Iron Fist star Finn Jones: how does it feel to be the world's most hated superhero?

Finn Jones as Danny Rand in Marvel's Iron Fist
Finn Jones as Danny Rand in Marvel's Iron Fist Credit: Netflix

Comics were once a niche concern. Now they’re unavoidable. Superhero films dominate the box office. Seven live-action Marvel TV shows have launched in the last four years alone, and there are more in the works, based around increasingly obscure characters. How did it happen?

For Finn Jones, star of Marvel’s latest show, the answer is obvious. “I think there’s a cultural reason, and I think there’s a financial reason. The financial reason is, this s--- sells. You know? It’s got a huge, loyal, global fan-base. You make this thing, and you know people are going to watch it regardless.”

Regardless of quality? Perhaps. Until we eventually reach saturation point, and the super-bubble bursts. On the way to meet Jones in a five-star New York hotel, I stop to look through a shop window. It’s filled with the kind of vacuum-packed collectibles that line many a comic fan’s bedroom shelves. There are Hulk dolls, Spider-Man bobbleheads, an abundance of X-Men. I spend several minutes scanning the display for a cuddly Iron Fist. I can’t find one.

Finn Jones stars in the new Netflix show Iron Fist Credit: Netflix

Few people would choose Danny Rand, created in the Seventies to cash in on the kung-fu craze, as their favourite superhero. In the comics, a plane crash leaves the blond, blue-eyed young orphan billionaire stranded in the mystical Tibetan city of K'un-L'un, where after years of training he becomes the Iron Fist – their greatest warrior – before returning to fight evil in his home city of New York. In Paste magazine’s Top 100 comic-book characters, he scrapes in at #81, far below Netflix’s last three Marvel heroes, Jessica Jones (#48), Luke Cage (#42) and Daredevil (#5).

But while the new TV show has raised the character’s profile, his reputation has taken a nosedive. The story has recently come under fire for perpetuating a “white saviour” narrative: the idea that when a white man arrives in another culture, he’s virtually guaranteed to do everything they do better, becoming their one true hope and salvation (see also: Last of the Mohicans, The Last Samurai).

In 2015, writer Kenneth Chow suggested that Marvel could sidestep this problem by casting an Asian American as Iron Fist. His article went viral. The fans who supported it (and signed the inevitable petition) were vocally disappointed by the casting of Jones, best known for playing Ser Loras Tyrell on Game of Thrones.

Jones as Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones Credit: HBO

Danny Rand is Jones's first lead role, but his big break nearly came sooner. Fresh out of London's screen-centric ArtsEd drama school (having changed his name from Terry Jones, to avoid confusion with the Python), he had an audition for Game of Thrones's pilot as the show's star, Jon Snow. It didn't pan out, but soon Jones was cutting his teeth in soap: Hollyoaks, Doctors, The Bill.

Sat in his trailer on the last day of filming for a bit-part in the charming Doctor Who spin-off Sarah Jane Adventures, he got a call from his agent: Game of Thrones was back on, and they wanted to see him as Ser Loras, the Knight of Flowers. He was a hit with fans, and – in a stroke of luck – his character's death on the HBO show coincided with Jones landing an audition for Iron Fist, alongside his Thrones colleague Jessica Henwick.

Before the internet, audiences would judge a show by watching it. But Jones’s Iron Fist was widely slammed as racially insensitive before he’d even finished filming. Today, dressed in a slightly crumpled blue shirt that brings out his piercing eyes, the tousle-haired 28-year-old Londoner looks like Bambi in the middle of a hunting party.

Jones in Iron Fist with Jessica Henwick, who plays the Sand Snake Nymeria in Game of Thrones Credit: Netflix

I like him, but Jones is clearly expecting a grilling. Within minutes, he’s become twitchy and defensive, even when the questions are relatively innocuous. Might parts of Danny’s story remind us of other superheroes? “I don’t know, I don’t write the thing! I’m an actor. I just – I just see what’s on the page, and I try to bring it to life as truthfully as possible.”

When asked a general question about how he prepared for the exciting martial arts scenes, his reply is halfway between an excuse and an apology.

“Well, here’s the situation,” he begins, explaining that he only had three weeks to train before filming. “Unfortunately, with the filming schedule, I wasn’t given as much time as I would have liked to continue the training.” Shooting for 12 or 14 hours a day took its toll. “I was learning those fight scenes just 15 minutes before we shot them, because that was the schedule... It would be 2am, 3am, I’d just done a long day of work, and usually the stunt department would come up and say ‘Hey, right, we’ve got this huge 30 person fight and you’ve got to learn it right now.’ So I was learning it on the spot, within 15-20 minutes, and then shooting it. That was the reality for six months.”

It’s only later, reading the reviews, that I see these fight scenes have been described as “bland” (Polygon), “shockingly bland” (Gizmodo) and “a handful of featureless scuffles framed by uninspired cinematography and unconvincing stunt work” (ScreenRant). These reviews, however, are only based on a handful of preview episodes, and Netflix's New York-set "Street Level Hero" shows generally build up gradually.

Even the most acclaimed in the series, Luke Cage, was criticised for being "slow".  The sixth episode of Iron Fist hints at better things to come. Directed by hip-hop star RZA (whose film work includes, confusingly, a martial arts flop called The Man With the Iron Fists), it picks up the pace considerably, and has been received more warmly by the critics.

Has Jones been following the show’s reception? “No. I’m in the middle of filming The Defenders [Marvel’s forthcoming Street Level Heroes super-group show], and I have to stay very focussed on the job that I have to do, which is to bring this character to life free from judgement.” This is almost, word-for-word, the same statement he released last Monday to explain why he had “decided to remove [himself] from Twitter.”

The day before that, someone on the social media site had asked him, “You do see why Danny Rand being white is problematic, right?”

He replied: “There are a lot of characteristics in Danny which are problematic, that’s the point, rather than shy away from them we inspect them. It makes for a rich, intelligent, thought-provoking show.”

I’m intrigued. Which characteristics are problematic? “There are plenty of problems with Danny Rand. He’s full of flaws and contradictions. On the one hand, he’s a billionaire superhero. On the other hand, he’s attempting to be a warrior.” Oh. Is that really what he meant? “That’s all I meant by that statement.”

I ask about the decision to delete his account. “I didn’t delete it, I just left it for three hours. I temporarily put it on hold.” Most people, after just three tweetless hours, wouldn’t feel the need to release a formal statement to explain the lull.

The backlash must have been particularly difficult for Jones. He is an outspoken supporter of civil rights: while playing one of the few openly gay characters on Game of Thrones, he used his fame as a platform to criticise the Australian government’s stance on same-sex marriage. The recent Twitter debacle was prompted by Jones retweeting a speech by actor Riz Ahmed about diversity and representation. He clearly didn't mean to upset anyone.

At times, Jones sounds as if he is repeating a pep-talk given to him by the show’s publicity team. Iron Fist is “a good product,” he tells me. “When the fans see the show on the 17th of March they will be pleasantly surprised... I don’t think it’s as bad as people are letting on.”

Could the detractors have unfairly coloured people’s expectations? “One of the unfortunate things about Twitter is that everyone’s voice can be amplified. That’s a good thing, but it can be troublesome in certain situations like this. But I don’t think they derailed the show – at all. At all!” His voice has leapt half an octave.

He composes himself. “People are going to see the show and make up their own minds about it. And,” he tells me for the second time in five minutes, “they are going to be pleasantly surprised.”

The critics are perhaps missing a crucial part of the character. They assume we are supposed to like Danny Rand. We’re not. We’re supposed to pity him – at least, to begin with. When he returns to New York, he’s a childish naïf: optimistic, idealistic, desperate to be liked. But everywhere he goes, doors are slammed in his face. Like Jones, he has a certain tendency to put his foot in his mouth. The actor recently blamed Donald Trump’s election for the backlash, prompting an article by superhero fan site The Mary Sue with the headline “Why Has Marvel’s Marketing Team Continued To Let Finn Jones Keep Saying Words About Iron Fist?”

Credit: Netflix

Danny can be irritating, even conceited. Jones calls the show Danny’s “puberty”. His co-star Jessica Henwick has compared Danny to Tom Hanks’s character in Big, a small child trapped in an adult body. But this immaturity comes from a place of trauma. “He’s suffering from a form of PTSD," says Jones. "He’s lost his parents in a very traumatic incident, and then he was raised by a cult, effectively, from 10 years old… he was abandoned. He had no-one.”

This, for Jones, is the key to the character. “I am an orphan myself. I was adopted. I understand how it feels to be lonely, how it feels to be an outsider, how it feels to be vulnerable. I brought all those aspects of my own insecurities and my own vulnerabilities to the role.” One episode sees Rand admitted to a mental hospital, and Jones’s own experience in therapy helped him with those scenes.

“There have times in my life where I have felt incredibly anxious, and I have – yeah. There have been times. When I was in drama school, I really got into a dark place. I went to a therapist – it was really helpful to have that dialogue with someone. So I understand anxiety.” Luckily, he tells me, those days are now behind him.

But does he still get nervous about putting out a new project? “No, not at all. Not at all. Everyone else’s opinions don’t matter to me, and they are no concern of mine. My job is to bring the character to life as best I can, as the writers intended. That is my job.”

Iron Fist is on Netflix from March 17