The Marvel Cinematic Universe just saw it's news addition, turn up the heat, not just in Hell's Kitchen but all over the world. Daredevil was the first of 5 shows Netflix is producing based on "street-level" Marvel characters and is a smash hit.
One new series is slated to debut each year, with Jessica Jones already filming and Luke Cage soon to follow.
Charlie Cox has brought Matt Murdock and his devilish alter-ego to life and we know that Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter are playing Jones and Cage respectively. So far the casting pattern seems to be a relative newcomer in the lead with top level acting talent rounding out the cast, notably villains with former Doctor David Tennant being hired to play the lead villain in Jessica Jones. He's very similar to Vincent D'Onofrio in that he's an experienced and respected TV actor with a good amount of movie experience behind him.
One thing that has stood out so far though is there has been NO mention of who will play the 4th member of the Defenders team, the billionaire Danny Rand, better known as Iron Fist.
The comic version of Iron Fist is arguably the most colourful and "super" of the team of the comics. The notable thing is none of the Defenders are natural powered beings, all have acquired them and Iron Fist is the one who has learned them rather than having powers "bestowed on him". Much like Bruce Wayne he is given his powers by earning the right to be called the Iron Fist.
Some clues to how Marvel/Netflix might play this are given in Episode 7 of Daredevil with Stick's involvement. He was training Matt for a purpose that didn't pan out and something later in the episode bears that out. It is entirely possible that he is scouting for someone worthy to become the Iron Fist.
It would make sense for Marvel to keep the team relatively young but with the casting choices below, they might not. The important thing to note is that there is no "star" involved in the team at this point and that strong actors with martial arts backgrounds are thin on the ground, so it may force a different direction.
Here are the candidates as I see them:-
For years he has wanted this role and has been attached at various points. Marvel are familiar with him from his work as Toad in the original X-Men and this is also the man who brought Darth Maul to life. There is little doubt he could pull off the physicality involved in the role and he's not an ugly guy, even if he's now a little older. Where it might be difficult is that he has never really taken on a significant acting role since the two mentioned films, and even in Phantom Menace he was dubbed by Peter Serafanowicz. We don't know if Park has the ACTING chops to pull the Danny Rand side of things off. While as Iron Fist, behind a mask he could be ideal, as the other side of the character it would be a major gamble.
The most obvious name that comes into play at the present time. He has slowly build a resume of action movies and while not considered an A-List talent, is charismatic onscreen. It is very easy to see him as the focused Iron Fist character and being able to pull the Danny Rand side off, but again, he hasn't really had a serious dramatic role and while Iron Fist may be the "more fun" of the shows, it also has the potential to be the most violent/dramatic and again, Adkins would be a risk. There is also talk of Adkins later becoming "The Punisher" which may be more appealing to him and Marvel, although personally I see no reason they shouldn't go with Tom Jane if they ever go back, go and watch Dirty Laundry if you haven't and tell me he doesn't deserve another shot as Frank Castle.
These are perhaps the two most "qualified" in terms of martial arts background to play the character, however their star power or acting chops are not so much known. It is entirely possible Marvel thus decides to either train someone or go more A-List for Iron Fist, perhaps like...
Statham is enjoying a boost from Fast 7 and The Expendables but this is also a guy open to smaller projects. He has the presence, the physicality and with suitable training could be a very good Iron Fist. Where Statham would also be strong is as Danny Rand, he is someone you can see beating people to a pulp while wisecracking and forming a buddy relationship with Luke Cage and being a big brother type to Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones. Accent wise he could use his natural tones and reflect growing up in Shangri-La rather than the US.
From Netflix' perspective it would fit with their A-Lister model for their shows, they're not afraid to throw money at someone if they're going to sell a show as with Kevin Spacey on House Of Cards.
Statham is the kind of name that would sell Iron Fist and The Defenders, particularly if the other shows continue in the quality Daredevil has set. From Statham's point of view it's also a pretty sweet gig, big money for the same timescale he would perhaps film one of his regular D2DVD or smaller budget actioners but with far more buzz.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
You probably just spat whatever you're eating drinking out right? But think about it. The Defenders on paper is a "young team" but it's missing a mentor type figure. Stick does that for Daredevil but he's not gonna care less about Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. That is where JCVD comes in, as an older version of Danny Rand, forced back into his role as the Iron Fist after a period away and meeting this new group. Whilst being older, JCVD has many of the qualities of Danny Rand, the martial arts skills go without saying but the wise-cracking fun loving style is there, again the accent plays as being raised somewhere else and as a genre veteran he has enough experience to let the better actors take centre stage. One aspect of Iron Fist that is really crucial is the costume, you could imagine JCVD breaking out his "old gear" for a comedy moment before going to Murdock's contact for a new get up. It's the kind of thing that could really make the show stand out from the ultra-grittiness of the others.
If JCVD were 10-15 years younger he'd be automatically cast, however as an older actor/character it can perhaps give the series and the team an emotional anchor. It's clear during Daredevil that Matt craves a father figure, JCVD as Rand would be perfect for that. You can imagine him having a banter like relationship with Luke Cage and having an abrasive one with Jessica. It's the kind of dynamic the team up could thrive on and JCVD is STILL a big enough name to make a buzz about his casting.
This one is perhaps the biggest longshot, but arguably the one that excites me the most. Hunnan has just come off one of the most successful TV shows of the past decade and is someone with physical presence, who knows his way round a fight scene and is a top level actor. The downside here is the level of training that may be needed, but as the show isn't slated for nearly 2 years there is time for him to learn the required skills.
You could see this being the kid who "got the job" Stick wanted Matt for, there being some heat there between him and Matt (and him turning Karen Page or Elektra's head for example) and again, he's got good experience of "buddy" style acting from Sons and Green Street.
While not an A-List actor, he's a big enough name after SOA that Netflix grabbing him would be a big coup for them and it would attract a good number of SOA fans on curiosity alone. He also has enough movie work behind him that as with Statham and JCVD, showing up in an Avengers or other MCU movie would be a big possibility.
Whoever gets to be Danny Rand and the power of the Iron Fist, arguably it's the most important casting yet in Netflix's strategy. Get this one wrong and it can all go downhill very quickly, however good the rest of the shows are. Get it right and you have something that tops the cake and makes their corner of the MCU as important and valuable as The Avengers.