In the pantheon of Marvel superheroes, there’s Spider-Man and Iron Man and Captain America and … Shang-Chi?
Admittedly one of the lesser-known players in the comic company’s roster, Shang-Chi, aka the Master of Kung Fu, wasn’t even familiar to many of the creators hired by Disney and Marvel Studios a couple of years ago to bring the character to cinematic life.
Destin Daniel Cretton, director of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which premiered Friday, had never even heard of the character when he was growing up. Nor had Canadian actor Simu Liu (“Kim’s Convenience”), who plays Shang-Chi in the film.
When screenwriter David Callaham, a longtime Marvel fan, was first approached about the project and told it would feature an Asian superhero, he figured it had to be Amadeus Cho, aka the Korean American Hulk, who made his first comic book appearance in 2005. When Callaham learned it would be Shang-Chi, “I said, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ "
Many people didn’t. For the creators, this gave them a lot of freedom in crafting “Shang-Chi,” which stars Liu as a young Chinese American hotel valet — and unbeknown to even his closest pals, “the world’s greatest martial artist” — trying to get out from under the thumb of his overbearing dad.
Known property or not, the movie is a cause for celebration: It’s Marvel’s first and only superhero film starring an Asian lead, with an Asian American director and writer, and based on a character who was actually Asian in the original comic.
But oh, that comic! When “The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu” was first published in 1974, the series was very much a product of its time — with its ‘70s hairstyles and nods to Fleetwood Mac — and of even earlier times, with source material that dated to 1920s England. It was also 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 (aka “the unstoppable sumo”); and Moon Sun (a Chinese “ancient one” accompanied by his “most lovely and honorable” daughter, Tiko).
Its star spent much of his time shirtless and shoeless, spouted fortune-cookie platitudes in stilted English, and hung out 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 just any overbearing Asian patriarch who wanted his son to follow him in the family business, but Fu Manchu, the “Yellow Peril” archvillain created by the British novelist Sax Rohmer in 1913. Long of nail and mustache, Fu Manchu dreams of world domination. In a 1932 film starring Boris Karloff in garish yellowface, he orders his followers to “kill the white man and take his women.” When reviving a series with that sort of legacy, what was Marvel to do?
Ditch Fu Manchu, for starters. “Fu Manchu was problematic for a billion reasons,” Callaham said.
Even so, Cretton said, adapting the series seemed 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?” said Cretton, who’s better known for “Short Term 12” and other dramas. “I never thought in a million years I’d end up booking the gig.”
Even without Fu Manchu, Marvel wanted to preserve the family relationship at the core of the story, but with a father figure that would appeal 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 said. “But I also said there’s no way we would get him.”
In many ways, getting Leung, who won the 2000 best actor award in Cannes for his role in “In the Mood for Love,” was a signal to just about everybody that Fu Manchu wouldn’t be in the movie, in any form. One of Hong Kong’s most beloved and gifted actors playing a racist, anti-Chinese stereotype?
“I cannot imagine Tony Leung embodying a Fu Manchu kind of character,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, author 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.”
Casting Leung was also part of a larger push to fill the story with Asians, something that the comic, and even the comic’s own influences, rarely did. (Perhaps tellingly, the two most prominent white actors in the new film, Florian Munteanu and Tim Roth, play monsters.) In the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu,” which Marvel hoped to adapt at the time before settling on Shang-Chi, the show’s “Chinese” hero (played by David Carradine) was surrounded by a largely white cast; similarly, in the 1973 film “Enter the Dragon” — which the original comic drew liberally from, down to frame-by-frame lifts of action sequences — Bruce Lee fought alongside non-Asian actors like John Saxon and Jim Kelly.
This latest martial arts tale is chock-full of Asian faces, including veteran Hong Kong stars like Leung and Michelle Yeoh, and Asian American actors like Awkwafina, Fala Chen and comedian Ronny Chieng.
“I grew up in Hawaii, and all of my friends are some mix of Asian American or Pacific Islander,” said Cretton, who is Chinese 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 said, “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 end, the creators did a major 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 said — and the stilted English. Instead of a guilt-ridden hero tormented about killing people with his bare hands and having a demon for a father, this updated hero would be relatable — even funny.
Marvel Studios has been making its heroes funny for years, even the ones, like Iron Man and Thor, who were never all that funny in the original comics. But Shang-Chi, one of the very few Asian characters in the Marvel universe, cinematic or otherwise, has always been remarkably humorless even by superhero standards — yet another stereotype the creators set out to overcome. “There’s been this assumption in America until fairly recently that Asians and Asian Americans can’t be funny,” said Gene Luen Yang, writer of the latest run of Shang-Chi comics. “I think that’s why they had Eddie Murphy play Mushu in the animated ‘Mulan.’ "
The creators were so conscious of all the preconceptions they were up against that they even made a list of Hollywood stereotypes about Asians that they hoped to dispel. In their movie, 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 said, “and simultaneously also very cognizant of the opposite stereotype of Asian women, where they’re oversexualized or fetishized.”
To prepare, the creators caught up on martial arts films like the 1978 classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” considered to be one of the greatest kung fu films of all time, as well as ‘80s action movies like “Big Trouble in Little China.”
“I’m also a huge fan of ‘Kung Fu Hustle,’ " said Callaham, a movie that, like “Shang-Chi,” includes flying bracelets, wuxia-inspired action sequences and, yes, lots of comedy.
“Shang-Chi” also features mystical creatures; a sly swipe at the racist pasts of both Fu Manchu and Marvel’s Fu Manchu-like character, the Mandarin; and martial arts heroines galore. But for Callaham, one of the most memorable moments in creating the movie 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 said.
“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.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.