How Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' Can Escape a Cliched Comic Book Past

Director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham have the opportunity to take what works about the character and reimagine what doesn't.
Ron Wilson/Marvel Entertainment
Director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham have the opportunity to take what works about the character and reimagine what doesn't.

The news that Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton has signed on to helm Marvel’s Shang-Chi is something to be welcomed for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that Cretton’s résumé is an impressive one (and, perhaps not coincidentally, features collaborations with Marvel film stars Brie Larson and Michael B. Jordan). More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that bringing an Asian-American director onto the project brings the likelihood that the movie will be able to sidestep some of the character’s more troublesome elements.

Shang-Chi debuted in 1973’s Special Marvel Edition No. 15, a series that would be retitled The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu two issues later (and, later still, retitled simply Master of Kung Fu). The character was intended less as a push for greater diversity and more as a consolation prize: Creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin had hoped to make a comic book version of the television series Kung Fu; when that failed due to rights issues, Shang-Chi was created to — in the words of Englehart in the book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story — “do the Eastern mystical philosophy.” His name was chosen, apparently, by “throwing the I Ching and mixing and matching hexagrams.”

Things got arguably worse with the decision by then-editor-in-chief Roy Thomas to tie the character to Sax Rohmer’s racist pulp character Fu Manchu, which Marvel had the comic book license to at the time; as a result, Shang-Chi became the son of Fu Manchu, dedicated to fighting his father once he discovered how evil his parent actually was. (While this predated Star Wars and the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, it came after Jack Kirby’s New Gods, where the heroic Orion fought against his villainous father Darkseid; given that Englehart would take on the writing of sibling title Mister Miracle soon after, he was likely aware of the Orion/Darkseid similarity.)

Adding insult to injury, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story also revealed that the character’s design was the result of Starlin drawing a “generic [Asian] face” in early designs as a placeholder, only for Stan Lee to insist that it be kept, topped by simplistic color separations, meaning Asian characters were given cartoonishly yellow faces in the series, something especially true of Fu Manchu. It was something so noticeable that letter writers to the series commented upon it, provoking apologies and explanations from editors.

Shang-Chi, then, was originally the result of recycled ideas, racist pulp characters, limitations of technology at the time and editorial mandates that made the character…less than he could have been, perhaps. (To illustrate the idea that the character deserved — and could be — better, the Master of Kung Fu series stuck around until 1983, becoming a critical hit under the pen of writer Doug Moench and artists Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck and Gene Day as the series moved away from cliche — and Fu Manchu — and towards a more film noir-inspired take.)

A Shang-Chi movie offers Marvel an opportunity to basically reinvent the character and keep little beyond the name and the martial arts theme — something that, ironically, offers Marvel a second do-over, as the chance to redeem itself after accusations of cultural appropriation and insensitivity over the Marvel TV/Netflix series Iron Fist arose. Cretton has the opportunity and, as his past work demonstrates, the sensitivity to ditch everything that doesn’t work about Shang-Chi’s past and, taking lessons from Marvel Studios’ treatment of characters like Hawkeye, the Falcon and Star-Lord, basically start afresh from all-but-scratch. Insiders say this is the approach screenwriter Dave Callaham is taking with the character.

Sure, it might upset the hardcore fanboys, but as the success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel should have taught Marvel executives, there’s significant financial upside in offering powerful representation to under-served audiences in the MCU. Let Cretton rebuild Shang-Chi into the hero Asian and Asian-American audiences want to see. There’s no worthwhile argument against it.