The announcement that Marvel and Netflix had cast white actor Finn Jones in the role of Danny Rand a.k.a. Iron Fist for the forthcoming Netflix series marked a disappointing end to a campaign championed by fans of the Marvel Comics character as well as industry professionals, in which they argued that Marvel should cast an Asian-American actor in the role.
While the original character of Danny Rand is white, proponents have pointed out that the casting for the Netflix show is an opportunity to add diversity to the Defenders lineup and the Marvel Cinematic Universe overall, as well as sidestep concerns regarding cultural appropriation. The call for Netflix and Marvel to cast an actor of Asian descent began with fan petitions, becoming a Twitter hashtag and inspiring online thinkpieces before being picked up by mainstream media outlets. In response, Marvel reportedly met with Asian-American actors when casting the role.
Danny Rand, known as Iron Fist, first debuted in the 1970s in the wake of a kung-fu movie craze. In the comics, Danny Rand’s father discovers the otherworldly Asian city of K’un-L’un and brings his son there to train in martial arts. Danny grows up, fights the dragon Shou-Lao, and earns a dragon tattoo (burned onto his chest) that grants him the power of the “iron fist”—the ability to harness his chi and make his fists unbreakable when attacking. In December 2015, Comics Alliance published an extensive commentary into the issues surrounding the canonical Danny Rand, centering on this white savior’s appropriation of Asian culture:
It’s a standard example of the white savior trope, commonly associated with movies Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even The Help, in which a white visitor becomes the only one who can save a culture that’s framed as ‘less civilized’, while he or she also learns valuable lessons from the uncorrupted spirituality of the people. These stories treat non-white or non-Western cultures as exotic playgrounds for the improvement of white people, and they assuage white colonial guilt by turning indigenous cultures into grateful beneficiaries of Western ‘discovery’, while also reducing the people in those cultures to props.
In March 2014, more than a year before the series premieres of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Keith Chow of The Nerds of Color created the hashtag #AAIronFist to make the case for casting an Asian-American actor as Danny. His petition was met with resistance from readers who believed that race-bending Danny would take away the central tenets of his story, namely his outsider status in K’un-L’un. What detractors hadn’t considered, Chow pointed out, is that Danny being Asian-American wouldn’t make him any less of an outsider:
First, let’s get a couple of misconceptions out of the way. My call for an Asian American Iron Fist is not meant to displace Danny Rand from the story. It is, in fact, the opposite. In my mind, casting a young Asian American in the lead role does nothing to change his classic origin: He can still be the son of a wealthy businessman. He can still accompany his family on an expedition to seek out K’un L’un. He can still train under Lei Kung, the Thunderer. He can still seek revenge against the man who killed his father. Danny being Asian American precludes none of these things.
He addressed the issue again in an interview with MTV News:
I think a lot of people tend to fall back on the idea that Danny is an outsider and the people of K’un L’un don’t accept him readily, and as an Asian American person I’m like, that doesn’t mean you have to be white for that to happen. Plenty of Asian American people who grew up in America, if they were to stumble into this mystical Asian city, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be accepted right away either.
Chow’s request received a signal boost in the form of a petition on 18 Million Rising (currently with over 3,800 signatures) and a partnership with The MCU Exchange. The latter site framed commentary around the series as “Fixing Marvel’s Iron Fist” and nominated a number of Asian-American actors for the part, including martial artist and actor Cole Horibe and The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun.
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) November 26, 2015
Let me be blunt: I won’t watch Iron Fist if they cast a white dude. I can’t do it anymore. I’ve reached my limit. Peace out. #AAIronFist
— Marjorie Liu (@marjoriemliu) December 11, 2015
With Marvel directors and comic book writers like Lexi Alexander and Marjorie Liu throwing their support behind #AAIronFist, the petition got picked up by mainstream entertainment news outlets in late 2015. The Hollywood Reporter claimed, via sources, that Marvel had auditioned Asian-American actors for the part; hopes were briefly buoyed by a leaked casting call that didn’t specify the ethnicity of the presumed lead. Unfortunately, those same THR sources then reported that Marvel was “now leaning toward keeping Iron Fist white.” That was in December 2015, and yesterday’s news confirms Marvel’s decision.
Within hours of the news of Jones’ casting, the backlash was immediate: “Iron Fist” began trending on Twitter, with over 12,000 tweets; even more people than before called out Marvel using #AAIronFist.
— Devon Wong (@VignetteProject) February 25, 2016
— Carrie Tupper (@mermaidshells) February 25, 2016
Marvel could have been the first: Luke Cage, black lead, Jessica Jones, female lead Iron Fist – Asian lead… but they didn’t #AAIronfist
— Laura S (@lsirikul) February 25, 2016
Neither Marvel nor Netflix has commented on the casting decision.