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Whitewashing in Comic Book Films and Television is an Issue

As comic book inspired films and television series continue to be more mainstream, these stories provide us with amazing and characters. Marvel Studios under the Walt Disney Studios umbrella is one of the most successful companies that make comic book based films and television shows. One of the bigger names in Marvel comics was Stan Lee, who unfortunately passed away in November of 2018. Stan Lee co-created characters many know and love such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Doctor Strange and the Fantastic Four. Most Marvel characters are instantly recognizable.

Some of these characters though suffer from unfortunate whitewashing, which is the casting of white actors for a role about non-white characters. One of these characters that comes to mind is Danny Rand, or Iron Fist. This idea came to me when I was sitting at the gym in my hometown and thought, “Has there ever been an Asian Iron Fist?” Needless to say, there has not. In the comic, Danny Rand loses his parents in the snow-covered mountains of Asia, while his father is searching for the mystical city of K’un-Lun. Danny makes it to the mystical city and trains there with Yu-Ti the August Personage of Jade and Lei Kung, the thunderer, and inherits the power of the Iron Fist. The canceled Netflix series based on the Iron Fist comic follows a similar narrative. The issue I have both with the comic and the Netflix series is the idea that when Asian culture is represented in pop culture, it is treated as an object rather than a subject. Other films have the same problem such as the “Karate Kid” and “The Last Samurai.” In the case of Iron Fist, martial arts is treated as a skill that Danny Rand uses to move his agenda forward, which is to get revenge on Harold Meachum, Danny’s father’s business partner who betrayed him on the snow-covered mountains. The Iron Fist story also follows the idea that when Asian men are in these stories, they are only there to propel the white hero into greatness: in Iron Fist’s case as a superhero.

I love Doctor Strange but he also suffers from the same problems Iron Fist has. Doctor Stephen Strange is a renowned neurosurgeon, who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. Stephen Strange travels to Tibet in search of a way to heal his hands. In Tibet, Stephen Strange meets the Ancient One who teaches him the mystic arts and was eventually given the powerful artifact, the Eye of Agamotto,  which helps him become the next sorcerer supreme. Similar to the Iron Fist story, an Asian male trains and propels a white man into greatness. In the film “Doctor Strange” that was released in 2016, the Ancient One was portrayed by Tilda Swinton. In the comics, the Ancient One is an Asian male but the film version is a white woman, which represents another level of whitewashing.

Whitewashing is an issue that not only affects the superhero genre but other films as well. It is a roadblock for diversity in films. Recent films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are two films that have broken the trend of whitewashing and created stories that represent diversity and embraces cultures as a subject. Whitewashing also distances people from films or television that relates to them, whether through their race or ethnicity. To me, Iron Fist would be a more relatable character to me if he was Asian-American or even Asian.  The Netflix adaptation could have created a narrative where Iron Fist was an Asian American but failed to do so and thus created another example of Asian culture and people being treated as an object rather than a subject.