It was Simu Liu’s birthday yesterday, but it may as well have been mine as the actor and Marvel Studios surprised us all with the first teaser trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. And it kicked ass! Out of all the new projects in the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi (pronounced “Song-Chi”, by the way) has easily been my most-anticipated, and man that first look has left me hyped!
Somebody who was just as hyped the first time he heard that Marvel was developing a Shang-Chi film was Liu himself. Known mainly for his role in popular sitcom Kim’s Convenience, the Canadian-Chinese Liu is quite a character on social media, so back in 2014 when news started making the rounds of a potential big-screen adaptation, he started tweeting the comic book studio about his eagerness. This continued all the way through to 2018 when the production was officially announced. Little did Liu know that Marvel had noticed his tweets and was interested in meeting him, as he explained to Entertainment Weekly.
What was definitely not going through my head was, ‘Hey, I’m going to tweet Marvel and they’re going to get back to me, and I’m going to get this role.
After an exhaustive audition process that stretched into 2019, in which Marvel looked for an actor of Asian descent to play Shang-Chi, Liu landed the gig. Just a few days later he was being brought on the stage at San-Diego Comic-Con and being revealed to the world as the next major Marvel superhero. Most importantly, this was a new superhero who had never been seen on-screen before.
The most exciting thing about stepping into this character was that his backstory has never been told before. We know so many different versions of Batman’s origin story, how his parents were murdered when he was very young. We know Peter Parker, who was bitten by a radioactive spider, and he loses his uncle. Shang-Chi’s story is very much unknown to most of the world, so we had a lot of freedom and creative liberty to make it the way that we wanted to.
And to tell Shang-Chi’s story right, it all started with director Destin Daniel Cretton… who really didn’t want to make a Marvel superhero movie. Hawaiian-born of Japanese descent, Cretton is known for indie dramas like Short Term 12 and that’s firmly the wheelhouse he wanted to stay in. But when he heard that Marvel was working on Shang-Chi, a film that would feature an Asian superhero in the biggest comic book spotlight in the world, he actively reached out to Marvel as he saw a major storytelling opportunity here.
When that announcement came out, I just went instantly back to my childhood. [Growing up] all I had was Spider-Man. Because he had the mask on, I could dress up like Spider-Man for Halloween. I had a handful of other characters that looked like me on screen, but there were maybe two or three that I could choose from, and superheroes were not a part of that.
We wanted to make sure that Shang-Chi was just like any of us. I want to watch this movie and say, ‘Yes, that’s how I feel. I feel out of place sometimes, and I cover it up with humor.’ He’s a kid who is out of his element and a fish out of water here in the U.S., and he’s covering it up with this charisma that I find very relatable.
The problem though was that Shang-Chi often embodied everything wrong with Asian representation on-screen. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in 1973, Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu was Marvel Comics’ blatant attempt at cashing in on the kung fu craze sweeping the world thanks to the cinematic exploits of Bruce Lee. But his creators also tapped into some seriously bad caricatures, most notably making him the son of Fu Manchu, a very offensive and culturally insensitive villain by modern standards. All of that needed to change, and so Cretton and writer Dave Callaham (who also just co-wrote Mortal Kombat) got to work tweaking Shang-Chi’s origin story to be a more positive representation of Asian culture. And to do that, they made sure to surround themselves on both the cast and crew with people of Asian descent who could help steer this production correctly.
Remember, the Asian culture is so diverse. I grew up in Hawaii, [and] Hawaiian food is like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Filipino, all mixed together. That is kind of what our crew was: It’s like this big mix of Asian cultures coming together and responding to the script and [saying things] like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel quite right.’ All of that helped contribute to what I think is a really beautiful update to what started in the comics a few decades ago.
The biggest change was obviously Shang-Chi’s parentage. Gone was Fu Manchu, and in his place was The Mandarin, to be played by Hong Kong veteran Tony Leung. We had already seen “The Mandarin” on screen in Iron Man 3, only for the iconic villain to be revealed as a big piss-taking charade (a plot twist that still divides fans). As we would soon learn though, there was a real Mandarin in the MCU, associated with the Ten Rings organization we first heard about in the MCU’s birth in Iron Man. But, in another twist, Leung’s Mandarin will also not be the Mandarin you remember from the comics, who himself was nothing more than a collection of bad Asian stereotypes.
Instead, Leung is essentially playing a brand new character named Wenwu, described as “a powerful, ancient figure who trained his son to follow in his criminal footsteps”. The Mandarin is merely one of his names, as there’s a whole lot more to this villain. According to Cretton, instead of a “one-dimensional villain with no heart”, Leung’s performance “opened this character up [so] this is an antagonist who has a deep ability to love.”
Producer Jonathan Schwartz continued, explaining how this portrayal of The Mandarin may surprise fans once again (and we’re not just talking about his signature super-powered ten rings now being ten arm bands).
I think people hear ‘the Mandarin’ and expect a very specific kind of thing, and that may not be the thing they’re getting. They’re hopefully getting a more complex and layered take on the character than that name would lead you to.
That complexity is definitely tied into Wenwu’s relationship with his son Shang-Chi, who at the start of the film has abandoned his family for a decade after discovering the sordid reasons of just why his father had trained him as brutally as he did since early childhood
The core of Shang-Chi’s arc in the comics is really a family drama. That was something that Destin keyed into really early on in our conversations, the idea of taking this broken family and this really dark, even abusive family background and seeing what that does to a child over time.
One thing that did was turn Shang-Chi into a master of many different martial arts, which meant a whole lot of training for Liu who admits that while he was very athletic and physically gifted, he didn’t have a deep martial arts background. But the actor made sure to start putting in all the hard work from the moment he landed the role (unlike some other Marvel leads we know of *cough* Iron Fist *cough*). The results, according to Schwartz, “is the best action [Marvel has] ever done”, combining “the elegant, almost ethereal wushu style of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with “the more kinetic choreography of Jackie Chan’s action-comedies”. And from what we’ve seen it looks amazing!
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also stars Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu, Ronny Chieng, and Michelle Yeoh. It is scheduled for release in cinemas on 3 September 2021.
Last Updated: April 20, 2021