Iron Fist vs. Freedom Beast
Superhero movies are largely exercises in nostalgia.
Dr. Strange is Dr. Strange, rather than Lady Mystical, or Captain Weird, or Saint Aardvark because I just made up Captain Weird and Lady Mystical and Saint Aardvark. There aren’t fifty year-old comics with any of them on the cover. People presumably read Dr. Strange when they were kids, or knew people who read Dr. Strange as kids, or at the very least, vaguely heard someone mention Dr. Strange at some point.
In any case, there’s some reservoir of goodwill and vague name recognition; a nostalgic something from which a giant corporation can spin a successful marketing campaign:
Of course, there’s nothing particularly wrong with having warm fuzzy feelings for a comic you read as a kid. If your heart beats a little faster at the thought of someone on screen shouting “By the hoary hordes of Hoggoth!”# who am I to criticize?
The problem, though, is that the past was a pretty sexist, racist time. Which means that most of the characters people feel nostalgic for are…rather homogenous.
Marvel and DC comics depicted a scattering of women and a sparser scattering of POC in the 50s, 60s and 70s. But for the most part, the decades-old characters, the ones kids revere and remember, are white guys. Even someone like Iron Fist, a character directly inspired by Chinese martial arts films, was written as just another ‘mighty whitey.’
In the origin story, Danny Rand, a white guy from the U.S., travels east to train in the mystical city K’un L’un, only to eventually become the ‘Iron Fist’ — a superior fighter, more powerful than all his Asian peers and enemies:
So, understandably, when Netflix picked up the series back in 2015, Keith Chow at Nerds of Color argued Iron Fist should be recast as an Asian-American. “For all the fans who might decry an Iron Fist racebend, do you really want yet another white-guy-is-better-at-being-Asian-than-the-Asians story?” Chow wrote. “If Danny is Asian American, the scenes of him embracing the ways of K’un-L’un can be viewed through the lens of cultural re-connection.”
Obviously, Netflix didn’t follow through. And if you talk to Iron Fist fans online, you get a sense of why it didn’t.
Many superhero enthusiasts are passionately invested in canon. Dr. Strange should have his silly cloak#, Luke Cage should wear a yellow shirt (however briefly)# and Rand should be the Danny Rand they know from the comics. They’re nostalgic for that Danny Rand, and respond to any proposed changes to his character with suspicion.
Fortunately, there is a way to cater to that nostalgia while simultaneously updating these characters for a world in which default whiteness (and for that matter default maleness) are no longer culturally acceptable.
Way back in 1989, comics writer Grant Morrison offered one possibility in issue #13 of his classic run on Animal Man…
In that story, Morrison worked with artists Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood to revamp an obscure character named B’wana Beast.
Canonically, B’wana Beast was Mike Maxwell; an adventurer (and another ‘mighty whitey’) who journeyed to Mount Kilimanjaro, where he received a mystic helmet and elixir granting him the power to control animals.
He’s also given the ability to combine two animals into one super-animal…
For various reasons, Maxwell decides at the story’s onset he doesn’t want to be B’wana Beast anymore. He’s ready to perform the ritual that will direct him to his heir, so he can finally pass on his loincloth. Almost all previous owners of the B’wana Beast title have been black, Maxwell mentions in a casual revision of canon. And, sure enough, the ritual points him to Dominic Mndawe, a black South African activist and journalist working against the then-in-power apartheid regime.
B’wana Beast and Animal Man rescue him as he is about to be murdered in his cell by a white policeman:
The subsequent transfer of Beastness from Mike to Dominic is a demonstration of legitimacy — the story stresses that Dominic, as a black hero, is not a break with the superhero past, but a continuation of it. However, the story doesn’t just change the color of the hero’s skin; it also directly addresses the uncomfortable oppressiveness of superheroes past.
When Mike tells Dominic he’s about to become B’wana Beast, Dominic’s immediate reaction is, “B’wana Beast, eh? That white imperialist title has got to go.” Mike is a bit put out at this implicit criticism, and gives a brief lecture: “I’m telling you right now — the Beast belongs to mythology. It was here before the whites and it will still be here when they’re gone. It’s beyond politics.”
“In South Africa, Mr. Maxwell, nothing is ‘beyond politics’ anymore,” responds Dominic.
Dominic then tells Mike about how he was shot in 1976 by security forces during a student strike in Soweto where hundreds of children were killed. He was only ten. “Where was B’wana Beast then, Mr. Maxwell?” Dominic asks. “Where was the African hero when African children were dying? I tell you, it won’t happen again.”
Morrison, Truog and Hazlewood weren’t just creating a new black hero; they were pointing out the way in which B’wana Beast, and superheroes in general, are rooted in white assumptions about justice and power. Why hadn’t B’wana Beast ever fought against apartheid? Well, because superhero comics see default political injustices as natural. Heroes fight against criminals who threaten the status quo, not against overarching social injustices like a corrupt white hierarchy.
Animal Man #13, though, tells a different story. Dominic ends up taking the name Freedom Beast, and with Mike and Animal Man, he prevents South African security forces from shooting demonstrators and arresting a leading resistance figure.
Alas, B’wana Beast was always a minor character, and no other DC creators ever really picked up Freedom Beast. An explicitly political, explicitly anti-racist resistance fighter was perhaps just a bit too out of the way for the American mainstream back in 1989 — or now, for that matter (you’d never catch Luke Cage murdering a racist policeman like Dominic does, with the narrative’s wholehearted approval). But while Marvel may not be willing to go as far as Morrison did in 1989, the B’wana Beast storyline can still provide a blueprint for escaping homogeny while being true to history.
Netflix could easily have had a white Danny Rand pass the Iron Fist mantle onto an Asian-American successor. As with the B’wana Beast story, such a narrative could be used to explore the intersection between whiteness, racism, and politics.
And as with the Beast, the second Iron Fist might be more willing to engage in explicit political action, rather than just fighting sinister Asian gangsters:
An Asian-American Iron Fist convincing Danny Rand that fighting ICE agents is the right thing to do? That sounds like a story worth watching to me.
Ultimately, comic book nostalgia is a limitation: it ties fans to the politics and the preconceptions of narratives written decades ago. However, as Morrison shows, that history can be a resource too. B’wana Beast may be out of date, but the reason he’s out of date is still uncannily culturally relevant.
Indeed, superheroes can be more adventurous than ever, granted they’re simply willing to pass the loincloth on.
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