The following article contains spoilers for seasons one and two of Marvel’s Daredevil.
After Avengers Assemble blew blockbusters apart in 2012 and introduced the world at large to the concept of a "shared universe," it seemed like Marvel could create almost anything and fans - myself included - would lap it up without question. They literally made a film about a talking raccoon and tree-beast in space, and the world screamed “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!”
Personally, I get so much unbridled joy out of Marvel’s films, shows and comics that I am willing to excuse almost any fault on their part.
Marvel has an Asian problem, and as an Asian woman, it makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable.
Marvel’s next film release will be Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange is a gifted but arrogant surgeon, whose bad life decisions result in a car accident that shatters his hands. Unable to perform the delicate surgeries that made his name, Strange travels the world, desperately seeking increasingly esoteric remedies to heal his broken, shaking hands.
Eventually, high in the Himalayas, Strange finds the Ancient One, a wisened old man with mystical powers. He encourages Strange to find the inner good beneath his inherent selfishness and eventually educates Strange in magic, doling out Confucian quotes and faux-Buddhist wisdom to a white guy seeking enlightenment and redemption.
If he sounds familiar, he should - the Ancient One is one of Marvel’s resident Magical Asians, one of the most common and painfully persistent portrayals of people of color in television and film. If you haven’t heard of the Ancient One, you probably have heard of Mr. Miyagi (“wax on, wax off”) from The Karate Kid - arguably the most famous Magical Asian of all.
Relegating Asians to the role of spiritual advisors, guides and often literal sacrifices for a white protagonist, the Magical Asian is a clear example of how Orientalism remains stubbornly present in 21st century culture.
Orientalism, first introduced as a concept in a 1978 book by Edward Said, is the fetishization and exoticization of Eastern and Middle-Eastern culture and people by the Western world. Westerners have viewed the Eastern world as a fantasy of “strange religions and martial arts, bright colors and barbaric practices, unusual foods and incomprehensible languages, mysticism and magic, ninjas and kung fu” for centuries, and this inaccurate and imaginary Asian world has stuck around in modern culture.
Unfortunately, it’s become a glaring fault in Marvel’s otherwise relatively decent track record on diversity, particularly amongst its television presence. It’s network series, Agents of SHIELD, has continually had protagonists and antagonists of color, including a gay Latino character. Agent Melinda May, arguably the cast’s most impressive fighter, is a Chinese-American woman.
Marvel’s stable of Defenders/Hell’s Kitchen shows on Netflix (Jessica Jones, Daredevil and the upcoming Luke Cage, Punisher and Iron Fist) are also, for the most part, impressively diverse in their casting. In Jessica Jones, Jones stalks around a New York City that is as diverse as the real place, with everyday people of all colors succumbing to Kilgrave’s mind control. Jones’ love interest, Luke Cage, is an African-American man with his own superpowers.
However, as much as I love Steven S. DeKnight’s two seasons of Daredevil to date, it features two villains that are straight up racial tropes. Madame Gao and Nobu are both textbook 21st century examples of the "Yellow Peril." Best described as "Mystical Asian Gone Bad," Yellow Peril villains use their mystical powers and inevitable martial arts expertise for criminal ends. Although the Yellow Peril first appeared as a result of anti-Asian feeling in the late 19th century, the stereotype has persisted well into the 21st century, often taking - as they do in Daredevil - the form of triads and yakuza.
Madame Gao is a diminutive old Chinese lady, calm and zen-like in her manner, who enjoys painting watercolors of flowers when not running her triad’s thriving heroin business in Hell’s Kitchen. She speaks in Confucian-style quotes, and the first season of Daredevil alludes to her being much, much older than she looks. At one point she smacks hero Daredevil/Matt Murdock across a rooftop, a tiny woman mystically kung-fuing a skillful and highly trained vigilante into submission.
Shady Japanese businessman and yakuza boss Nobu Yoshioka is driven by honor and pride, and prone to doling out cruel and unusual punishment to those who cross him. He also happens to have incredible martial arts skills and almost kills Daredevil in hand-to-hand combat. His mystical powers - the most important of which is his apparent immortality - come from his association with the Hand, a generically Asian mystical organization with generically mysterious motivations.
Checking off the Yellow Peril characteristics of Daredevil’s villains, it seems clear that DeKnight and his team have been lazy with writing the show’s villains. This would be true, but for the rich characterization of chief villain Wilson Fisk, a white man. Although DeKnight has done a great job of fleshing out his protagonists and chief antagonist, his Asian villains in both seasons have been cheap stereotypes, with no nuance or depth. It’s a portrayal of Asians that has barely changed since the beginning of cinema.
So why do the Mystical Asian/Yellow Peril stereotypes stick? Put simply, they are a symptom of Orientalism. It is easier to pick and choose from Westernized Asian culture than to meaningfully engage with it. Examples are everywhere, from Rita Ora’s questionably “geisha-inspired” collaboration with adidas, the Japanese gibberish of Superdry to Julia Roberts’ “spiritual awakening” in Eat Pray Love.
Combine this view of Asia with the fact that people of color are constantly fighting for the right to tell their own stories in Hollywood, and it is uncomfortably clear that Orientalism is Western pop culture’s default position on Asians. Sadly, with Doctor Strange and Iron Fist, it looks like Marvel is continuing down this lazy route.
Most people are probably aware by now of the unusual casting choice made by Marvel for the Ancient One in Doctor Strange: Tilda Swinton. To their credit, Marvel recognized that the Ancient One is a terrible stereotype, and that casting an Asian actor would have perpetuated that stereotype.
However, they seem to have thought that by gender-swapping the role, they solved their awkward problem. They have created an entire film around a white man seeking enlightenment and healing from the Magical Asian world, but because they’ve cast a white woman to play the Magical Asian role, instead of an Asian actor, they think they’re good.
Nope. It’s like that scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where Nia tells her mother that her boyfriend is vegetarian, and her mother says “that’s okay, I make lamb!" Marvel doesn't understand the problem - that when white executives are in charge of portraying Asians, when people of color aren’t allowed to write stories about themselves, stereotypes are inevitable.
Taking a cue from Keith Chow at Nerds of Color, a campaign was launched by fans upon Marvel’s announcement of the Iron Fist show to cast an Asian-American actor as Danny Rand. Rand is the heir to a Wall Street fortune who loses both his parents on an expedition to the Magical Asian city of K’un L’un.
You know the rest from here: white boy Danny encounters a Magical Asian high in the mountains, learns Magical Asian Stuff from him - you can insert a Rocky training montage with Magical Asian music on it here - fights a dragon, and obtains the power of the Iron Fist. It’s a pretty lame and derivative origin story, one that’s been told time and time again in The Karate Kid, The Last Samurai and even with Ra’s al-Ghul and Bruce Wayne in Batman.
Casting an Asian-American Danny Rand would not only have created the first Asian-American superhero leading man, it would have given the character unique depth and nuance around his identity, as well as a platform for quietly addressing race issues.
Immigrant kids, Asian and non-Asian alike, can relate to constantly feeling like an outsider - for being not white in your Western home country, and too white when you go back to your supposed mother country.
Obtaining the power of the Iron Fist could be a powerful point of connection for an Asian-American with his personal history and heritage, rather than another story about white guy obtaining Magical Asian Stuff. The character of Daisy Johnson - played by Asian-American actress Chloe Bennet - undergoes a very similar story arc in Agents of SHIELD, so Marvel wouldn’t even be breaking new ground. Plus, imagine a plot-line where nobody guesses that Asian Rand is the hero, because there’s never been an Asian superhero.
With the Doctor Strange casting, Marvel supremo Kevin Feige made a big deal about updating a character for a modern audience, and shifting away from a stereotype - Iron Fist was an opportunity to turn a C-list Marvel character into one of the most important pop culture figures for a generation of Asians. Instead, Marvel cast lily-white Finn Jones as Rand, and in the first pictures of him on set he looks like an English backpacker fresh off the plane home from a Full Moon Party. This does not look good for turning back the tide of Orientalism in Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen.
The most frustrating thing about the persistence of the Magical Asian in the Marvel world is that it is so easy to avoid. There are a ton of talented people of color working in and around the comic book shared universes. One of Agents of SHIELD’s show-runners is an Asian-American woman, Maurissa Tancharoen, which may go some way to explaining the show’s excellent diversity and character arcs.
Gene Luen Yang, an American-born Chinese graphic novel author, is currently writing New Super Man for DC Comics, with a Chinese Superman named Kenan Kong. Acclaimed African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates just completed a run of Marvel’s Black Panther comic - an African-American writing a series about an African superhero. The Mindy Project, Master of None and Fresh off the Boat have proven the appetite for self-written Asian-American stories on television, and have been massively successful.
Marvel have so comprehensively missed the boat on this, and as an Asian Marvel fan I find that baffling and frustrating. I’m too much of a fan - and an optimist - at this stage to boycott Iron Fist and Doctor Strange. I’m hoping that Marvel listen to their fans of color and write a clever way out of the “white guy learns from or fights against magical stuff from Magical Asian” stories that they seem to keep pursuing.
But more people of color need to be involved with telling these stories and building these worlds, instead of them being built by white executives with Orientalist blinkers on. Until then, it looks like we’re stuck at the bottom of a mystical, temple-dotted, dragon-infested, snowy-white mountain, with no power or voice to climb up and conquer it.
For more on-point social commentary from this author, check out why women's sneaker options suck so much.