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“He went on stage and started speaking Mandarin and had a billion dollar smile,” recalled Shang-Chi screenwriter Dave Callaham of that moment at San Diego Comic-Con. “[Marvel’s] Victoria Alonso came up to me afterwards at the after-party. She put her hand on my shoulder. ‘Now that’s an Avenger.'”
Liu was then best-known for starring in the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. Now he is headlining Marvel’s first superhero movie centering on an Asian lead, with the film rolling out exclusively in theaters this weekend where it is setting Labor Day records. The path to get there wasn’t easy.
“He went through a long and arduous audition process, and he completely nailed every audition,” Marvel casting head Sarah Finn told THR at Shang-Chi’s premiere Aug. 16. “He really earned it.”
Others also recalled being impressed by how much work Liu put into landing the part.
“A lot of reads, a lot of auditions,” said Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, adding of casting a superhero, “There’s no magic formula. It’s a feeling. It’s a sense of both the ability to be relatable and grounded and at the same time take your place in that pantheon of heroes.”
Shang-Chi took years to make it to the big screen. The character debuted in 1973’s Special Marvel Edition No. 15 and was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, who initially wanted to adapt the Kung Fu TV series for comics, but couldn’t get the rights.
“This character has a history of almost getting to the screen,” said Starlin. “I wasn’t sure if it ever would.”
While Shang-Chi’s comic book history featured Asian tropes and stereotypes that the production has distanced itself from, the tale of a father and son in conflict resonated for Marvel Studios.
For awhile, the Shang-Chi movie team was mostly a single executive in a room at Marvel’s Burbank headquarters. Feige and Marvel producer Jonathan Schwartz both wanted to make the movie, and Schwartz was charged diving deep into the comics to see what could work.
“We created our document of what excited us about the character and what excited us about the movie,” said Schwartz. “Things we wanted to hang on to, things we wanted to change.”
Enter screenwriter Callaham, who in the fall of 2018 quickly rose to the top of a pile of hopefuls for the job. A few months after Callaham’s hiring, Marvel made it known publicly that Shang-Chi was in the works, something that does not always happen at the script phase of development.
“They were trying to flush out Asian directors, people to raise their hands,” recalled Callaham. “They wanted it to not be a rumor that they are going to do an Asian American movie. They wanted to say, ‘This is a movie that’s happening. We’ve already spent money on somebody. We are really serious.'”
Among those who took notice was Liu, who sent a now-famous 2018 tweet in which he asked, ” OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi.” (He recently told THR he never dreamed anything would come of it, and apparently, Feige never saw the tweet until after he was cast.)
Destin Daniel Cretton, then best known for the indie favorite Short Term 12, landed the job as director by spring of 2019 and went out for a drink with Callaham, who as a go-to blockbuster scribe might not feel like a match for the more introspective work of Cretton. But the pair hit it off immediately.
“We were both a little nervous about how it was going to work, but it turned out great. We value all of the same things in terms of storytelling,” said Callaham. “I historically leaned more towards blowing those things up, he gives them nurture and care, which is great.”
Suddenly, the Shang-Chi team had gone from one guy in a room, to two guys in a room, to three.
“Dave and I beat our heads against the wall for a long time. And then Dave, Destin and I beat our heads against the wall for a long time,” said Schwartz. “It certainly was good to have that infusion of fresh director energy is always a nice addition to the mix. I think we solved a lot of problems together and got the ball down the field.”
Cretton honed in on the family aspect of the story, which sees Liu’s Shang-Chi clash with his estranged father Wenwu (Tony Leung) and reunite with his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). The filmmaker also brought along members of his filmmaking family, including his Just Mercy and The Glass Castle screenwriter Andrew Laham, a move that helped make the machinery of a giant movie feel more intimate and manageable for Cretton.
“I start off scared out of my mind, feeling like I’m going to blow it because I’ve never done anything like this before,” Cretton recalled of how he feels beginning any film. “This movie was the same. All I can hope for us to be surrounded by a team that is healthy and supportive.”
Awkwafina was the first actor to board the project as Katy, Shaun’s (Liu) best friend who goes on an amazing journey with him. As such, she had a role in reading opposite the hopefuls for the part of Shang-Chi.
“Simu is grounded and he has heart. That really comes out in the character,” said Awkwafina of what stood out about Liu. “He’s really passionate.”
Liu spent about four months training before filming, as executive producer Charles Newirth recalled: “He was game for everything.”
Then team spent 13 months in Australia filming, as the continent was ravaged by the wildfires of New South Wales and as the production faced a COVID-19 shutdown.
“It’s a testament to the dedication of our crew that we got through it all,” said Liu at the premiere, getting a little emotional as he marveled at people in the crowd already cosplaying as Shang-Chi characters.
The premiere took place just over two years after Liu received a call from Feige informing him he’d landed the role of a lifetime.
“I’m feeling really fired up,” Liu reflected of the moment “I feel like the studio has really thrown their support behind us and I feel like a million bucks.”
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