It’s difficult to decide where best to begin when discussing Marvel’s Iron Fist, its blonde-haired blue-eyed kung-fu master hero Danny Rand, or its equally boyish star, Finn Jones. Do you go back to the very beginning, when Marvel’s casting of Jones as Rand dredged up decades-long criticisms of the character as the archetypal “white savior” trope, the fair-skinned foreigner dumped into a far away land only to master the native arts more proficiently than those who invented it? Or do you skip ahead to Jones’ various responses to those critiques, which an unbiased observer could describe as anything from “misinformed” to “disastrous?” Or maybe you first question Iron Fist showrunner Scott Buck, or Marvel Television President Jeph Loeb, who seem content to let Jones hang out in the storm by himself, an odd misfire from the usually steel-clad Marvel PR machine. What, after all the controversy, Twitter-deletions and pointed fingers, is the best entry point to understanding where Finn Jones lands on a scale from Marvel’s most misunderstood hero to the comic book giants’ first major mistake?
For me, the most telling moment came after I compared a narrative beat in Iron Fist to erotic-novel-turned-franchise 50 Shades of Grey.
“Now, here’s the thing with that,” Jones responds quickly, leaning forward for the first time during our conversation. “I hope that doesn’t get misinterpreted. I watched that back, and it did jar a bit with me as well.”
We’re sitting across from each other at a corner table in a whiskey bar off Bowery, three weeks before Iron Fist’s March 17 premiere. Until the Shades comparison, the 28-year-old actor had his legs tucked to his chest, almost child-like, to fit into a booth too small for his lanky frame. But he’s animated now, hands flying. The moment we’re discussing comes late in Iron Fist’s fifth episode, during an interaction between Jones’ Rand and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing (the series’ one undisputed bright spot). Rand, a newly-minted billionaire, offers to pay the rent on Wings’ apartment, which doubles as a dojo. When she resists, Rand, in a move culled almost directly from the Christian Grey Guidebook to Dating, simply purchases her entire building.
“From Danny’s perspective, he’s totally naive and innocent,” Jones explains. “So him buying her building isn’t so he can have control over her, it’s him being like, ‘Well, hey, I’ve got the money, why don’t I buy you a building? You have trouble paying your rent? Well I’ve got a fucking billionaire company. But it’s interesting how we, as cynics in our own society, see that as a very controlling, manipulating.”
Jones leans back again. “Isn’t that interesting?” he continues. “From Danny’s point of view, that was purely just a naive, cheeky little thing. He’s like, ‘well, if I can buy a sports car, let’s just fucking do it.’ He’s constantly contradicting himself. Which I think is really endearing.”
But this itself is a microcosm of every detractor’s issue with Jones’ approach to Iron Fist’s roll out. The actor is willing to acknowledge the critiques, usually with a brush of his genuine charm, but he holds them at arm’s length, drawing them close only to paint the issue in solid black and white. This came to a head recently in an interview with Metro, in which Jones finally fell back on a well-worn response: Iron Fist is for the fans, not the critics, a jab that comes with the double-edged implication that critics cannot truly enjoy art, as much as fans cannot engage with art critically.
Iron Fist has been around since the 70s, when writer Roy Thomas and illustrator Gil Kane pencil-and-inked the character into life at the height of America film audiences’ newfound martial arts obsession, but his origin story has largely remained the same. A plane crash lands the blonde billionaire boy-king in the mystical city of K’un-L’un, where Lei Kung the Thunderer takes him on as a pupil and teaches him the way of the Iron Fist. A dragon named Shou-Lao the Undying may or may not have to be slain. What’s key here is that, to many, the idea of a white man air-dropping into other cultures and being deemed more worthy, more heroic–an idea echoed earlier this year in The Great Wall, in Marvel’s own Doctor Strange–has not aged gracefully since Marvel Premiere #15 feat. Iron Fist first hit shelves in May of 1974.
“I think the backlash is not so much about the show, but really the type of time that we’re living in where there is huge inequality for different minorities and cultures,” Jones tells me. “We live in a very unjust world. I think what we’re seeing with this backlash is a systemic reaction to a much bigger problem.”
This isn’t the actor’s only theory, though. He bounces between them, equally adamant about each one. “I also think it’s a knee jerk reaction to a headline or a Tweet without reading the full picture,” he says. “I think that is one of the biggest problems with our culture at the moment, as well.”
“People are allowed to have their own opinions. I understand it, because it comes from a much deeper place of feeling not listened to by society,” he continues. “I just wish they would see the whole show, and see what we’re doing with it. I’m a huge advocate for human rights, and cultural rights. I stand up for minorities, and will always continue to do so. So I just find it very frustrating when I’m personally attacked, and the show is attacked, when people haven’t even seen what we’re doing with it.”
Jones is visibly frustrated now. His boyish features give way to well-trodden anger, a glimpse at Danny Rand at his most volatile. “I think every story we tell from now on has to have some kind of progressive social message. It just has to. We need to start fighting for something that really matters.” He sighs. “Not just over some Netflix show.”
Jones has a character he himself compares to Danny Rand, one far more wholesome than Christian Grey, that he brings up several times during our interview: Tom Hanks’ Josh in 1988’s Big. Danny Rand is a “child in a man’s body,” as Jones puts it, an enthusiastic youth suddenly burdened with the responsibilities that come with growing up. It’s a comparison as apt as it is enlightening, suggesting that an accurate reading of Danny Rand is not far off from understanding the actor playing him.
There’s something to the idea that the similarities between Marvel’s Immortal Iron Fist and Finn Jones run deep, perhaps even more so than he may notice. For better, and for worse.
“I’ve always been an outsider,” Jones tells me. Adopted at two years old, the England native spent most of his time at Bromley’s Hayes School on the outskirts of social circles. “I understand what it feels like to not have a foundation to come from. I was never a troublemaker, but I also was never a nerdy kid. I was never a cool kid, or a sports kid. At lunch times I never fit in with any cliques, so I’d end up just walking around the school by myself, listening to music.”
Which, of course, is also how we are introduced to Danny Rand in Iron Fist’s first episode; headphones in, OutKast’s ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ blaring, and walking through an environment that is unfamiliar and, in large part, rejects him. For Jones it was school, but for Rand it is a New York that’s changed a great deal during his ten-year absence. The delis he frequented as a child closed, unable to pay rent. September 11 upped the city’s security presence and those who cared for Danny as a child don’t recognize this bearded, barefoot man claiming to be back from the dead.
In Rand, a twice-dubbed stranger in a strange land, Jones recognized a familiar soul almost instantly. And what timing; the actor was mere hours removed from his time as Loras Tyrell on HBO’s fantasy mega-hit Game of Thrones coming to an abrupt, fiery end when his agent sent him two attachments. The first was a script code-named “Kick,” the second a link to Marvel’s official bio of Danny Rand.
“I was in the airport on the way back from my last day of filming [Game of Thrones], sitting there thinking ‘well, fuck, what’s next?’” Jones remembers. “I start reading the character breakdown, and the more I read the more it sinks into me. A kind of subconscious intuition thing that just went, ‘this is it. This is the role that is next, that I’ve been waiting for.’”
Over the first six episodes of Iron Fist it’s clear that even if this is not the Danny Rand you wanted, Jones embodies the Danny Rand Marvel had in mind. He’s a walking contradiction. A violent Buddhist. A homeless billionaire. A corporate CEO with the mindset of an impulsive high school senior. If Daredevil’s Matt Murdock is the patriarch of Netflix’s Marvel universe, Jessica Jones its cool, distant sister and Luke Cage the older brother secretly holding everything together, Iron Fist’s Danny Rand arrives to dinner late, a surly teen with his arms folded at the end of the table.
Jones tells me not only was this characterization intentional, but that it pays off. “[Halfway through the season] is when the boy dies, and the man gets resurrected,” he says. “Danny starts to question himself, and he realizes he needs to become more responsible. Knowing the character is on a journey of self-discovery allowed me to be comfortable that he’s a work in progress.”
And, like that, we’re wading again into murky waters, into criticisms and assessments that could be applied to Jones and Rand in equal measure. After all, how else to categorize a young actor, jumping from one mega-franchise to the other and largely failing to stick the landing, other than a “work in progress?” Reviews aside, Jones’ journey as Iron Fist is one guaranteed to continue; he’s currently in the middle of filming The Defenders, Netflix’s own Avengers-esque team-up that will unite every streaming-service hero under one banner later this year.
Jones promises a different Danny Rand come Defenders. “Something I quite like about Iron Fist is the fact Danny looks awkward wearing a suit. But you’ll see when we get into Defenders, he is like…” Jones snaps his fingers. “He’s all about it. He’s grown into that character.”
But what of the actor behind the character? Jones’ transition Game of Thrones knight to full-blown comic book hero has been anything but smooth, but it’s ongoing. Even Superman couldn’t fly in his first appearance, and Iron Fist is no Superman.
“Danny is on that journey to becoming comfortable in his own skin. He’s got a lot of regret, a lot of guilt, and he has to really come to terms with that stuff,” Jones tells me, as our conversation winds down. “And then, in turn, he can become comfortable even putting on a superhero outfit. I think it would’ve been a mistake for the show to immediately throw him into a superhero outfit, because he’s not worthy of that. He hasn’t earned it. Not yet.”
And maybe that’s where Jones lands, neither misunderstood or a mistake but just stuck in the origin portion of this particular comic book story. If it seems the world has rejected the idea of Finn Jones as Iron Fist, it’s possible Finn Jones is still coming to terms with the idea himself. Maybe, like Danny Rand, he simply hasn’t earned the superhero costume. At least, not yet.