Let’s talk about racebending. Racebending is the concept of taking an established character and changing their race — the term specifically refers to creating characters of color (since the opposite would be whitewashing). Many fanartists who are people of color use the tactic to see themselves in their favorite characters.

However, I’ve noticed creators and fans alike using racebending recently as an easy fix. Creators can’t racebend without careful consideration, or else it has consequences. This has shown in both the canon of some recent Marvel shows as well as the requests of the fans. The two best examples are Ben Urich and Danny Rand.

Ben Urich is an example of creators using racebending in a way that is ineffective. Danny Rand is an example of fans demanding racebending in a way that would likely be just as ineffective. In contrast to these examples, Marvel has used racebending effectively in the past with Nick Fury, Heimdall, and Valkyrie.

Ben Urich in the Comics

Ben Urich is a journalist character from Marvel comics. In the comics, he’s an unassuming white man, although his plainness hides his significance to many stories. Ben leads a somewhat unconventional life due to most of his journalism catching him up in the affairs of superheroes. The comics present Ben as a determined, strong man with an even stronger moral compass.

Ben involves himself heavily with Spider-Man and members of the Defenders in the comics. Predominately, Ben has a lot of ties to Matt Murdock. As a journalist for the Daily Bugle and the Pulse (a supplement specifically about superheroes), Ben spends a lot of his time in comics exposing villains’ true identities.

Ben Urich as he appears in the comics.

Ben’s pursuit of the truth lands him in danger often, and this remains true in DAREDEVIL on Netflix. However, there are two large differences between the Ben Urich of comics and the one we see on DAREDEVIL. Firstly, the Ben in the comics always seems to scrape out of near-death situations a bit worse for wear, but alive. Ben Urich in DAREDEVIL is dead — and he’s also black.

Why Racebending Didn’t Work

DAREDEVIL choosing to portray Ben Urich as a black man was a fantastic decision up until the show killed him off. There’s no reason for Ben’s story in the comics to belong specifically to a white man. A tough-on-the-outside soft-on-the-inside detective trope doesn’t dictate a certain race. It felt wonderful to have a character like Ben Urich on DAREDEVIL in a world where people of color don’t get much representation.

Then, within the span of an episode, things went wrong. Kingpin murders Ben Urich in the first season of DAREDEVIL. The writers have explained why they felt the need to kill Ben off, but I think they might want to look closer at what they’ve actually done.

Ben Urich’s funeral after his death at the hands of Kingpin

It’s a world full of tropes that cause characters of color (especially black characters) to drop like flies in media. DAREDEVIL decided to make a character black and then kill him.

I doubt it was on purpose — it’s likely they targeted Ben because he was one of the kindest characters in the show, and they did truly want to show Kingpin as despicable. However, the fact that the white version of Ben Urich lives on in the comics after multiple brushes with death makes Ben’s death in DAREDEVIL feel not quite right.

How It Could’ve Worked

I don’t think there’s a chance of bringing Ben back in any upcoming seasons of DAREDEVIL. Deaths aren’t very permanent in comic books, but television isn’t quite as flexible as a medium. The fact that this version of Ben is likely dead for good means that the representation we were given in DAREDEVIL was pretty quickly snatched away. What the writers can do is give the audience representation again by introducing new characters.

As I said, I did agree with the idea of racebending Ben Urich at first. Although, one of the most important things about racebending is to examine how the change in race will change the narrative. In DAREDEVIL, it seems like it slipped the creators’ minds that making Ben black and then killing him off would fit directly into a trope that black characters suffer often.

The simple fix would have been not killing off Ben. The ideas behind Ben Urich’s death in DAREDEVIL don’t even seem to consider the racebending aspect of things. There’s the matter of proving Kingpin was truly despicable, and whether that needed to be done at this point. More importantly, killing off Ben seems like a decision made to prove that “no one is safe” in DAREDEVIL.

Moreover, like many shows that try to prove this, DAREDEVIL killed off a black man while leaving all the white protagonists unscathed. This only enforces that the only people who are truly unsafe in narratives where “anybody” (supposedly) can die are non-white people.

Creator Considerations

If a character is changed to be a character of color, the creators have to think very closely about how that change affects everything done with the character. When a character has been racebent to add diversity, what happens to that diversity if they’re killed off?

If a character is racebent, do their negative character traits suddenly read as racial stereotypes? These are problems both new and old creators can fall into. Especially because the culture around racebending in fandom and storytelling currently treats it as a cure-all. Racebending isn’t a cure for diversity problems — it’s a tool.

It has to be used properly, or people can get hurt.

Danny Rand and the Fans

This problem isn’t something only creators have. There seems to be a sudden trend of fans requesting racebending, in many franchises, without considering what it will and won’t fix. Multiple petitions were started up to try and convince Netflix to cast an Asian-American as Danny Rand.

Netflix didn’t respond to these petitions and cast Finn Jones, instead. People of color created a fair amount of these petitions. Asian fans and creators, in particular, spoke out about wanting a stronger presence of Asian heroes. In light of how vilified Asians seem to be in Marvel’s current Netflix shows, it makes sense they’d want representation.

Lewis Tan: An Introspective IRON FIST Deferred

Although, honestly, I’m hesitant to buy into the idea that making Danny Asian-American would fix all the problematic elements of IRON FIST. There’s no problem in wanting representation — in fact, people deserve representation. Acting like representation fixes all the flaws of a story is questionable at best, though, especially when representation can be done poorly.

Why Racebending Wouldn’t Work (Theoretically)

In my opinion, making Danny Asian-American only fixes one of the problematic factors of IRON FIST. Many people wanted to fix the issues of appropriation and the white savior narrative. These narratives are problems in both the original comic and the Netflix show.

Many people have already called out the racist stereotypes behind Madame Gao — would casting an Asian-American man as IRON FIST have made her any less of a stereotypical Asian villain?

It’s important to examine the narrative outside of Danny as well. Iron Fist’s origins are based on the popularity of kung-fu films in the 70s — it’s why Marvel conceived the hero in the first place. Because of these origins, the story relies on many tropes and stereotypes to build the world surrounding Danny Rand.

Danny being Asian-American doesn’t eliminate the fact that K’un-Lun, the Hand, and many other facets of Marvel’s stories were based on anti-Asian stereotypes.

DEFENDERS and Identity: Why IRON FIST’s Danny Rand Failed Where Other Defenders Succeeded

In fact, these stereotypes seem part and parcel to many Marvel heroes — making Danny Asian-American won’t fix the white savior narrative with DAREDEVIL and the Hand. Danny being Asian-American won’t fix the treatment of Elektra in DAREDEVIL or DEFENDERS. These shows should be kept in mind too, because Netflix is attempting to build a larger universe — meaning every part feeds into the others, including the unsavory bits.

How To Fix It

The fans seem to think that changing Danny to an Asian-American character will fix things. However, because the Iron Fist storyline thrives on so many stereotypes (much like how classic kung-fu films did), I think it’d take more than that. How can one change the problematic aspects of IRON FIST without unmaking it entirely?

The magic of comics and the stories that come from comics is that they’re continuous. I don’t think Marvel should change Danny’s origins this late in the game. There’s also merit in keeping Danny as a white man, in my opinion. I think Danny provides an excellent chance for writers to respond to problematic beginnings.

You Know What We Don’t Need? Another White Savior

As a creator myself, I think that sometimes it’s best to use past mistakes to build current lessons. In fact, Danny Rand in the comics has been a great example of this — multiple comic writers have used Danny as a tool to call out white privilege as well as show how to be an exemplary white ally.

Danny, while paired with Luke Cage in Power Man & Iron Fist, is constantly used to examine white privilege and white guilt.

IRON FIST on Netflix had a rocky start because it decided to play the origin story straight, and focus an entire season on it. However, I think there is a way to continue and fix Danny’s character, as long as the creators stay conscious of the issues with the original narrative.

For Creators and Fans

This isn’t to say that racebending can never work. It can — if Ben Urich had lived, he’d likely be a shining example of its proper usage. There’s plenty of fan-made works of art and writing that explore the concept in-depth and do it very well. Marvel’s given us characters like Nick Fury. My problem is simply that racebending recently is being used as a quick fix, and it’s anything but.

In fact, racebending at its worst can have awful implications. The choice to racebend bullies and villains — to have an on-screen representation of oppressed groups attacking the white protagonists — can do real harm. It’s true, for the most part, that there’s no reason heroes in most stories need to be white. At the same time, however, it’s also true that if a character is presented as a person of color, that’s going to impact their narrative.

Being a person of color matters every step of the way, especially in a world that doesn’t treat PoC wonderfully. It’s true that a show portraying a black man dying onscreen can have a different impact on our current political climate than it would if he were white.

Ben Urich living in DAREDEVIL could have made a world of difference.

Trial and Error

The idea of taking white characters and changing them to characters of color comes from a good place. This idea comes from people wanting more representation. All I’m asking is that people stop and consider that there is no “quick fix” for racial issues in media.

We as a society have loads to do — racebending can be a step forward or a step backward depending. Introducing new characters of color is the same. Rewriting stories, especially old ones, can be like navigating a minefield. A lot of this depends on trial and error. A lot also depends on spending a lot of time sitting at desks and ripping your hair out.

We’re getting there, though. We will get there. The thing about tools is that you have to use them correctly—but along the way, you have to learn how to use them correctly, and accidents happen. We just need to use our mistakes to continually improve.

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