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Netflix's 'Iron Fist' Stumbles In Depiction Of Asian Culture

Mar 17, 2017
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And then there were four. Netflix today debuts its fourth superhero series with Marvel Television. It's a show about a superhuman martial artist called "Iron Fist." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the new show has forced him to confront an uncomfortable truth about superhero stories and race.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: My name is Eric, and I'm a superhero-aholic (ph). Yes, I actually paid to download the awful "Batman v Superman" movie, and I still watch "The Flash" and "Supergirl" on the CW Network. Don't judge. But nothing has made me more ashamed of my love for superhero TV shows and movies than "Iron Fist." Judging by the first six episodes made available to critics, Netflix's new series is a troubling translation in part because of how it minimizes Asian people and Asian culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREVOR MORRIS SONG, "IRON FIST MAIN TITLES")

DEGGANS: On the surface, Marvel's "Iron Fist" is a clunky story about a rich kid who goes missing when his plane crashes in Asia. He returns to New York as a martial arts master with the ability to summon great power through his hand, the iron fist. But first he's got to convince the receptionist at his dad's corporation that he's that long-lost kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON FIST")

FINN JONES: (As Danny Rand) I'm Danny Rand, son of Wendell Rand. I've been away a long time.

MAAMEYAA BOAFO: (As receptionist) And you're here to see Harold Meachum.

JONES: (As Danny Rand) Yeah.

BOAFO: (As receptionist) One minute, please.

JONES: (As Danny Rand) I used to ride my skateboard around here.

DEGGANS: As bad as "Iron Fist" is in plot and pacing and acting, star Finn Jones is seriously overmatched here. One of the most troubling things about "Iron Fist" is that Danny Rand is the classic white savior. These are white characters, usually male, often misfits who find their true calling by coming to an environment filled with people of color and leading them.

In "Iron Fist," Rand trained in a hidden city with Buddhist monks and becomes their greatest warrior. While he saves the day with fighting styles birthed in Asian culture, Asian actors play as mentors, a love interest, sidekicks and villains. And this isn't the only superhero story to make this misstep.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOST IN THE SHELL")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Major) This is Major. I'm on site. I'm going in.

DEGGANS: Major is a part-human, part-android hero played by Scarlett Johansson in her upcoming film "Ghost In The Shell." But the character was originally Japanese, created in a Japanese comic. Some fans were so upset an Asian actor wasn't cast as Major they co-opted a recent social media campaign for the movie to complain in memes.

The problem isn't just that Asian actors already get so few roles; they don't need white actors taking more of them. Though that is certainly true. It's also because such casting allows films and TV shows to make Asian people background props in their own stories, gilding productions with elements of Asian culture without giving any real agency to Asian people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

TILDA SWINTON: (As The Ancient One) Doctor Strange, you think you know how the world works.

DEGGANS: That's a white actress, Tilda Swinton, playing mystical mentor The Ancient One in Marvel's "Doctor Strange" movie. The character's from a city in the Himalayas in the comic books. And rather than cast a person of color in such a stereotypical role, they cast Swinton. But by trying to avoid stereotypes, the film also disappears an Asian role from a film filled with Asian mysticism which takes place largely near Nepal. One more white savior is born.

Turning back to Netflix's take on "Iron Fist," it's worth noting the original comic book character is also white, so Marvel and Netflix may have been torn between presenting the character as fans know him or subverting the white-savior trope with different casting. But as a fan of superheroes who knows how racial issues affect media, I've realized I can't enjoy these new stories until they fully step away from old stereotypes. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.