Way before Iron Fist had hit our screens with limp-wristed effect last week, the latest Marvel/Netflix series had already been embroiled in controversy. The Iron Fist comics was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in 1974, a time when just about every major superhero was a white guy. It was also a time where concepts like cultural appropriation were still practically unheard of in the public zeitgeist, which is why said white guy – Danny Rand – is also a kung-fu fighting, Asian mythology-taking, walking “white saviour” trope.
As a massive fan of those Iron Fist comics myself, I fully recognize those facts and can clearly see why it offends many people today. Kudos for some of the more modern writers of the character though by finding ways to rework Danny’s origin so that it’s a bit more palatable, but it’s clearly still an issue.
Which brings us to Iron Fist the TV series, which many felt presented Marvel with an opportunity to turn things on its head with a bold move by casting an actor of Asian heritage as Danny Rand. Yes, this would mean changing the whole “Danny is a reviled outsider in the mythical city of K’un Lun” story angle, but those are plot points that could be massaged. This would be especially progressive from Marvel who have faced plenty of criticism for their lack of diversity with their screen adaptations. We’re nearly a decade, fourteen movies, and five series into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we’ve only had three titles headlined by a woman or person of colour (Agent Carter, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage) with just two more on their extensive schedule (Black Panther and Captain Marvel). This was their moment. But instead they cast the white and utterly bland Finn Jones.
Now initially I was fine with this (him being white, his blandness was still grating), as Marvel have always shown a predilection to stick to their source material with their character depictions, but just tweaking details of that character’s world to modernize them. However, in a colossal creative direction snafu, the Iron Fist TV series defiantly stuck to the source material with its lead character, but also went out of its way to show as little of the Iron Fist’s Asian mythology as possible. Marvel were trying to have their bread buttered on both sides. And they failed miserably, if you ask me.
But what’s made this even more infuriating is the revelation that Marvel actually came very close to actually shaking things up. In an interview with Vulture, Asian-American actor Lewis Tan revealed that he was actually in the running for the role of Danny Rand. You may not recognize Tan’s name, but if you’ve watched Iron Fist then you’ve already seen him. He was the drunken boxing fighter Zhou Cheng who Danny faces in the show’s eighth episode – arguably the series’ best fight and the closest it came to replicating its classic kung fu roots.
I knew about Iron Fist before anyone was talking about it in the public. I heard it going around inside the industry, and I was like, “Wow, if I get a chance to audition for the lead, this could potentially be a great vehicle for me.” I had a lot to offer here, but I knew that the character is white in the comic book, so I was concerned. But I thought at least I had a shot — I’m half white and I do martial arts and I could easily play that role. So I was excited. And then I read for Danny and they liked me a lot. I read again and again and again, and it was a long process, and it got to the point where they were talking about my availability and my dates. That’s always a good sign, you know? And then they went with Finn and they had me read for a villain part maybe two weeks later.
Tan was born in England but moved to America as a child and is the half-Chinese, half-white son of very well-regarded stunt coordinator and martial artist Philip Tan, who worked on such high-profile productions as Inception, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Olympus Has Fallen, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and more. Just like his father, he’s also a very gifted, life-long martial artist, which would definitely have been a massive improvement over Jones, who apparently received only the bare minimum of martial arts training just minutes before he was supposed to shoot a scene.
— Lewis Tan (@TheLewisTan) January 25, 2017
More believable fighting isn’t the only thing he would brought to the role though, as Tan believes that by making Danny an Asian-American, it could changed up the show’s dynamic but still touching on one of its core concepts of being an outsider.
I personally think it would have been a really interesting dynamic to see this Asian-American guy who’s not in touch with his Asian roots go and get in touch with them and discover this power. I think that’s super interesting and we’ve never seen that. We’ve seen this narrative already; we’ve seen it many times. So I thought it would be cool and that it would add some more color to The Defenders. And obviously I can do my own fight sequences, so those would be more dynamic. I think it would be really interesting to have that feeling of an outsider. There’s no more of an outsider than an Asian-American: We feel like outsiders in Asia and we feel like outsiders at home. That’s been really difficult — especially for me. It’s been hard for me, because in the casting world, it’s very specific. So when they see me and I’m six-two, I’m a 180 pounds, I’m a muscular half-Asian dude. They’re like, “Well, I don’t know what to do with this guy.” They’re like, “He’s not Asian, he’s not white … no.” That’s what I’ve been dealing with my whole life. So I understand those frustrations of being an outsider. Like Danny’s character. I understand him very well.
Tan goes on to elaborate on how he feels Marvel missed the boat here, especially considering the recent controversy surrounding Doctor Strange in which they took the traditionally Asian character of The Ancient One and had him played by the white Tilda Swinton.
It is a missed opportunity. That’s exactly how I feel about it, word for word. It would’ve been a brave thing to do, for sure, for Marvel. I can see how that was difficult to make that decision. I think, personally, it would’ve paid off. But I think it’ll come next because people are feeling underrepresented. People are like, “Yo, this was a perfect opportunity to represent us.” They chose not to, and it’s not even their fault. I see why they stuck to the source material because it’s very risky to move away from that, but they’ll move away from it in other areas and in other shows where they’ll take an Asian character and make him white. So you can’t really win with that argument. Because we’ve seen many times when they’ve taken Asian characters and made him white.
According to Tan, Marvel didn’t even tell him why he didn’t get the role of Danny when he was clearly very close. Instead he just “got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of positive encouragement from Marvel and from the casting people” before being contacted about playing the villain Zhou Cheng. Unfortunately, this has basically been par for the course for his – and many asian actors – career though.
I’ve turned down a couple roles. My agents will tell you when I first signed with them, I turned down the first three or four things that came up. I’ve just turned down roles that were super-stereotypically Asian that I didn’t feel represented me and I didn’t want to do. Not to necessarily say they’re bad roles, but it just wasn’t me. I’m not going to do this dorky Asian accent and just play someone in the background. That’s not why I’m here to act. I’m here to represent and to make stories that I believe in and to achieve new things in the industry. If it’s not pushing that, then it’s hard for me to take those jobs. But a lot of the roles that I got when I first started acting were villain roles: Yakuza, Chinese gangsters. I’ve played every single Asian gangster there is on every single CSI or crime show. I just have to try make something different each time or else I get bored.
Ironically, bored is exactly what many people got with Iron Fist. Maybe if Marvel had been brave enough to make a radical casting decision for their lead, things would have been different.
You can read the entire interview to hear further about Tan’s father, working with the cast of Iron Fist, his martial arts training and also how he views Asian pioneers like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.