Iron Fist did not get off to the best start, locked into a cultural appropriation narrative before it even began.
The Neflix show was criticized for choosing to adapt a 1970s comic book that drew on Eastern culture while placing a Caucasian man as the lead, and then for not updating its concept to foreground Asian actors.
If this all sounds familiar, it is because it closely resembles the whitewashing controversy surrounding last year’s Doctor Strange.
Iron Fist dropped a few days ago, and reviews have been more lukewarm than Luke Cage.
Some say this is down to the privileged white lead “mansplaining” Asian culture to Asians, and that actor Finn Jones could have easily been replaced with Lewis Tan, an actor who steals one very fun scene.
— Lewis Tan (@TheLewisTan) January 25, 2017
The back-story is this: A man fresh from what looks like his gap year wanders through Manhattan barefoot. He enters some skyscraper offices claiming he owns the place, asks to speak to the company’s long-dead CEO, then fights security with Kung Fu.
This is Danny Rand (Finn Jones, who was Ser Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones) – the presumed dead billionaire heir to the Rand Corporation.
Fifteen years ago his private jet crashed in the Himalayas, killing his parents, but leaving him to be rescued by monks and trained in the mystic arts.
There he became the Iron Fist – a once-in-a-generation champion who can make his hand glow with chi and blow stuff up.
Why he’s abandoned his legendary warrior duty is down to an internal struggle that will clumsily unfold, often with Danny earnestly (and unconvincingly) explaining “chi” and “immortal weapons” to sneering New Yorkers.
We follow him from psych ward to boardroom while he disappears for days on end, undisguised, to save the world from The Hand (“like the Illuminati, but real”).
It’s enjoyable viewing, but the script is shamefully sloppy compared to sister shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Finn Jones does as much as he can, but is stuck with a role that alternates between bland nobility and bland torment.
So it’s hard to imagine how simply having an Asian instead of Caucasian Danny Rand could have saved Iron Fist.
When the show’s casting was announced, I was genuinely annoyed the tired “mighty whitey” lead wasn’t swapped. It would have taken very little effort to make Danny Rand the privileged heir to a corporation built by an American with Chinese heritage.
I admit, there is powerful stuff in Danny’s backstory about him being considered an “outsider” by fellow students at his monastery. The label of soft Westerner gave him a useful chip on his shoulder that caused him to strive harder and ultimately become the best of the best.
But this could have worked just as well if Rand were an American from a minority background, rediscovering his heritage.
But what is the use of any of that if the role isn’t worth playing in the first place, and the rest of the show is full of holes?
Had the creators made a different call for the sake of diversity, it’s hard to know that this wouldn’t have been blamed for the show’s failure, just as people are currently attacking white Danny Rand, when that isn’t the main fault.
Perhaps the negative responses to the show will bury the “mighty whitey” trope for good. But a non-white lead would have done nothing to save Iron Fist itself.