Is kung-fu television worthy of Emmy-winning prestige? That’s a challenge accepted by Into the Badlands, a new series premiering November 15 on AMC. Like network brethren The Walking Dead, the show is aimed to elevate a B-movie genre and treat it with elegance typically reserved for the thinking man. But even smarties want to see ass kicking too.
“They want to elevate that genre and that’s what they [at AMC] do. They’re really good at that,” says executive producer Stephen Fung at New York Comic-Con’s press tables. “They’re progressive thinkers in TV and they’re constantly trying to think of fresh things to put out there for everyone and not do a repetition of the same thing. We can want that as makers, but if you don’t have the money people thinking the same way then it’s pointless.”
Into the Badlands stars Daniel Wu as Sunny, a warrior whose sword belongs to the enigmatic and ruthless Baron, Quinn (Marton Csokas). After years of killing on Quinn’s behalf, Sunny begins to dream of life outside the Badlands. He embarks on a journey when he meets M.K. (Aramis Knight), a teenage boy who possess a great power.
Set in a dystopian future that has aggressively readopted Civil War-era politics, mannerisms, and style, Into the Badlands is a hybrid kung-fu western sneaking up on an unsuspecting TV season in the midst of a viewership crisis. At last month’s New York Comic-Con, the cast and producer Stephen Fung gave the press a glimpse at what’s to come in a show that could be bold enough to save TV or too different to save itself.
A different kind of apocalypse.
Audiences are used to decaying worlds and fallen communities like in The Walking Dead, but Into the Badlands offers up a different flavor of the post-apocalypse.
“Anything apocalyptic we looked at,” Daniel Wu says during the conference. “Animation too, Fist of the North Star, those kinds of things. The relationship with me and M.K. kind of reflects a little bit of Lone Wolf and Cub. We wanted to create something fresh and different and no one’s ever seen before.”
Marton Csokas delves into the show’s mythology a little more. “The idea is that it’s 500 years or so in the future, nowhere in particular in America. And everybody was at the mercy of everybody else, so they decided to form some kind of foundation. And in the future, it’s some feudal system, and each of them looks after whatever resource: oil, water, gold. And [Quinn’s] is greens.”
A different kind of hero
Modern television is marked by characters who teeter on morally grey edges. Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead has succumbed to a darker nature, and even superheroes like Green Arrow are guilty of unforgivable sins. Where does Sunny fit in?
According to Wu, Sunny is an “incredibly cold hearted killer.” Oh. But hey, it won’t be for long. Upon meeting M.K. and Veil (Madeleine Mantock), a doctor Sunny falls in love with, his worldview collapses.
“As the story evolves you realize there’s another side of Sunny and he’s also discovering this of himself,” says Wu during the presentation. “It’s the first time he’s ever had these kinds of feelings because he’s been raised as a slave boy by Quinn who was like a father to him. That’s why he was fiercely loyal. He realized that if he was successful in this world — meaning, being a good killer — he could have success and freedom within the Badlands.”
But unlike Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson, good men who entered a bad world and can’t get out, Into the Badlands’ Sunny begins in a bad world and will let him try to find goodness atop a pile of bodies. “He realizes maybe this freedom that he has is not real freedom. It opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of his emotions and how he’s feeling about this place. Maybe it’s not the right place to be. No one’s ever gotten out of the Badlands. It’s like a mafia world, once you’re in it’s hard to get out. He’s fighting back.”
And of course, the elephant in the room: Sunny is Asian. When Badlands premieres, Daniel Wu will join the very small circle of Asian men playing heroic leads on American television, but Wu isn’t letting that matter. “I’m not trying to carry the baggage of all of Asia America on my shoulder. I’ve had the tremendous luck to have an amazing career in Hong Kong that is not based on race whatsoever so I just use that same mentality here. I just want to do my best work possible.”
“The main point is to make a really great show for TV and that’s what I’m thinking about,” Wu adds. “All those other things are bonuses.”
A different kind of villain.
Quinn is a Baron, one of the privileged few in the Badlands. Similar to a feudal system, each Baron commands an army and Quinn succeeded to his position through, what else, murder. But Quinn isn’t a Saturday morning super villain.
“I think he’s doing his best to survive in that world,” says Csokas. “He has a family. Other people want to intercept the kingdom, their world. And he does his best to maintain order and control and power in order to create stability, a kind of peace.”
The Baron maintains order through order. He intimidates those who live under him to not just fear him, but to fear the world. And Csokas thinks Quinn has started to believe his own lies. “I think he believes he’s doing the right thing. If he doesn’t somebody else will. He’s brainwashing them. There’s a dogma that helps, and there’s also a dogma that diminishes the humanity.”
“I think the decision we’re taking here, and was always the intention of the writers, and certainly would be our interest in the show is no one considers themselves bad,” remarks Orla Brady, who plays the Baroness Lydia, Quinn’s wife. “Augusto Pinochet didn’t consider himself bad, did he? He died in bed surrounded by family. I’m sure he believed he was protecting his people, and the good of the country. And saving them from whatever he was doing. But many just see him as evil. People don’t think of themselves as bad.”
Is it a western kung-fu? Or a kung-fu western?
Into the Badlands promises a heavy fusion of west and east.
“There’s little elements of steampunk, there’s a little element of Asian design,” Wu says. “There’s a lot of things because we thought it should be a mash up because if it’s 300 years in the future things are going to be melded together. There won’t be something distinct but it will be a distinct style all on it’s own.”
Brady says she was taken aback by the show’s wild style. “I’m finding it amazing that it’s not a genre I know. That we’re not all wandering around in a hospital. I’ve done cop shows and lawyer shows and it’s wonderful to just be doing something else. You heard the works and you conquer something fresh and new.”
“That is what’s attractive. A sort of fusion of cultures and costume, and ways of behaving and thinking,” Csokas adds. “Television is becoming more intelligent in that way. Even if it’s just how we make it and we roll the dice.”
A Game of Thrones style tug-of-war.
Sunny isn’t the only one struggling. Not unlike another prestige fantasy, Game of Thrones, everyone in the Badlands is gunning for the top spot. Emily Beecham plays The Widow, a rival Baron who’s “a bit like a spider” (“She wears a lot of black leather, shiny leather, and stiletto heels,” Beecham describes) who intends to topple Quinn’s throne.
Daniel Wu walks the press through Badlands’ political landscape. “There’s the Barons and Emily’s character trying to turn things upside down and take away Quinn’s traditional power that he has, being a patriarchal guy and really introducing a softer, more beautiful side of things. Then there’s an internal struggle within the house of Quinn, Lydia falling out of the favor of Quinn’s eyes and him finding a new wife in Sarah Bolger’s Jade. There’s multiple layers all going on at one time.”
And of course, some damn great kung-fu.
Setting Into the Badlands apart from the majority of prestige TV is martial arts. Into the Badlands will be loaded with Hong Kong style action that can arguably only be rivaled by Arrow and Marvel’s Daredevil.
“We definitely did look at different stuff that was visually exciting,” Fung tells Inverse during Comic-Con. “There’s krav maga, jiu-jitsu. We definitely wanted to appeal to a martial artist as well and for them to recognize different moves and stuff that happen within the fights. We’re trying to pepper that all in on top of making a cool, dynamic exciting fight.”
Keeping things exciting was the primary goal in staging the choreography. Wu admits he was concerned the fights could get repetitive. As a result, the team exercised restraint to ensure no viewer snoozes throughout the season when sick roundhouse kicks are thrown.
“It’s a TV series so [the action has] got to be progressive,” he says. “We don’t want to throw everything in the first season. When we think of the long term, we got to think about not just style of martial arts but what weapons they use. Sunny carries two katana swords. I’ve got to think of the long run because the audience are going to be bored if he keeps fighting with two swords.”
Fung says the stunt team followed Bruce Lee’s “no style is style” philosophy which informed the fluidity of what each scene demanded. “In the future there should be no styles. Whatever is effective it works, it’s what you’re going to use to fight. That’s how you survive in that world. Everyone has two arms and two legs. There shouldn’t be a limit on how a person fights. It’s what’s effective and what works in that world.”
Bringing art with martial arts.
Into the Badlands is determined to take martial arts cinema to the next level. To do so, according to Daniel Wu, the show has to destroy misconceptions and preconceived notions the niche genre often inspires.
“There’s stuff we wanted to avoid because I think kung-fu is very ‘fortune cookie’ in some ways. It’s important that in the martial arts that we also show the spirituality. I love UFC but you don’t see the art in the martial arts. Though the show is violent, we also want to make sure that the spirituality side is there but not in that fortune cookie kind of way.”
Into the Badlands premieres November 15 on AMC.