How Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, Knocked Down Stereotypes

In the pantheon of Marvel superheroes, there’s Spider-Man and Iron Man and Captain America and … Shang-Chi?

Admittedly one of the lesser recognized gamers within the comedian firm’s roster, Shang-Chi, a.okay.a. the Master of Kung Fu, wasn’t even acquainted to many of the creators that Disney and Marvel Studios employed a pair of years in the past to convey the character to cinematic life.

Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which premieres Friday, had by no means even heard of the character when he was rising up. Nor had the Canadian actor Simu Liu (“Kim’s Convenience”), who performs Shang-Chi within the movie.

When the screenwriter David Callaham, a longtime Marvel fan, was first approached in regards to the undertaking and advised it could function an Asian superhero, he figured it needed to be Amadeus Cho, a.okay.a. the Korean American Hulk, who made his first comic-book look in 2005. When Callaham discovered it could be Shang-Chi, “I said, ‘I don’t know what that is.’”

Many folks didn’t. For the creators, this gave them lots of freedom in crafting “Shang-Chi,” which stars Liu as a younger Chinese American resort valet — and unbeknown to even his closest buddies, “the world’s greatest martial artist” — making an attempt to get out from below the thumb of his overbearing dad.

Known property or not, the film is a trigger for celebration: It’s Marvel’s first and solely superhero movie starring an Asian lead, with an Asian American director and author, and primarily based on a personality who was really Asian within the unique comedian.

But oh, that comedian! When The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was first revealed in 1974, the sequence was very a lot a product of its time — with its ’70s hairstyles and nods to Fleetwood Mac — and of even earlier occasions, with supply materials that dated to 1920s England. It was additionally one of Marvel’s most racially problematic, with Asian faces rendered in garish oranges and yellows unseen in nature, and Orientalist characters like Shaka Kharn (a reincarnated Genghis Khan knockoff); the monosyllabic Chankar (a.okay.a. “the unstoppable sumo”); and Moon Sun (a Chinese “ancient one” accompanied by his “most lovely and honorable” daughter, Tiko).

The unique comedian was rife with stereotypes.Credit…Leinil Francis Yu/Marvel

Its star spent a lot of his time shirtless and shoeless, spouted fortune-cookie platitudes in stilted English, and frolicked with British guys with names like Black Jack Tarr and Sir Denis Nayland Smith.

And then there was his dad. Shang-Chi’s father wasn’t simply any overbearing Asian patriarch who wished his son to comply with him within the household enterprise, however Fu Manchu, the “Yellow Peril” arch-villain created by the British novelist Sax Rohmer in 1913. Long of nail and mustache, Fu Manchu goals of world domination. In a 1932 movie starring Boris Karloff in garish yellowface, he orders his followers to “kill the white man and take his women.” When reviving a sequence with that kind of legacy, what was Marvel to do?

Ditch Fu Manchu, for starters. “Fu Manchu was problematic for a billion reasons,” Callaham stated.

Even so, Cretton stated, adapting the sequence appeared daunting. “When I first met with Marvel, truthfully, I really just went in there to put my voice in the room and say, can you guys please avoid this, or try not to do that?” remembered Cretton, who’s higher recognized for “Short Term 12” and different dramas. “I never thought in a million years I’d end up booking the gig.”

Even with out Fu Manchu, Marvel wished to protect the household relationship on the core of the story, however with a father determine that may enchantment to an eminent actor. “When they asked who we should get to play the father, the first name out of my mouth was Tony Leung,” Cretton stated. “But I also said there’s no way we would get him.”

In some ways, getting Leung, who received the 2000 finest actor award in Cannes for his function in “In the Mood for Love,” was a sign to simply about all people that Fu Manchu wouldn’t be within the film, in any type. One of Hong Kong’s most beloved and gifted actors taking part in a racist, anti-Chinese stereotype? “I cannot imagine Tony Leung embodying a Fu Manchu kind of character,” stated Nancy Yuen, the writer of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” “It’s just not humanly possible because of who he has already been in the history of cinema.”

The new movie encompasses a largely Asian solid together with, from left, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Simu Liu and Awkwafina.Credit…Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Casting Leung was additionally half of a bigger push to fill the story with Asians, one thing that the comedian, and even the comedian’s personal influences, not often did. (Perhaps tellingly, the 2 most distinguished white actors within the new movie, Florian Munteanu and Tim Roth, play monsters.) In the 1970s TV sequence “Kung Fu,” which Marvel hoped to adapt on the time earlier than deciding on Shang-Chi, the present’s “Chinese” hero (performed by David Carradine) was surrounded by a largely white solid; equally, within the 1973 movie “Enter the Dragon” — which the unique comedian drew liberally from, right down to frame-by-frame lifts of motion sequences — Bruce Lee fought alongside non-Asian actors like John Saxon and Jim Kelly.

This newest martial arts story is chock-full of Asian faces, together with veteran Hong Kong stars like Leung and Michelle Yeoh, and Asian American actors like Awkwafina, Fala Chen and the comic Ronny Chieng.

“I grew up in Hawaii, and all of my friends are some mix of Asian American or Pacific Islander,” stated Cretton, who’s Japanese American. “I wanted Shang-Chi to be surrounded by a group of young people who reminded me of my friends, and felt like my friends.”

For the longest time, Liu stated, “the martial arts genre centered on this fish-out-of-water story, that often took place in white America and focused on white characters. I think that it was about time to really reclaim that narrative, to tell a story on our terms without a white-focused lens.”

To that finish, the creators did a significant reboot of Shang-Chi himself. Gone was the dated costume — “we weren’t going to make a movie about a guy in a gi and a headband, walking around Central Park karate-chopping people,” Callaham stated — and the stilted English. Instead of a guilt-ridden hero tormented about killing folks along with his naked palms and having a demon for a father, this up to date hero can be relatable — even humorous.

Shang-Chi has been rebooted as a comic book as properly.Credit…Leinil Francis Yu/Marvel

Marvel Studios has been making its heroes humorous for years, even those, like Iron Man and Thor, who have been by no means all that humorous within the unique comics. But Shang-Chi, one of the only a few Asian characters within the Marvel universe, cinematic or in any other case, has at all times been remarkably humorless even by superhero requirements — one more stereotype the creators got down to overcome. “There’s been this assumption in America until fairly recently that Asians and Asian Americans can’t be funny,” stated Gene Luen Yang, author of the newest run of Shang-Chi comics. “I think that’s why they had Eddie Murphy play Mushu in the animated ‘Mulan.’”

The creators have been so acutely aware of all of the preconceptions they have been up in opposition to that they even made a listing of Hollywood stereotypes about Asians that they hoped to dispel. In their film, the comedy would come from the Asian characters, not be directed at them. “We were also very interested in portraying Shang-Chi as romantically viable, as an Asian man,” Callaham stated, “and simultaneously also very cognizant of the opposite stereotype of Asian women, where they’re oversexualized or fetishized.”

To put together, the creators caught up on martial arts movies just like the 1978 traditional “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” thought-about to be one of the best kung fu movies of all time, in addition to ’80s motion motion pictures like “Big Trouble in Little China.”

“I’m also a huge fan of ‘Kung Fu Hustle,’” stated Callaham, a film that, like “Shang-Chi,” consists of flying bracelets, wuxia-inspired motion sequences and, sure, tons of comedy.

“Shang-Chi” additionally options mystical creatures; a sly swipe on the racist pasts of each Fu Manchu and Marvel’s Fu Manchu-like character, the Mandarin; and martial arts heroines galore. But for Callaham, one of probably the most memorable moments in creating the film had nothing to do with monster-filled mayhem or martial arts stunts.

“I was writing a sequence where Shang-Chi’s in San Francisco, and he’s hanging out with his friends, living a lifestyle that is not entirely dissimilar from what I have lived in the past,” he stated.

“I suddenly felt myself overwhelmed with emotion,” he continued. “Generally I’m hired to write a movie-star role so that we can attract a movie star, and typically those have not been Asian faces. It’s usually a beautiful white man named Chris or something. And all power to those guys, but I’ve always had to put myself in a position of imagining what it would be like to be somebody else. This was the first time in my life I’ve been able to sit back and not have to imagine it anymore.”