Marvel Studios has actually done a pretty good job when it comes to diversity. Much like their comic book counterparts, they are attempting to move their characters to be more inclusive and actually reflect society as it looks today. When comic books first came into the public consciousness, just about all the characters were white, heterosexual males, because of the time period they existed in. As the landscape has changes to include women, minorities, and the LGBT community, so too have the characters in the comics. In the films, we have War Machine/Iron Patriot, Falcon, Black Widow, Peggy Carter, Gamora, Agent 13, Korath, Helen Cho, and many others. We will soon have Black Panther, Powerman, Captain Marvel, and many others.
Marvel Studios has also cast people of color for roles that were traditionally white characters: Nick Fury, Heimdall, members of The Warriors Three, and many others. Casting for Dr. Strange revealed that The Ancient One (traditionally seen as a person of Asian descent) will be played by a white woman (actress Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (who was from Transylvania) will be played by an African-American actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor). There was even talk that the new Spider-Man was going to be Miles Morales, before Marvel Studios confirmed that he would be Peter Parker. But the notion that Miles Morales will eventually be in Spider-Man movies exists as well. So Marvel doesn’t have a problem with changing the race/sex of characters for the sake of diversity and inclusion.
So there was hope that Danny Rand/Iron Fist would be another example of a diversity change for their characters that could work. There are arguments for and arguments against changing the race for that character.
That’s not how it was in the comic book, period. There are comic book purist that do get upset when the race/sex of a beloved character is changed for diversity’s sake. It’s argued that it’s “Affirmative-Action” casting. Danny Rand was the son of a wealthy business man who became orphaned in the mystical city of K'un-Lun. Being a white youth in this land, he had an “otherness” and needed to change/adapt in order to fit into a new society. He learned martial arts and went on to become the “Iron Fist” and harness the superhuman energy to strengthen his hands during combat. Like another orphaned wealthy superhero (Batman), he left after training to seek vengeance for his parents’ murder. While he was not able to seek vengeance, he then became a superhero back home.
Casting an Asian superhero as a kung-fu master does reinforce the “Asian ninja” stereotype. Often when Asians are included in film, it’s as the karate guru, or the super smart I.T. type person. If the first, official Asian superhero was introduced and his power is “super-karate” it could be interpreted as racist. I believe that is why they decided not to choose an actor of Asian descent for this very reason.
Marvel sure could use a hero of Asian descent. For young kids, it’s good to see someone in your group being the one who actually saves the day. It’s a great esteem booster as well and can increase sales not just for the movie/show, but for associated products (toys and comic books). Marvel also has an ugly history when it comes to Asian stereotypes, especially comic books that came out during World War II. Some of that negative imagery could be worked against by having him be a handsome hero.
He could still have “otherness” even if he was Asian. The Netflix Marvel TV shows often deal with adult themes and have a darker tone than their movie counterparts. One theme could be assimilation. The show could have him be a 3rd generation Asian-American, who has been completely assimilated in American culture who becomes orphaned in a country that he not only has no knowledge of, but a culture he is not connected to. He could be ridiculed by people in K'un-Lun as not being a “real” Asian, etc.
The theme of Iron Fist has a real Last Samurai feeling to it. Often in films and television, they have to show the perspective or plight of a minority group only through the eyes of a white heterosexual male. This is done usually for financial purposes, but it can also be interpreted as prejudicial.
The show did do auditions for actors of Asian descent, but ultimately cast Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones. It’ll be interesting to see him in this role, if only to see him play a much more different role than he played in Game of Thrones. Netflix has been on a roll with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and soon to be Luke Cage, so I’m sure they will do a great job with Iron Fist.