I don’t have anything specifically against Iron Fist, but we need to talk about race and characters and expectations. Iron Fist is as good a place to start as any.
As always, we need to draw a distinction between the real world (i.e. the world where people created this character and his universe) and the fictional world (i.e. the world the story takes place in.)
This is vital. Because we’re really having two distinct but related conversations. There are two reasons Danny Rand is white. The real world reason is that creators chose to make him white. The fictional world reason is that his plane crashed in the Himalayas. We cannot simply elect to ignore one aspect in favor of the other.
Now, I don’t believe Danny Rand was ever meant to be a White Savior archetype. He was simply created in a time when it made more sense for a mainstream character to be white. Sure, there were exceptions at the time but not many. Most commercially viable comic book characters at that time were white males. This wasn’t necessarily because comics gave a damn about that, but if you were going to sell a mainstream comic, you made certain automatic choices.
Everything about Danny Rand’s origin is built around justifying that choice. Not as a way of making Danny Rand superior, but just because it was an easier sell to make a kung fu hero who was white. There’s little sense in arguing about (though I’m sure someone will). The point is that there was a real world reason to make Danny white and a fictional world justification of it. That justification works just fine, by the way. It’s not especially unbelievable or contrived by comic book superhero standards.
Fast forward thirty years. We’ve become more culturally aware of certain awkward ideas that we once ignored. The idea of a white man becoming a supreme badass archetype of another culture is tricky. Not impossible. Just a lot more complex. Some writers can make it work, and with sensitivity, it isn’t quite as bad as it once was. However, we must acknowledge that difference in assumptions we now live with.
Iron Fist the show fails to understand these ideas, and doesn’t really work to counter them. The recent Legend of Tarzan movie, for instance, tried to make the story about the evils of colonial encroachment, went out of its way to give the indigenous people personalities beyond superstitious native, and even cast Samuel L. Jackson to have a prominent black actor among the cast. It had mixed results, and the movie is by no means a classic. But it at least tried to update Tarzan and his world. (I love Tarzan, but I often think that’s a lost cause, but that’s a post for another day.)
Iron Fist, however, mostly just flounders. It doesn’t help that they didn’t cast someone with martial arts experience in the title role. Why do that? The discussion would probably be very different if, whatever ethnicity, Iron Fist actually exhibited some martial arts chops. It’s not like Marvel hasn’t proven itself capable of delivering great martial arts experiences. Daredevil has its flaws, but it knows how to put together an action scene.
Yes, race is a complicated business. There are those who say it’s racist to assume that Iron Fist MUST be Asian. They’re right in some regard, but they’re also overlooking the real world issues behind the show. Personally, I’m not bothered that Iron Fist is white. I’m bothered that he’s white and didn’t know any kung fu (David Carradine anyone?). I’m also bothered that most every Asian character is a bad guy. I’m bothered not because these aren’t all justified in the show’s universe, but because they’re all decisions made by people in the real world who seemingly should know better.