With Phase Three of the franchise coming to an end soon, we’re all wondering what the future holds for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We already know that Spider-Man will return for further adventures. The Eternals will also satisfy our need for more cosmic romps. That’s all very exciting. However, the studio’s continued focus on diversifying their tentpole sagas has us even more pumped for what lies ahead. And their latest announced movie will mark another important milestone for popular culture.
Deadline reports that Marvel Studios is fast-tracking Shang-Chi to be their superhero movie to center around an Asian protagonist. Chinese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham has been hired to write the screenplay, and Marvel is looking at Asian and Asian-American directors to take the reins. The goal is to replicate the success and positive impact of Black Panther, albeit from a brand new cultural perspective.
The original Shang-Chi comics series, Master of Kung Fu, was created in the 1970s, a time when American culture — especially counterculture — was experiencing a craze with Eastern martial arts and like-minded entertainment. Chinese action movies, the Kung Fu TV show, and pulp icon Fu Manchu (who also happens to Shang-Chi’s father) were major influences behind their creation. The Shang-Chi character himself was also largely inspired by Bruce Lee as a contemplative one-man warrior.
Master of Kung Fu comics quickly caught on with readers, and not just for their entertainment value. While the early comics were littered with some problematic and politically incorrect elements, Shang-Chi’s journey became a metaphor for the rising consciousness of minority groups — especially Asians — in the United States at the time. Until then, Asian representation in comics had mostly consisted of stock stereotypical villains. And while the Master of Kung Fu comics fell into similar trappings quite frequently, they were well-intentioned and depicted a three-dimensional hero with admirable qualities.
Of course, Shang-Chi comics still stemmed from Western perceptions of Chinese culture, as did most of the pop culture that informed its creation. Kung Fu, for example, was an American show starring David Carradine as a mixed-race Shaolin Priest. Meanwhile, the Fu Manchu character was created by English novelist Sax Rohmer and those books have been criticized for their demeaning portrayal of Asians. The early iteration of the Fu Manchu character in Marvel’s comics was also based on Boris Karloff’s 1932 cinematic portrayal of the villain. Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin are geniuses who created an awesome character and told compelling stories, but their hero was still very Americanized and subsequent creators continued this trend. We’re ready for a better version now.
The movie will tell Shang-Chi’s story from a culturally authentic perspective, and we need that. Besides, it’s more exciting this way; Hollywood blockbusters have watered down foreign cultures and characters too many times and it’s grown stale. 47 Ronin, anyone? Much like Black Panther celebrated African culture and brought afrocentrism into the mainstream, Shang-Chi will hopefully blend Asian and American themes in a way that’s honest and satisfying.
I’m also confident that this is going to be one kick-ass action movie. Shang-Chi is an expert in almost every combat discipline there is, which makes the character inherently ripe for basing a martial arts movie around. The comics are a smorgasbord of wuxia, espionage, and superhero shenanigans; as pure entertainment, this movie will be everything we want from a blockbuster spectacle. Marvel doesn’t hold back when it comes to sheer epic scope either, so expect big thrills.
That said, while most American movies are concerned with the visceral thrills kung fu movies provide, Shang-Cha will likely tap into the philosophical sensibilities the discipline itself sprung from, as well as tell a captivating story from an Asian point-of-view. We don’t see the spiritual and meditative elements of martial arts explored outside of Asian cinema too often, and that’s just as fascinating as watching well-choreographed fight scenes. Shang-Chi is an intriguing character whose life journey revolves around finding inner peace as much as it does conquering evil and fighting injustice.
Most importantly, though, this is another breakthrough moment in popular culture. I don’t have to stress how important diversity and representation in entertainment is, and I’m thrilled to see Marvel continuing to take monumental steps forward. With Shang-Chi, Asian kids will have a superhero role model they can relate to, and the film’s success will once again prove general audiences want to see multicultural stories brought to the big screen. Plus, kung fu is awesome.