Following Marvel’s first Netflix failure with Iron Fist, critics have certainly found much to complain about. Many have complained about the choice to cast a white actor in place of an Asian one, an unsurprising complaint. However, the topic is a touchy one, as it generally is with issues surrounding race. Critics and viewers have complained that the creators of the show failed to take advantage of the opportunity to cast an Asian Iron Fist, in direct opposition to the actual source material in which his character is white. Some have stated that an Asian actor would have been better suited to the role, and would have provided a modern twist to the dated storyline. This begs the question: how loyal should an adaptation be to its source?
When observing adaptations of texts that have been done to death (such as Shakespeare), it’s much more likely, acceptable and expected for creators and producers to put their own spin on things. However, when it comes to more modern source material, the road ahead is unpaved and uncertain, placing a heavy load on the producer to please everyone: an impossible task from the onset.
In some respects, Iron Fist’s conception in the 70s has undoubtedly given it a skewed and whitewashed view of the East. In typical colonial fashion, Wendell Rand, the protagonist’s father, saves, then inherits, the mystical Asian city of K’un-L’un. His son, Daniel, then goes on to become one of their most talented warriors. It’s the kind of orientalist story that screams white supremacy, just like Avatar did in 2009, which is why the criticism it has received has genuine backing. This was the producers’ chance to revitalise and modernise Iron Fist from its problematic storyline.
This was the producers’ chance to revitalise and modernise Iron Fist from its problematic storyline.
On the other hand, as far as die-hard Marvel fans go, source material is everything, which isn’t problematic in itself, as fans of books that have gone on to be adapted visually may already know. However, in an interview with co-creator of the show, Roy Thomas, the controversy surrounding casting becomes all the more plausible. Thomas told the The Inverse that he wasn’t ashamed that the character of Iron Fist was created white (rightfully so, there is nothing shameful about loyalty to the original source) but revealed his true insensitivity towards the issue when he argued that the story is ‘all about a fictitious race, a fictitious place…and one person who happens to be its emissary. There’s no reason why he can’t be Caucasian.’ Thomas also went onto call Asians ‘Orientals,’ which he hurriedly acknowledged as wrong but not before he had shown his problematic opinion on the issue. In addition, there is a reason he shouldn’t be Caucasian and it’s called Orientalism, which ties into Thomas’ argument about it being fictitious. If Edward Said is anything to go by, stories are very powerful tools and are effective in distorting the audience’s perceptions.
On the other hand, as far as die-hard Marvel fans go, source material is everything.
Nevertheless, as a first, full adaptation, Iron Fist deserves some slack. Staying true to source material is not a crime, especially when considering the fact that an Asian actress (Jessica Henwick) was cast to play Colleen Wing, who is Japanese but still happens to be portrayed with blue eyes and auburn hair. Henwick herself expressed joy that these conversations are happening. Indeed, even if contention surrounding loyalty towards the source continues to occur without a definitive conclusion, it is a reassuring sign that these issues are given the importance they deserve.