Asian actors and directors seize the chance to make an impact through this acclaimed studio
*Cue the Marvel intro music* A little over a month ago, the film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings finally hit theaters. As audience members settled into their seats and the iconic title sequence faded from the big screen, this milestone movie began to play. It was the first time a Marvel movie would feature an Asian protagonist.
Shang-Chi is played by Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, previously known for his role as Jung Kim in the award-winning television show Kim’s Convenience. In Shang-Chi, Liu is supported by a robust cast of other Asian and Asian-American actors, including Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian actress who has played acclaimed roles in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Crazy Rich Asians, and Awkwafina, a Chinese- and Korean-American actress and comedian who acted alongside Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians and won a Golden Globe for her performance in The Farewell. Other notable members of the cast include Chinese actress Meng’er Zheng (who plays Shang-Chi’s sister), and Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai (who plays the father).
But what has perhaps made the film even more special are its nods to east-Asian (mainly Chinese) culture. The film was directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, a Japanese-American who clearly did his research into Chinese culture. The mythical creatures in Ta Lo, the fantastical kingdom in Shang Chi, are all based on ones found in Chinese mythology and culture. The guardian lion, nine-tailed fox, and even the cuddly-looking Morris are all creatures with cultural significance in Chinese mythology.
And though the film does play into a few stereotypes, like centering the film around martial arts and having the final battle be between two Chinese-style dragons, it also portrays aspects of Chinese and Chinese-American culture in ways only a few mainstream films have. The blend between English and Mandarin is far more natural than in other films and helps to highlight the nuances between being Chinese and being Chinese-American. Having characters like Xia Ling, who was born and raised in the Chinese-esque land of Ta Lo, interact with characters like Katy, who is a Chinese-American raised in San Francisco, can help a wide spectrum of Chinese and Chinese-Americans feel seen by this movie. While Katy represents the struggle between her Asian and American identities—one that so many immigrant families face—Xia Ling stands for parts of Chinese culture rarely portrayed in western media.
Another nice touch is that the film manages to avoid harmful Asian stereotypes like the oversexualization of Chinese women and the “Asian nerd” trope. Instead, the characters seem wholly human, meaning they don’t fall into typical cliches and are easy to connect to.
So Marvel put out a successful film that pays homage to the beauty of Chinese culture and showcases a great deal of on-screen Asian talent—but is this just a one-time thing so Marvel can say they stand for diversity and representation? We can hope not. Another MCU movie, The Eternals, is coming out on November 5 and it seems like it will continue Marvel’s work toward greater ethnic representation. It’s directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao and features a powerhouse cast starring British-Asian actress Gemma Chan, Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek, Korean actor Ma Dong-seok, and Pakistani-American actor Kumail Ali Nanjiani, among others. As we enter phase two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these two movies will hopefully be just the beginning of Marvel’s deviation from its majority-white cast of superheroes.