The critical pile-on of Iron Fist has officially reached comedy status. The fourth of Netflix’s Marvel shows (and the final lead-in to next year’s Defenders teamup) premieres today, and the reception to the first few episodes has not been kind. While that’s largely the fault of dull writing and plodding plotting, though, Iron Fist himself hasn’t been helping. From the moment that Netflix announced the casting of Finn Jones as the titular hero, there’s a been a steady drumbeat of complaints about a white guy playing the greatest martial artist in the world—a complaint that has only become louder as Jones has waded intro the fray, getting defensive on Twitter and suggesting that people are only complaining because Donald Trump is President.
To be fair, many comic book fans have come to the defense of Jones’ casting. Sure, they argue, it might be racially insensitive to have a white guy be Marvel’s best martial artist; and yeah, it’s another example of Marvel’s reliance on the “white savior” trope, one more troubling after last year’s Doctor Strange turned The Ancient One from an Asian to a Caucasian role. But, they insist, it’s canon, because Iron Fist was actually white.
That’s true: Danny Rand, the Iron Fist on the show, is indeed the primary Iron Fist in comic book continuity. But that doesn’t mean that Danny Rand is the only Iron Fist in Marvel’s comic book mythology. As early as his second comic book appearance (in 1972’s Marvel Premiere #16), there was the implication that Iron Fist wasn’t an individual’s identity as much as a shared mantle that had been worn by different people throughout history. It would take decades for that idea to come into focus, but when it did—courtesy of the 2006 Immortal Iron Fist series by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja—it revolutionized Iron Fist as a concept, and as a superhero identity.
Rand, Immortal Iron Fist revealed, was the sixty-seventh Iron Fist to that point. Although the series only introduced readers to seven of his 66 predecessors, all but one of them was of Asian descent. Beyond Quan Yazou, the original Iron Fist, there were Li Park, Bein Ming-Tian, Wu Ao-Shi, Bei Bang-Wen and Kwai Jun-Fan—and none of them were a hipster version of Bruce Wayne.(Though it’s telling that the series spent more time with the seventh predecessor, a white dude named Orson Randall, than any of the others.)
Nor was Iron Fist’s Asian legacy only in the past; in both Immortal Iron Fist and subsequent series Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, the writers established that the future of the Iron Fist was distinctly un-Caucasian. The former series flashed-forward to the year 3099 to introduce Wah Sing-Rand, while The Living Weapon showed a young female monk called Pei possessing the Iron Fist.
In many ways, this is in keeping with Marvel’s general direction with regards to comic book representation over the last few years. Once upon a time, the company’s catalog of heroes who were women or people of color was limited to sidekicks, supporting characters, and the occasional team-member. More recently, though, more familiar superhero identities have been turned into franchises with an aim of more accurately reflecting the world outside your window. The half-Black, half-Latino Miles Morales became a second Spider-Man; Sam Wilson—formerly the high-flying Falcon—signed on as a new Captain America; Thor was replaced as god of thunder by his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster.
While that trend seems to be continuing to this day—Invincible Iron Man was recently relaunched with a teenage girl taking the place of Tony Stark—there remains a horde of traditionalists for whom there can only be one version of any given character. More often than not, that means the original version, when almost everyone was a white dude. It’s worth noting that Marvel is seeing historically low sales of its monthly titles, leading to rumors of a relaunch later this year that will restore the white male versions of its big names in hopes of appealing to long-term fans.
Is that conservative impulse among fandom the reason that Marvel didn’t try to switch things up when selecting a TV version of Iron Fist? It’s unclear. The company’s movies and TV adaptations tend to hew towards the “classic” takes on characters, but not always: Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Agents of SHIELD‘s Ghost Rider were based on later incarnations rather than the original (white) ones. But if you’re convinced that Netflix’s Iron Fist should be white because of “canon,” forget it: A full 80% of the comic book Iron Fists to date haven’t white. There’s more than enough material available to support an alternative take. Perhaps those concerned with fidelity to the source material should ask themselves why Marvel didn’t really go with canon in the first place.