Television's First Asian-American Action Hero Is A Letdown
Sure, Sunny on Into the Badlands gets the girl, but is he anything more than a Bruce Lee type? Lots of spoilers for those not caught up on the AMC series.
Daniel Wu as Sunny on Into the Badlands.
Daniel Wu can kick some serious ass. That much he makes clear every week on AMC’s freshman series Into the Badlands, and certainly so in the first few minutes of the most recent episode when Wu’s character, Sunny, takes down a handful of assailants who lunge at him, deftly slicing up bodies and throwing punches that leave his enemies spitting blood. His stunts and choreography call to mind the martial arts shows and films that brought Wu fame in Hong Kong and China.
But Into the Badlands is something else entirely. Touted as a “genre-bending” series that combines kung fu with American Westerns and a dystopian storyline, Into the Badlands is the first-ever action series to feature an Asian-American male lead — and that’s pretty much the only groundbreaking thing about it. Stoic, disciplined, and unrivaled in martial arts, Sunny is a portrayal of Asian-American men the world has seen time and time again since Bruce Lee birthed the stereotype of the lethal kung fu fighter in the late 1960s.
The series is set somewhere in the Midwest, years from now, after a war has devastated the nation. The territory has been divided up and conquered by seven feuding overlords, and because guns are banned, sword-wielding fighters called "clippers" enforce their rule. Sunny, one of the most dangerous clippers in all of the Badlands, serves as a mercenary to Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas), and he's training a young boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight) to become a fighter like himself. Yes, he's a deadly yet noble warrior, but halfway through the AMC limited series, there's not much else to Sunny's character.
His scenes beg for more context. The moment before the show’s first fight sequence, Sunny exchanges only three sentences with a pack of bandits before things get violent: Ribs get cracked, heads are snapped, and one man is even impaled on the skewer of his own pig roast. Lots of blood is shed each week on Into the Badlands during variations of the same fight scenes, sequences that are as awe-inspiring as they are gory. But they feel like distractions set up to compensate for a rather lackluster, one-dimensional protagonist.
Even Sunny's origin story is vague in a way that makes it seem like the writers failed to develop him beyond the silent, seemingly cool and collected fighter. "This man standing here is a far cry from the miserable whelp I laid eyes on all those years ago," Quinn says in the first episode, noting that he found Sunny as an abandoned child with "no parents, no name, no past." Impressed that Sunny managed to survive on his own, Quinn took him in and forged him into a warrior. Maybe there's more backstory to come in future episodes. But for now, it feels like a cop-out. Why doesn't Sunny have an epic origin story like his white action hero predecessors? He's reduced to a mental shortcut.
However, Sunny is more than a docile servant to Quinn: He shows compassion, and he does rebel — very, very quietly. He saves M.K. from a gang of nomads, and he’s coaching the young fighter so that the two of them, along with Sunny’s lover, Veil (Madeline Mantock), can flee the Badlands altogether.
The fact that Sunny has a lover, who's also the mother of their unborn child, marks the only significant difference between him and nearly all Asian men in Hollywood. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li rarely ever get the girl in their onscreen roles. Remember Li’s hug with Aaliyah at the end of Romeo Must Die? Into the Badlands’ depiction of Sunny as someone who's sexually desirable — and has sexual desires himself — is an improvement in Hollywood's representation of Asian men.
But Into the Badlands does not go so far as to portray Sunny as a man in love. When Quinn kills Veil's parents in Episode 2 of the six-episode series, Sunny protests but ultimately stands by listening as the baron takes their lives — because the show also does little to present Sunny as a man capable of feeling. Silent, seemingly unemotional, and self-sufficient, Sunny never once opens up about his emotions — not his love for Veil or the guilt he likely feels about standing by as Quinn murdered her parents. It's a particularly problematic representation since tradition teaches Asians to stifle emotions and endure pain silently, for fear of losing face. Later, to comfort a grieving Veil, Sunny says, “I’m your family now, and I’m going to protect you.” But his demonstration of love is more dutiful than emotional. After all, he is foremost Veil’s protector or M.K.’s mentor. Though, to be fair, it's not just Sunny; all of the characters on Into the Badlands fall flat.
Weak character development isn't uncommon in dystopian action shows, but it's particularly disappointing in a series that's a milestone for Asian-Americans in Hollywood. Although 2015 has seen huge strides when it comes to Asian-American representation, with dynamic characters like Fresh Off the Boat's Jessica Huang and powerful, never-before-seen narratives about first-generation children and their immigrant parents on Master of None, Sunny lacks the complexity viewers deserve in their first-ever Asian-American hero.
It's easy to forget that Sunny is a landmark Asian-American hero, seeing as Into the Badlands never addresses his ethnicity. It's set in the future, in an apparently post-racial society, and Sunny's heritage isn't mentioned — again, not totally surprising for dystopian series. Except, where did all the martial arts come from? Into the Badlands appropriates this aspect of Chinese culture, has a Chinese-American star, and has so far ignored the Chinese-American identity altogether.
With three episodes to go, it’s possible that Sunny’s history and ethnicity will be recognized and that his relationship with M.K. and Veil will be further explored. But so far, it’s just another letdown.