Netflix’s latest superhero series, Marvel’s Iron Fist, is days away from debuting on the streaming service. Early reviews are savaging the show but not on its quality. Rather the reviewers are complaining that they cast a white actor as Danny Rand instead of an Asian-American actor and thus are perpetuating the “white savior” trope. Of course if they had cast an Asian-American actor these same critics would probably be attacking the show for perpetuating the racist stereotype that all Asians are martial artists. Marvel and Netflix were pretty much damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. The thing is, I get the feeling that many of the reviewers attacking the show for casting a white actor aren’t terribly familiar with the character and why it was important that Danny Rand be white. To understand it’s necessary to look at Marvel’s history publishing superheroic martial artists.
Starting in the 60s, Asian martial arts started becoming popular in American pop culture. In 1966 Bruce Lee entered the American consciousness playing Kato on The Green Hornet. By a not so odd coincidence, that was the same year that DC Comics added Karate Kid to the Legion of Super-Heroes. It took Marvel a few more years to jump on the martial arts band wagon.
1972 saw the debut of Kung Fu, one of the most popular TV shows of the early 70s. Marvel tried to obtain the comic book rights to the show but was denied permission by the show’s owner, Time Warner, which also happened to own DC Comics. Instead Marvel settled for obtaining the rights to the pulp villain Fu Manchu. In December, 1973, Shang-Chi, the previously unknown son of Fu Manchu, appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15. He appeared again in issue #16 and by the next issue the title of the book had been changed to The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. The book was popular and ran until June, 1983.
Marvel’s next foray into martial arts was the Sons of the Tiger, who debuted in April, 1974 in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1. The Sons were a trio of martial artists led by Lin Sun, who was of Chinese descent, and also including Bob Diamond, a Caucasian actor, and Abe Brown, an African-American. The trio had magic amulets which allowed them to combine their physical prowess and skills when all three recited a special chant. They proved to not be as popular as Shang-Chi and a year and a half later they broke up with Lin Sun throwing their amulets away. The amulets were found by Hector Ayala who combined them to become the White Tiger, the first Puerto Rican superhero in the history of comics and Marvel’s first Hispanic superhero, in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #19 (December, 1975). Unfortunately he wasn’t any more popular than the Sons of the Tiger and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu was cancelled after issue #33.
Iron Fist first appeared in Marvel Premiere #15 (May, 1974), one month after the first appearance of the Sons of the Tiger. In November, 1975 he was spun off into a solo series written by Chris Claremont and penciled by John Byrne. It ran for 15 issues before finding itself on the brink of cancellation because Iron Fist, like the Sons of the Tiger and the White Tiger, wasn’t popular enough to sustain a book on his own. So Marvel decided to have Iron Fist team up with another hero who was also on the verge of cancellation, Luke Cage, Power Man. While Iron Fist had been inspired by Hong Kong action movies, Luke was derived from Blaxploitation movies. It was an odd pairing of two men who were about as opposite as you could possibly get. Yet it worked surprisingly well. With issue #50, the title of Luke Cage, Power Man was changed to Power Man and Iron Fist. The combination proved popular enough to keep the book running for another 75 issues until it was cancelled in September, 1986 with Power Man and Iron Fist #125.
What was it about these two characters that they couldn’t sustain a book individually but together they could? Power Man and Iron Fist was one of my favorite comic books and it’s still a series I look back on fondly. The stories were often character driven as opposed to the slug fests that many comic books are. At its core, the book was about two vastly different men who became the best of friends despite their differences. Not only was Danny’s best friend black but so was his girlfriend, Misty Knight. Bear in mind that these books were being written in a time period when interracial romances were still controversial. Yet here was a comic book that many would consider aimed at children portraying a healthy interracial relationship. In fact Power Man and Iron Fist had a racially diverse cast with blacks, whites, and Asians. To me, a major theme of the series was racial harmony and diversity.
I was very excited to hear that Netflix was creating series based on Luke Cage and Danny Rand. Given the racial divisiveness of recent years, I think we could all use the message of tolerance that was contained in Power Man and Iron Fist and that’s why I think Danny Rand still needs to be white.