art rather than a science, and flaws with the adaptation should not be excused with an appeal to textual fidelity. This is something that most people have come to accept. After all, people seem to have embraced Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, despite the fact that he is not a hairy Canadian midget. Adaptation is change. Change or die.
After all, it’s not as if Iron Fist doesn’t make any number of other changes to the character of Danny Rand. His parents die in a plane crash instead of a mountain climb, perhaps a nod to the fact that modern audiences are more conscious of child endangerment in their origin stories. The Iron Fist is reconfigured to be a mortal enemy of the Hand in order to better integrate into the framework of The Defenders, despite the fact that Matt Murdock is also a mortal enemy of the hand. Danny also abandons his post as Iron Fist, evoking Orson Randall.
Those last two changes are arguably bigger changes than making Danny an Asian American. They are also much poorer choices. However, they tap into the idea that Danny Rand is a relatively low-tier superhero, and so perhaps has greater flexibility than most adaptations. As Joshua Rivera argues, it’s not as if most audience members have a preset image of Danny Rand to which the television show must adhere: