clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Reclamation of Shang-Chi

On Friday, ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ will mark the arrival of the MCU’s first Asian American lead character. But it’s not just a triumphant moment of representation—it’s one that aims to reverse decades of comic book stereotyping.

Zeke Peña

In the early 20th century, a struggling British writer by the name of Sax Rohmer consulted a Ouija board in order to discover how he could best make his fortune. As the story goes, the spirits answered his call by spelling out the word C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N.

By 1912, Rohmer had released his first novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, which capitalized on the xenophobic fear-mongering toward East Asia known as the Yellow Peril and introduced a dastardly Asian villain who would soon become a household name. It was an immediate commercial success, and by the 1920s, Fu Manchu was the central focus of a British silent film series and the main character in Paramount Pictures’ The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. The character, distinguished by his talon-like fingernails, unnatural yellow skin, and a spindly mustache that dangles across the sides of his face, quickly grew into one of the most prolific villains in 20th-century popular culture, and a stereotype that would haunt Asians around the world for generations. His racist image was re-created in cartoons, radio serials, and most prominently in films, with revered white actors like Boris Karloff, John Carradine, and Christopher Lee all portraying him throughout the years.

But Fu Manchu has an even larger place in the history of comic books, and plays an outsized role in the genre’s troubles depicting Asian people. As martial arts grew in popularity in the early 1970s, Marvel Comics, which had failed to acquire the rights to adapt the popular David Carradine TV series Kung Fu, instead licensed the rights to Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. But rather than making the pulp villain the title character of his own series, Marvel chose to introduce a new hero in the form of Fu Manchu’s previously unknown son: Shang-Chi.

Now, nearly 50 years after Shang-Chi made his debut in Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin’s Special Marvel Edition no. 15 and became the series’ protagonist of Master of Kung Fu, the character is being revived in the Marvel world. When Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on Friday, it will mark the arrival of the first Asian lead in the 25 films that Marvel Studios has produced since 2008, and become only the fourth film produced by a major Hollywood studio to feature a predominantly Asian cast since 1993, when the The Joy Luck Club premiered (the second being 2018 box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians, and the third being the live-action Mulan). It’s another long overdue moment for Asian American representation, but for Marvel Studios and Marvel Comics, it’s also an opportunity to reverse decades of damaging work and problematic decision-making, like casting Ben Kingsley to play the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.

“We were all on the same page right off the bat,” says Simu Liu, who portrays the film’s titular Chinese American superhero. “We were going to introduce an all-new origin story for this character, and the only things we were going to take from the comics were his name, his martial arts skills, and the fact that he had a complicated relationship with his father.”

Under the direction of Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, Short Term 12), the first Asian American filmmaker to helm a movie in the MCU, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings reclaims a character who was born in the shadows of one of the most pervasive and harmful Asian stereotypes. At the same time, the character is receiving a similar renaissance in the comics under the stewardship of writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Dike Ruan. The film and comics teams are two disparate creative crews, working independently across two different forms of media, but together, their parallel efforts mark a concerted effort within the company to improve, expand, and make amends. “One of our big goals was to make Shang-Chi feel like he’s embedded in this preexisting universe,” says Yang. “He is a part of this. He’s a part of the fabric of this fictional world.”

Jasin Boland

In 2011, when journalist and They Call Us Bruce cohost Jeff Yang was approached by NYU to curate an art exhibition using sci-fi author William F. Wu’s extensive collection of comic books, he was presented with five decades’ worth of Western comics—and their attendant stereotypes. “It was so evident that the ways that we are depicted as Asians in Western popular culture just fit tropes—fit preexisting themes and archetypes almost to a T, and those tropes have existed since long before there were comics,” Jeff Yang says. “These are the artifacts—the inheritances, essentially—of generations of propaganda, editorial cartoons, scurrilous posters, wartime efforts to turn us into monsters so it was easier to attack us, defeat us, and destroy us.”

The exhibit, Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, encompasses American comic books from 1942 to 1986, a period in American history that covers “intense Asia-related political engagement: the internment of Japanese Americans; the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; wars in Korea and Vietnam; continued Cold War tensions with China; economic competition with Japan; and adaptation to skyrocketing immigration and growing populations of Asian Americans.” Anti-Asian bias in the media can be traced back even further still—in the 19th century, Yellow Peril cartoons and editorials contributed to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first and only piece of U.S. federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality.

After parsing through the piles and piles of comics that Wu had amassed over time, Yang was able to identify a number of Asian archetypes that kept recurring throughout the years—the Alien, the Kamikaze, the Brute, the Lotus Blossom, the Guru, the Brain, the Temptress, and the Manipulator—and fit them within the greater historical context of the 20th century. “Comic books have always been an almost direct expression of imagination, and maybe id,” Jeff Yang says. “In comics the difference is that you can literally make anything happen. You can create what you want in comics in a way that is much more challenging than almost any other media, and as a result take on the deepest fears, the greatest doubts, the most aspirational fantasies you might have.”

While a vehicle for boundless imagination and multiverses of possibilities, comics—and pop culture at large—are still rooted in the realities and worldviews of their creators. They stand, Yang says, as a historical summary of the origins and evolution of Asian perception in American culture, one marked by savages with slit eyes, mystical wise ones, exotic seductresses, and hyperintelligent yet socially awkward men, stereotypes still found in mainstream media today. By the time the already infamous Fu Manchu entered the Marvel universe in the 1970s, carbon copies of the character had been foiling Earth’s mightiest heroes for decades. Marvel villains like the Yellow Claw and the Mandarin, who made their comics debuts in the 1950s, were drawn with the same shade of unnaturally yellow skin as Fu Manchu, as were all Eastern mystical threats who jeopardized the safety of the Western world.

With the arrival of Shang-Chi in Master of Kung Fu, the draw was not so much the new hero as it was the already infamous supervillain (much like how FBI good guy Jimmy Woo was upstaged by the evil Yellow Claw). Unlike other superheroes who had strange and fantastic origin tales of radioactive spider bites or lab experiments gone horribly wrong, Fu Manchu was the backstory for Shang-Chi in those early years. In fact, Marvel initially passed on the character when creators Englehart and Starlin pitched him. It wasn’t until Fu Manchu was added as his father that Shang-Chi got the green light. Although Marvel would work to retcon Fu Manchu from the canon, Shang-Chi never really became a noteworthy, fully realized character on his own. Master of Kung Fu was discontinued in 1983; Shang-Chi only appeared in the occasional miniseries, martial arts lesson, or Avengers team-up thereafter.

In 2020, a year after Simu Liu was announced as the MCU’s newest hero at Comic-Con in San Diego, Shang-Chi received his most meaningful comic book reboot in years under an all-Asian creative team led by the Eisner-award-winning writer Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese and DC’s Superman Smashes the Klan). While the most blatantly problematic depictions of Asians were filtered out of the pages of Marvel’s comics long ago, Yang was still tasked with modernizing a character who had long been hidden behind the capes of his contemporaries. “When I signed up to do Shang-Chi as the writer, I went back and I read a lot of those [Master of Kung Fu] comics that I had avoided as a kid, and I realized that he functions really differently from what we think as the standard Marvel character,” says Yang. “I think Spider-Man is the prototypical Marvel superhero, and his appeal is, you’re supposed to identify with Spider-Man. ... But Shang-Chi is not like that. You’re not meant to identify with Shang-Chi. You’re meant to look at this weird ‘Chinaman’ doing all of these spectacular kung fu feats, but you’re not necessarily meant to empathize with him. That’s one of the things that Dike [Ruan] and I really wanted to fix.”

Yang and Ruan’s first Shang-Chi miniseries, Brothers & Sisters, repurposes the family dynamic that’s always defined the central tension of the character’s life, and adds personality and color to both Shang-Chi and the story’s supporting characters. It embeds Chinese traditions and adopts a greater attention to detail—from the subtitled use of various Chinese dialects to the consumption of delicious crystal cakes—that brings depth to a world that was once hollow. And although the ongoing Shang-Chi comics and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are separate entities with no direct creative crossover, it’s no coincidence that the two teams are taking similar tacks in emphasizing their protagonist’s family dynamics and nuances. These are distinct jobs, but they share the same goal. “One of the big things that we struggle with as Asian Americans, and maybe especially Asian American men, is the idea of the Asian horde—like we’re this faceless crowd, as opposed to individuals,” says Yang. “That’s how we’ve been portrayed traditionally in American comics and in American film. The thing I’m most excited about for [Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings], and I hope it’s the first for the trend, is that we’re going to get individualized. We’re going to be seen as three-dimensional human beings.”

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi screenwriters Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton faced a unique challenge that most creatives don’t when taking on a massive Marvel Studios project. Though the character arrived in the comics as early as the 1970s, Shang-Chi never had nearly the level of pop cultural resonance that a Spider-Man, Captain America, or Wolverine did. And as a rather flimsy hero who was created for a white American audience at the height of the kung fu phenomenon, the Shang-Chi film team had to figure out how to reintroduce the character in a way that felt fresh and that distinguished him from a long line of martial artists in pop culture. “What I pitched to Marvel was making a family drama that was cloaked in the genre of martial arts and kung fu movies,” Cretton tells me. “And that was, to my surprise, something that sparked with them and that they embraced wholeheartedly.”

Martial arts, of course, are Eastern traditions that predate the film genre by centuries. But they only really rose to prominence in American popular culture in the early ’70s, in part due to the success of ABC’s Kung Fu series starring Carradine in 1972 and to a much larger extent Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon the following year. Lee was a true trailblazer, an Asian American actor and martial artist who defied evil Fu Manchu or subservient Charlie Chan Hollywood stereotypes every time he appeared on screen. And though he had to first become a star in Hong Kong before getting his big break in Hollywood, Lee established a new place for Asian actors in the American film industry in the years to follow—one that didn’t require them to demean themselves in roles that white actors would often yellowface their way into anyway. “I definitely grew up idolizing and watching Bruce [Lee], Jackie [Chan], Jet [Li], Donnie [Yen],” says Liu. “Martial arts was, in a lot of ways, the only positive representation that we had.”

Lee tragically died before he could even see Enter the Dragon haul in $90 million globally in its first year, against an $850,000 budget, but his success and the growing hunger for more kung fu content in his absence helped pave the way for Hong Kong and Chinese-born actors like Chan, Li, and Yen to succeed in Hollywood years later. And while this new archetypal kung fu hero was undoubtedly a major leap forward for Asian actors in American cinema, without Lee to help push the envelope even further, progress slowed as a new trope was born. “There’s a reason why we all love Bruce Lee and are fans of his, because he’s legitimately awesome,” Cretton says with a laugh. “But I think the only problem is there isn’t enough variety to iconic Asian actors in [American] cinema. And so, Bruce Lee, unfortunately, over time being the only icon, became a cliché and stereotype.”

For Liu, opportunities were scarce as an Asian actor trying to break into the film industry with aspirations of being more than the Kung Fu Guy—even as recently as 2013. “I remember, my very first set that I was ever on, Pacific Rim, I was a minimum-wage extra,” the Chinese Canadian actor recalls. “And I’d just be looking at the stunt performers who were Asian and thinking, ‘Wow, if I work really hard, maybe I could get there one day, and maybe I could be a faceless stunt man that gets beat up by a white character.’ But that was it! If you worked in the industry, and you were an Asian guy, then you were most likely a martial artist, and you most likely were a stunt guy—that’s just the reality of it.”

In the eight years since Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was released, the Hollywood landscape has changed tremendously, with movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #WhiteWashedOUT calling for more diversity and representation in the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, commercial and critical successes have proved Hollywood’s fear of primarily minority casts to be completely unwarranted. Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018) raked in over $174.5 million in 2018, all but ensuring that it wouldn’t be another quarter-century wait before another Asian-led film would get a chance in Hollywood. (See: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, coming soon to theaters near you.) In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite became the first South Korean and non–English language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari not only received a nod for Best Picture at the following Oscars show, but also garnered a Best Supporting Actress win for Youn Yuh-jung—the first Korean to win an Academy Award for acting—and a Best Actor nomination for Steven Yeun, the first Asian American actor to receive the honor.

But with all that said, these films are, at least at the moment, still exceptions when considering the greater Hollywood landscape. And although the Academy Awards are still among the highest distinctions that a film can receive, Hollywood’s often self-serving award shows continue to lose cultural significance by the year.

With Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Cretton and Co. have the opportunity to tell a story that celebrates Asian culture as a part of the most lucrative franchise in cinematic history. As they’ve become the most accessible form of modern mythology, superhero films have become ingrained in 21st-century popular culture. And even if Shang-Chi is the Master of Kung Fu, the film’s reinvestment in character development, without any sacrifice in the quality of its action sequences, has the potential to push the time-honored genre of martial arts forward still. “There is room now in 2021, and with this movie, to evolve that conversation even more and to say, ‘It’s also not just about the martial arts,’” says Liu. “This movie will be as successful as it is because it’s emotionally resonant, because there are strong performances, because it really deals with the human condition, and because it doesn’t shy away from moments of vulnerability.”

While the film boasts spectacular fight choreography under the direction of the late Brad Allan, who’s best known for his prolific stuntman career working alongside Jackie Chan, it’s the frayed relationship between Shang-Chi and his father, Wenwu, that drives Shang-Chi. Played by the legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, Wenwu is a far cry from the caricature of Fu Manchu, or even the similarly problematic Mandarin, whom the film cleverly subverts expectations around based on the MCU’s own previously controversial casting choice. But Wenwu is also a more compelling villain than the vast majority that the MCU has offered to date, full stop. That’s in no small part due to an unsurprisingly strong performance from Leung, but it’s also a credit to the creative team’s commitment to breaking stereotypes with each of its characters—from fleshing out Shang-Chi’s backstory and emphasizing his personality over his kung fu skills, to making Wenwu more than a two-dimensional villain with indeterminate intentions to bring destruction to the modern world. “It was really just about creating characters that are relatable to anybody,” says Cretton. “Whether you are a part of this community or not, you understand what Shang-Chi’s journey is, you understand what Wenwu’s pain is, and once you really understand a character and you can relate to them, it’s hard to put them into a stereotypical box.”

The specter of Fu Manchu is still alive in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; the inchoative father-son dynamic that defined the hollow Master of Kung Fu title character is ever present. But, just as Gene Luen Yang is rewriting the comics today, the reclamation of the story by Asian American creators helps make Shang-Chi an empowering and impactful addition to the MCU. Above all else, and especially in a pandemic when anti-Asian hate crimes have risen at an alarming rate, the film’s lasting significance may be how it’s able to display the nuances of a complex, widespread Asian diaspora, and humanize a host of diverse Asian characters anchored by strong performances from Liu, Leung, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and more. “There’s no denying that it’s a watershed moment for our community,” says Liu. “It’s going to be so special for Asian kids, regardless of where they grow up, to watch this and to see themselves reflected ... but it’s also, for everybody around the world, an opportunity to share our culture with them and to learn and witness more diverse and rich stories.”

“[This movie] is hopefully going to allow people who may not be a part of this culture to see that we are more connected than we are different,” Cretton adds. “That we all deal with pain, we all deal with family trauma, we all persevere, and we all are capable of love. Those are the things that have the power to break racism, to shatter the ignorance that is required to hate someone based on what they look like.”

The Big Picture

The Aggressive Majesty of ‘May December’ and Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’

House of R

House of R(ecommends) 2023 Year-End Special

The Town

The Biggest Streaming Power Moves of 2023

View all stories in Movies