The second season of Daredevil provides two separate tales binding together to make for an even stronger whole. I enjoyed it—thoroughly—though it is plagued by themes that one would call problematic.
Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. I was delighted by the casting of Elodie Yung as Elektra. To finally have a woman of Asian descent take the female lead in a story that leans heavily on Asian martial arts and East Asian myths allowed Marvel to make a bold statement: it would not be following Hollywood’s insulting lead in erasing Asian people from their stories.
To be honest, I was deeply concerned that Marvel would do just that. (The casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist does not do much to assuage those concerns.) I was afraid that Marvel would cast a white actress as the originally Greek Elektra Natchios—that a white woman would be the face of Asian martial arts in the Marvel universe, to be surrounded by a slew of nameless Asian lackeys that would be quickly mowed down by Daredevil’s superior skill. I was fearful that we would see white men and women bringing justice to the overwhelmingly Asian American areas of New York via their mastery of Judo, Karate, and Muay Thai. I was afraid that all the heroes would be white, all the villains would be Asian, and all of the cultural elements cribbed by Marvel would be Asian as well. I was afraid that Asian people would be reduced to set pieces in white fantasies of Asian myths.
To be fair, we were provided with an ample sampling of the above. Daredevil’s depictions of the Hand and the Chaste—two mythical warring factions originating in Central Asia according to Marvel lore—were frustratingly unbalanced. The protagonists were a multicultural band of men; the antagonists were Japanese. In fact, if not for Elodie’s Elektra, none of the protagonists in a story about good versus evil—one spiraling out of ancient Asian cultures—would be Asian. That? Is both insulting and absurd.
To reiterate, damned if you do; damned if you don’t. What if Marvel had decided to cast an elderly Asian American actor as Stick, leader of the Chaste? While it would have been comforting to have a second person of Asian descent on the side of “good”—that choice would have certainly opened Marvel up to criticism. Is inclusion worth it when the role is that of an elderly “mystic Asian” who teaches the white hero to be all he can be?
Indeed the change of Elektra from white to Asian adds uncomfortable elements to the love triangle established in the second season that would not exist were all the actors of the same race. But instead we have a woman of color in the position of a succubus, tightly wrapped in red and black, dragging Matt Murdock further from his lofty position in the Western world. A woman who we are told inherently possesses a darkness within her. A woman who in every scene is set as a counterpart to the plucky—and white—Karen Page. A Karen Page who is draped in ivory and blue. A Karen Page who tries her hardest to bring both Matt Murdock and Frank Castle back from the brink. Back to her world. Back to a New York City where people of color exist on the fringes as civil servants, villains, and victims—but never heroes.
“Immigrant Africans, Caribbeans, and African Americans make up 25.1% of New York City’s population.”
“Asian Americans make up 11.8% of New York City’s population.”
“Hispanics and Latinos make up 27.5% of New York City’s population.”
A lot is riding on Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
The Marvel universe is split neatly into different factions, a clear (and wise) attempt by Marvel to appeal to fans of other genres while remaining safely nestled in the superhero realm. The Avengers and Spider-Man provide consumers with standard superhero fare; mutants, cosmic characters, and space explorers such as the Fantastic Four lean heavily on science fiction. Blade and Doctor Strange allow Marvel to explore horror and fantasy; street-level characters allow Marvel to explore neo-Blaxplotation, martial arts, and noir.
It is the latter that concerns me. And it is the latter that I see heading down a narrow-minded, well-worn path. And that path contains omnipresent white male heroes, a less competent man of color providing support, and a scrappy but beautiful white woman with a well-timed kick or pithy comment to show that “ladies rock too.”
Dear God, am I tired of that. But it seems to please Hollywood considerably and I have the option not to watch. I’ve been exercising that option a great deal lately. I don’t have to settle in for another Avengers movie. Or Ant-Man. Or Fantastic Four. Make a million movies in that vein and I won’t be troubled in the slightest (or found in the theater).
But Netflix’s slate of Marvel shows is different. Why? Because the shows are set in New York City. Because the comic books that the shows pull from are overwhelmingly influenced by African American films and television shows, Chinese action flicks, Japanese manga, and African American and Chinese American ethnic enclaves. To reduce black and Asian characters to sidekicks in these stories, to roll out with a Defenders team that includes one lone black man as the only person of color? Is decidedly racist. A New York City where the stories of people of color are subordinate to the stories of white people is a lie and a travesty. I want the truth of equality. I was born there. I know New York City’s reality. My family is a part of it. My friends are a part of it. And a large percentage of them are not white.
A chunk of them are however! So, once more, what I what is equality. Marvel has done a fabulous job weaving a thread of the story of the Irish in New York City into Matt Murdock’s tale. I am crossing my fingers that they do the same with Frank Castle’s Italian American background. (Don’t let the last name fool you. If you think for one moment that the Punisher isn’t Italian I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) But I would have much preferred a series featuring Angela Del Toro to one featuring Jessica Jones. And I am disappointed that a biracial actor was not chosen to play Iron Fist. Moreover, Luke Cage’s introduction in Jessica Jones has me skittish in regards to how African American culture in New York City will be showcased.
As I’ve said, a lot is riding on Luke Cage and Iron Fist. And we’ll discuss that a bit later.