Audiences, unlike critics, may be finding plenty to enjoy about Iron Fist, but the controversy surrounding the fourth Netflix-Marvel series is sticking around like an unwanted heir in the boardroom of Rand Industries.
A brief recap of the drama, in case you somehow missed it — #Netflix cast a white guy, Finn Jones, to play #IronFist, a character who's also white in the comics; some felt they had missed a golden opportunity to reimagine Danny Rand as an Asian character and create a series with a lead Asian actor; and the social media furore drove Finn Jones off Twitter.
If it seemed like the drama had reduced to a low sizzle, new comments from Jessica Henwick (who plays Colleen Wing in the show) and Lewis Tan (who plays the minor villain Zhou Cheng in one episode) have brought it back with a vengeance.
In a fairly insensitive interview, Roy Thomas, the Marvel Comics author who co-created the Iron Fist in 1974, said of the controversy around Netflix's series:
"I have so little patience for some of the feelings that some people have. I mean, I understand where it’s coming from ... [but] don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either."
Thomas is 76 now and clearly belongs to an older generation who were accustomed to using words like "Oriental" which lazily clump all Asian people together into one generic mass, but Henwick nonetheless took to Twitter to point out that his words were not okay:
But it was Lewis Tan, the half-white half-Asian actor born in England, who got pretty honest in an interview with Vulture. Tan had previously auditioned to play Danny Rand, before Finn Jones was cast:
"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 ... 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. I was in Spain, and I read for the part and I got it."
While Tan doesn't sound ungrateful, and it's not uncommon for actors to audition for a lead part and end up with a supporting role, he does go on to talk about how his own experiences as an outcast would've made him perfect to play Iron Fist (and might also have made the highly-criticized fight scenes more exciting):
"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 what I’ve been dealing with my whole life. So I understand those frustrations of being an outsider, like Danny’s character."
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The stinger came when Tan was asked about how casting an actor of Asian origin, like himself, might have resulted in a vastly different Iron Fist to the divisive series we were ultimately given to feast on by Netflix. His response was an important and brutally honest critique of the industry's unwillingness to take chances:
"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 ... It would definitely have changed the dynamic of the show. It would have been a different show."
Tan has clearly been keeping tabs on the media coverage of the racial controversy and his character's brief but memorable appearance in Episode 8:
Which, again, is something he deserves praise for — keeping the discussion alive won't make any difference for Iron Fist, but there's a chance that the positive reaction across social media will impact on casting decisions for the next series for which an Asian actor has a shot at winning the lead role.
Perhaps that series will be Daughters of the Dragon, an Iron Fist spin off starring the crimefighting duo of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight. Perhaps it won't. But it will happen, sooner or later, and Tan deserves respect for fighting the good fight.
Are we nearing the day when an Asian actor will finally be given the lead role in a TV series like Iron Fist, or is there still a way to go?