Danny Rand and Race in Comics and Their Movies

Daredevil Season 2 just dropped last week and currently has a 97% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.  At the same time, Marvel Netflix released a teaser for the upcoming Luke Cage solo series of the fan-favorite supporting character in Netflix’s previous breakout hit, Jessica Jones.  Marvel and Netflix have been absolutely killing it with their smaller, street-level stories.  The Marvel writers are able to really delve into these complex characters over the 13 hours for a season, which is impossible in a feature length movie.  

The next comic in line to be adapted will be Iron Fist, and the show is already creating a stir, albeit for a very different reason.

Netflix and Marvel have officially announced their casting choice for Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist) as Finn Jones, a Caucasian.  Jones is best known for his portrayal of Ser Loras Tyrell in the wildly successful HBO series, Game of Thrones.  Some on social media are outraged over the casting of Jones instead of an Asian-American actor.  Putting aside the fact that Danny Rand has always been Caucasian in the comics, let’s take a look at the character to determine if there is anything to the controversy.

Comic books in the 60’s and 70’s tended to portray Asians as villains or sidekicks and more often than not, offensive stereotypes.  America had just finished fighting the Japanese in WWII and were currently fighting in Korea and Vietnam.  Racism against Asians was at a critical point in American culture.  Comic books and other media reflected the general racism of the time, and even though Marvel was more diverse than most publishers, they still had many of these offensive characters.  There was also a trend for white characters to be portrayed as saviors for Asian cultures.  Iron Fist was a textbook example of this outdated narrative trope.  

Iron Fist was Marvel’s answer to the martial-arts movie craze of the mid-seventies.  His secret identity is Danny Rand, the son of a wealthy corporation owner named Wendell Rand.  As a young boy, he discovered a mystical city called K’un L’un and was given  powers by battling a magical dragon.  When the character was no longer popular enough to sustain his own series, he was paired with another struggling character: Luke Cage.  Cage was the answer to the 1970’s Blaxploitation genre.  Together, they became known as the Heroes for Hire and successfully merged two racial countercultures into a compelling book.

The series was more light hearted and character driven with fewer fight scenes, but it was able to insert more topical cultural commentary about race and politics. The inclusion of these themes endeared the team to the African and Asian-American comic book readers.  Many of those readers were feeling the daily effects of the institutional racism of the time and found a sympathetic voice in the Heroes for Hire books.  

After the announcement of the Netflix partnership with Marvel to make a Luke Cage and Iron Fist series, many who had enjoyed the story took to social media with their encouragement and opinions.  One of the most frequent opinions was the request to cast an Asian-American in the role of Danny Rand.  After twelve movies and four TV shows, the Marvel Cinematic Universe still hasn’t cast an Asian-American in a major role; altogether, there have only been two Asian-American actors in minor roles, with around two lines of spoken dialogue each.  It is easy to see why there is a lot more to the Danny Rand outcry when you consider the context.

There was also a similar outcry when Tom Holland was cast as Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Marvel only just bought back the rights for Spider-Man and the characters surrounding him last year, and the media buzz around his appearance in Captain America: Civil War has only fanned that flame.  Although most are happy that Peter Parker is getting the true Marvel treatment, many on social media feel that Peter Parker had his chance and that Hollywood should allow Miles Morales a shot.  Morales is the second Spider-Man in the Ultimate Marvel Universe and also African-American.  He became a breakout hit in the comics and even made it into the Spider-Man cartoons.   It is hard to argue with these requests considering the last three Spider-Man movies. There was even a very popular Twitter hashtag campaign to see Donald Glover cast as Miles.  Marvel has since addressed the issue and said that they seriously considered Miles as the new Spider-Man and, in fact, plan to add him to the universe later, but felt that Peter Parker should be given a shot under the Marvel banner.  

What do you think?