Can Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fix Marvel’s ‘Asian problem’?
When it comes to Asian superheroes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has left a lot to be desired. Keen to avoid a backlash when depicting the traditionally stereotyped Mandarin supervillain in Iron Man 3, the studio cleverly cast part-south Asian actor Ben Kingsley as a drunken English luvvie, Trevor Slattery, who was only ever playing the role of Tony Stark’s evil nemesis. The only problem was that this was another role not going to an actor of east Asian extraction.
Then there were the Netflix Marvel TV shows, in particular Iron Fist. While only loosely connected to the MCU, Iron Fist fell into the problematic “white saviour” trap by casting Finn Jones as kung-fu-kicking New York rich kid Danny Rand, a stereotypical white guy who beats the Asian martial arts experts at their own game. Race-swapping Rand would have been to depart from the line of the original comic book, but that did not stop the studio casting Tilda Swinton as a “Celtic” take on the traditionally Asian Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Continuing down this path was never going to wash after Black Panther proved the box-office firepower of a superhero movie populated almost entirely by actors of colour. And now Marvel has “fixed” its “Asian problem” by announcing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first full trailer for which debuted this week. Instead of Ben Kingsley as Slattery, we get the inimitable Tony Leung as Wenwu, AKA the real Mandarin, while the even more grossly racist figure of Fu Manchu (who was Shang-Chi’s father in the original, 70s Master of Kung Fu comic-book run) has been wisely banished from sight.
Partly, this is because Marvel no longer has the rights to novelist Sax Rohmer’s pulp villain. And yet it’s also clear that the studio is keen to deliver an authentically Asian-led story, rather than one in which actors of Asian extraction are only wheeled out to play bad guys and cannon fodder. It helps that Leung, one of Hong Kong cinema’s biggest beasts, has signed on to play the Mandarin, giving the project immediate authenticity. And it’s no bad thing that Marvel reportedly hired director Destin Daniel Cretton after he offered the studio advice on how to avoid offensive portrayals inherent in the source material.
“I didn’t think I was going to end up getting the gig,” Cretton told BuzzFeed. “I honestly thought at best I could maybe, through the process of meeting with them, just explain some of the things that would be offensive to me, and maybe guide it in some way just by getting my voice in someone’s ear.”
Rather than just take on board Cretton’s comments, Marvel hired the Hawaiian-born son of a Japanese-American mother and a father of Irish and Slovakian ancestry to direct the thing.
The hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been living carefree in San Francisco for a decade (in a sly nod to the life of Bruce Lee) when he is drawn back into the nefarious sphere of his villainous dad. What does the Mandarin want with Shang-Chi? And why is he only now bringing him back into the family fold after training him to superhuman martial arts levels as a child?
There are clues in the trailer. The appearance of villain Death Dealer hints at a 1974 comic-book storyline in which Shang-Chi’s father tries to steal his own son’s blood in order to help him achieve immortality, while there are also suggestions that our hero is being primed to appear in an Enter the Dragon-style tournament. Could Shang-Chi’s return be linked to the 10 rings of the title, here depicted as glowing arm-bracelets rather than traditional finger rings? What is Michelle Yeoh’s Jiang Nan up to, and why is she wearing a green and yellow costume that resembles the traditional dress of the Iron Fists? Surely Marvel is not going to erase all memories of Rand and his Netflix adventures from existence?
If Marvel can succeed in delivering a superhero movie that harks back to the outlandish, explosive brilliance of the 70s kung fu era, few fans will complain. If the studio can do so while simultaneously wiping out all memories of its past missteps when it comes to Asian characters, the conclusion might be that Marvel president Kevin Feige must have somehow stumbled on some magical power rings of his own.