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What if Lewis Tan played Danny Rand in Iron Fist instead of Finn Jones?

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Missed opportunity by Marvel/Netflix?

The first season of Iron Fist was the worst kind of disaster--a boring disaster. At least half of the season was devoted to a corporate takeover plot. Iron Fist features more scenes in corner offices and conference rooms than fights, which isn't what I'd want from a martial arts superhero show. To top it off, the character Danny Rand is a clueless doofus. He's played by Finn Jones, a charisma vacuum without a martial arts background.

Yesterday, Buzzfeed published a piece about Lewis Tan, an Asian-American actor who tried out for the lead role in Iron Fist. The producers picked Jones instead, but they decided to cast Tan as the single-episode bad guy Zhou Cheng. Tan appears in episode 8, and his fight scene steals the show. In fact, Tan's drunken boxing showcase is easily the best fight of the entire season.

Tan made a major impression in just a few minutes on screen, which made people wonder how he would have fared as Danny Rand/Iron Fist. In the mighty Marvel tradition, I am here to provide an answer to the question: "What if Lewis Tan played Danny Rand in Iron Fist?"

Excelsior!

We'd Get Far Better Fight Scenes

Above is the Iron Fist fight scene that everyone's abuzz about. Lewis Tan is an actual martial artist. He's built like an athlete. He moves well. He looks comfortable throwing punches, kicking, and rolling around on the ground with a sense of purpose. By comparison, not once does Jones move like a martial artist. There's no rhythm or ease or fluidity. Jones moves like a guy fighting, not a fighter--big difference.

The directors used a number of techniques to make up for Jones' shortcomings as a martial artist: odd camera angles, shaky cam, obscuring close ups and long shots, excessive cutting, fighting in shadows or bad lighting, fighting in a hoodie. Whenever I couldn't see Jones' face, I just assumed a stunt performer was doing the fighting for him. Watch the fight above again and notice how little you see Jones' face when complicated moves or reactions are required. (Also, who'd want to fight in a hoodie? That would cut off your peripheral vision.) Whenever Jones has to do the fights himself, he looks clumsy. He lacks the instinctual poise and physicality of a trained fighter. He doesn't even have the body awareness, confident footwork, or balance of a dancer.

Had Lewis Tan been cast as Danny Rand, you wouldn't need to make up for a lack of martial arts skill. Tan would be able to perform fights and stunts at a high level. He'd collaborate with the fight choreographer and action director since he'd know what he's capable of doing as a martial artist. They might even go beyond drunken boxing and use animal styles, traditional weapons like jians and three-section staffs, or a good old-fashioned horse bench fight. (If there are two things I love, it's three-section staffs and a good old-fashioned horse bench fight.)

Someone like Tan could radically transform the fight scenes in Iron Fist. Fights in the show currently feel like perfunctory spectacle. Instead, with a martial artist in the lead, we'd explore Danny Rand's character through action. He'd have an actual fighting style that's individual and idiosyncratic, something that Jones never develops in 13 episodes. Bruce Lee moves a certain way, Jet Li moves a certain way, Jackie Chan moves a certain way, Donnie Yen moves a certain way. Danny Rand, the world's greatest martial artist, should also have a character-defining physicality. It may also be a way to define K'un-L'un's martial culture and imply what its larger fighting philosophy might be.

Tan doing the fights himself would change the way the fight scenes are shot. Camera angles and movements could be used with greater care rather than to obscure faces. Fight scenes could be edited with rhythm, and cuts would be defined by body movement and action. It's nice to have a hero who doesn't have to fight in a hoodie or in the dark so much. The fights may also be able to tell certain kinds of stories, with Danny not just overpowering his opponents but outsmarting them.

Overall, I think the action in Iron Fist could potentially be on par with Daredevil. It would have its own flavor as well since the fighting in the show wouldn't be like any of the other Marvel shows. More than anything, Tan could make Iron Fist feel more like an actual martial arts series.

Confronting Asian Stereotypes

While I'm okay with Danny Rand as a white guy in theory, I'm also aware that he is an artifact of a time and an iteration of a well-worn trope. I'm also okay with Danny Rand as an Asian guy because that's far more interesting than what we got in the show. It's the 21st century, so maybe old versions of characters can be reinvented for their times and for a new medium while retaining the original spirit.

By casting an Asian-American as Danny Rand, the show could explore issues of race, identity, Asian stereotypes, and orientalism. Even just optically or subtextually, these topics matter when it comes to the traditions and cultures involved. Finn Jones' constant meditating, doing origami, and spouting off fortune cookie mysticism is some unintentionally awful and unavoidable pseudo-yellowface dreck. It's not even quaintly bizarre appropriation like the Billy Jack movies; it's just uncomfortable.

There are so many assumptions about Asian masculinity that can be explored through Danny Rand. Since we'd be dealing with an Asian-American character, that could lead to some exploration of different cultural expectations imposed on Danny by others. There's also the idea of an Asian in-between. Asians assimilate easily into American culture yet are simultaneously regarded as a racial/cultural Other. Or maybe the new version of Danny is half-Asian, which sets up another interesting racial dynamic. Ultimately an Asian-American Danny Rand would wind up playing with the idea of a return to a mother culture and how that affects personal notions of identity.

In an interview with Vulture, Tan made a common yet astute observation about how Asian-Americans are viewed and view themselves:

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.

(As an aside, I think Jordan Peele's Get Out offered a brief but memorable exploration of this Asian in-between state during the backyard party scene.)

In addition to the above, the relationship between Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Danny Rand would feel much different. Maybe it's just me, but there's something about Jones as Danny that makes me think of guys who fetishize Asian culture (and especially Asian women) to an unhealthy degree. Maybe it's also the quality of Jones' performance--it's awfully patrician and leering instead of being flirty. The issues may be obviated with an Asian lead, or maybe these issues can become part of a more explicit exploration of racial fetishism.

Representation in the Media

On the note of Colleen Wing, I can't help but think of how cool it would be for a high-profile series to feature two Asians of mixed descent as leads. Admittedly, part of this stems from being an uncle now. I wonder how my niece might see some aspect of her identity reflected in pop culture. I suppose one day there may be a show about a half-white Jewish Filipina that will mirror my niece's own upbringing. When that happens, we'll probably have flying cars and be living in a post-scarcity utopia. Let's hope we get there.

In all seriousness, I wonder who my niece's role models might be. I also wonder what people may think of my niece based on appearance alone. And that's why representation matters. More people and more voices and more experiences means more stories that we may not have heard and should hear. These narratives are machines for developing empathy and mutual understanding. In the case of Iron Fist, this machine also happens to hit bad guys in the face. (Woody Guthrie used to write that on his guitar until he thought of a punchier phrase.)

There's something to be said about a show starring Asians just affirming the Asian martial arts stereotypes of the past. But that might be a lazy hot-take version of a bigger and more important conversation about old cultural ideas. Casting two Asian leads might be a chance to help deconstruct those antiquated notions about Asians whether they're the product of the 19th century, pulp fiction, or John Hughes movies. One show can't do it alone, so in an ideal scenario it will be one of many steps in the ongoing conversation of actual culture and how it's depicted in pop culture, and how both are these constructs in flux. The yellow menace can be inverted and undone, and ditto the sage-like magical Asian or the nerdy Asian math-god.

I mean, come on, it kind of worked in The Last Dragon, all right?

The Show Still Would Have Sucked Because of the Writing

To paraphrase the bard of the squared circle Stone Cold Steve Austin, it's hard to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. With the current writers and producers, Iron Fist was going to suck no matter what.

Even with a solid martial artist in the lead, it's hard to make a compelling character out of Danny Rand as written. He'd still be selfish and entitled. He'd still suck at everything. He'd still be prone to temper tantrums and amateur-hour decisions that wind up hurting people around him. I called him Anakin Skywalker with erectile dysfunction in the review because that's precisely how he comes across--a bratty crybaby whose rage gets in the way of his potential. Who wants to watch a frightened, confused jaboni as a hero? What's more, Iron Fist would still be rife with poor pacing and inert scenes. We'd still have to sit through conversations in corporate boardrooms, waiting for the delightful reprieve of someone philosophically punching bad guys in the face.

To be honest, the Iron Fist fiasco makes me feel bad for Finn Jones. Even though he was on Game of Thrones, this was supposed to be his potential big break. It's been roundly panned, and he's taken the brunt of the criticism since he's the lead and has been inartfully defending an indefensible show during his press tour. This role has undermined whatever talents Jones may have. Now, he seems like the latest Blandy McBlanderson: an anodyne, interchangeable white male lead.

Showrunner Scott Buck deserves a lot of the blame for the show's critical drubbing, and the same goes for the writers of Iron Fist. There's a fundamentally poor grasp of storytelling that goes beyond issues of representation and the problematic tropes of the past. Iron Fist is a martial arts show that doesn't give a crap about the martial arts. It's a crummy commercial for The Defenders, and it feels like it. Buck--who is credited with ruining the show Dexter in its closing seasons--is also the showrunner of Inhumans.

If Iron Fist is any indication of how Scott Buck handles superheroes, I can't wait to watch Medusa and Karnak go over the finer points of purchasing supplemental insurance. Black Bolt will destroy a city with a whine.

This is just a bigger indictment of the cynicism behind Iron Fist, a 13-hour set-up show for the next Netflix/Marvel product that fanboys and fangirls will watch anyway even if it's garbage. The writers and producers relied on old tropes and old approaches thinking they're sufficient, assuming people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad. The billionaire playboy who travels to the far east is played out and needs to be put to rest. We need new kinds of stories, and there are plenty of voices out there waiting for a chance to be heard. There are also many unfamiliar faces we should be seeing.

Had Lewis Tan been cast as the lead in the current version of Iron Fist, he'd be anchored to Danny Rand the bratty milksop, the least heroic and least interesting character in his own show. What a waste of potential, but man, what a resume builder.

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Hubert Vigilla
Hubert VigillaEditor-at-Large   gamer profile

Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely more + disclosures


 


 


Also on Flixist: Iron Fist (Season 1)   (1)   From our database:

  • What if Lewis Tan played Danny Rand in Iron Fist instead of Finn Jones? - Hubert Vigilla
  • Review: Iron Fist (Season 1) - Hubert Vigilla
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    Filed under... #Asian #Comics #Disney #Editorial #Martial Arts #Marvel #Netflix #Political #racism #Top Stories #tv shows

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