Last weekend, during an online panel focused on the series “Daredevil,” actor Peter Shinkoda said former Marvel TV executive Jeph Loeb explicitly told the writers of the superhero series not to expand Shinkoda’s character, Nobu, because “nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people.”
(Neither Loeb nor Marvel Studios have responded to the claim, but season one showrunner Steven DeKnight tweeted, “No one ever tried to get me to downplay any of the characters in season 1.” DeKnight did not, however, address Nobu’s arc in season two.)
The words themselves may be shocking, but I want to be clear: The sentiment is not.
The words themselves may be shocking, but I want to be clear: The sentiment is not. It points to a much larger problem, both within Marvel Studios and Hollywood itself: the dehumanization of Asian — in this case, specifically East Asian — characters, by reducing them to their often-evil foreignness.
Shinkoda appeared in nine episodes of “Daredevil” during the first and second season. He played Nobu Yoshioka, a villain from the mysterious Asian organization the Hand that — over the course of the interconnected Marvel series “Daredevil,” “Iron Fist” and “The Defenders” — emerged as the main threat to New York City. The organization was introduced via Nobu and another Asian villain, Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho). Yet by the time the overall story came to a climax in “Defenders,” the Hand’s leader ended up being a white villain played by Sigourney Weaver. Essentially, “Daredevil” used Nobu and Madame Gao to introduce a “foreign” evil, only to give the final villain arc to a white actor.
This isn’t the only time Marvel has used an Asian supporting character to accelerate a white hero’s journey. In 2016’s “Doctor Strange” — a film that notably whitewashed the character the Ancient One by casting Tilda Swinton — the most prominent Asian character, Wong (Benedict Wong), exists solely to help the white hero, Stephen Strange, learn to harness vaguely Asian mystical powers. He coincidentally has no first name, because to have one would be to give him a life unrelated to his Asianness and value to Strange.
That same year, Marvel TV received backlash for casting a white actor as Iron Fist, a superhero who, essentially, receives magical powers from a mystical world of Asian monks. Though the character was white in the original comics, fans had hoped Marvel would correct the comics’ often-offensive portrayal of Asians by making the hero himself Asian, or part Asian. (Two years later, in 2018, Loeb appeared at San Diego Comic-Con’s “Iron Fist” panel wearing a karate uniform.)
Of course, the trope exists well beyond Marvel: The beloved “Karate Kid” (1984) and the Oscar-nominated “Last Samurai” (2003) are a just two examples of films that use Asian characters and, specifically, their seemingly innate knowledge of Asian fighting styles, to advance white protagonists.
It’s not that these specific portrayals are particularly offensive or bad, but together they create a portrait of Asians in a perpetual state of foreignness. It’s why actors of various East Asian ethnicities often play ethnicities that aren’t actually their own — like when Hollywood cast Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang as the Japanese lead in “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005).
Asian foreignness is what the industry is comfortable with, even in films actively advancing Asians in Hollywood. “Joy Luck Club” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” two of the two biggest Hollywood movies featuring all-Asian casts, are stories about Asian Americans’ connections to Asia. “Fresh Off the Boat,” the second major sitcom ever to focus on an Asian American family, similarly focused on a culture clash between Asians and non-Asians. While groundbreaking, it was criticized by the series’ own inspiration, Eddie Huang, for perpetuating Asian stereotypes.
Stories that explore Asian and Asian American identity as tied to immigration and heritage are real and valid — especially when coming from Asian and Asian American filmmakers.
Stories that explore Asian and Asian American identity as tied to immigration and heritage are real and valid — especially when coming from Asian and Asian American filmmakers. But the fact that they occupy so much of what little Asian representation we have is indicative of the accepted Hollywood belief that all stories about Asians must involve a foreign element. This belief makes it easy for a Hollywood executive, allegedly like Loeb, to discount Asian characters.
In “Daredevil,” once Nobu had fulfilled his purpose of connecting a white American hero to a nebulous Asian evil, he was seen as unimportant and cast aside. Shinkoda said Loeb said American audiences “don’t care about Chinese people and Asian people,” but, in my mind, what he was really saying is that Chinese and Asian characters don’t matter once they extend beyond a connection to the foreign. To give Nobu a life outside of his interactions with Daredevil would have been to allow him to exist as a complete person, separate from his ethnicity. He was valuable only in relation to his connection to this Asian mythology, and to change that, we must advocate not just for more Asian characters or even more Asian stories, but Asian American stories.
There is a breadth of Asian experiences left untouched by Hollywood; stories that could potentially show decision-makers and executives why Asian characters deserve to be seen as more than connections to foreign lands or legends. We must stop perpetuating the notion that Asians are inherently foreign or other and allow them to live on screen as we do in life: fully and unapologetically.