Asian-American History: ‘Shang-Chi’ Breaks Records By Increasing Asian Visibility In Hollywood

Shang-Chi cover featuring Simu Liu

Plus, a look at its stars, Simu Liu and Tony Leung, and where they stand in the Hollywood landscape

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues to break records in its second week at the box office. With its massive success comes new praise for Marvel’s focus on inspiring diverse viewers with superheroes they can identify with. 

As Rotten Tomatoes reports, the film became “the 102nd film to gross over $100 million in its first five days” and was the first to do so during the coronavirus pandemic. As its second week comes to a close at the time of writing, the film has easily kept its number one spot, earning $145.6 million in 10 days. With those 10 days crossed off the film’s 45-day theatrical window before heading to Disney+, the sky’s the limit as to how much money Shang-Chi will make (and how many records it can break in the process). 

The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes is that Shang-Chi is a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some individual critics would say the film is a much-needed addition, seeing how Marvel has been tip-toeing around racial and cultural diversity in its film franchise until now. Marvel watchers are well aware that Phase 4–the current phase of the MCU–is set to bring diversity on racial, sexual, and cultural lines. 

So far, Phase 4 has been delivering on the representation Marvel’s Kevin Feige promised with women-focused projects like WandaVision and Black Widow, Loki finally being acknowledged as canonically queer in the eponymous Disney+ series, and intense racial discussions in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Shang-Chi seems like it will serve as another bridge between Marvel’s Disney+ projects and the theatrical arm of the MCU. It also acts as a bridge from white-centered storytelling to stories that will open the floodgates to superheroes from all walks of life, such as The Eternals, The Marvels, Black Panther 2, rumored Amadeus Cho film, and more. 

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel Studios)

Shang-Chi had a lot to overcome to become a record-breaking Marvel film. First, the entire history of Shang-Chi had to be reckoned with, a history that includes the offensive character Fu Manchu as the first iteration of Shang-Chi’s father. 

The history of Marvel’s first Asian-American superhero was corralled and analyzed by Inverse’s Eric Francisco. He wrote a three-part series on Shang-Chi’s development from a Bruce Lee and David Carradine knock-off to a character that properly and faithfully represented Asian-American (particularly Chinese-American) readers. 

Much of the process that brought Shang-Chi to the screen involved a Shiva-like approach. That is, to create a Shang-Chi that speaks to today’s audiences, the character and his environment would have to be destroyed to be rebuilt. 

Shang-Chi screenwriter Dave Callaham said to Francisco how he and director Destin Daniel Cretton dismantled the comic book series to flesh out the story to make viewers empathize with a racial group that’s often othered and exoticized in American culture, especially during this time of anti-Asian sentiment. 

“It’s way easier to be violent or hateful to someone you don’t see the same as you,” said Callaham. “With [the history of] Asian representation in the media, it’s not just that we’ve been invisible for a long time. It’s beyond that. We’re the butt of jokes and stereotypes that are damaging. It’s not nothing. We knew we wanted to change that stuff.” 

Andy Le as the Death Dealer in Shang-Chi
Andy Le as the Death Dealer in Shang-Chi and the Legend and the Ten Rings (Marvel Studios)

In his words, Callaham and the Shang-Chi team had a “physical list” of ideas and things within the Shang-Chi lore “we were looking to destroy.” That list became known as the “Wenwu List,” named after Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu, portrayed by alluring Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung. 

“We knew this needs to be a character not intent on destroying the world, not mysterious or sneaky, or a sorceror whose magic Westerners cannot understand,” said Callaham. “…When Destin came in, those conversations became serious. He’s an empathetic filmmaker drawn toward stories about families…Destin wanted to have more nuance and trauma on both ends you could understand and relate to.”

As Cretton said to Inverse, “Our biggest challenge was to make [Wenwu] a real person. In order to get an actor like Tony Leung, we had to do that. We looked at Wenwu as a human with multi-dimensions and personal desires. People will be surprised by how much they can relate [to him].”

To that end, the filmmakers seemed successful. So successful that several critics and fans felt like the real star of the film wasn’t lead actor Simu Liu, but Leung. 

“Should I be delighted or depressed that a new Marvel superhero joint will soon be introducing a lot of people to one of the greatest actors and last true movie stars of his generation?” wrote Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times. “…The actor in question is the Hong Kong screen titan Tony Leung, who isn’t the movie’s lead…but is every inch its star. Leung is one of those performers who moves through the frame with impossible grace and sometimes doesn’t move at all; if there are other actors who can express more by doing less, who can so magnetize the camera with a flicker of an eyebrow, they aren’t coming to mind.”

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Tony Leung in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Tony Leung in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel Studios)

The fact that Hollywood slept on a brilliant talent like Leung until a Marvel film is Hollywood’s shortsightedness and racism at work. Leung has entranced audiences for years with his work in Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and many more–with some of his most famous films, such as those above, stemming from his collaborations with director Wong Kar Wai. But while Asia luxuriated in Leung’s piercing smolder for decades, Leung was also burying his dream of working with some of America’s most prominent directors–until now. 

“Leung had always wanted to make a Hollywood movie–he dreamed of working with Martin Scorsese, or starring in an adaptation of a Lawrence Block crime novel. But he’d never been presented with the right opporutnity,” wrote novelist Alexander Chee for GQ’s October issue. “American film has traditionally had little to offer any Asian leading man, and Leung didn’t think there would ever be a role in a big-budget American movie for a Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong Chinese actor of his stature.”

As Wenwu, Leung finally broke into America despite decades of starring in work lauded by American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Barry Jenkins. Thankfully, though, he could do so in one of the most significant projects coming out of America and one of the most important for Marvel Studios as they diversify their superhero roster. 

“Frankly, I couldn’t imagine someone in the real world with superpowers,” Leung said to GQ. “But I can imagine someone like [Wenwu] who is an underdog, who is a failure of a father…On the one hand, he’s a bad father, but on the other, I just see him as someone who loves his family deeply…I don’t think he knows how to love himself.”

(L-R) Tony Leung and Fala Chen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel Studios)
(L-R) Tony Leung and Fala Chen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel Studios)

While Leung is the established actor catching a second wind in the industry, Liu, on the other hand, is very much on the rise in Hollywood. A Canadian actor who got his big break on sitcom Kim’s Convenience, Liu joins Hollywood’s growing roster of Asian male superstars. Think like Henry Golding, John Cho, Steven Yeun, Alexander Hodge, Lewis Tan, Daniel Dae Kim, Daniel Henney, Charles Melton, and others. 

Liu has quickly become one of the “Asian Baes” of the internet, thanks to his good looks and his support of more representation in Hollywood. He embodies the modern “woke” social activist language that proliferates Twitter with an avid social media presence and call-outs like when he put Disney CEO Bob Chapek on blast for calling Shang-Chi’s theatrical-to-streaming rollout “an interesting experiment for the company.”

“We are not an experiment,” Liu wrote on Twitter and Instagram. “We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year. We are the surprise.”

With Shang-Chi, Liu wants to position himself even more with other Asian stars who have used their voices for change. But outside of his history-making status and social media cred, Liu’s activist history might seem wobbly compared to his contemporaries, particularly how his activism can appear surface-level by focusing primarily on how Asian male stars can fit into the narrow paradigm of Western-style masculinity. 

Liu’s focus on aesthetics–his numerous thirst trap pics and his overt attempts at people-pleasing in his tweets, puts him more in line with other contemporaries like Tan and others who use their attractiveness as their primary tool for “moving the needle” in Hollywood. Using desirability as a political tool has a place since it touches on how Asian men are emasculated in the American mind. But, focusing on fitting Western aesthetics is limiting and futile if the ultimate goal is to rebuild the American system from the ground up. In the process of focusing on squeezing into a system not built to accept you, “pretty privilege” politics fails to encapsulate the importance of accepting everyone’s humanity, regardless of looks or accomplishments. Unconditional acceptance is the real reason to fight for equality in Hollywood and America as a whole. Instead, beauty, desirability, and lust have become the litmus test for if an Asian man can be seen as acceptable to non-Asian audiences. In short, cashing in on “pretty privilege” or “self-exoticism” alone in a broken system is only helpful for short-term advantage. 

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Liu has spoken out about his hope of being a role model to younger Asian Americans and speaks in “woke” terms about Asian and ethnic identity. In a recent Bustle interview, for example, he said he’s “never felt the need to apologize for my Asianness or who I was in general” (despite saying in a Yahoo interview, “I grew up ashamed to be Asian” because of the lack of positive images in the media). At the same time, he not only indulges in what seems like self-exoticism, but some have also called him out for seemingly pulling a hypocritical stance with his platform.

After getting cast as Shang-Chi, Liu took a role opposite Mark Wahlberg in the family-friendly adventure film Arthur the King. In 2018, Liu tweeted about Wahlberg’s hate crimes committed during Wahlberg’s teenage years, including physically and verbally attacking two Vietnamese men in 1988. He was charged with attempted murder in the 1988 case but only served 45 days of a two-year sentence. Wahlberg had also previously verbally abused and physically assaulting Black children by throwing rocks at them and yelling “Kill the n—–” in 1986. This case was eventually settled after a civil action was filed against Wahlberg. 

Liu deleted the tweets around the time he got cast in the Wahlberg-starring film, leading Twitter users to accuse him of hypocrisy. Liu defended himself on Instagram, writing that he deleted the tweets to provide an opportunity for Wahlberg to grow. 

“I deleted a couple of tweets I made regarding the past actions of one of my costars as a gesture of professionalism and to open the door to progressive conversations and (hopefully) positive change,” he wrote in the now-removed post, as written by ScreenRant. “Obviously it’d be pretty weird to go to work with that tweet still up. I meant what I said in the moment; I was very angry hearing about what happened. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s room to grow and work together to find an opportunity to educate and do some good–which I’m excited to do in addition to shooting the movie. Progressive discussion will lead to dialogue, and dialogue will lead to action.”

There’s a discussion about why the onus for holding accountability seems to fall on Liu instead of Wahlberg. But there’s also the fact that Liu wants to be seen as an activist in Hollywood. Activism as an actor includes doing things beyond playing a superhero on-screen, but it also includes taking courageous action behind the screen. Some of that bold action could have come in the form of keeping his tweets up and, maybe, not taking the role opposite Wahlberg–and publicly state why. 

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel Studios)

Of course, it’s easy to play couch quarterback when you’re not in the hot seat and don’t have opportunities flying in. But from an outsider’s perspective, Liu still seems like he’s trying to figure out what type of language he wants to use when it comes to where he stands in the activism space. He still seems like he’s trying to find his voice. While playing Marvel’s first Asian-American superhero is a fantastic way to start finding yourself, Liu will have to combine his off-screen persona and actions with his on-screen heroism. 

Despite this, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has made its mark with many viewers for its focus on a Chinese diasporic experience. As sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen wrote for io9, “Cultural authenticity abounds in Shang-Chi. First it has a majority Chinese cast from the disaspora–many of whom speak a natural mixture of Mandarin Chinese and English dialogue depending on the speaker and context. In addition, the costumes seem to be a belnd of eastern and western influences reflecting the culture of the Chinese American heroes. Finally, the fantasy elements appear to be inspired by Chinese wuxia films, not exotic Asian stereotypes.”

Yuen expounded on Shang-Chi’s importance to BBC. 

“Asians are starting to have more of a foothold,” she said. “…I think that we need an [Asian] superhero because of the history of Asians in Western cinema being villainous or servile…from a young person’s perspective it’s empowering.”

Writer/actor/filmmaker Daniel York Loh also said to BBC how Shang-Chi could inspire younger generations to think about the totality of who they could be. 

“[Shang-Chi is] a brilliant thing for young East Asian kids,” he said, adding that he wants to see more “nuanced Asian characters that are individualized and that have flaws.” He also wants a world in which East Asian children can see many “films and TV shows that [represent them] and they can love, hate and argue about,” adding that “with any kind of representation there will be issues that people will pick out and rightly dissect.”

Overall, Shang-Chi has accomplished its goal–opening the minds of young Asian viewers and inspiring them to be proud of themselves, their culture, and their communities. While the film might not be perfect, it is still a historic moment in pop culture, especially when many Asian-American kids are reeling from headlines about racism. Liu might be the first Asian-American superhero, but he’s hopefully inspiring others to follow behind him and discover their own superheroism. 

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