Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Final thoughts on Iron Fist

First, goddamn am I well past sick and fuckin' tired of talking about this shit.

Ok, now, I can never stop loving Roy Thomas. He wrote the Conan the Barbarian comics I grew up on that led me to the original Robert E. Howard stories, to naming my son Conan. There are other reasons, but that's the big unbreakable reason I never could stop.

That said, this interview he recently gave, in which he discusses Iron Fist, Iron Fist Co-Creator Roy Thomas: 'Complaining About Cultural Appropriation And Crap Like That Makes Me Furious' by Caitlin Busch, is tone deaf as hell. It's just embarrassing. It would be difficult for me, without knowing better already, that the person being interviewed wasn't a drooling moron.

"Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either."

Let's read that back, "Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that ________ isn’t a Colored Person, or whatever word? I know Colored People isn’t the right word now, either."

Nice work.

"He was a character for a comic book at a different time. It’s very easy to second-guess anything. You can argue about Tarzan, you can argue about almost any character who came up then is bound to be not quite PC by some later standard or other."

Would anyone even consider adapting Tarzan without updating it for the age we live in rather than the one Burroughs was writing it in? Nobody outside the Klan or the Trump administration.

So, here we're in drooling moron territory.

"Okay, so you can make some adjustments," he says.

Alright, so what was the point in even bringing up that other thing than?

"If they wanted to kill off white Iron Fist and come up with one who wasn’t Caucasian."

Or you could, while adapting various elements for a new medium, just make an adjustment to that.

As I said in The generic white guy, he says, "I would have found it easier to write about a Caucasian, so that’s one reason I probably did it."

Per the co-creator, he's not a white guy based on some larger plan or design sense to his character. He's a white guy because the creator is a white guy and so a white guy was the first thing he thought of.

Frankly, if he didn't discuss Netflix discussion before, the whole rant following the question "You mentioned before all of the whitewashing controversy that’s been swirling around Iron Fist. Could you expand on that a bit?" would leave one under the impression he thought someone was suggesting they alter the original comics or something that has nothing at all to do with the current discussion.

It's like listening to a senile relative, more sad than illuminating. He doesn't seem like he's even attempting to engage in a current discussion on this question in the real world and the current time.

The problem with the show, however, is that, much like Roy Thomas made Iron Fist white because he's white, and he just didn't think of a different notion, Marvel's Iron Fist seems have been done because someone decided that Iron Fist was one of the characters they decided to put in Marvel's The Defenders, so they gave him a show leading up to it. Nowhere during the show do they seem to have come up with a reason for the show to exist on its own. As William Bibbiani tweeted, here, "Two hours into 'Iron Fist.' So far I haven't seen any indication that it has a point of view, a style, a theme or a reason to exist."

Despite my issues, I was well prepared to think this show was yet another Schadenfreude Gangbang Lightning Rod, like Ishtar or John Carter, and it certainly is. That phenomenon is not reserved for things that are better than their reputation. There are plenty of bad enterprises that everyone still lined up to see who can get the best shot at.

And I'm sure everyone smelled blood with "Iron Fist". With all of the success Marvel has been having with movies and TV, the idea that they'd finally dropped the ball with one was all the bait people needed to jump on and take their turn.

I hate to take part in such things, but it really is a mess, and I feel like, having already put way too much time discussing this, I should cover it.

None of the characters make any sense. Early on, I thought it was like the writers didn't have a common well to draw from on who the characters were, like no character work was done together or provided to them or an outline of the characters so they could give them any kind consistency as themselves or as part of their arcs. Having finished it, I think it was just because they all needed to make wild leaps in order for all of the unreasonable twists to happen, and creating internally consistent characters who can withstand those kinds of twists is harder work than the writers of "Iron Fist" were prepared for.

Here's where the show needed a unifying notion to piece it together. Having an Asian-American showrunner could have really given it a focus. For one thing, the much touted "outsider" theme is essentially non-existent on the show. It gets lip service in two scenes. An Asian-American could have tapped into being an outsider among Asians and Americans, which is something that many Asian-Americans express, and used that theme that enough people find important in "Iron Fist" that it comes up in literally every discussion of this subject.

I recommend Marvel Almost Had An Asian-American "Iron Fist," But They Blew It by Hoai-Tran Bui for some really well expressed thoughts on how an Asian-American lead could have benefited the show.

I know, the kneejerk anti-political correctness brigade is always convinced that serving diversity is somehow working against character and story. First of all, because they believe political correctness is some kind of real force, their ability to make reasoned judgments should be considered dubious at best.

But even considering that something like that is something that can happen, and has happened, whatever name you put on it, that's still just a result of crappy execution. Marvel made a point of having a woman showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg, as showrunner for Marvel's Jessica Jones and an African-American showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, for Marvel's Luke Cage. There are legitimate criticisms of both of these shows, but their ability to use the experience of being female and of being African-American into the fabric and details of the stories is their greatest strength, which is borne out in the consistently better reception both received from both critics and the public at large.

Yes, you could have found that focus in, say, martial arts. Have a showrunner who is like a Joe Lansdale, who martial arts is a significant part of his life.

And I, of all people, understand that this is fiction and there are other ways around these things, like simply research, but on "Iron Fist" the lack of real interest in martial arts shows in every detail of the show, from the abysmal screen execution of the fights to the way the martial arts and their philosophies are discussed so lazily, like the folks involved watched a couple of episodes of Kung Fu and read a Wikipedia article, but didn't bother to engage in any of it as meaningful.

You can read You don't know kung fu, Iron Fist by Aloysius Low for a good perspective at how it fails at portraying Kung Fu.

I could go on and criticize the acting and casting choices. I could note how even the very talented David Wenham, who I've seen singled out for praise in a number of places, is ultimately reduced to working with the subtlety of Daffy Duck or how even Rosario Dawson, whose Claire Temple has been a highlight on each of the previous series, is reduced to a rudderless spouter of platitudes in order to produce something that resembles internal conflict. Ultimately, it's almost impossible to blame any of them, because clearly they're all, to one extent or other, victims of the poor writing and directing all through the show.

In the end, the show is like the pieces of a Marvel/Netflix show pieced together without a lot of care or understanding why they worked in their previous contexts. On that level, I think it will be a good signpost for them to make some adjustments to these familiar, growing to be overfamiliar, elements and try to find ways to make their coming shows/seasons fresher.

There's potential in some of the characters to go in new directions. And there are always other characters to expand to. My friend Chris Neri suggested the Miles Morales Spider-Man. There are many reasons that's unlikely, next to impossible, but it's the perfect choice. It's both a significantly different tone from the one they've been working and a character who would fit nicely into that world. While it might be impossible, it's a good benchmark for what they should be looking for in a new character to add to their lineup.

And that's so much more than I ever wanted to write about goddamn Iron Fist.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Stories we tell

I mentioned the idea of the stories we tell and how they affect us, as a community and as people, in The generic white guy. In that case, I was talking about diversity. Diversity is something we've allowed Hollywood to drop the ball on, and I believe that's had numerous negative effects on society as a whole.

It's not the only failure of our storytelling, though.

We tell Yojimbo a lot. We only rarely tell The Seven Samurai. I partly chose these because they not only illustrate my point, but also because, both being movies directed by Akira Kurosawa, I won't credit one moviemaker over another in the choices. If it makes it easier for some, however, substituting A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven won't change anything I'm discussing here.

We tell the story of the individual, usually the story of the individual who is either better than the community or, as here, gets one over on the community. We rarely tell stories about the value of communities.

There are multiple factors that come into this. I think that the rise of the notion of the director as auteur has made it an attractive position for people who see themselves as uniquely able to tell stories, and, as such, inclined toward stories about a single "chosen one" who is uniquely able to save the day. It is also the story that's easiest to turn into a repeatable formula, which is important for studios that are now all run by corporations that need to see why it will work.

This is also the easiest story to tell in a movie that runs 90-120 minutes. Adding more and more characters to represent community is difficult. The Seven Samurai is nearly twice as long as Yojimbo, although The Magnificent Seven is only a half-hour longer than A Fistful of Dollars. On a television series, it's easier to stretch that out and look at the community. In fact, if you are telling an over-arcing story, it becomes difficult not to expand to a community, if only because you have to show all of the details and events.

We used to have a lot more stories of communities. Even when Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo in part as a response to the idea in High Noon of the marshal trying to recruit amateurs to help in his fight against a gang of criminals, he still surrounds John Wayne with Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Rick Nelson, because teamwork was important.

A rote peek at my favorite movies would, I'm sure, offer plenty of examples of individuals who have to go off on their own to win the say. Dirty Harry leaps to mind. I'm not ashamed of that or talking those movies down. I don't think the individual who saves the day's natural opposite is the community comes together to save the day, it's opposite is closer to the morally indefensible Complainer is Always Wrong trope of '80s TV cartoons. I think there's a place for both individual and community victories in our stories.

The problem, however, is when there are too many stories of individuals who solve things while everyone around them does nothing or even actively works to thwart them, is that we begin to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories and neglect our need for our community. We also see the solution to our problems as being a strong-willed individual who will ride in and fix everything single-handed. That's how a motherfucker like Trump gets elected president. People believe too strongly in that mythology.

We're seeing more teams. The Marvel shows thus far have indeed forced characters who would by nature tend toward working on their own, and forced them to look to others for help. The newest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, and Guardians of the Galaxy both handle teams in an organic manner that tell good stories about people working together.

Nothing is ever as simple as can be covered in a blog post, and certainly not mine, but I think it's important to see what stories we're being told and how they affect us and the world around us. We eventually internalize and, in some manner, believe in the stories we tell ourselves the most, so it's good to occasionally look to see if it's one that we are proud to stand behind.

The generic white guy

I never think of being white as a defining element of who I am. It feels like some kind of happenstance, like my height or my shoe size. I know that this is an experience I have that's due to white privilege, and I don't kid myself otherwise. At least, I don't when it occurs to me to think about it at all. But no one bothers reminding me that I'm white, as I go about my day.

I'm always confused when other white people thing of being white as a thing in itself. It always seems like they must be making it up, but it often seems they're not.

This isn't idle. I'm not unaware of the background that makes me white and it's not abstract to me. My maternal grandmother came to the US from Norway as a child and my great-grandparents were alive until I was in high school. A degree of my whiteness is not abstract to me. It's specific to my being descended from specific people from a specific place. But again, I don't think about it that much, except when I think that it's impossible to get decent lefse or when my brother gives me rømmegrøt he makes. Or when a vile fuckstick is elected president and I think "Would it be any easier for me to emigrate to Norway?"

By the same token, though, I have to remind myself as a creative artist, that when I'm creating characters, diversity is better. It's better on every level.

We tell ourselves stories and those stories are important. Humans have developed the ability to understand our world through storytelling. Any time a teacher or lecturer, at least a good one, wants to make a real point to drive something home, they'll tell it as a story or tell a story that associates with it. We internalize and process stories we hear, and they build how we understand our world.

So when the we live in a market in which the biggest stories, the ones we all hear and know, are all about centered around white people, in which white people are nearly always the most important people in the stories and, if there are people of color at all, they are just people who helped those really important white people do their really important stuff, that's the message we're telling everyone, over and over.

There was a real movement that started after World War II, but really started to get moving properly in the late '60s to early '70s, to show more diversity in our media. Somewhere in the '80s that fell off. I don't think there was any conscious decision made, but it was sort of realized there could be one major black movie star at any given time and little was done to elevate anyone else beyond moderate success at side parts or character roles as long as that one guy was reigning. I talked about the half-assed attempt to maintain an Asian star, too, in Issues around Iron Fist. It could be covered in more detail, but I'm not going to today.

So, we're back to being not much further ahead than we were just after World War II really. A world in which any story about "some guy" is always definitely about some white guy.

Most of our comics heroes were created that way. There's nothing in the whiteness of Bruce Wayne or Reed Richards that makes them need to be white. They're just white because all character were white. I don't imagine it ever occurred to their creators to make most characters another race any more than it occurs to me to that I'm white at any given moment of my life. It's the blank slate. Again, "some guy" is some white guy by default.

A few of them have had backgrounds grafted on later, a few stuck well enough that anyone who isn't an avid fan of the character would know it, like Daredevil is Catholic and... maybe there's another one I'm not thinking of.

Especially because you're learning stories from the stories you know, and the most stories most people know are about white guys. So you just start with your building blocks and give a name, the kind of name that guys get in stories you know, and those are white guy names, which further leads you to feeling like their a white guy. It wasn't until guys like Jack Kirby and Tony Isabella started working to develop non-white, usually black, characters that they existed at all, and they struggled - and often continue to struggle, to be more than characters defined by their ethnicity.

And at the end of this path, we come to where we all are now, where the racists are taking over again, because more and more people are comfortable with a kind of white guy standard. There are more complications and many of them involve the stories we tell ourselves, about how communities get in our way, and the really good guys slough off the dead weight of everyone around them and take care of business on their own, but those aren't what we're considering today.

So, when you come to 1974 and Roy Thomas is putting together his story of the rich kid who is lost in the mysterious east and learns the mystic ways, I see no reason to conceive he weighed the options of various cultures. Iron Fist's Danny Rand is kind of a lazy mix-up of Batman's lost parents myth with the recently revamped Green Arrow origin with an Eastern twist. Can I swear he'd never considered the possibilities of Asian-American kid, who would be at once connected to and an outsider to the culture he's immersed into? Of course not, but I'd frankly hope he was just going about the usual easy process of hammering out one more character in the same way he had others before, because the second way is much more interesting.

A second or third generation non-white immigrant, who in the world of the US is still to some degree viewed as foreign and part of a world that's foreign to him, plunged into the foreign world to find himself treated as foreign to it as well. It just has so many more branches to explore dramatically, even if you think Shang-Chi already filled your diversity quota.

Considering the options, as a relatively young white guy at a time when cultural complexities such as the ambivalence many Asian-Americans can feel toward both their Asian and American identities was not discussed openly, when not only did "some guy" mean some white guy, but some rich guy definitely meant some rich white guy, it just makes more sense that Danny Rand was another comic book generic white guy.

In 2017, it seems the bare minimum of telling a story about Asian culture would involve telling a story that uses the better understanding that even a below average person has now. The bar is simply higher now. We've all been exposed to more, whether we like it or not.

I don't know that the change would have been enough to fix whatever is allegedly wrong with Marvel's Iron Fist, that's causing it to be the big first Marvel project to get the thumbs down from critics, or even that I'll necessarily agree with them that it is wrong.

I get stumbling into not telling a story as effectively as you'd wanted. I get that sometimes people don't react to things the way creators expect and that's part of the challenge. I just think, were it me, if I were going to go down with "Iron Fist", I'd want to do it while making the same kind of concerted effort to represent Asian culture that Marvel's Jessica Jones did representing women and Marvel's Luke Cage did representing African-Americans. If the producers feel like they made that effort here, then they have at the least failed in communicating that effort to the public.

Hopefully, this is the last I'll bother to write about this, because while I care a lot about diversity, and I care some about the Netflix/Marvel series, I've really stretched my limit on interest in Iron Fist.

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