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Fist Bump

So, I bit the bullet, took one for the team, and watched Iron Fist.

Superhero shows are fun, aren’t they? Check your brain at the door for a little while, put your pressing engagements and moral quandaries aside and let yourself be a kid again. I’ll watch anything with caped crusaders in it at least once. I’d almost go so far as to call myself an aficionado of the genre. And compared to the other superhero shows I’ve seen, Iron Fist is not that bad. It’s just not. It fits right in with the pack. It’s middle of the road. Average. Run of the mill. Maybe not as quite good as the other Netflix/Marvel shows, but otherwise it seems kinda…normal. If I wouldn’tve known going in that I was supposed to hate it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, I doubt I’d even have noticed that it was inferior. I might’ve shrugged and thought, “hm this doesn’t seem quite as good as the other ones” but I wouldn’t have turned it off.

Iron Fist starts off a wee bit rough, it’s true. The writing is choppy, the pace plods. But thinking back on it, I realized that was true of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, too. It took me a couple episodes to get into both those shows and I ended up loving them. I didn’t hold their slow starts against them, because everyone had told me they were good. I just waited it out and allowed myself to get swept up into the universe. All four Netflix/Marvel shows had their slow parts. In addition to its leisurely beginning, Daredevil had an additional down period in the second season. (remember that snoozeworthy plotline where Elektra was investigating Roxxon Industries?? Neither do I.) And of course, Luke Cage started strong – the best of the four – but lulled badly towards the end. The end of Luke Cage was at least as bad as Iron Fist was at the start.

And Iron Fist is a little sudsy too, I guess, especially at first. People who look way too young and hawt for the job running a megamillion dollar corporation, making silly business deals that seem to be nothing but then turn out to be of critical importance to the plot somehow even though you can’t quite remember why. But I think that was what they were going for. The other Netflix/Marvel shows all have a similar cross-genre vibe to them – Daredevil was a lawyer show, Jessica Jones a detective noir, Luke Cage a homage to blaxploitation films. Iron Fist feels like a decision was made to toss a nighttime soap and a kung fu movie into a blender. It’s not a terrible idea on the face of it, and if the writing had been better those first couple episodes it really could have been quite fun. Maybe they quite didn’t pull it off, but so what? I prefer a show that tries for something unexpected and falls a little short, than yet another dull, robotic, slightly different variation of the same damn theme. I certainly don’t think it would have been any better had they stuck slavishly to the superhero formula.

Yeah, ok, some of the casting is admittedly not what I’d have done if I was doing it. I would not have gone with Finn Jones as Danny Rand regardless of his ethnic heritage, for starters. He’s ok, but not spectacular. But I didn’t like Charlie Cox or Krysten Ritter as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, respectively – Cox’s barely-squelched accent annoyed me, and as for Krysten Ritter, I’ve seen her in too many other things and she cannot throw a believable punch to save her life. It’s a shame too, because as anyone who’s ever watched Agents of SHIELD knows, great acting really can turn crap into cream. Agents of SHIELD is at least as terrible as Iron Fist (regardless of inexplicably great reviews, Agents of SHIELD is Not Good, especially at the beginning) but the acting swoops in to save the day again and again. Whoever casts that show may be an actual superhero.

The bad casting in Iron Fist was not limited to the leads, either. I also disliked Tom Pelphrey as Danny Rand’s frenemy Ward – he seemed like a soap opera actor doing a bad Keanu impersonation. As I found out when researching for this article, he actually is, or was, a soap opera actor, and boy howdy, it showed. I wish they would’ve just sprung for the real James Franco, he would have killed it. But I didn’t care for Elden Henson as Foggy at first (he grew on me), and Wil Traval as Simpson the Cop in Jessica Jones did not grow on me at all and was actually painful for me to watch sometimes. At the least, unlike Traval who I cannot for the life of me understand why he was cast, I get why they went with Finn Jones. He’s got the Game of Thrones cachet working for him, and he looks like a combo of the 50 Shades of Gray Dude mixed with Arrow, with maybe a hint of Chris Pratt thrown in. He’s a hot commodity due to GoT and he just kinda LOOKS like he ought to be a popular actor right now.

Convoluted, confusing plots too heavily reliant on coincidence – definitely present, but again, 3 of the 4 Netflix/Marvel shows were guilty of that and Agents of SHIELD excels at it. This is actually why I think Jessica Jones is by far the best of the Marvel shows, because the plot hangs together best. Daredevil and Luke Cage are guilty of the exact same sins as Iron Fist. Can anyone explain the reason why Mrs. Cardenas’ building was so important to Wilson Fisk’s plans? Or what the connection is between the Hand and Madame Gao? Does anyone know how Willis Stryker and Shades somehow ended up deeply enmeshed in the politics of Harlem when only a few years prior they had been involved in whatever was going on in Georgia’s Seagate Prison? I couldn’t tell ya any of these things and I’ve watched Daredevil and Luke Cage twice. It doesn’t matter. You don’t watch superhero shows for their carefully crafted plots.

When I watched the show with that mindset, Iron Fist seems to fit right in with the crowd. Yeah, it’s the weakest of the four Netflix/Marvel shows, but one of them had to be the worst one. Yeah, the writing is Lucas-level bad at times. Yeah, you can tell it was a rush job – Finn Jones only had 2 weeks to learn martial arts and claims he was given only 15 minutes to learn some of the choreography (honestly, this is the one thing I find totally inexcusable). Yeah, it relies too much on the “superhero with PTSD” trope. Yeah, the plots are confusing as hell. But it’s still Justice Leagues better than the first season of Legends of Tomorrow. I’d put it up against the first half-season of Agents of SHIELD easily. Both those shows got a lot better, and I suspect Iron Fist will too.

There is actually a lot to like about Iron Fist. It continues and builds upon the rather convoluted plotlines already set up in the other 3 Netflix/Marvel shows (mostly Daredevil) pretty well. It has the awesome Wai Ching Ho playing the villain Madame Gao in a much larger role. David Wenham, previously known for playing dour Faromir in Lord of the Rings appears to be having the time of his life chewing all the scenery he can get his teeth on. Jessica Henwick is simply fantastic as Colleen Wing – who turns out to be just as much the star of the show, if not more so, as Danny Rand. If anything, Danny Rand exists mostly to set up and set off Colleen’s character, which felt to me like a breath of fresh air given the history of comic books and their adaptations to be mostly about men.

The SJW have their feathers ruffled over the whitewashing angle. Maybe it’s justified. But to be fair, Netflix and Marvel really had an impossible task set before them – no matter what they did with Iron Fist, some group of viewers would have passionately hated it. Whether they bowed to political correctness or stuck with the character as envisioned to placate the comic book’s original fan base, people would have complained. Maybe the show would have been better with an Asian lead, but that isn’t what they did. Finn Jones is the Iron Fist we got, and for all we know the SJW set may not have liked it even if an Asian had been cast. After all, Netflix’s recently cancelled Marco Polo had nearly all Asian stars, fantastic acting, and an intriguing premise, and they didn’t like that either, because stereotypes or something. Some people, there is just no pleasing ’em and most fans understand that.

So why the hate, really? At the end of the day, I think it’s fundamentally an issue of herd mentality. Bandwagoning. Critics, who were very likely were looking for ANY reason to pan the show after the PC controversy, were given only the first 6 episodes of Iron Fist to review. These were the worst episodes, and of course they lambasted them. Rightfully, perhaps, because the show was definitely at its weakest early on, but like I said, it took me a few episodes to get into both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and the first episode of Iron Fist was no worse than the first episode of Agents of SHIELD or Legends of Tomorrow. The quality of Iron Fist is about what I’d expected going in to Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. They were pleasant surprises, better than I expected. But just because they were great, doesn’t mean that Iron Fist is unwatchably TERRIBLE. The Netflix/Marvel shows have been the crème de la crème…best superhero tv ever made, most would agree. Is it really fair to hold up ALL superhero shows to that standard from now till forever? Probably not.

Then everyone else, who heard from the critics that the show was subpar, went into it thinking “this show sucks”. There’s a funny quirk of the human brain that scientists call social default. When you don’t have a strong opinion about something, you tend to follow the lead of those who speak up before you. People saw a sucky show at least in part because they expected to see a sucky show. I saw a guy posting on Twitter who shut off the show only a few minutes into the first episode. This is actually very similar to what happened to Netflix’s Marco Polo as well – the critics were only given the first episode, wrote scathing reviews of that first episode, and then people made up their minds based on that buzz – some didn’t watch it at all, others watched it with the mindset that “this is gonna suck” going in and so that’s what they saw; their preconceptions were confirmed.

Many of the reviews of Marco Polo written on Rotten Tomatoes by professional critics were based on just that ONE episode! That’s why the critical reviews on RT came in so much lower than the audience score: 24% vs. 92% Fresh. Iron Fist is headed the same direction – 18% for the professional critics, 84% for the audience. I use Rotten Tomatoes ratings a lot when deciding what to watch, and actually passed up on Marco Polo for quite a while because of its poor reviews. Now I know better, but too late, as Marco Polo – a show which I liked 10 times better better than any of the Netflix/Marvel superhero shows – has been cancelled.

Netflix probably ought to stop giving critics a handful of episodes to judge. Shows that are made to be bingewatched have the luxury of moving at a slower pace, taking sweet time to develop characters and set events in motion. As a fan, I tend to enjoy a leisurely beginning that builds into a great climax much more than a show that starts off with frenetically paced explosions and boobage and has nowhere to go but downhill. If a show is designed to be bingewatched, if it is meant to move a little more slowly, don’t give only one or two or six episodes to critics…especially critics that are salivating in advance to hatewatch your show.

And critics – you may just be doing your job and all that, but a critic is supposed to judge on merits, not on political correctness. Iron Fist wasn’t spectacular, but it was far from the worst thing I’ve ever seen. As a critic, you’re supposed to be able to divorce yourself from the zeitgeist in order to give a reasonably fair and balanced opinion. It seems many of the critics who watched Iron Fist were unwilling to give the show the slightest benefit of the doubt at all, unwilling to be THAT guy or gal who sticks up for something that has been preordained by the culture vultures as bad. But the job of a critic is not to see which way the wind is blowing and use that as your yardstick as to whether a show should be reviewed positively. It’s to give an accurate representation as to whether an audience will like a show. And critical reviews coming in at 65% lower than the audience’s opinion makes me wonder how many critics were really giving Iron Fist a chance before pasting it.

And as for us, the audience, are we simply impossible to please? Are we too quick to give up on a show when it doesn’t meet our expectations in precisely the way that we perceive they ought to be met, at precisely the pace we are used to? Are we too much like the critics, ready to write it all off after only seeing 6 episodes? Not for SJW reasons, but just because we like things the way we like them, and we don’t want anything to deviate from that expectation?

One of the complaints against Finn Jones’ portrayal of Danny Rand is that he’s too dorky to be a superhero. He’s a doof, there’s no way to sugar coat it. The boy ain’t quite right. He’s weird, bordering on abnormal at times. To me, that was actually one of the best parts of the whole thing. The plot entailed a guy who had grown up isolated from the modern world, exiled in a mystical, medieval land where the rules were completely different. In flashbacks it looked as if he may have even been abused there. And he still carried the trauma of his parents’ death. Of course he was socially maladjusted and awkward. That made sense with the character’s backstory. Hollywood tries this approach in other shows sometimes, but they never really stick with it. They chicken out and settle for just giving the character a couple of adorable quirks while maintaining their normalcy in all other ways.  But Iron Fist stayed true to the characterization. They don’t pull their punches on that. Danny Rand really IS strange, almost creepy sometimes, in that way that overeager, socially inexperienced young men have of being almost creepy sometimes.

As I watched Iron Fist it dawned on me that I’m kinda tired of stereotypically superhero-y people being cast as superheroes. By superhero-y I mean blisteringly cool all the time. Wisecracking, dispassionate, cynical. Even quintessential nerd Peter Parker suffers from a terminal case of the coolz. A lot of our superheroes are so cool that they’re basically anti-heroes. It was kind of refreshing to see an earnest, well-meaning, innocent weenie as a superhero. Danny Rand wasn’t selling weapons to 3rd world countries like Tony Stark, he didn’t have a drinking or substance abuse problem, he wasn’t a womanizer – in fact, although they glossed over this a bit he seemed to possibly be a virgin (!). He wasn’t always taking things way too far like Deadpool and the Punisher do. He seemed to view his abilities as a heavy-but-welcome responsibility; a gift to be used justly and correctly, instead of something fun to take for a ride now and then. And while he wasn’t perfect and did occasionally have a hotheaded moment, it felt in character. When Danny screwed up, it was mostly due to lack of knowledge and experience, not because of selfish intentions. He would get angry like a child gets angry, when they don’t understand something, when something feels unfair and they are powerless to change it. His innocence was actually played as a believable character flaw because he couldn’t even imagine that the people in his life might be trying to screw him over.

Danny seemed to legitimately want to help people because it was right – not because of some dark, uncontrollable compulsion to do it like Matt Murdock or Batman, not for money like Deadpool or revenge like John Wick (c’mon, he’s kinda superhero-y), but just because he was following his personal sense of morality. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are reluctant heroes. Danny Rand isn’t. Most superheroes are compelled into it by personal demons or dragged into derring-do practically kicking and screaming. But Danny wanted to become the Iron Fist. He fought hard for the job. He chose it – he wasn’t doused in barrels of goo or bitten by a radioactive spider or involved in an experiment gone awry or born that way. He CHOSE to be a hero. It almost felt like a trope twister, in a way. The characterization of Danny felt fresher to me than yet another torn and troubled heroic curmudgeon. Iron Fist may not be a perfect show or even close to one, but at least it didn’t hand us yet another world-weary, self-loathing, self-destructive supercool superhero who only helps others when they’re sucked into it against their will.

People like that though, that’s the thing. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. That’s what they’ve grown to expect from a superhero show. There are no good guys. Only cool guys. Superman and Cyclops have a lot of “meh” directed their way while psychopaths like Deadpool are beloved. (The levels Marvel will sink to try to turn Cyke into an antihero are utterly ridiculous.) If everyone is used to the borderline antisocial superhero, and a softserve vanilla I-just-really-wanna-help-people superhero like Danny Rand shows up, I think many fans are so accustomed to the familiar that at least some will have a knee-jerk, uncontrollably negative reaction until they get used to it. People balk at things that feel strange and new.  I wonder if we’re simply spoiled by choice. I feel that many of us (myself included at times) are unwilling to take a chance on something even a little bit different. Unfortunately, by the time people get used to a TV show that goes for something even slightly unexpected, it’s typically been panned at best or cancelled at worst. Shows like Freaks and Geeks, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, Firefly – all unusual-premised shows cancelled very quickly that went onto attain epic cult status over time and are now revered. If only they’d had a chance.

When Futurama first came on the air, I didn’t like it. I didn’t get what they were going for at all. Amy, Zoidberg, Hermes? Those heads in jars? What kinds of characters were those? I’d never seen anything like them before. I didn’t get it because it didn’t fulfill my expectations. Only over the course of time did I realize that Futurama seemed off to me because it’s an actual TV show with unique characters and an original world, and not a parody of other space shows. That’s what I had been expecting, a parody, a ripoff show with a dumb guy and a professor and a funny robot doing The Simpsons in space, and Futurama wasn’t like that at all. After I realized that I could appreciate what they were doing and ended up liking the show. But it had to be cancelled and resurrected before that happened!

Now, I’m putting Iron Fist in some pretty heady company there. Company it certainly doesn’t deserve. It’s not that good. But it’s not that bad, either. If you have a weekend to bingewatch something, give Iron Fist a whirl. It’s better than people are saying.

Image by andertoons Fist Bump

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Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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45 thoughts on “Fist Bump

  1. Yeah, it can’t be the worst superhero show on air.
    That’s Gotham, pure and simple.
    What the hell is the Cathedral of Learning doing in GOTHAM???

    … yeah. Gotham may have good writing, may have a decent cast, but its artwork is rampant thievery and thus it really, really deserves a boycott. (Also, putting obviously Russian buildings in Gotham is dumb.)

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  2. I watched the whole thing. I didn’t engage it as taking one for the team, either. I find that I am much more patient about art than most people I know. One good friend says he gave up after 3 episodes, describing it with a cranky, “I don’t have time for that”. We stuck with it, and it was worth it for us.

    Next, the whitewashing. Iron Fist suffers because of its roots in the Seventies, where Danny Rand’s story would have had a very different valence. His embrace of Asian martial arts, which were still foreign and a bit mystical then, would have marked him as liberal and open, curious about other cultures. It doesn’t work that way today, and it may be that the attitude of the Seventies grates on people. Exoticism is such a common thread in anything that’s Asian, and it’s impossible to eliminate the exoticism from IF. I have one Asian friend who boycotted it, and is pretty scratchy about the whole thing. I think he gets to be, he’s the one who has to navigate his existence in America. I’m less impressed with white people who denounce it in that loud, “I’m not the racist here” sort of way.

    Would casting an Asian-American instead of Finn Jones fix it? I don’t think so. The core motivation of Danny is that he feels lost and alienated, like he has no real home. The racial difference between him and his adopted home drives that, regardless of any abuse, I mean training.

    The others of the Defenders have a definite emotional focus – a central question that the drama is organized around. For Daredevil it is Matt’s code against killing, which is driven by his faith. Matt isn’t sure that this isn’t a weakness, something that makes him less effective as a superhero, and feels guilt about not killing people, just as he would feel guilt about killing people.

    For Jessica Jones, the theme is consent. Visually, we have the metaphor of doors, and a villain who does mind-control. For Luke Cage, the theme is how being black makes a mans life more complicated and difficult, even if he’s a hero type.

    So what’s the core of Iron Fist. I think its the alienation of young men, and the streak of anger they so often carry around. The series tries to portray it and then explain it, but I don’t think they brought their audience with them.

    Danny is affable and earnest. He is cheerful in an almost unseemly way. But he has an angry streak, and a sense of “don’t take no for an answer” that, I think, triggers some people who have had bad experiences with people like that. He is the entitled rich brat who must have things his own way. The series wants to dig into that, but it poses a problem. You have to get people on his side. This was supposed to be through people who are even more rich and more entitled, but Ward and Joy don’t quite seem evil enough. Nor does Harold, at least not at first.

    By the end of the series, the idea that Danny is wounded, and not dealing with it has been put on the table, it is pointed to by Claire (the awesome Dawson!). But we don’t get that at first, just some very Seventies callback shots of a hawk flying over Manhattan. And a philosophical homeless man that dies in a somewhat inexplicable way.

    Danny has been used. He has been objectified. His training turned him into a thing, a tool, “The Iron Fist”, a guardian of K’un Lun. Whatever he might have wanted or aspired to didn’t matter. It isn’t surprising that he fled, though he is somewhat inarticulate about it. He had reached the top, and found himself on the bottom.

    So were the problems of this show due to Finn Jones? to the writing? to the direction? I find that hard to answer. It was clear that Jones wasn’t a martial artist, and I find it equally fair to say he had no training time due to budget and schedule. Jessica’s lack of form works fine for the character, she hasn’t learned to fight, she’s just really, really strong. It doesn’t matter if she has good form.

    We strongly disagree about Ward. I loved the character, I loved the performance. I’m pleased with Colleen Wing, and I’m pleased you’re pleased.

    And about that thing where heroes have to have dark sides? Tell that to Supergirl.

    Getting back to the pacing, Danny spends most of the season not actually a hero. Fighting for honor is interesting, but it isn’t heroic. When we first meet Matt Murdock, he’s already a hero. Jessica makes the decision to be a hero in the end of the first episode. She’s about to leave town, and turns around because she wants to help Hope instead. Likewise, Luke becomes a hero when he defends the Chinese restaurant run by his landlady at the end of his first episode. Danny goes a long, long time before he has any such moment. Colleen, by contrast, is a hero from the moment we meet her. I think this is a problem.

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    • I haven’t finished watching it yet, but…

      Danny goes a long, long time before he has any such moment. Colleen, by contrast, is a hero from the moment we meet her. I think this is a problem

      I don’t think this is a problem, as such. Colleen has been living in and trying to help her community for years. Her adversary(s) are well known, her battle is well worn. Danny spent his formative years training to battle against a foe he never meets until he comes to NYC. He’s got culture shock, emotional turmoil, and zero guidance from his teachers beyond what they imparted before he left. It takes him a while to spin up into a hero.

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      • I get what you mean. AND, I think that particular artistic choice is part of why so many people aren’t engaged by the story.

        I think they didn’t have a good enough answer to the question, “Why should I care about Danny Rand?” Having him be a hero isn’t the only way, but it’s one way.

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    • Next, the whitewashing.

      I keep hearing people use the term ‘whitewashing’ when talking about Iron First, and, man, is it confusing. Whitewashing is where you take original source material where characters are either explicitly another race. (Or implicitly based on location.) And turn those characters white.

      Danny Rand has *always* been white. Danny Rand, thus, cannot possibly be whitewashed.

      And I argue that making him not-white would not fix any problematic aspects of the story, and in fact *add more*.

      Here is the story we were given: There is a mystical set of warriors located somewhere in Not-Tibet with access to some magic. (The Iron Fist.) They are in a millennium-long fight with some other mystical set of warriors that have access to some other magic. (Bringing people back to life, and other stuff too.) An American accidentally ends up trapped there for 15 years and then returns.

      Now, right away, we’ve got some problems, even without the American. People of other races and cultures having magical power is a somewhat problematic trope. But having Danny not be Asian-American at least shows use the magical powers aren’t some sort of inherent ‘because they’re Asian’ thing.

      But what about the ‘Mighty Whitey’ trope? That trope, in case people don’t know, is when an American (Or Brit, the trope originates in there.) would have to go to somewhere foreign and be better at ‘their stuff’. He’d show them all up, become their greatest warrior, and defeat their great foe.

      Except…that’s not the story. That’s almost entirely the *backstory*. The story is Danny trying to…do random stuff, frankly. I mean, yes, he’s trying to take down the Hand, but he’s so hilariously outnumbered and unable to understand the scope of the problem he certainly doesn’t read as a hyper-competent white Westerner showing those uncultured natives what’s what! (And also, he’s not even *in* a foreign land anyway!)

      Heh. The Mighty-Whitey trope is an expression of Western Imperialism and what we thought about it 100 years ago. Danny Rand, meanwhile, is a perfect expression of Western Imperialism *nowadays*, in that he really doesn’t understand a damn thing he’s doing. And he doesn’t even understand the enemy is more complex than he thinks.

      Moreover, I’m not sure of any improvement if you make the main character Asian-American. You’ve *still* sorta got the backstory of an American going somewhere and showing up all the natives at their own skill. The trope is mostly about *cultural imperialism*, and I’m not sure a random Asian-American being better at Kung-Fu than a mystic order of Not-Tibet warrior monks would *solve* any hypothetical problems there!

      Plus, now, you only have Asian characters with magical Kung-Fu powers, which is itself a problem!

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      • I think at one level you are correct about what “whitewashing” means, but at another level, it’s meant to address the general lack of Asians in works from Hollywood, which is frustrating, and this is a part that seems like it could be Asian.

        Quibbling on this point seems to my Asian friends to be denying their chief complaint, which I agree with. So I don’t argue it with them.

        I thought Doctor Strange did a much better job at navigating these waters, but it still caught a lot of grief. The source of that grief is the lack of parts for Asians.

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      • But what about the ‘Mighty Whitey’ trope? That trope, in case people don’t know, is when an American (Or Brit, the trope originates in there.) would have to go to somewhere foreign and be better at ‘their stuff’.

        Note that this is just a specific subtype of the more general “Johnny-come-lately outsider turns out to be the best there ever was” trope. This shows up everywhere, and only very rarely has a racial component.

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        • This shows up everywhere, and only very rarely has a racial component.

          Only rarely *now*.

          Go back 70 years, and older, and that basically *all* English and American literature that featured foreign lands. Like all of it. White guy goes there, learns a tiny bit of their culture, saves them all from something (That mysteriously they didn’t have a problem with in the past.), finds a native love interest, and is generally just awesome.

          Admit it, you thought of at least three different movies, based on books, I was summarizing there, didn’t you? You might even have thought of three *Disney* movies.

          Sometimes the trope gets slightly played with, like in Tarzan (Who doesn’t learn to out-native the natives from the natives, but from animals.) or Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (Which sorta goes the other way…someone who thinks of themselves as a native (But is actually of Irish descent) then gets a proper English education and now is better.), and those are the stories that tend to stick out…but they’re still the same trope.

          Hundreds of years of stories in British literature, and the Americans picked it right up and ran with it….it doesn’t matter how long those natives have been living somewhere, put some cultured white people in charge and they’d make a proper show of things, fixing all problems.

          Which, hey, was *exactly* what the British Empire, and later Americans, *were doing* at that time. Well, with the ‘putting themselves in charge’, not so much with ‘fixing all problems’. (Rather more like ‘causing 75% of all problems, and not fixing any problems that already existed’.)

          And, yes, it was much more cultural than racial, which was sorta my point in that I don’t think an Asian-American actually makes the trope much better. Despite the name of it the trope, it’s a cultural imperialism trope, not a racism trope.

          Although now I’m kinda wishing someone would make a parody Mighty-Whitey movie set in Africa, where an African-American comes over and out-natives the natives. I just want that to exist because I have *absolutely no idea* how that would play once people realized what was going on and the confusion would be fun to watch.

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          • Wasn’t this the plot of the Golden Child staring Eddie Murphy or the Last Dragon? Albeit with an African-American being better at Asian things than Asians rather than an African-American out nativing Africans.

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            • I have almost completely forgotten the plot of the Golden Child, but I’m pretty sure that was a Chosen One narrative, which is not really the same thing. And I’m pretty sure the character Murphy is playing is not better than the natives at *anything*…well, I mean, he’s better at functioning in America, but once he goes to *checks Wikipedia* Nepal, he’s an idiot. (I mean, he figures out the water test, but I kinda assumed that was how you were *supposed* to do the test.)

              I literally have never seen The Last Dragon, but from Wikipedia and IMdb, that movie doesn’t seem to have any Asian people in it *at all*, nor is it set anywhere in Asia, so I’m not entirely sure how it would embody Mighty-Whitey trope at all. Just being ‘super-good at martial arts’ isn’t Mighty-Whitey, he has to go to [native land] and be so good at [native skill] that he’s way better than the natives, and considering there *aren’t* any ‘natives’, or anyone going anywhere… (Now, it is the ‘martial arts are magical’ trope, but that trope’s fine if it’s divorced from race.)

              However, yes, I suspect there probably *are* Mighty-Whitey stories with non-whites. There’s no reason you *couldn’t* have a Mighty-Whitey story with a African-American going to Asian and showing those native Asians what’s what…or even an Asian-American showing African natives how to do, you know, the stuff they’ve presumably been doing for millennia but he’s somehow better than.(1)

              My hypothetical wonder was more…has there ever been one of those stories starring a person ‘descended from the _same_ natives’ (Yes, that sounds racist, but that’s sorta my point.) but culturally Western?

              I don’t really know why, I’m not trying to make any point, I just thought it would be kinda funny to see one and see how people responded, because people tend to get this confused with racism, but it’s still a pretty problematic and stupid trope *even if* race isn’t an issue, because it’s really always been cultural imperialism. A black guy from Chicago who shows up African villagers at fighting off African wildlife and saves the village and becomes chief is as dumb a story(2) as a *white* guy from Chicago doing that.

              The problem is…this trope is sorta dead and stupid (Well, outside of science fiction and children’s stories.) which means it’s sorta so old that you’re unlikely to find a non-white protagonist in them in the vast majority of it. OTOH…I will admit I am completely unfamiliar with the sort of blaxplotation films this might actually be found in…so, hey, maybe there’s an entire genre out there!

              1) Incidentally, I realized while writing this that I’ve never heard of one of these stories with a *woman*, either. I’ve heard of them with *couples*, or where there are white women that sorta tag along for a love interest, but that’s it.

              2) For those of you wondering why: Look, telling that story *one time* is fine. Telling it half a dozen times is fine!

              Telling functionally the same story, where the western guys go in and keep doing the same thing over and over, keep being better at everything, with natives being mostly dumb except a wise elder and some hot native woman, starts being a serious problem WRT portrayal of other cultures, especially when, for an incredibly long time, it was *almost the only portrayal* of other cultures that Western audiences were exposed to.

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              • “Someone travels and learns forgotten lore” is a pretty old story line. And “Bright young thing brings new ideas to stagnating field”.

                It can get a bit problematic when you combine them. The result can be anything from “Enlightened Foreigner Explains How Wrong Natives Are” to “Synergy between tech/magic/cultures produces even better results” to “Traveler discovers aptitude and vocation he’d never have dreamed of”.

                So like with a lot of things, it’s down to context and execution. America is pretty fond of the ‘hard working American pulls himself up by his own bootstraps’ and ‘bright new ideas challenging stagnant wisdom’ storylines, which mean our stories often tread closer to the “Traveler learns native lore, shows them how wrong they are by being awesome” because we like stories about people like us becoming awesome.

                But it’s all in the handling.

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                • DavidTC is not wrong when he points out that the typical story, in Western literature, has been “enlightened Westerner who is intellectually superior due to being White learns the native ways and outperforms them due to inherent racial superiority“. And it isn’t questioned, either; nobody ever says “hey how come you’re so good”, it’s just obvious that white dudes are better at things.

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                  • I agree, I’m just saying it’s partially cultural hubris but partly just the weird way our founding mythos interacts with other common stories tends to have an unfortunate nexus in “Okay, taking a step back I’m not sure the subtext here is what we’re after” land.

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  3. What would have been interesting would have been if they hung a lantern on the exoticism thing, and made the character actually be a weeaboo jerk. Like, not only did he specifically choose to get the power of the Iron Fist, but now he’s the one who thinks he’s gonna show all these Chinese dudes how Kung Fu works, he thinks that the legend of the Great White Hero is true and it’s him. And then they could have deconstructed that.

    But that would have needed a lot going right to pull it off–like, great writing and great acting, and both at the same time (which takes luck that you can’t always depend on.)

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  4. I found the show to be not nearly as terrible as many said it was, though it clearly is last out of the four Netflix series. I enjoyed it. Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing was easily, for me, the best part of the show. I was plenty irritated when she suddenly fell in love with Danny–it seemed like it came out of nowhere and was shoehorned into the story.

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  5. Doctor Jay gets it right on why you can’t really adopt Iron Fist for today’s audience. During the 1970s, a white guy steeped in the culture of the Mystical East (TM) suggested openness to other cultures that were previously ridiculed in the West. These days it suggests cultural appropriation and racism even if most of the audience might not care about those issues. A small band of vocal activists and culturally prominent activists. You can’t remedy this situation by turning Iron Fist into an Asian-American without other unfortunate implications like Asian-Americans can never be fully American because their home is in the East or something like that.

    Iron Fist was always going to be problematic to adapt to the early 21st century. I know they wanted him for a Defenders revival but they could have used many of the other superheroes who appeared on the Defenders that have less baggage. I always advocated for Marvel’s interpretation of Hercules. They could have also turned Dark Hawk, a 1990s hero that was in the 1990s revival of the Defenders, into a Netflix show. Dark Hawk’s origin stories will allow for the same core of Iron Man, the alienation of young men. They could have also turned Dark Hawk from white young man to an Asian or Hispanic young man to add to the racial diversity of the Defenders roster. Dark Hawk happens to have a really cool costume.

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  6. Here is the thing about the whole “Whitewashing” debate that a lot of people seem to forget.

    There are very limited opportunities for minority actors out in the United States and Asian-Americans seem to suffer this worse of all. The opportunities that do exist tend to be very stereotypical still. Asian men get to be uptight nerds, uncool, never romantic leads, stern father figures, etc. Asian women get be a combination of Dragon Lady/Tiger Mom/the exotic love interest.

    There are a few exceptions like Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Fresh Off the Boat, and whatever John Cho gets cast in from time to time.

    So when Hollywood takes something that is distinctly Asian or could be Asian and casts white actors, the implicit message is that Asian actors will never be a box office draw. People will go Scarlett Johannson in a movie but they won’t see an Asian-American actor play the Major.

    Plus the internet comes up with infinite amounts of trolling. So you have white-guy libertarianish bros pointing to articles about whether Japanese people care about whether Scarlett Johannson is the Major (they don’t) but this ignores very real issues in the United States.

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    • So when Hollywood takes something that is distinctly Asian or could be Asian and casts white actors, the implicit message is that Asian actors will never be a box office draw. People will go Scarlett Johannson in a movie but they won’t see an Asian-American actor play the Major.

      Well, yes, but the Iron Fist *isn’t* distinctly Asian, at all. He’s the *white* Kung-Fu guy from the 70s Kung-Fu comics craze.

      There is perhaps a valid complaint that *that* is the comic they picked, instead of *other* heroes like that. They could have picked, for example, Shang-Chi.

      But asking for an Asian actor in *Iron Fist* is asking for a different story than Iron Fist is telling. Him being white (And an outsider) is actually a relevant part of the character, meaning this is a distinctly stupid non-change to get annoyed at.

      There are plenty of characters you can change the race of it without it mattering. Jessica Jones could be Asian. Matt Murdock could be Asian. Heck, Danny Rand could be *black*, that would work fine.

      But asking to make Danny Rand an *Asian*-American sorta changes something fundamental about the character.

      And it’s these sort of dumbass ‘Hey, it’s named Iron Fist and it’s about martial arts, why didn’t they cast an Asian actor? Herp derp I know nothing about that character.’ nonsense that causes people to dismiss the *quite legitimate* complaints about the lack of parts of Asian actors.

      It is valid to point out that Asian actors have no roles for them. It’s valid to point out that a lot of the famous comic heroes were white, but there is mostly *no reason at all* they have to remain as such when reimagined for movies and TV.

      But picking the ‘that story sounds vaguely Asian and martial-arts-y’ story, and trying to make *that guy* Asian is kinda dumb.

      And kinda racist, actually, when you think about it.

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      • “…trying to make *that guy* [Iron Fist] Asian is kinda dumb. And kinda racist, actually, when you think about it.”

        But the thing is, we’re in a very weird place now where saying “ethnic people have special stuff that’s specific to their ethnicity and nobody else should ever do those things” is…the non-racist attitude. Like, saying white people shouldn’t do martial arts because it’s part of the Asian identity rather than the White identity is not racist.

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        • Even weirder, this seems to come pre-packed with this assumption that everything “white” is ok for anyone to do. Which of course it is, but it has this icky undertone where “white people stuff” is the dominant culture we all share and then there’s these fringe things that are inherently different and NOT a part of mainstream culture, nor can they ever be. It is almost at times like a deliberate attempt to create a dominant, white culture that minimizes other cultures and directly prevents them from spreading.

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          • Its not so much white people stuff as protestant stuff. Protestant culture* is minimalist and in many ways more purely functional. Protestant food is, generally speaking, blander and is just there for the nutrients. The quintessential protestant food, the sandwich consists of meat, leaves and cheese between two pieces of bread. You don’t get more minimalist than that. Nowadays, of course many english sandwiches have all kinds of interesting chutneys in them, but those chutneys originally came from india.

            Catholic and Orthodox churches are more ornately decorated than protestant ones. The Christian wedding ceremony is much simpler than the Hindu one, but among the christian ones, the traditional protestant one is still simpler than the traditional catholic one. It does not take much to further pare down the protestant wedding into the standard non-denominational civil ceremony that is found in many commonwealth countries nowadays.

            Western clothes are easier to wear and in practically all instances that I can think of, more convenient. While Kurtha bottoms are more comfortable (especially if made of cotton, cut loosely, and given the warm weather), there’s such a thing as raw silk which is one of the scratchiest luxury fabrics to wear. Also, they don’t have pockets.

            Also, prayers and religious rituals are more elaborate for catholics, orthodox christians and hindus and is often in a dead language like latin or sanskrit.

            The point being that if you don’t care about preserving your own cultural traditions, it is very easy to slip into adopting protestant cultural standards. There is a reason why protestant culture exists as some kind of default: It is the most convenient (with the fewest taboos) and regression towards the mean is going to result in a cultural drift towards protestantism. About the only reason traditional ethnic foods have not died out is the invention of modern cookware. If we had to use a mortar and pestle to crush our herbs and spices, we would pretty much stop using them all the time too.
            * Contrast foods** and rituals in protestant countries with those from catholic, middle eastern, eastern orthodox or middle eastern countries let alone those in Asia.

            **Yes the french do interesting things with their breads, but it is still just bread and the french are mostly catholic anyway (nominally). (and chocolate doesn’t really count). The contrast between Catholic france and protestant England or for that matter, the protestant nords, in terms of culture and aesthetic serves, I think, to show just how strong the influence of religion is (As opposed to climate and resources) in shaping this no-frills ethos. IKEA could never have come from a Catholic*** country.

            ***While a plurality of christian Hollanders are catholic, the majority of christians are still of one protestant denomination or another.

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            • This is an interesting but not entirely accurate take on the subject. There have been European Protestants that certainly advocated a very minimalist approach to life in terms of materials and emotions. English speaking Calvinists or Calvinists derivatives seem especially prone to this. Most Protestants or culturally Protestant people would debate that Protestantism support a minimalist and purely functional culture.

              The Dutch Protestants were seen as being really glutinous eaters during the glory days of the Dutch Republic. The English were also known as prodigious eaters. The food might have lacked the spices of Asian cuisines but thats because they had to export them so use tended to be less. What we would call mass, secular culture only really emerged after England and the Netherlands went Protestant as well. The English playwrights and the Dutch painters and potters were because of not despite of Protestantism.

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    • I actually don’t forget that at all. I fully get the whole larger cultural debate and why it’s happening. I’m just not convinced that the solution is this damned if they do, damned if they don’t approach where our options are Ghostbusters reboots or Scarlett Johannssen whitewashing. I just fear that if companies perceive that shows that are anything other than suitably, generically multicultural, we will then completely lose the ability to tell authentic stories about the Asian experience because they’re too scared to step outside their comfort zones and take a chance on a non-stereotypical plotline.

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  7. I just watched a show called “Into the Badlands” that was fun and had an Asian lead. I’m sure it was bad in any number of ways but it was different and I recommend it.

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