Shang-Chi’s Director on Making a Marvel Movie With Asian Americans in Mind

Shang-Chi’s Director on Making a Marvel Movie With Asian Americans in Mind
Meng'er Zhang, Simu Liu and Awkwafina in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a film made with Asian Americans in mind. Learning more about the creation of Marvel’s latest superhero film, it seems like everyone involved was dedicated to the same goal: authentic representation. Director Destin Daniel Cretton told Gizmodo, “That doesn’t mean we got everything right, but I do think that people will see that we have a deep respect. We’re trying really hard to get it right. And I hope they see the love that we put into this.”

Late last month, Cretton looked out into a predominantly Asian American audience during a live Q&A in Los Angeles and said he made Marvel’s Shang-Chi “for this community.” Talking to the same audience, Simu Liu (who plays the titular Shang-Chi) said he hoped Asian Americans who see the film will feel “proud of who they are, where they come from, and feel like they belong.” And without a doubt, Shang-Chi centered Asian and Asian American culture.

“There was a constant dialogue happening when we were stepping into any scene. Should these characters be speaking Chinese Mandarin now or should they be speaking English? What food is on the table? Does that feel authentic to Wenwu’s household? Does that feel authentic to Katie’s family, to a Chinese American household?” Cretton, who is of mixed Japanese American and European descent, told Gizmodo. “And it was fun because we were sharing our own shared experience: this is how things were in Simu’s family growing up, Tony Leung would constantly be sharing how things are in his experience in Hong Kong; Meng’er is from mainland China. So everybody had their own shared experience that they were contributing to the authenticity of this movie.”

Tony Leung and Fala Chen in Shang-Chi. (Photo: Marvel Studios) Tony Leung and Fala Chen in Shang-Chi. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

The movie begins with the backstory of Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) which is narrated entirely in Mandarin Chinese by Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen). It is striking to see a Marvel film begin in a language other than English and continue to do so for an extended period.

Speaking to a larger group of gathered press, Cretton described how the language choice “was always rooted in just the logic of the characters and who would naturally be speaking what language.” Furthermore, the authenticity of the Chinese accents among the actors who grew up in non-Asian countries can be credited to Meng’er Zhang, who plays Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing. Zhang told Gizmodo, “Chinese is my first language and English is my second. And I turned out to be everyone’s Mandarin coach, to help them with the pronunciation.”

Shang-Chi is also heavily inspired by Asian cinema and art; the forest scenes resemble the bamboo forests of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also starred Michelle Yeoh), while the fights on the bamboo scaffolding against a high-rise could have been taken straight out of a Hong Kong martial arts film. Cretton told Gizmodo Shang-Chi definitely drew from multiple Asian sources, “The influences that came into this movie were taken from classic martial arts and kung fu cinema, Chinese cinema. There were also influences from anime. There were influences from video games. It’s a very eclectic collection of inspirations from Asian cinema and Asian art that made its way into our movie.”

There was also a big push from those involved so that Shang-Chi challenged anti-Asian stereotypes. First, Fu Manchu — the racist caricature that was Shang-Chi’s father in the original Marvel comics — is no more. In his place is Xu Wenwu — one of the most complex and sympathetic villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His misdeeds come from his grief over losing the love of his life. And though Wenwu is not the best father, Tony Leung plays him as someone who truly loves his kids but just “doesn’t know how to,” as Cretton told NBC Asian America. Audiences can see this in Wenwu’s pained facial expressions when young Shang-Chi is hit during his training, when his adult children leave him at the complex, and when he ultimately sacrifices himself so Shang-Chi could live.

The film also challenges the stereotype that Asians are perpetual foreigners. Wenwu calls Katy (Awkwafina) the “American girl,” meaning that Asians can — of course — be Americans too. To further dispel this negative characterization, Asian Americans are portrayed as having a varied command of Asian languages. When Katy says she cannot speak Chinese well, Jon Jon (Ronny Chieng) says, that’s ok, he speaks “ABC” (American Born Chinese). This likely means that he can codeswitch between Chinese and English — a skill of bilingual Chinese born in America.

The variation in Asian language fluency among Asian Americans is further demonstrated when Shang-Chi teaches Katy how to say “Shang-Chi,” repeating the pronunciation multiple times until she says it correctly. It also serves as a meta moment, letting audiences learn how to properly pronounce the name of the film and its titular superhero.

Sir Ben Kingsley’s cameo as “Trevor Slattery” — besides adding a South Asian British character to the largely East-Asian cast of Shang-Chi — also challenges the stereotyping of brown actors as terrorists. In Iron Man 3, he played “The Mandarin,” a terrorist in command of the Ten Rings terrorist organisation. But as the film progresses, he is revealed to be a British actor named Trevor Slattery posing as this intimidating character.

While Slattery is largely a slapstick comedic character in Shang-Chi, he calls out having played a terrorist as “facile.” Kingsley also told the gathered press, “I did get very fond of Trevor. He has his vulnerabilities. He has his history and he has his issues and I think that he found in himself perhaps moments of empathy and kindness. I think basically he’s a very kind man.” Above all else, Shang-Chi introduces new major Asian American superheroes into the Marvel cinematic universe and elevates old ones like Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery and Benedict Wong’s “Wong.”

“It was very important for us to make sure that Shang-Chi and Katy and all of the characters of this movie ended up in a place where they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other great heroes of the MCU,” Cretton told us. “And I’m very excited for what’s in store for all of them in the future.”

In considering the future of Asian superheroes, one line from Ronny Chieng’s Jon Jon sums up Shang-Chi’s contribution to the MCU: “Always bet on Asian.”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now in theatres. No word yet on when Disney will make it available for a wider audience on streaming.