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Almost Casting Lewis Tan as Iron Fist Scores No Points, Marvel

[Updated] Almost Casting Lewis Tan as Iron Fist Scores No Points, Marvel

In an interview with Vulture, actor Lewis Tan said that he was almost cast to play the role of Danny Rand in the Marvel/Netflix adaptation of Iron Fist. Almost. Instead the role went to Finn Jones, and Tan was given one-off villain Zhou Cheng. Let us all breathe in a collective sigh of frustration.

Allow me to set up a disclaimer before we begin. I have not seen the show yet. I have gone on record a number of times over social media that didn’t mind the casting of Finn Jones considering Danny Rand is and always has been white. Jones is a great actor, and I have no intention in faulting him for winning the role. I did not quite understand why Iron Fist was being lumped into the whitewashing conversation where Great Wall and Ghost in the Shell are much more problematic — one of these movies I’m actually going to see, but only because I got a free ticket from a Crunchyroll and Fandango promotion. Before the premiere on Netflix, I was half-hoping Danny Rand would somehow be the Jack Burton of the show, like one of our writers Shaun Rosado points out in his article from last year. Apparently, he is not, and that bothers me even more for some reason….

Full disclosure: I am half-white and half-Filipino.

All that being said, I really really wish Marvel/Netflix’s interpretation of Danny Rand had come from Asian decent.

Based on my limited knowledge of the show, Danny Rand is perpetuated as the outsider who earns the sacred power of the Iron Fist. The keyword here is “outsider.” Narratively speaking, he’s the new white kid who is only allowed to truly understand the teachings steeped in centuries of history and culture. When people think “outsider,” somehow that character almost always ends up white. Especially if it’s in a movie where the majority of the supporting cast are Asian. That’s B-movie B.S. from the 70’s and 80’s, my friends, and it comes with a heaping pile of orientalism. To make matters worse, I just learned as of writing this that they don’t even show him training much in Kun Lun. There’s not even a bildungsroman payoff?!

Asians are some of the worst represented racial demographic in our media. We’re often relegated to a white character’s side-kick, a nerd with a particular love for math, a wise old sage, a magic wise old sage, a ruthless thug in the yakuza or triad, a beautiful but deadly exotic babe, a character who does martial arts well (because we all know karate or kung-fu), or a straight up Bond villain. A particular pet-peeve of mine is pigeonholing Filipino characters as transvestite prostitutes, or gay prostitutes (lady-boys), or guerrilla terrorists. To my knowledge, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Steven Universe are the only shows to cast Filipinos and give them real roles.

The landscape is improving a little bit, but not by much, and there’s always something else being made that puts us right back into the old tropes.

Lewis Tan even tells Vulture how much of “a missed opportunity” it was for Marvel in not casting an Asian-American to fill the role of Danny Rand. It definitely would have been a step in the right direction in improving the representation of Asians in Hollywood:

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… So I understand those frustrations of being an outsider. Like Danny’s character.

I’m aware how inherently difficult it was to adapt the comic book without tripping and face-planting all over some offensive racial stereotypes, one or two white saviors, and the “exoticisization” of Asian culture (which sometimes border on Meta-Orientalism). Casting an Asian-American would have remedied all of above. Here’s why:

  1. Like Tan said, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider when you’re stuck between two different cultures. First and second-generation Asian-Americans already wrestle with an identity crisis. To which heritage and culture do we embrace more? There’s so much back and forth, that it often leads to being accepted by neither. You’re either too Asian/ethnic to be a white American, or you’re not Asian enough to be…Asian.
  2. Replacing the “white savior” with an Asian-American protagonist who has little to no connection to his or her parents’ or ancestors’ homeland would go a long way to repairing a patronizing narrative. Having the protagonist go to Asia would be a nice little metaphor for reclaiming power for Asians in Hollywood, as well as their roots.

The argument in staying loyal to the comics — in keeping Danny white — is flimsy at best. There are other instances in which casting a comic book character didn’t align with the source material. Heimdall is historically a white character in the Thor comics, hailing from Norse mythology. But Marvel went ahead and cast Idris Elba in their cinematic series. Indeed there was some pushback there, but we’re all cool with it now because Elba made that character friggin’ boss AF. Night Nurse is originally a white character, but Marvel/Netflix combined her attributes to a black character, Claire Temple, and then gave that role to Rosario Dawson.

Deadshot was played by Will Smith in Suicide Squad. Rip Cord was played by Marlon Wayans in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Wasabi from Marvel’s short-lived Big Hero 6 went from being Asian to black (and played by Damon Wayans Jr.) in Disney’s adaptation of the same name. Alicia Masters from Fantastic Four was played by Kerry Washington. Perry White was played by Laurence Fishbone in Man of Steel. To name a few.

Leveling the playing field in the media where diversity is concerned is much more admirable and realistic. Giving Asian roles back to Asians instead of making Emma Stone attempt to fool the audience that she has even an ounce of Japanese blood in Aloha would be a great improvement from here on out. Representation matters.

Oh, and let’s stop the Anglicization of Asians too. That in and of itself is a whole other topic, but I feel like it needs to be mentioned at least once here. It’s a real thing in the media. Just ask Julie Chen from CBS The Talk.

[Update] Added mention of Shaun Rosado’s article from last year in the second paragraph.

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Christina E. Janke

Christina is the co-host of “Intro to Geek” on Shauncastic and Editor-in-Chief at Agents of Geek. Her love of all things Mass Effect knows no bounds. She also carries an obsession with comic books, video games, and quirky television shows. Her heroes are Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Gail Simone. She hopes to be just like them when she grows up.