Marvel’s Defenders and Diversity

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece on how Hollywood Whitewashing was by no means a new phenomenon, and has been occurring in the performing industry for decades now. I also highlighted how the most frustrating aspects of this were how it still happens in this day and age (lord knows why) and that Hollywood shamefully and dishonourably try and cover it up with all kinds of excuses (see Marvel re: The Ancient One in Doctor Strange). From the 2016 Academy Awards to controversial casting decisions in recent films (Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, Aloha, Exodus: Gods and Kings etc.) Hollywood Whitewashing is a clear problem that needs to be stamped out.

I ended that last entry with a quote from John Oliver (which I have found to be useful foils when people try and argue this problem against me…believe me they have) saying that maybe the entire Whitewashing issue would be less of a Gordian knot if any time an actor of colour took on a traditionally white role or if a film/television show/stage production presents itself with a cast built mainly of ethnic minorities, the rest of the world didn’t go apeshit.

luke-cage

The most prominent example of this, is with the latest offering from the partnership between Marvel and Netflix, Luke Cage. Set in New York City’s iconic Harlem, Luke Cage drew the ire of the Twittersphere for its predominantly African-American and Hispanic cast. These reactions were largely drowned out by the program’s overwhelmingly positive response, but they still highlight just how fracking stupid some people are. Twitter critics and people who I can only assume are Drumpf supporters, criticised the show for it’s “lack of diversity” and some even tried to imply that the show was racist for casting little to no white actors. I believe the response you are looking for is “I don’t even.” The first issue here is that the series is set in Harlem as opposed to Hell’s Kitchen where both Jessica Jones and Daredevil take place. Historically, Harlem maintains a centrally Hispanic and African-American community, leading Luke Cage to represent the NYC neighbourhood with a higher degree of accuracy. Furthermore Luke Cage brings some very real problems to light, and highlights the crucially relevant issues of racial stereotyping, police brutality and racial profiling. It’s something nobody ever expected from a Marvel television series, and it’s a very good thing. Yet there are mouth breathers claiming that a program centred around a black superhero in a predominantly black neighbourhood isn’t diverse. These people are going to get a pleasant surprise when Black Panther hits screens in 2018 .

 

 

As previously mentioned these outlandish opinions that a show with a cast made-up largely of ethnic minorities, despite the vociferous nature of their sharing, are few and far between. Luke Cage currently holds a rating of 8.2/10 on IMDB and has been received with more open arms than the marriage of chocolate and peanut butter. Given the equally awesome reception of the program’s predecessors, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the MCU has proven to be a cultural force on the small screen as their full-length features and post-credits nuggets!

Enter Iron Fist. No Pressure. With the series’ first trailer being unceremoniously dropped on us earlier this week, Iron Fist has been entered as the final piece of a miniature cinematic puzzle, and given the critical reception of its forebearers, the series is under significant tension. A point raised by online authors/critics is the ethnicity of series protagonist, Danny Rand (aka, Iron Fist…go figure). After months of speculation, Finn Jones (of Game of Thrones fame) was announced to play the titular Fist of Iron.Whilst this casting is fairly true to the comics (aesthetically anyway) and Danny Rand’s rich kid turned martial artist transformation, it has been viewed by some as a missed opportunity for Marvel to cast and Asian or Asian-American actor in the role.

Now, there are those who feel like the casting of Jones as Danny Rand is an instance of the aforementioned beast that is Hollywood Whitewashing. I (in my own humble and non-cantankerous opinion) think that this is NOT the case. If Danny Rand were originally Asian, then yes, this would be a different discussion entirely (*cough* The Ancient One *cough*), but the character has always been Caucasian, largely to suit the fish out of water nature of Iron Fist‘s origin story. However, I have thoroughly examined (read as “I trawled the internet at work“) the arguments both for and against a possible decision to turn Iron Fist into an Asian-American character, and there have been some pretty juicy findings to say the least.

The central argument in support of changing the character’s ethnicity provides some critically true points with regards to diversity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whilst based in comic book lore, Marvel have proven that stories can be adapted and condensed or expanded at will to suit the grander narrative of the MCU. This ranges from scaling down the Marvel Civil War storyline (whilst keeping the Captain America vs. Iron Man centric plot pretty much the same), having Ultron created by Tony Stark instead of Hank Pym, and possibly most importantly having Heimdall (Thor) and Nick Fury, two Caucasian characters in the comics (originally) portrayed by Idris Elba and Samuel L. Jackson respectively.  MCU Exchange imply that making Danny Asian-American with no prior knowledge of his Asian heritage could lead to a more personal journey and origin, allowing the audience to develop a clear sympathy for him and would also give the character more motivation to discovering the K’un Lun and the power of Iron Fist. It can also be implied that changing the character’s ethnicity would also remove the age old “White Saviour” trope of the film industry (oh I’ll get to that, watch this space for another blog….no I don’t have anything else to write about) seen in films such as The Last Samurai and newly released Bruce Lee “biopic” Birth of the Dragon.

birth-of-the-dragon
Making Bruce Lee a bit player in his own biopic? Well done…

However, despite the compelling reasons presented for changing Danny Rand’s ethnicity, there are just as many rooted arguments for the character remaining Caucasian. Firstly, there are those who fear that it would reinforce stereotypes. Unlike Heimdall and Nick Fury, there would be an eye-rolling sense of both boredom and disbelief in portraying an Asian member of the Defenders be “the one that knows Kung-Fu.” Even with the fish out of water theme intact, it can be argued that an Asian-American Danny Rand would only reinforce (albeit in Marvel’s nuanced way) that an Asian superhero would be able to do nothing else.

In the grander scheme of things, this sense of conforming to stereotypes and potential negative reinforcement could be implied as part of a larger issue with The Defenders. Staging Daredevil as the blind vigilante, Jessica Jones as the woman with super strength and Luke Cage as the bulletproof black man, adding an Asian-American Iron Fist with martial arts abilities could run the risk of skating over the wafer-thin ice that is turning The Defenders into a group of tokens, or poster kids for diversity as opposed to focusing on and transcending beyond that to them just being the badass crimefighting bunch that they are. Audiences are more likely to respond to Voltron (a diverse team that is more than just the sum of their parts) not the Burger King Kids Club (where diversity was shoehorned in to avoid complaints).

On the whole, what we have here is a fairly contentious issue.  There is no conclusive correct answer. My aim here wasn’t to solve the issue (I have both done and plan on doing so with future entries. Stay tuned) but to present the issues on a level playing field in order to discuss them properly. Marvel have proved that discussions in the media and on the internet have not escaped them (given C. Robert Cargill’s crass response on the Double Toasted Podcast to The Ancient One issue). They have also proved that they are expert storytellers and that everything they do is done to suit the narrative (except The Ancient One…alright I’ll stop) so I’m fairly optimistic about Iron Fist. What I do know is that the casting of Finn Jones is not an instance of Hollywood Whitewashing, especially not in the same vein as The Ancient One. Here Marvel are both sticking to their source material, and whilst it can be argued as a missed opportunity in terms of casting, it is definitely not Doctor Strange or Ghost in the Shell style tomfoolery. I wonder how Luke Cage would deal with any possible backlash?

cage-bulletproof

 

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