Last week, Marvel Entertainment announced it was developing a movie franchise for Shang-Chi, one of their Asian characters. As a Chinese-American, this is the greatest announcement I’ve heard from Marvel Studios yet, for purely selfish reasons. Not only is Marvel introducing an Asian character, but they are seeking an Asian-American director to guide this project. There are a lot of reasons why this is good, not only for Asian-Americans but for Marvel fans in general, as well as for Marvel’s bottom line. Let’s take a look at the ways all parties benefits, but first, let’s explore the character of Shang-Chi.

Who is Shang-Chi?

Shang-Chi was created by Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart for Marvel Comics back in 1973. By that point, Bruce Lee had made kung-fu movies very popular, and Marvel wanted to capitalize. They licensed the character Fu Manchu (a very problematic Yellow Peril caricature) and created Shang-Chi as his son.

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The Master of Kung-Fu, Shang-Chi. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Fu Manchu would become Zheng Zu after Marvel lost their license. The basic premise was that Zheng Zu/Fu Manchu had raised Shang Chi to be the ultimate fighter, training him in multiple forms of combat, and sending him out into the world as his agent. Upon discovering the nefarious crimes that Zheng had committed, Shang-Chi turns on his father, and becomes a hero, adventurer and sometimes spy.

Shang-Chi is arguably the most skilled fighter in the Marvel Universe, and mastery of his chi (or life energy) allows him to surpass normal human limits. He is also adept at multiple weapon styles and has been a member of HEROES FOR HIRE and THE AVENGERS. Shang-Chi gets the power to duplicate himself after being exposed to cosmic radiation in Jonathan Hickman’s AVENGERS run. He hasn’t exhibited the ability since then, but his appearances are few and far between, most recently in Gail Simone’s DOMINO.

What Shang-Chi Does For Asian Americans

Shang-Chi meets Domino. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

I am a 34-year-old man, I remember the heights of the post-Bruce Lee Asian crossover stars. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen all came to the US in the last three decades and wowed audiences. Representation has been few and far between for Asians in Hollywood, however, and those three stars are much older now and appear less frequently on the big screen in the US. Representation in media has become a major issue not only in film but television and comics as well. BLACK PANTHER was a major cultural touchstone, it was tremendously successful because it offered something different: an all-black cast, and a story that focused on its Afro-futurism roots.

Shang-Chi has a chance to accomplish something similar for Asian-Americans. While the success of CRAZY RICH ASIANS is tremendous, superhero movies are THE money-making genre in Hollywood, as evidenced by the aforementioned BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Shang-Chi has the potential to be to Asian-Americans what Black Panther was to the Black community. It means representation in the world’s premiere movie brand. Importantly, it can be so without being appropriation or condescending if given the right creative team.

Marvel Studios already has a good start by hiring writer Dave Callaham. Callaham has written for the EXPENDABLES franchise, as well as WONDER WOMAN 1984. Callaham’s experience with action tent-poles, as well as being of Asian descent, are huge pluses. What’s needed next is a director to bring Callaham’s vision to life.

Director Wishlist

Marvel is looking for Asian-American directors for Shang-Chi. I think that’s a wise decision. There are three directors I have on my wish list, one is from China, while the other 2 Chinese-American. Stephen Chow is known for comedic movies like SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG-FU HUSTLE. He’s recently worked on the JOURNEY TO THE WEST film series. I think Chow would be a great director for Shang-Chi.

Left to Right: Stephen Chow, James Wan, and Justin Lin

He’s very good at Kung-Fu action, as evidenced by his work in SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG-FU HUSTLE. His blend of comedy and action would be a good fit. He can also add emotional gravitas, as evidenced by the romantic subplots of the aforementioned movies. He could possibly even play a minor role, as one of Shang-Chi’s mentors, or even the villain role. James Wan remains mostly known for his work on horror movies like the SAW franchise or ANNABELLE.

Wan also directed this month’s big superhero movie AQUAMAN, and the early buzz is very positive. AQUAMAN has made $93 million in China, and that’s a very important market for Hollywood. If Marvel Studios wants Shang-Chi to succeed in China, Wan might be the right person to pick for the job of guiding Shang-Chi to the big screen.

My personal favorite is Justin Lin. Lin has guided the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise through three films and helmed STAR TREK BEYOND. These movies were all box offices successes. He has a great sense for filming action. Lin would be well suited to direct a  kung-fu action movie. Lin has proven himself and is one of the premier Asian-American directors in Hollywood, if not the premiere director.

Who Should Play Shang-Chi?

There are a lot of factors to consider when casting Shang-Chi. From the Marvel Studios perspective, you want someone young enough to lead multiple movies. Someone under the age of 40 most likely. As a Chinese-American, I would like for them to cast someone also of Chinese descent. Shang-Chi is Chinese, and it’s problematic to cast an actor who is not of Chinese descent. It gives the impression that Asians are interchangeable, and we are not.

At all. Even in China, which is the largest geographical country in the world, there are regional cultural differences. It would be great to have a cast featuring Asians from all over the continent, but Shang-Chi should be of Chinese descent.

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Left to Right: Lewis Tan, Ludi Lin, and Osric Chau

With that said, I can name a handful of actors I’ve seen in other roles, including Lewis Tan (IRON FIST Season 1, DEADPOOL 2), Ludi Lin (POWER RANGERS) and Osric Chau (2012, DIRK GENTLY). It’s entirely possible that Marvel goes with a complete unknown, and that would be acceptable. Tan was electric as the Drunken Master in Season 1 of IRON FIST and had a hilarious brief appearance as Shatterstar in DEADPOOL Ludi Lin was the Black Ranger in the 2017 POWER RANGERS movie. Chau has had some minor roles in Hollywood. Marvel is going to have to be bold and take a chance here, as they are going to be putting a relative unknown into the lead of a major franchise.

Netflix Universe Implications: Marvel Knights Movie Universe?

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Can Shang-Chi jump-start a Marvel Knights movie line? Image Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Shang-Chi is one of Marvel’s street-level heroes. While Marvel has left the street level stuff to Netflix, it looks like those characters could be freed up thanks to the recent cancellations. Rumors have run rampant about all of these characters moving to Disney+, Disney’s OTT service set to debut next year, but there might be some hurdles. Those hurdles would exist if they tried to move the characters in the movie universe.

A Marvel Knights movie line has the potential to be very lucrative and would give Disney a more adult superhero line. If the Fox deal goes through, they could stick Deadpool in Marvel Knights, and cater to an entire segment of fans, while keeping it close to the MCU. Realistically, this seems less likely. Disney+ needs content, and Disney can produce episodic content faster than they can a feature film. While it isn’t likely, the idea of a darker Marvel Knights movie line is an exciting thought. Never say never.

Conclusion: Shang-Chi Is Important to Marvel’s Future

I may be overstating Shang-Chi’s importance, but I’m not overstating China’s importance. China is the biggest market for American movies, surpassing the US. It makes sense: there are three times more people there than there are here, and their economy is growing very, very quickly. With such a growing emphasis, Hollywood has made attempts to cater to this new audience. From supporting character inserts in INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE and PACIFIC RIM 2 to avoiding upsetting Chinese audiences in movies like RED DAWN and IRON MAN 3, Hollywood has been very careful.

The proper handling of Shang-Chi could mean a huge box-office boon for Marvel Studios. With 1 billion people potentially going to the theaters to see an American superhero who looks like them, that’s a lot of potential moviegoers. On a much smaller, yet still vital, scale stateside, thousands of young Asian kids will get to see a superhero who looks like them and dream. I did so while watching Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton. Perhaps this generation can have a hero that reflects them a little better.

One Comment

  1. Zztoppy

    December 17, 2018 at 8:12 am

    Marvel didn’t announce it officially but Deadline durst reported jf. Looking forward to this,, it’ll be fun

    Reply

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