Marvel’s Iron Fist debuted on Netflix last week, and for a smorgasbord of reasons — vanilla fight scenes, slow plot progressions, a little thing called cultural appropriation — the show has dug into a lot of people’s skin. But based on chatter on Twitter, most agree on one thing: Lewis Tan is a goddamn delight. In Episode 8, Tan plays the cocky Zhou Cheng for a glorious eight minutes of eye-wiggling and drunken boxing, stealing the show while guarding one of the Hand’s operations. Even though Danny bests him one-on-one, Rand was still no match.
With Iron Fist, Marvel found itself in a conundrum: In the comics, Iron Fist is Danny Rand, a white New York billionaire who spent his teenage years becoming a warrior in K’un-Lun (think of Ming the Merciless, but morphed into a village you never get to see). “Problematic” is accurate, but Lewis Tan — a half-Chinese martial artist who auditioned for the lead and was passed in favor of Jones — is pure oxygen from the rest of the show’s suffocating 13-episode slog.
As Danny Rand gears up to join the Defenders alongside Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones, let us sing the praises of Lewis Tan, and the four reasons why this drunk kung fu master should have been the Iron Fist.
1. His Fight Scene Was the Best in the Series, Hands Down
I’ve previously argued why Iron Fist has lackluster fight scenes, which is not a thing that happens by itself. Shooting effective and spectacular martial arts is a combined effort on the part of many, and for whatever reason, Iron Fist did not live up to expectations despite having a kung fu superhero.
But Lewis Tan, a veteran martial artist, manages to stand out from the chicken poop to make a delicate chicken salad in his fight scene with Jones.
2. He Made Zui Quan Badass Again
Tan’s character is Zhou Cheng, a master of zui quan which is an actual form of Chinese wushu that imitates a drunkard with movements such as swaying, falling, and dodging. It’s real, and many people practice it to this day (but unlike in movies, zui quan practitioners don’t actually get drunk).
Jackie Chan made zui quan famous in films like 1994’s Legend of the Drunken Master, which is an enduring classic in the genre. Virtually any representation of zui quan since then (like Brad Wong in the Dead or Alive video games) pay direct homage to Jackie Chan. Iron Fist is no different, with its portrayal of drunken kung fu the closest the series got to feeling like the authentic martial arts extravaganza it should have been.
3. He Showed More Personality in Five Minutes Than the Lead Character
Like martial arts scenes, the dramatic performance of a lead is a balance between the actor’s own skill and the written material they work with. Somehow, both parties failed at making Danny sympathetic and compelling. His archetype fits that of the boring college guy who spent a semester abroad in Thailand and wants you to know all about it. Those guys suck, and always dressing like he came from a Phish concert did him no favors.
So after eight hours of Danny Bland, in comes Zhou Cheng, whose scene-chewing charisma and actual skill urges anyone to just want more of him.
And to think: Iron Fist almost had 13 hours of him.
4. He Was Actually Considered for Danny Rand
Tan auditioned for the role of Danny Rand, and was reportedly close to getting the gig. Tan opened up to Vulture about the process that, somewhere along the line, led him to Zhou Cheng’s shoes instead of Danny Rand’s.
“I read for Danny and [the producers] liked me a lot,” he said. “I read again and again and again, and 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.”
He also extrapolated why Tan, who was born in the UK but relates as a half-Asian citizen, would have related to Danny whose predominant story is always that of an outsider. “There’s no more of an outsider than an Asian-American,” he said. “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. I understand him very well.”
Fans (and X-Men writer Marjorie Liu) understood as well, expressing how much the casting would have worked to the show’s benefit.
Tan added that it’s a “missed opportunity.” It’s a point many have pointed out (including yours truly) that Iron Fist was ripe for the story of an Asian-American who feels neither Asian nor American. “That’s exactly how I feel about it, word for word.” Tan acknowledged there were outside forces that influenced Marvel, but he still told Vulture that his casting — or anyone else’s — as Danny Rand “would have been a different show.”