Taken in isolation, there isn’t anything particularly strange or wrong with a character like Iron Fist. He’s a C-list superhero who’s had some good costumes and bad costumes, moments of popularity and moments of obscurity, and a generic enough power/origin story that combines several other story beats like “poor rich dude” and “given knowledge by hidden experts.” Unfortunately for Iron Fist, he doesn’t exist in isolation. He exists in the larger context of the Marvel universe and the even larger context of comics and pop culture history. In that context, Iron Fist has problems. He’s a white dude who is so good at martial arts that he’s the chosen champion of a nation in Asia with more vaguely exotic magic than identities or names. He, a white dude with the power of “trust fund” and “being the protagonist by default,” is better at his vaguely defined martial arts than any of the thousands of literally magic people who invented it, perfected it and have practiced it daily for a millennium. Again, in isolation even that wouldn’t be that big a deal, but he exists in a fictional universe with a serious dearth of Asian characters.
Try to name a few Asian super heroes in the Marvel universe. If you grew up in the 90s you’re probably already thinking of Jubilee. Good, she’s a cool character. You might also be thinking of Psylocke and then already wondering if she counts because of the whole “white British lady’s brain shoved into a Japanese woman’s body” thing. If you’re a hardcore nerd you can probably rattle off some more of the D-listers like Shang Chi, Jimmy Woo, Karma, Sunfire, Sister Grim, Amadeus Cho… maybe even Jolt of the Thunderbolts? Yeah, a lot of fun characters. Ok, great. Now how many of them can a non-nerd name based on their movie appearances? How many are going to headline something set in the Marvel cinematic or television universe or are even expected to appear? How many are going to define an actor’s career? … Yeah, exactly. So Iron Fist, the white dude whose power is being better at secret vaguely Asian magic-punching than anyone in Asia gets a TV show but we can expect to see an Asian super hero in…. Marvel Phase 7?
On top of that, we have Dr Strange. Dr Strange is slightly higher up on the hero food chain than Iron Fist (let’s generously call him B-list). In fact, Iron Fist takes a lot of his “rich schmuck stumbles into exotic greatness” origin directly from Dr Strange’s template. Stephen Strange is a wealthy, accomplished, dickish surgeon who injures his hands and is forced to give up his calling. In a fit of desperation, he travels to a monastery in Tibet and is trained in magic by the Tibetan mystic known as The Ancient One. After hard work, he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful magician in the universe, and decides to use that power to fight bank robbers. Oh, and his hands get perfectly healed because why not? Pretty basic stuff, and falling into the same trap of orientalism we saw with Iron Fist. Stephen Strange, white drunk failure, is destined to be better at Tibetan magic than any Tibetan.
But Marvel had a plan! They wouldn’t allow themselves to be accused of stereotyping Asian cultures or people. The Ancient One, generic ‘exotic mystic’ archetype, would be played by a woman! What progressive casting. Except… She was a white woman who was still playing a character who lives in Asia running an mystic monastery. So now instead of subverting any expectations we simply have a story where TWO white people get to be better at a culture than anyone belonging to the actual culture.
To be fair, nothing in the Ancient One’s appearances in comics has EVER been authentically Tibetan. Both the “magic Eastern magic” of Dr Strange and the “magic Eastern Kung fu city” of Iron Fist are based on reductive stereotypes. Asian actors are already pigeonholed into roles like those, so should we really be upset that Disney/Marvel is electing not to throw more generic stereotypes onto the pop culture pile? Isn’t Marvel trapped in a position where they either get grief for not casting an Asian actor or get grief for contributing to racist stereotypes?
The problem with that line of argument is that it presumes representation is an either/or proposition. The premise that you can ONLY have Iron Fist be a “mystic martial artist” of a racist variety if he’s played by an Asian actor, or that the Ancient One HAS to be a generic stereotype stock character, is faulty to begin with. It also presumes that you can only cast Asian actors in stereotyped roles. “Well, it’s either the wizened Tibetan mystic or nothing, sorry” isn’t a great argument, and yet I keep seeing nerds and nerd reporters uncritically repeating it. For another thing, it takes the movies in isolation from each other, when in fact, they are part of a much larger pattern of Marvel media. The great innovation the Marvel Method brought to pop culture was an interconnected fictional world on a scale never before heard of. If the Marvel cinematic/television universe had actual diversity, no one would bat an eye at the current Iron Fist or Dr Strange issues. But as already noted, this version of the Marvel universe is incredibly white. Asian people are just one of the many groups not represented by heroes of this world. In this larger context, the fact that Asian actors can’t even get to play such stereotypical roles doesn’t look like a blessing, it looks like another example of an entire group of people being shoved aside. This is only looking at it through the lens of one specific fictional universe of one company too. It gets even worse when we look at it in the larger context of American movies where any Asian character deemed “cool enough” gets cast as Scarlet Johansson. We steal Aang, Goku and others for our own, without even the pretense of reciprocation.
White characters in nerd media get to be anything they want. If a white boy wants to be the King of the African Jungle, then of course he can, it’s part of a grand tradition. If a white girl wants to dress “like a geisha” and be the best ninja ever, then its her right. How dare anyone suggest that such character types be reserved for any one group of people, isn’t that racism? Yet the presense of one black actor as a Norse God sends certain white people into pangs of existential horror. White Iron Fists and Ancient Ones are normal, expected to be uncontroversial even, yet mere discussion of Black James Bonds or Asian Dr Stranges are met with fury. Why is it so easy for us to conceive of a story about a white dude being the best at anything, yet not the inverse? Why do we never see the Iron Fist archetype as, say, a wealthy Vietnamese dilettante getting lost and stumbling upon a secret city of Roman descendants who practice a magic-infused version of cestus boxing? Or a Tarzan archetype story where Jane is a woman from Mali who finds an wild-man who had been lost in Alaska as a child and raised by bears, battling and surpassing the superstitious white villagers, and whom she must help adapt to the modern urban center of Timbuktu? Or the heir to the last great viking poet-king turn out to be from China? Why is a white Japanese cyborg normal but a black Batman not even suggested?
As far as we have come, too many of us white people still want to simultaneously have access to every space while angrily guarding our own. One “white space” is opened and we rant about “creeping PC culture” and “authenticity” but we throw our generic white trust fund protagonists into other cultures en masse and respond to their complaints with “its not serious, why do you want to keep people out! It’s a compliment! We’re saving you from stereotypes!” If you go by what the loudest white nerds scream, white identity is marked by a terrifying cross of fragility and entitlement. Luckily for white people everywhere, we’re actually not as fragile as we allow our worst nerds and studio executives to tell us we are. Whitewashed movies like Gods of Egypt, Dragonball Evolution, Last Airbender, etc have all bombed. Bombed HARD. Marvel is scrambling to damage control with Dr Strange so hard right now because they KNOW that even white people avoid these movies. Yet conversely, movies with diverse casts do well. Look at how white men came out to see The Force Awakens in huge numbers despite the presence of a woman and a black man as central characters. Studios insist that only white actors are bankable and yet all measurable evidence points to the contrary. The truth is, white people, like all people, like seeing many different kinds of characters on the big screen, and are fully capable of seeing themselves in the actions and emotions of people who are not like them on the surface. So why have we allowed inept, racist studios and their useful racist nerd fans to dictate the idea that white people are by definition fragile, xenophobic and petty? Why do we allow “whiteness” to be defined by a group of us who thinks so little of ourselves? Why do we ignore the simple economic reality that, even if they weren’t morally justified goals, diversity and representation sell?
The other problem with the “either/or, damned if they do” argument is that it presumes that a Dr Strange movie or an Iron Fist tv show NEED to exist. Despite what some nerds might think, none of the current new Marvel movie franchisees are based on popular enough characters to exist for their own sake. Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy knew this, and worked hard to justify why they deserved to exist. Audiences didn’t care that these versions differed from the comic book versions in significant ways. The Daredevil TV series, despite being based on a character at least more popular and known than Ant Man, still had to actually justify its purpose as part of Marvel’s larger narrative and themes, as well as demonstrate it had value and appeal to audiences on its own. So far, the Dr Strange movie has not tried to show us it has anything to it other than “hey here’s that one character you might know.” Corporate properties are rarely successful if they can’t justify their existence beyond “hey we own this thing, go see it.” This is why Avengers originally found huge success in focusing on strong character-focused drama, giving audiences a reason to care about what had previously been one of Marvel’s more aimless main properties (and the reason Fox and Sony had originally jumped on X-Men and Spiderman instead of any Avengers). On the flip side, not even the presence of beloved, near mythical icons like Batman and Superman could save the execrable and aimless Batman Vs Superman for very long and it has hemorrhaged ticket sales following its opening weekend. This is why the Jem and the Holograms movie tanked while the comic reboot is such a fan favorite. People will only reliably pay money to see media that justifies itself to the audience.
Marvel now insists that their movie version of the Ancient One is “Celtic” and therefore the casting choice is not erasing anyone, and yet the character still lives in Asia (now Nepal to avoid angering the lucrative Chinese market) and runs a Magic Eastern Monastery(tm). Why not move the location to Ireland? Or somewhere else in Europe? It would make more sense for that interpretation, and there is no shortage to wonderful stories of magic traditions to draw from. Hell, if you are so desperate for a story of someone from another culture being drawn into a world of old magic, why not then cast an Asian actor as Dr Strange? The amount of people who would go see a Dr Strange movie simply because it was a Dr Strange movie is negligible. The amount of people who would go to see a character-driven story that justified its existence, combined with the amount of people who would go to see a character like themselves represented in a movie, is significantly more than that. On the other hand, they could have just as easily kept the original Ancient One backstory and just put thought into it. There’s no reason Dr Strange AND his mentor can’t both be not-white, if you really want to move away from the orientalism of the original comic. There is not shortage of Asian actresses that could have played the Ancient one and allowed Marvel to retain their “subversive” casting plans without whitewashing the film, and no shortage of Asian actors and actresses to play Strange or any number of other Marvel characters across any number of genres and backgrounds. How could Marvel have solved the Ancient One or Iron Fist problems? A better question would be, of the near countless ways, which would have been the most interesting? That is a larger discussion, and I wish Marvel/Disney had enough respect for their audience to ask it.