Yesterday, in an interview with Vulture, half-Chinese, half-white actor Lewis Tan revealed that at one point he was vying for the lead in Netflix’s new show, Iron Fist, before ultimately being cast in a smaller role as one-episode villain Zhou Cheng.
“It’s hard to not imagine what could have been,” wrote Vulture’s Alex Jung. Now we knew that Marvel “had seriously considered the possibility” of the show’s white billionaire protagonist being portrayed with an Asian actor (who is also a professionally trained stuntman). Instead, Netflix and Marvel decided to cast white actor Finn Jones as Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist.
For many of us, this was a huge disappointment. But as refreshing as it would have been to see Tan cast as Iron Fist, there was a way this story could have been told intelligently with a white lead. The problem is, neither showrunner Scott Buck nor the show’s writers seemed to be interested in doing that.
Two years ago, when both Netflix and Marvel confirmed that production on Iron Fist was moving forward, there was a large group of passionate fans who, while cautiously excited for the series, were also wary of what it might mean to translate the iconic kung fu superhero from the comics to the small screen.
Iron Fist, traditionally depicted as a white man trained in the martial arts, has spent the better part of the last 43 years fighting against the Hand, an organization of evil, mystical ninjas most often depicted as a horde of nameless, faceless, but undeniably Asian bad guys. If Netflix planned to create an Iron Fist adaptation that was faithful to comic book canon, people worried there was a very good chance it'd end up being yet another story about a white savior chosen to protect an Asian culture that isn't his.
There were numerous calls to reimagine the character as a person of Asian descent, a choice that wouldn't have eliminated all of the Orientalism at the core of the story, but could have complicated Marvel's previous takes on him in a thoughtful way. Instead, Netflix cast Finn Jones, the world kept on spinning, and fans steeled themselves in preparation for the show.
In the months leading up to Iron Fist's March premiere, Jones was vocal in his defense of the show and his role.
"Whatever issues they have may be true of the comic books; it was written in the ’70s,” Jones told Vulture late last year. “It was a very different time to where we’re at now…There needs to be more diversity in film and television, in all fucking aspects of life…Watch the show, then make your opinions."
And so people did watch the show. And they realized that nearly every fear they had about Iron Fist did, in fact, manifest. Its racial insensitivity, iffy writing, and (perhaps most unfortunately) that it ended up being pretty boring ended up making Iron First the first critical flop out of Netflix and Marvel’s partnership. Jones attributes this to audiences being turned off by white billionaires like Rand.
“I’m playing a white American billionaire superhero, at a time when the white American billionaire archetype is public enemy number one, especially in the U.S.," Jones told Radio Times. "We filmed the show way before Trump’s election, and I think it’s very interesting to see how that perception, now that Trump’s in power, how it makes it very difficult to root for someone coming from white privilege, when that archetype is public enemy number one.”
It'd be easy to dismiss the scathing critiques being leveled at Iron Fist as misplaced anti-Trump hostility. But that argument doesn’t hold up when you look at all the other uber-rich white guy heroes that critics and fans still love. As a global, superhero content-consuming culture, the world has continued to embrace stories about white billionaires like Batman, Iron Man, and the Green Arrow who turn to lives of heroic vigilantism. They're a tried-and-true narrative template.
They’re also primed for an innovative rethinking. As progressive as an Asian American Iron Fist would have been in terms of Hollywood representation, the show also missed an opportunity to use a rich white man as a vehicle to unpack and explicitly address whiteness and privilege.
When you ask diehard fans what it is about Danny Rand that requires him to be a white man, you often hear something along the lines of: "Danny's supposed to be an outsider." That argument refers to his origin story as a young white orphan being raised by Asian kung fu masters in the magical city K'un L'un. His being an outsider helps him build strength and character in his journey to becoming the Iron Fist.
It’s a story of an Exceptional White Man who, despite competing against other students who've trained for their entire lives to become Iron Fists, somehow manages to become the Chosen One. Left unchallenged, that story is played out at best and offensive at worst. But what if Iron Fist had made a point of recognizing and criticizing Danny’s privilege?
Iron Fist could have leaned into the idea of Danny’s true superpower being white privilege. When Danny travels back to New York City to regain control of his father's company, he's met with skepticism about his identity from the people who now run the Rand Corporation. Imagine a story where a white Danny Rand comes home to New York City to claim his father’s assets, only to find that his name—the thing that connects him to his financial privilege—no longer “works” the way he assumed it would. Who is he without that power if he knows that there's a good chance he'll never be able to take it back?
In the Iron Fist that premiered last Friday, Danny comes back to NYC unsure of how he’ll reclaim the Rand name and company, but beyond certain that he will. He has blind faith in the idea that if he explains his story to enough people, they’ll believe him and ultimately become champions for his cause.
Two of these people, Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), do eventually come to his aid, but the show never really explains why two women of color would listen to the rantings of a homeless white man claiming to be the long-lost heir to a billionaire’s fortune.
The Danny who returns to NYC in Iron Fist is almost preternaturally confident that the world will stop for him the moment he opens his mouth. It’s a charmed, unrealistic way of moving through the world that doesn’t really match up with the gritty, uncaring universe that Marvel has built. It would make much more sense for Danny to assume Colleen and Claire would tag along with him—only to be disabused of the notion that people will just do as he says simply because he gives a rousing speech in his own defense.
Netflix’s other street-level hero series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have all hammered home the idea that their corner of Marvel’s cinematic universe is a difficult place to exist in if you aren’t a wealthy white man. In Iron Fist, there was an opportunity to take that reality—one that reflects our own so acutely—and force its white hero to confront it head on and, perhaps, encourage white audiences to reflect upon and investigate their own privileges. Sadly, that’s not the show we got.