Earlier today, Entertainment Weekly reported that Finn Jones, known as Ser Loras Tyrell in HBO's Game of Thrones, has been cast as Iron Fist for Netflix's Marvel series. This report is not confirmed yet, but Entertainment Weekly has a solid track record, enough so that The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline have jumped on board with the story. All we're missing is Marvel's own press release.
Who is Iron Fist? Our hero is Daniel Rand, a rich guy who's the current inheritor of the Iron Fist mantle. That mantle is given to the champion of K'un L'un, one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. His job is to be a good guy and protect the innocent, but also to represent K'un L"un in the Tournament of the Seven Cities. His powers? A extensive knowledge of kung-fu and the ability to use his Chi to turn his fist "into a thing like iron," hence the name. That's it.
Finn Jones looks the part to a certain degree, even if I wish his hair was a bit blonder and straighter. More important is his ability to actually do some kung-fu and his onscreen chemistry with Mike Colter, who plays Luke Cage. Luke and Danny are best friends in the Marvel Universe, the result of being forced together via editorial remit some time after their creation. I have no issues with Jones' casting and he'll probably do a fine job as Rand.
The Asian Guy That Knows Kung Fu?
What I do want to tackle is other folks who wished that Marvel and Netflix had cast an Asian-American actor in the role of Danny Rand. Their contention is that Marvel is rather low on the number of visible Asian-American heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that Iron Fist's unfortunate origin reeks of colonialism and the Mighty Whitey stereotype. The idea behind that trope is a white male character heads to some foreign exotic place, becomes the best at whatever that local culture does, and then leads them forward. It was pretty common in older literature because for a long time, main characters were all white men.
I can't argue with the first contention. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD does feature two original Asian-American heroes: Daisy "Skye" Johnson and Melinda May. Outside of that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty lax in that regard. I also don't see Marvel tackling some of the other major Asian heroes anytime soon.
Expert martial artist Shang Chi, Special Agent Jimmy Woo of the Agents of Atlas, and Jolt from the Thunderbolts aren't going to be getting movies or Netflix series probably. Shang Chi mines the same ground as Iron Fist would, Agents of Atlas covers the same territory as Agents of SHIELD, and Thunderbolts doesn't have enough history behind it yet. Hulk supporting cast member and current Hulk Amadeus Cho isn't old enough; his mother was introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the actress is pushing the boundaries of being able to have a teenage son.
The second contention is true on the surface. Danny Rand, like his immediate predecessor, is a white guy who goes to a mostly-Asian mystical city, rises to the top in training, and ultimately becomes that city's champion. People should note however, that Danny Rand is horribly bad at the job, as was his white predecessor. He knows little of his heritage or history, he's generally taken as worse than Shang Chi in martial arts, and as an Immortal Champion of one of the Seven Cities, he's far out of his depth.
What's really being felt here is the opportunity to add a new Asian-American hero to the fold, because to be honest, there are only so many projects Marvel is willing to put on the stove. They aren't doing Shang Chi and they probably won't do Shang Chi anytime soon, so this is the best shot that many feel they have. It's the same as getting the chance to do Ghost Rider and doing either the Johnny Blaze or Dan Ketch versions, instead of the Latino Ghost Riders, Alejandra or Robbie Reyes. It represents a shot at adding a great Latino hero to the slate and not taking it. If Marvel was a bit more open with the characters they chose to adapt, this would be less of an issue, but it seems they're mostly moving down a priority list.
You do run into the issue of your only Asian-American hero being the guy who knows kung-fu, but many are willing to trade that for the opportunity, which really should bring home how many people would like more representation of themselves onscreen. As Daniel Wu, the star of AMC's Into the Badlands stated in an interview:
"I grew up with 16 Candles, Long Duk Dong, that shit. That character, for our generation, pretty much sealed the idea for a lot of Americans that all Asian people are like that," explained Wu. "I knew from growing up that they wouldn't put my kind of people onscreen. There were no decent roles for Asians, much less Asian males. Even when Jackie Chan broke through over here and people fell in love with him, they weren't really seeing him as this iconic, superstar actor-they were seeing him as this cute, funny oriental dude who spoke broken English and did acrobatic tricks. As an Asian American male, what they were in love with is everything you hate, you know?"
The need and desire is that strong.
Does Iron Fist's Race Matter?
On the opposing side, there are those who say "Danny Rand is white" as if that's an inviolate facet of the character. We're already starting from the idea that this is indeed an adaptation, and if you really look at the current Marvel adaptations, we're talking about really rough outlines for each character, aiming for the spirit more than the details. Whatever Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are in Age of Ultron, what's undeniable is how little they have to do with their comic counterparts.
The Scarlet Witch in the comics is a creation of the High Evolutionary (yes, this is new backstory, but it's the current one), who gained the ability to create hex bolts that change probability. This was later expanded into the ability to tap into chaos magic, making her a rather strong magician. It gets to the point that she even rewrites the world twice, once in House of M and again at the end of Avengers vs. X-Men. The movie version has rough mind control powers given to her by experiments with an Infinity Gem and the ability to make things explode. She wears a red jacket occasionally!
What about someone with some more visibility? Thor is the Asgardian God of Thunder. Thor's father decides his son needs to be taught humility, so he strips him of Mjolnir, messes with his memories, and traps him in the body of disabled medical student Donald Blake. When Blake hits his walking stick against something really hard, it's revealed as a mystically-hidden Mjolnir, turning him into Thor. Blake and Thor's dual love interest is fellow medical student Jane Foster. That's Thor's origin, one that doesn't match up in any facet with the Marvel Cinematic version, especially with that universe's Asgard being more "advanced technology looking like magic" than straight up magic.
And that's just Marvel. Oliver Queen in Arrow bears little resemblance to the Green Arrow. Barry Allen in the Flash is much cooler than the stoic Barry Allen in the comics. iZombie, also based on a comic, has gone in a completely different direction entirely.
I can do this all day, because for the most part, the characters you see on television and movie screens are more true to the spirit of the original characters than the letter. Because when you dig down into any character, there's only a few things needed to really hit that spirit and for many characters, their race isn't one of those things. Steve Rogers, for example, has to be white given his World War II origins and the use of Captain America as propaganda. Change him to an African-American or Hispanic man and the story of Captain America takes a sharp divergence. In contrast, Peter Parker, taken as a modern day high schooler from Queens can be literally any race. It really doesn't matter to the struggle that builds Spider-Man.
This works both ways, of course. Luke Cage, for example, does not have to be black. I feel he's probably the strongest black hero for urban Black Americans, what with him going to jail for a crime he did not commit, gaining bulletproof skin in the process, and being unwilling to hide who he is. But nothing in Luke Cage's background requires him to be black to reach the same character beats. Changing him, like I stated above, is more about the loss of opportunity for a black hero.
Likewise, Danny Rand's origin as Iron Fist only requires him to be an outsider from K'un L'un. He simply has to stand out in their culture, to lack their customs. You can achieve that point as an Asian-American, African-American, Latino, or any other race. For the people of K'un L'un the important part is that Danny Rand is the Outworlder and even that's only obliquely touched upon in the comics themselves. His nemesis Davos is angry that a non-resident of K'un L'un takes the spot, not that Danny is white. Everything else in his origin is a story of revenge or discovery, one that doesn't particularly rely on his skin color. (It probably doesn't help, that Davos - who is from K'un L'un - was straight up portrayed as a white guy in early Iron Fist comics.)
So, I'm down for Finn Jones as Danny Rand, the Iron Fist. Game of Thrones didn't give him room to spread his wings, but perhaps he has hidden depths I haven't seen. But I also would've been fine with an Asian-American Danny Rand, because when I take a look at my favorite Marvel and DC comic heroes on television and film, I find a whole host of characters that are true to the spirit of the character, not the details from the comics. And I'm fine with that.