Ever since I implored Marvel to consider an Asian American actor for the role of Danny Rand in their planned Iron Fist Netflix series last year, the most common reaction has been from non-Asians (usually) whitesplaining why the idea of an Asian American martial artist is racist. The second most common question involves who Marvel/Netflix could cast in the role because there are no Asian American stars who could possibly carry a series. Which is a funny demand because I don’t recall Charlie Cox being a huge movie star pre-Daredevil, but that’s neither here nor there.
Besides, this is Marvel we’re talking about. The same studio that turned the schlubby guy from Parks & Rec into Harrison Ford. Whoever they cast — Asian or not — is guaranteed to be a star anyway. So here are several actors who deserve a shot at Shou-Lao and superhero stardom.
Before we get to the list, though, I want to clarify a few things. The actor who will play Danny Rand must be American — or able to convincingly speak with an American accent. Too many folks conflate Asians and Asian Americans and assume we’re all foreigners. The whole point about my original article was that we didn’t want to lose Danny’s Americaness, and that being Asian American doesn’t preclude him from having experiences similar to his comic book counterpart. Also, keeping Danny American renders your “but Shang-Chi” arguments moot.
Secondly, the actor needs to be in his late 20s or early 30s at least. I know some comic purists will argue Danny was only 19 when he becomes Iron Fist, but I don’t think it’s realistic to cast a kid that young in the role. Sure, he’s a teenager in all of the K’un-Lun scenes, but he’s also got to play an older adult in the present, especially since the other Marvel/Netflix stars are much older: Charlie Cox (Matt Murdock) is 32; Kristin Ritter (Jessica Jones) is 33; and Mike Colter (Luke Cage) is 39. Not to mention Simone Missick, the actress playing Danny’s future interest Misty Knight, is 39 as well.
That’s the other reason it makes sense to cast an Asian American actor. Even if they’re in their 30s, they can pull off the scenes of Danny as a teenager! Anyway, on to the list…
While being a full-fledged martial artist isn’t necessarily a requirement, it definitely helps when it comes to playing the Iron Fist convincingly. Fortunately for Cole Horibe, he’s got the skills and the acting chops to pull it off. Most importantly, he really wants the role.
Born in Hawaii, the 30-year-old martial artist/dancer/actor first came to national prominence as a finalist on the ninth season of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. Two years later, Horibe took his talents to Broadway and starred as Bruce Lee in David Henry Hwang’s critically acclaimed bio-play, Kung Fu.
It’s no small feat playing the most iconic Asian American movie star in history, and Horibe did it with aplomb on Broadway. I’m sure his sizable SYTYCD following — he made it all the way to Top 6, after all — will follow him anywhere.
Harry Shum Jr.
Next up is one of my favorite picks for Danny Rand, and honestly the actor I was envisioning when I wrote the original piece. Everyone either knows Harry Shum Jr. from his role as Mike Chang for six seasons on Glee (so we already know he can pull of playing a teenager, natch) or his membership in the LXD.
In addition to his physicality and extensive acting experience, the main reason Shum is my favorite is because he exudes the charisma required to bring Danny Rand to life. I can totally see him being a smartass and cracking wise while also cracking skulls.
Come 2016, though, the 33-year old Shum will be earning some nerd cred playing Magnus Bane on ABC Family’s Shadowhunters in January and displaying some martial arts skills in the Crouching Tiger sequel — with none other than Master Yuen Woo-Ping himself — that’s slated for February.
Ironically, this busy schedule is probably the one hurdle for casting him as Danny Rand. He can still play Quick Kick in a future G.I. Joe movie, though.
Ki Hong Lee
Ki Hong Lee is arguably the biggest “rising star” on the list and comes with a lot of nerd cred since he’s a major part of The Maze Runner movie franchise. Though he’s only been acting professionally for a few years, the 29-year old possesses proven range to do everything from dramatic action to romantic comedy.
In fact, his role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shows he can play the romantic love interest, which is an important aspect of the Danny Rand character. There’s also the Netflix connection there. Moreover, his role on Maze Runner means he has experience doing stunts and working with visual effects.
The jury’s out on whether or not he can do the fight scenes justice. But ultimately, that’s a skill that can be learned. I mean, it’s not like Charlie Cox played a blind ninja on Boardwalk Empire before he played Matt Murdock. So lack of martial arts background shouldn’t be a deal breaker here either.
This might be an out-of-left-field choice, but hear me out. Darren Criss — most famous for playing Blaine Anderson on Glee — needs to be a superhero. Sure, he’s already played one on the show and for Stan Lee, but I think it’s time Darren got in on the live action superheroing action.
We already know that being a Broadway song-and-dance-man is good enough to get you into the DC Universe, so why not the same for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Like Ki Hong Lee, I don’t know if the 28-year-old Bay Area native has martial arts skills, but we do know he’s a Fighter.
Seriously, Criss — who is part Filipino and Chinese — has the requisite charm to be the lead of any franchise (you could argue for a few seasons there, he was the most popular character on Glee) and his extensive dance training is more than enough preparation for the choreography he’d need to learn for Iron Fist.
The only reason I wouldn’t want him cast as a Marvel superhero is because I’m still holding out hope he’ll join fellow Glee alums Melissa Benoist and Grant Gustin in the Berlanti-verse.
If Marvel cast Steven Yeun as the lead of any property, much less Iron Fist, I think even the most stubborn fanboy purist would relent. Though he was Alice’s pick to play the MCU Spider-Man, at 31 years old, he was always too old for the direction Marvel was going with Peter Park(er).
That said, his age is right in the sweet spot for where we see Danny Rand in the television series on Netflix. If anyone has built up the nerd capital to play any role he wanted it would be the guy who gave life to Glenn. So I don’t have to go into Yeun’s bona fides for the part, do I?
Well for starters, dude’s already a sex symbol. Also, as I mentioned earlier, his time on The Walking Dead has not only given him a very loyal fanbase, but six-plus seasons of taking out walkers and punching douchebags in the mouth. Plus, he’s shown his funny side in numerous appearances on Conan, so he can pull off Danny’s snarkiness too. Besides, he’s got the time now, right?
So those are just five actors I could see bring the role of Danny Rand to life. In fact, there are tons more who fit the bill as well. Either way, casting any one of these actors in Iron Fist takes nothing away from the story the series will tell. So what are you waiting for, Marvel? Go ahead and lock one of these guys up in your patented ironclad contracts now!
Also published on The MCU Exchange