Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hyphenated Identities: Netflix's Iron Fist and UZU

Marvel’s collaboration with Netflix has been a game changer for superhero cinema. The mini-series format gave both Daredevil and Jessica Jones the kind of deep backstory and character development that fans appreciate, but that is difficult to develop in the limited screen time available in the movies. I, for one, am really looking to the next installments in this project, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and the eventual crossover into the Defenders. Of all the series, the one I am looking forward to the most is the one we have heard the least about – Iron Fist.

When he was conceived in the 70s, Iron Fist was a very deliberate attempt to tap into the martial arts movies that were prominent in pop culture. As Danny Rand, he was, predictably, a yellow-haired white guy who, after being orphaned as a child, discovered a mystic city and received martial arts training and powers. This did not seem too odd back when “everybody was kung fu fighting,” but by today’s standards of diversity and equity, Rand’s ethnic background has the scent of colonial appropriation. Of course, this did not matter to me, a nerdy white kid that loved comics and had a hankering for the martial arts. Iron Fist was a no-brainer, and one of my favorites.

These days, though, I see the necessity for diversity in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe and, consequently, the need to sometimes reinvent characters.  Changing the gender or race of a given character shouldn’t matter, but when you are altering someone’s childhood memories, it should be handled with care. I usually support these changes, but in some cases they have felt forced.  To be convincing, these changes have to align with what is essential about the character and then maintain that essence across perceived boundaries of race.

I have seen some discussion about Iron Fist in this regard, with some fans speculating that he should be cast as Asian in his Netflix series. As a fan, I would be the first to say that the casting should stay true to the comic book.  I can, however, see the point in an Asian Iron Fist, especially since this particular ethnic group is sorely underrepresented in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Part of the reason why this reinvention seems to make sense at first glance, however, is due to essentialized stereotypes about Asian people.  Although it might result in more a diverse Defenders roster, it would not help to dispel such prejudices. It would actually reinforce them.

There is, however, way to sidestep this issue, or at least address it in a way that might actually serve to deepen the character rather than flatten him, and that is to play Danny Rand as an Asian-American. By this I mean that Iron Fist's alter ego grew up America, perhaps as a second or third generation son of immigrants, and identifies himself as American. Asian-Americans deal with distinct and complex stereotypes that arise in the rift between identifying as American and being perceived as Asian.

Canadian band Yamantaka//Sonic Titan use similar tensions as inspiration. They examine their own authenticity by referring to traditions that they identify with, but have been pushed aside by modernity. Their debut album piqued my interest in a couple of years ago, and although their second album UZU did not crack last year’s top 20, it has been interesting enough to warrant revisiting on several occasions.  I admit that I am not always convinced by Yamantaka//Sonic Titan from a purely musical standpoint, but I do find their carefully constructed identity compelling enough to keep me coming back.

While most might watch Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and see a noisy new-wave reinterpretation of KISS makeup, a seasoned prog fan might also recall Peter Gabriel's costuming in his early Genesis days, especially his "Britannia" character (seen right).  The latter is probably a fairer comparison, as Gabriel intended to make a cultural reference, but Gabriel's cultural background and ethnicity is incontrovertibly  British.  Yamantaka//Sonic Titan juxtapose noh-inspired makeup and First People chanting across cultural boundaries in ways that are less satirical.  Collisions like these in their artwork and imagery subtly deepen the listening experience and paint an engaging picture of culturally hyphenated identities.

It would be similarly engaging to follow an Asian-American Danny Rand that experiences tension between how he feels he is perceived and his own self-image. Perhaps he might feel the weight of his heritage and, feeling out of touch with it, reconnects with it through his transformation into Iron Fist. Conversely, he might feel encircled by an ethnicity that he rejects, but finds that fate draws him though an experience that allows him find his own unique way to “be” both Asian and American. There are probably other scenarios that, not being Asian-American myself, I cannot imagine, which is exactly why they warrant nuanced investigation.  Iron Fist could then be made uniquely relevant in a way that broadens horizons while embellishing (not reinventing) an already established childhood icon of many.

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