At first glance, it seems like it could be easy to accidentally miss Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s the 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, coming out just two months after Black Widow and two months before Eternals. Meanwhile, Marvel fans are still busy streaming the anthology series What If…? on Disney+, assuming everyone is already caught up with Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and WandaVision, all of which aired just in the past few months. There’s a lot going on here. Not to mention, there’s still a global pandemic happening outside.
But Shang-Chi represents way more than just the next installment on Marvel’s long slate of blockbusters and TV shows. This is the first movie to star Marvel’s first Asian superhero and the first to feature a principally Asian cast, with all-star talent including Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Simu Liu, and Tony Leung, among others. For Asian-Americans, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an opportunity to see themselves on-screen as more than just a sidekick or comic relief. And, at a time when hate crimes and violence against Asian-Americans are on the rise due to misconceptions related to COVID, this film could be a means to fight ignorance and prejudice.
Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton understands the culture clash better than most. Born and raised on Maui, the Japanese-American filmmaker (known for his work on acclaimed films, including The Glass Castle with Brie Larson, and Just Mercy with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx) remembers what it was like to go from making films in Hawaii—where there is no majority race and nearly 25% of the population is multi-racial—to California, where Cretton initially felt like an outsider. “Shang-Chi is trying to understand who he is in this world,” says Cretton. “His journey of self-discovery is one I think a lot of people relate to.”
With Shang-Chi pulling in the second-biggest opening during the pandemic, we caught up with Cretton to discuss Marvel’s development process, reimagining controversial characters from the comics, and how Shang-Chi ties up loose ends in the MCU.
Is it true you originally weren’t interested in working on a Marvel movie, and that Ryan Coogler helped ease your fears about it?
I never thought that I would do a Marvel movie or just a big action superhero movie. It wasn’t something I was after. But as soon as I saw the announcement that they were looking for directors for Marvel’s first Asian superhero, it was like the kid in me came alive. This is what I didn’t have when I was little; I didn’t have that person who looked like me in a superhero outfit to dress up like on Halloween or play make-believe with my siblings.
[Coogler] shared information with me that was very helpful. I asked him what his personal experience was and he said it was a positive creative experience working at Marvel. He said it would be hard, but that none of the difficulties would come from the people I was working for, or with. I have found the people at Marvel to be very supportive and collaborative; it’s a very positive work environment to be a creative in. And it was nice to speak with someone who had the inside scoop before I made my final decision.
How did you and Dave Callaham initially develop the story for Shang-Chi? This is a Marvel character that dates back to the early ‘70s. Did you draw inspiration from specific comic issues?
We started by digging into our own lives as Asian Americans and asking ourselves: What would we want to see in this movie? What are things we feel were lacking in previous portrayals of Asian characters in Western cinema? So from that personal standpoint, we talked about our shared experiences and our differences—me, growing up in Hawaii and Dave, growing up in San Francisco—then we looked to the comics to see what sparked something. The core relationship between Shang-Chi and his father was something we could work from; to create a relationship that not only felt right for a superhero movie but would also be relatable to anyone who has a relationship with their parents or has any kind of experience dealing with pain or tragedy in the context of family.
Speaking of, Shang-Chi’s father plays a critical role in the movie. But in the original source material, this character is Fu Manchu, a racist stereotype. Was it difficult to navigate away from problematic cliches when updating Shang-Chi for 2021?
Updating these characters in a way that wasn’t completely getting rid of them was the number one challenge of this movie. People want real representation and real characters. With the small bit of information that I think audiences had about “The Mandarin” and this evil organization [the Ten Rings], I think it’s hard not to picture a stereotypical version of that character. But to be able to surprise people with an actor like Tony Leung, who’s playing a multidimensional person, it’s very exciting.
There are several characters in Shang-Chi that audiences will recognize from previous MCU films: Iron Man 3’s Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley); Doctor Strange’s associate Wong (Benedict Wong); and even the Abomination (Tim Roth), who hasn’t been seen since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Were these characters already part of the story you envisioned, or does Marvel give you specific characters or elements that they’d like to see included in the film?
Marvel usually starts by giving you a big list of “What Ifs,” which is really just an initial guide to see what might naturally work its way into the story. It’s [by] no means a rule. More often than not, when we actually want to use something from that list, the MCU has already moved in that direction and Marvel says we can’t use it anymore. One month later, that’s already irrelevant. So it’s really just navigating a constantly moving river of ideas until the right thing starts to click in. It’s like that moment in Tetris when everything starts flying and you just have to try to click pieces in and hopefully you can keep up.
You have to wait for that long Tetris piece, which in this case is maybe Wong.
Waiting for that long piece is the trick!
Even the Ten Rings itself is something of a question mark; most audiences will probably assume the organization is Middle Eastern, based on what we’ve seen in the first Iron Man and Iron Man 3.
It was really exciting to be able to give more context to a lot of big questions or mysteries that were posed back in the very first MCU movie. And to be able to pay them off in a way that not only makes sense but is also surprising.