Behold, The Iron Fist...Yeah, the white guy.
One thing that I have loved about every one of Marvel’s slate of Netflix shows is their opening scenes. Daredevil opens with the accident that would define Matt Murdock’s life and then transitions into the dark of the confessional booth. Jessica Jones pulls us in by letting us see the world through her camera lens. It sets up the way she deals with most of her city now; at a distance. Because if you get too close, things get rough. Just ask the guy she throws through her own door in the next scene. Luke Cage starts us off with, arguably, the deepest sense of place and culture. Pop’s Barbershop is full, hopping, and discussions about basketball and the dominance of King James are a bedrock of the day to day. The one thing that all of these opening scenes have in common, is that they communicate place, space, and character in such easy and effective ways.
When I fired up the Roku to start Iron Fist, I was waiting for that moment, and I got it. Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” starts up as the perfect song to bring us in. The image of the old school iPod, this shoeless hippy, happy and bouncing down the Streets of New York; this is how I had always kind of imagined the Danny Rand of the comics. He’s the joking guy, the not wanting to take things too serious half of Power Man & Iron Fist. Much of the discussion about this series after Danny Rand was cast was about why we needed to have another white guy in this role. Why did we need to keep perpetuating this white savior narrative in 2017. And for the most part, I agreed with all of those criticisms. But in that opening moment of the actual show, as I got that first fix of what I was looking for, I hoped, I pleaded, that maybe they were going to pull this off. Maybe it was going to deliver the way Fraction or Andrews had done in their comic runs or the way David Walker was doing right now in his own Power Man & Iron Fist.
That moment had grabbed me. It still does a bit and it worked as a great book end to the final image of that episode, that same song, that same iPod, but now half buried in a snow bank. But as far as positives go, that’s all I’ve really got. I finished the whole season this morning. Like the other shows, it took me a little bit longer than normal to finish out the last four episodes. For shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, it was because I didn’t want them to end. I wanted to savor those last moments because I knew how long I would have to wait for more. For Iron Fist, it was because I had to force myself to keep going.
At only 13 episodes, I often found myself looking to see what episode I was on and being shocked it was just episode 4. Universally, all of these episodes feel 2 to 3 hours long. And yet, I don’t remember what really happens in them, how they deal with different characters or subplots. The fight scenes all felt slow, clunky, and lifeless. The prison fight scene involving The Punisher from Daredevil’s second season still haunts me a bit. It is brutal, chilling, and tells us, the viewer, so much about the type of monster Frank Castle has become. What should have been the pinnacle of Kung Fu fight scenes, when Danny takes on a Game of Death style challenge against The Hand, fighting through tiers of their most deadly fighters, becomes one part male gaze tantalizing femme fatale T&A, mixed with one part what I would imagine I look like trying to do Kung Fu. Other people have already addressed these issues though, and much better than I could. My biggest concern with Iron Fist though, is that nagging discussion of the white savior narrative.
Having watched the whole series, you could not have cast anyone buy a straight white guy in this role. Not because it is the best choice, not because it stays true to the comic, but because none of the stuff this guy does would work without his greatest superpower, white male privilege. Screw having an iron fist, that skin color is all the power he needs to get what he wants.
From the moment that Danny first walks into Rand Enterprises and tells people he is this kid they all thought was dead and that they need to just let him in, he gets away with doing all kinds of crazy stuff. He brakes into the building, and then one woman’s office, then her house, then another woman’s dojo. One of the truest pieces of dialogue to come out of this show is after he breaks into Joy’s apartment (a childhood friend and now one of the people running his dad’s corporation), she tells her brother about the break in and he suggests that they call the cops immediately. Her response: “No, it won’t do any good.” Which is true, because Danny is a white guy. The cops wouldn’t do anything and the onus of the issue would all be placed on Joy.
For all of his persistent breaking in and harassing women who have told him to leave them alone, Danny ends up in a mental institution. Look, if Luke Cage had tried any of this jiggery pokery, he would be extra thankful he has bulletproof skin. Because that is one of the great powers of being white, you get labeled as crazy or quirky when you do super creepy shit. When you aren’t white, you just get shot.
Even after getting out of the psych ward and convincing Joy that he is who he says he is, Danny still uses his favorite move to impress women, the old violate personal space and boundaries. Chicks dig this. You essentially just wear them down to the point of exhaustion and near break down, then leave some flowers, incense, and oranges on their front door so when they get home you can be there to surprise them. For added effect, put on a fedora and remind them #notallmen.
But let’s not forget, not only is Danny a white dude, just a few episodes in, he becomes a “rich” white dude. Not only can he keep stalking women and force his affections on them, he can now do it rich guy style. And shit, maybe in a few years he can run for president on the back of being horrible and creepy to women. Because he’s a rich white dude, we will not care.
Since his go to move obviously worked on Joy, Danny then decides to use it on Colleen. She runs a dojo and trains troubled youth. But, not as good as if she knew Kung Fu and let Danny teach there. He is nice enough to mansplain all of this to her in both English and Mandarine. Because trouble tends to follow Danny all around, Colleen wants nothing to do with him and tells him bluntly to never come back to her dojo. What? How could she? Doesn’t she realize he is white, rich, oh, and he is the white guy to save all the Asians like you, Colleen. Maybe a creepy, rich guy, romantic gesture will change your mind.
Once again ignoring those arbitrary boundaries women set up, Danny shows up at Colleen’s dojo to offer her free rent in exchange for her help. When she reiterates she doesn’t want this creepy guy paying for her or talking to her landlord, he cheerfully informs her that he bought her building and can decide on that rent price, because he is her new fedora wearing landlord. Yes, the creepy undertone here is that if she doesn’t move him out of the friend zone - I mean, he really is a nice guy, and if she just gave him a chance, and #notallmen - he is going to what, raise her rent, evict her?
And that really is the huge issue here. If any of these scenes or scenarios were played out with an Asian lead, people would be repulsed by the behavior, as they well should be. But with a white lead, most people just shrug it off like he had said he grabbed Joy by the pussy.
So, what would have happened if they had cast John Cho, Steven Yeun, B.D. Wong, or Iko Uwais? We would have taken a first major step towards eliminating these ridiculous, damaging, and hugely problematic white savior narratives. Tom Cruise isn’t the Last Samurai, and Steven Seagal isn’t the Asian Connection. But also, we would have had a show that wasn’t so terrible, a plot that wasn’t so thin, and a character arc that isn’t wholly dependent on being white to get by.
I have always predicted that Marvel would eventually have a flop of some sort. I always thought that at its core, that flop would come because of the Marvel Universe’s need for continuity. That eventually we would reach a critical point where you had to have watched so many movies and shows that you couldn’t just jump in. I was wrong on that point. The flop comes because it just isn’t good, and we just aren’t interested. We don’t want to watch some creepy Trump kids being the hero while climbing into our sister’s apartment uninvited. We want a story that makes sense, that has weight. And yeah, I think we all want John Cho to be the real Iron Fist.