Marvel is quickly making a name for itself as the comic book company of unadulterated racial insensitivity and Orientalism.
While comic book fans from around the world gather in San Diego this weekend at the annual San Diego Comic-Con, attendees to the Marvel’s Iron Fist panel bore witness to a breath-takingly boorish stunt by Marvel Television head, Jeph Loeb. To kick off the panel, Loeb appeared to introduce the second season of the Netflix television show. In apparent reference to criticism of the show’s first season, Loeb came on stage dressed as Daniel-San from The Karate Kid — complete with karate gi and headband — and joked that he had trained with Mr. Miyagi in preparation for hostile fans at the panel. Shortly thereafter, actor Jessica Henwick (Colleen Wing) — who may or may not have been in on some sort of pre-scripted act with Loeb — demanded that Loeb remove the outfit, and Loeb obliged.
There is nothing that excuses the racial insensitivity of this pointless and ugly stunt.
Marvel is already embroiled in a racial controversy that began late last year. Marvel recently named comic writer C.B. Cebulski as its new Chief Executive Officer, only for news to emerge that Cebulski had spent years masquerading in literary yellowface as a Japanese writer named Akira Yoshida in order to sell highly-Orientalized comics. To date, he has not had to seriously account for the troubling racial politics of being a white man pretending to be an Asian man while both building up and capitalizing off of Orientalism.
And then, enter Iron Fist. Iron Fist draws from (and ultimately exploits) the Asian and Asian American experience to reify a mediocre white male protagonist. The story of Iron Fist is a tired cliché: white man goes to Asia to learn secret mystical Oriental arts, and returns to the East where he brands himself the resident expert “Asian-ish” white man — better at the secret mystical Oriental arts than even those secret mystical Asians he learned it from. From beginning to end, Iron Fist is regressive in both concept and execution (and, personally, is a show I do not believe could be salvaged by an Asian American cast in the character of Rand; but, that’s a post for a different day). Compounding the insult, the Iron Fist first season is objectively terrible television, and Finn Jones as Rand is almost laughably uncompelling and unlikable.
Yet, Marvel has routinely dismissed Asian Americans and other fans of colour who have expressed racial critiques of Iron Fist. They have instead drawn us-versus-them boundaries to engage in mockery and condemnation of fans who can’t “get in line” behind the immortally Orientalized Iron Fist. Indeed, at last year’s Comic-Con, Loeb led a sympathetic audience in chants of “Iron Fist” as an overt repudiation of early concerns about the show.
Against that backdrop, Loeb’s costume choice plays as callous and obtuse: an unspoken “fuck you” to Asian Americans. In paralleling Iron Fist to Karate Kid — and in casting himself as a beleaguered Daniel-San — Loeb counters critiques of the show with a belligerent celebration of the genre of white male protagonists playing at being a hero with a support staff of helpfully magical Asians. He co-opts an early, pioneering (if still trope-ish) portrayal of Asian Americans to center himself and delegitimize the voices of angry Asian Americans.
Never mind that there is a meaningful difference between Japan and China, and between karate and kung fu. Never mind that Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi is a Japanese American retiree, whereas Iron Fist invents an entirely fictional, extradimensional magically exotic Asian land — replete with dragons and chi magic — for Danny Rand to receive training in. Never mind that literally nothing ties Karate Kid to Iron Fist; except, I guess, in the imagination of mediocre white men who are self-affirmed by shows that star mediocre white men as way more important than the Asians around them.
It remains unclear what Loeb — known for wearing outlandish outfits at Comic-Con panels — expected to accomplish with his Daniel-san cosplay other than to aggravate Asian Americans. However, as discourse around non-white representation in comics gains new traction, Loeb’s stunt proves himself an artifact of a bygone era. Loeb wants to be head comic book frat boy in an exclusionary, (white) boys-only comic book frat house. He wants to make rude and insensitive jokes, rather than seriously address issues under his purview. Loeb could not be less interested in Marvel telling new and diverse stories for an increasingly non-white, non-male audience.
And, all that disdain that Loeb (and therefore, by extension, Marvel Television) has for Asian Americans and other fans concerned about non-white portrayals in Marvel shows? It shows in every nook and cranny of the piss-poor execution of Netflix’s Iron Fist.
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