'Iron Fist' slammed pre-release for Asian tropes – now that it's available, what do reviewers say?

Before it debuted on March 17, 'Iron' was the subject of early criticism for its story of a white man who learns martial arts after surviving a plane crash. Now that reviewers have seen the show, some say that criticism was warranted.

David Giesbrecht/Netflix
'Iron Fist' stars Finn Jones (l.) and Jessica Henwick (r.).

Before the arrival of “Iron Fist,” the latest series to come from a Marvel-Netflix team-up, some pop culture consumers found the show’s storyline offensive. Following the show’s full season debut on March 17, “Iron” has not only received reviews panning the series’ story, but has also renewed criticism about its depiction of Asian characters and themes.

“Iron” stars Finn Jones as Danny Rand, a member of a wealthy family who learns martial arts from monks in the Himalayas and is believed to be dead until he comes back to New York after a 15-year absence. Jessica Henwick, Jessica Stroup, and Tom Pelphrey co-star. 

Prior to the show’s debut, complaints included concerns over the show’s storyline and of the decision to cast a white actor, in keeping with the original comic, rather than change Iron Fist's character. 

"Critics who call the show a missed opportunity say it aligns closely with old Asian tropes," New York Times writer Daniel Victor wrote in early March, noting that "some fans saw the Netflix adaptation as a chance to cast an Asian-American lead. That, they said, would help smooth out some of the thorny racial issues, while giving an Asian-American actor the kind of leading part that has been hard to come by." 

Similar concerns arose when actress Tilda Swinton was cast as the character known as The Ancient One in the Marvel movie “Doctor Strange,” which was released last November. In the original series' comics, however, The Ancient One is a Tibetan man.

As noted by Mr. Victor, critics say Iron Fist's casting is yet another lost opportunity when an Asian actor could have been onscreen. "Nothing can be more frustrating than the fact that there aren’t enough roles that [Hollywood] allows us, and then to take a role that is written Asian and turn it into one that you can no longer be considered for is adding insult to complete injury," actress Maggie Q told the Hollywood Reporter, discussing "whitewashing" in general. 

Now that “Iron” has been released and reviewers have had the chance to see some episodes, what do they say about the concerns?

After watching early episodes, Variety writer Maureen Ryan also sees the show as a missed opportunity, and asks why Ms. Henwick or another Asian actor could not be the star. “After all, part of what made ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘Luke Cage’ stand out were the distinct identities and concerns their protagonists carried into battle,” she writes. “Imagine an ‘Iron Fist’ in which an Asian actor with a great deal of presence and real fighting chops (which Jones lacks) plays a man trying to reclaim his business empire from a group of white characters who don’t trust him and underestimate his skills.”

As for what is in fact onscreen, Ms. Ryan writes that “even if you can put aside issues of cultural appropriation – and the ham-fisted ‘Iron Fist’ doesn’t make that easy, given that it feeds its yoga-bro lead character a series of inert lines about Shaolin wisdom and Buddhist teachings – this superhero drama just feels inessential.”

Vulture writer Matt Zoller Seitz also felt that early concerns were warranted. “You’ve probably also heard that Iron Fist is a big bag of Orientalist clichés,” Mr. Seitz wrote. “This is true. It’s far from the worst of its kind, but coming on the heels of ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘Luke Cage,’ both of which took greater risks with both style/mood and cultural point of view, the show feels like a regression.”

Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic was similarly troubled. “They went all in on the Orientalism, setting a fight scene in the very first episode in the middle of a Chinatown parade, in which Danny actually puts on a mask he purchases from a street vendor in order to blend in,” she writes. “It’s an accidental metaphor that speaks volumes about the show’s clumsy footprint…. ‘Iron Fist’’s decided unwokeness is notable, particularly when Danny lectures Colleen, who is of East Asian descent, on the right way to channel her internal force.”

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