You might not recognize Lewis Tan now, but you will. He will appear as the villain, Zhou Cheng, in Marvel’s upcoming Iron Fist on Netflix. Things could have gone way differently for Tan, however; over New York Comic Con weekend, he tweeted that his initial attempt to actually play the show’s hero was passed over in favor of casting a white actor.
Iron Fist is the final installment of standalone Marvel shows on Netflix before the heroes from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, all band together for The Defenders. Unfortunately for Marvel, Iron Fist has been dogged by controversy since announcing Caucasian British actor Finn Jones will play the show’s lead.
The problem isn’t necessarily with Jones himself, but rather the actual character of Danny Rand. Like Luke Cage, Rand was created in a time where racial-specific entertainment, in this case Kung-fu cinema, was the norm. In the comics, Rand is a white boy who loses his parents during an expedition to the fictional city of K’un-Lun and gets taken in by the local population to become the martial arts master Lei Kung’s greatest student. Because the original story was written in the 1970s, it’s now considered full of problematic elements, by contemporary critical standards.
These problems are further exacerbated by the recent revelation that Tan was pretty close to playing Danny Rand himself. As an Asian actor, his take on the role would have been a bold update to the dated character.
Unfortunately, Marvel decided to stick to canon and keep Rand white. This decision comes at an especially troubling time for Asian representation in Hollywood, as several high-profile Asian-American actors like Constance Wu and John Cho have expressed the tribulations facing Asian actors in mainstream media.
Iron Fist, in particular, feels like a sore spot for this discussion, as it is both representative of how Asian actors are passed over for lead roles, as well as how their roles are repurposed for white actors in the first place.
It’s brave of Tan to publicly call out this endemic, especially on a show he is working on, but it is, frankly a conversation that feels long overdue.