We are days away from Marvel taking the coveted dais of Hall H to give us news on what we hope is Phase 4 of their wildly expansive — and box office record-breaking — Marvel Cinematic Universe. Arguably one of the most anticipated announcements is who would be playing the lead in Shang-Chi, which will be directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Dave Callaham (both of Asian heritage). It would be the first Asian-fronted superhero film from a major U.S. studio.
In addition to Shang-Chi, the comic book movie powerhouse has tapped The Rider‘s Chloe Zhao to direct The Eternals and Kumail Nanjiani is circling a role in that film. Over at DC, the Harley Quinn spinoff Birds of Prey will be helmed by Cathy Yan, with Ella Jay Basco starring as Cassandra Cain. DC may not be in San Diego for Comic-Con this year, but with Marvel in the room, Asians and non-Asians alike will be drooling for Shang-Chi news.
One could say this surge of Asian representation in film — specifically the comic book movie genre — could be due to the wild demand for it. That is part of it, but then again, this is a business and it’s all about the dollar signs. When Crazy Rich Asians was released last year — the first major studio film fronted by an Asian American cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club — it made bank. Not only did the Warner Bros pic reach audiences beyond the Asian American community, but it also raked in $238.5 million at the worldwide box office. It also became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in 10 years.
Even this past weekend, we saw Lulu Wang’s A24 dramedy The Farewell starring Awkwafina making waves at the box office. And with Gold House’s #GoldOpen force galvanizing the community to support Asian American film, Hollywood finally realized there is an Asian audience and one that will spend money to see themselves represented on screen — and the universal story will also bring other non-Asians into the fold, further padding box office numbers.
This should come as no surprise considering that according to an MPAA report from 2017, Asian Americans were the second-highest group in attendance at theaters, going to the movies on average 4.3 times in the year, right behind the Latinx community which reported the highest annual attendance per capita, going to the movies on an average of 4.5 times a year (Latinx representation in film is a whole other topic which we will save for another time.) With superhero films taking over every theater around the world, the Asian American community is finally ready for their piece of the comic book movie pie.
“Half of the highest-grossing films of all time right now are superhero movies,” said Preeti Chhibber, author of Spider-Man: Far From Home: Peter and Ned’s Ultimate Travel Journal, a book linked to the recent movie. “What that means is these are accessed by a huge number of people in the population, they shape popular thought, and they impact who is seen as powerful or important enough to be included.”
She continued, “Of course, Asians deserve to be represented on screen in something that has become a cultural behemoth. By excluding Asians from the narrative, the implication is that Asians aren’t a part of that space — and not only does the Asian community pick up on this, but so does the non-Asian community. It’s like having Riz Ahmed in a Star Wars movie, as a South Asian viewer, all of a sudden we exist in this space that had previously written us out. It’s validating.”
Keith Chow, one of the originators of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology along with Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, and Jerry Ma, created the website “Nerds of Color” to fuel his comic fandom. “We grew up idolizing Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the rest but never saw ourselves in those stories,” he said of seeing Asians represented in film. “Moreover, there’s nothing more American than the superhero myth. So seeing and Asian American celebrated as a superhero is part of the process of subverting certain ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotypes.”
It’s not to say that Asians and Asian Americans have been totally absent from the superhero TV and film space; we can go back as far as Bruce Lee as Kato in the Green Hornet TV series. But more recently, we have seen Ming Na Wen and Chloe Bennet in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is part of the MCU, as well as Ryan Potter in the DC Universe series Titans. And despite its problems, Netflix’s Iron Fist put the spotlight on Jessica Henwick and Lewis Tan in significant roles.
On the film side, we’ve gotten a taste of some of our favorite Asian characters from the vast roster of Marvel characters. Most recently there’s Benedict Wong as Wong in Doctor Strange as well as Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff from Guardians of the Galaxy. In X2: X-Men United, we saw Kelly Hu in the silent but deadly role of Lady Deathstrike, Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake in Venom ,and Rila Fukushima as Yukio in The Wolverine — but you may have forgotten that there were so much more.
“I loved Tadanobu Asano as Hogun the Grim in the Thor movies,” said Jamie Noguchi, cartoonist and illustrator. No explanation for why he’s Asian. He just is. And he’s awesome.”
Noguchi continues, “Then we had Kenneth Choi’s portrayal as Jim Morita, one of the Howling Commandos in Captain America: The First Avenger. We rarely see Japanese Americans in any World War II movies and the 442nd is all but forgotten. So to have Jim Morita battling alongside Captain America made me kind of tear up when I saw him. I felt it was a nice tribute to the Japanese Americans who served in World War II.”
And representation is just as important behind the camera as it is in front of it. “I think it’s just as important to see Asian talent in key creative roles behind the scenes — again, it’s hard to know something’s possible if you never see it,” said Sarah Kuhn, author of the Heroine Complex series of novels and the upcoming Cassandra Cain Batgirl graphic novel for DC. “It’s important for kids of color to know that not only can they be superheroes, but they can be storytellers. Chloe Zhao directing The Eternals, Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson doing Birds of Prey — all of these kickass women telling these stories get me so excited about the future of superhero movies, and they’re going to inspire so many Asian women creatives to tell their own stories and maybe write their own vision of superheroes.”
Even though there have been many Asian American characters in comic book TV series and films, they haven’t been the lead — they have been part of an ensemble, a sidekick or regulated to the background. Marvel hasn’t officially announced anything about Shang-Chi, but it is certainly one of the titles at Comic-Con everyone is keeping their eyes on — so its a big deal. Once Kevin Feige takes the stage Saturday, the audience will be waiting for him to utter those words and there will certainly be a wild ovation.
But of all the Asian characters in the Marvel canon, why is Shang-Chi as the Asian entry into the MCU the best choice?
Jen Bartel, an illustrator and comic artist who is best known for work with Marvel, Disney, and as the co-creator and artist of Image Comics’ Blackbird points out: “Kung fu films have resonated with a wide range of audiences for many decades now — a character like Shang-Chi, who specializes in martial arts, specifically kung fu, could potentially bring some of that mainstream appeal while simultaneously reclaiming that piece of our culture for Asian audiences.”
In the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of a China-based globalist who raised and educated his progeny in his reclusive China compound, closed off to the outside world. The son is trained in the martial arts and developed unsurpassed skills. He is eventually introduced to the outside world to do his father’s bidding, and then has to come to grips with the fact his revered father might not be the humanitarian he has claimed to be.
Chhibber says that the forthcoming Shang-Chi adaptation is a classic superhero created and written by non-Asians, and that the movie “is an incredible way to take ownership of a character with a complicated history.”
“There are few legacy superhero characters who are Asian, so the pickings are slim,” said Chow. “Part of what fueled the #AAIronFist campaign a few years ago was an effort to insert and Asian face inside a story that had always centered a white hero, even though all of the trappings of his story are Asian. A lot like Doctor Strange, actually. At least with Shang-Chi, they have to cast an Asian actor in the role! That said, there are way more Asian American superheroes now than there were in the ’70s when Shang-Chi was created. Ms. Marvel and Amadeus Cho are top-tier heroes in the Marvel Universe. DC has upped the profiles of Katana and Cassandra Cain.”
However, Noguchi has some reservations about the character to lead the first Asian superhero pic. “Shang-Chi is basically every ’70s stereotype about Asians all wrapped up in one big Bruce Lee Lightman of Kung Fu personification,” he said. “I don’t know that I can look at the character from an objective point of view so I’m not entirely sure he is an appropriate entry. I feel like Jubilee, Amadeus Cho, or Nico Minoru are characters that aren’t dripping in Asian stereotypes and wouldn’t need some mystical Asian background to justify their existence in a movie.”
His concerns are valid considering the current Hollywood landscape, where audiences are looking for authenticity and will be quick to check any and all mistakes. Apprehensions about the portrayal of Shang-Chi are definitely top of mind for many as characters can fall into stereotypical tropes and not get the shine they deserve.
“I think every Asian person worries about being viewed as a caricature, and because there are so few positive representations of Asian heroes specifically, there is a heavy burden for Shang-Chi to be that for all of us,” adds Bartel. “Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to do that with just one single character as Asians and Asian-Americans are not a monolith, so my hope is that he is allowed to be flawed in the same ways that non-Asian characters are often afforded in media.”
Chow points out characters of color created by white men have the tendency to become walking stereotypes. “That was true for Shang-Chi, who was Marvel’s attempt to ride the kung fu cinema wave the way they used Luke Cage to parrot Blaxploitation — I mean, his father is Fu Manchu for chrissakes.”
“However, when you give creators of different backgrounds the opportunities to write these stories, you’re able to move beyond the surface,” Chow continues. “Like what Greg Pak is currently doing with the character in the comics. That’s why I don’t have any apprehension for the upcoming movie. Marvel Studios is smart to hire Asian Americans to write and direct the movie, which allows us to reclaim and recontextualize a lot of the Orientalism inherent to the character.
“My big fear is that we’ll get some ancient Orientalist mumbo jumbo mixed in with some modern triad gangster trash to justify Shang Chi’s big-screen debut,” said Noguchi. “The weird thing is that there’s a part of me that would absolutely love it if they leaned into the stereotypes and turned this into a modern version of a Shaw Brothers movie, like an MCU version of Five Deadly Venoms — sh*t now I kinda need to see that!”
When Crazy Rich Asians was released, many were calling it the Black Panther for Asians. Not because Crazy Rich Asians is a superhero movie, but because of the cultural impact it had on the Asian community like Black Panther had empowered the black community. Now that Shang-Chi is on the horizon, there is an actual Asian superhero waiting in the wings — but will it have the same affect and bring a “Wakanda Forever”-esque cultural movement that will resonate?
“It’s hard to say,” said Chow. “It will really depend on what the final product ultimately looks like, but I think it’s ultimately unnecessary to make the comparison. I know Crazy Rich Asians was touted as the ‘Asian Black Panther’ and fairly or unfairly, the idea is that we just need more. Black Panther caught lightning in a bottle. Now it’s just about spreading that energy around to everyone.”
Adds Chhibber: “I hesitate to compare the two experiences because I think Black Panther doesn’t necessarily need to be invoked when we’re talking about Asian representation. What Black Panther did for the black community is incredible and should always be celebrated in that context, but what we in the Asian community need to do is take ownership of ourselves and do the work within our own group.”
“T’Challa has always been a symbol of power,” adds Noguchi. “He’s the king of one of the most powerful nation’s in the Marvel Universe and I feel like he was embraced by the black nerd community from the very beginning.” He goes on to say that it is way too early to be putting so much on Shang-Chi. “If it’s as culturally impactful as Black Panther… that would be amazing. But honestly, I’d settle for an entertaining movie that doesn’t force the actor to do pigeon English. I’m trying my best to keep an open mind and am looking forward to what they can come up with.”
Whether it is Shang-Chi or Birds of Prey, Asian American representation is on the horizon with superhero movies and it will fuel the craving for even more of its kind and across other genres. There are Asian-led features in development including New Line’s Singles Day from Lillian Yu and Alan Yang’s drama Tigertail starring John Cho. Still, these Asian-led comic book movie pics are a big deal.
For Shang-Chi, Chow points out whoever is cast in the lead “will automatically become a movie star the way Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Pratt shot straight to the A-list, despite not having the pre-Marvel résumé.”
“I hope that this opens us up to a wide world of bringing marginalized people to the screen,” said Chhibber. “We have characters like Kamala Khan or Pravitr Prabhakar (dear Sony, please include Pravitr in the next Spider-Verse movie, thank you) who are ready to go! All steps forward in the fight for representation are beneficial, and so hopefully this opens the door to a more inclusive notion of Asian representation.”
“My hope is always that any representation just leads to more — more variety, more characters, and a wide range of stories being told and AAPI identities being explored,” said Kuhn. “When you take those first steps, there’s always so much pressure to be all things to all people — I felt that way when my Heroine Complex series debuted, that it somehow had to be everything for all Asian American women everywhere, especially those of us who love superheroes, because I know what it’s like to desperately need representation, to feel like you’ve been waiting your whole life for it.”
She continued, “There’s also that pressure to be phenomenally successful or risk closing the door you’ve just managed to crack open — I felt like there was that nervousness around Crazy Rich Asians — that idea that it absolutely had to be a super megahit otherwise we wouldn’t get to star in movies again for who knows how long. Those are impossible stakes for a single story, a single character — so the more we have, the better. My dream is that someday we have so many awesome lead characters and so many different stories, everyone has their favorite, their character or story they relate to on the deepest level. And that also means not everything has to be a gargantuan megahit or all things to all people — that’s a lot of pressure to put on a single piece of entertainment.”