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Simu Liu Is Fiercely Passionate About His Role As Shang-Chi, But Is It Enough?

Marvel Studios has made a name for itself, not with superhero movies, but in crafting blockbuster superhero movies that continually defy expectations. While the world is likely never going to be short of superhero content, audiences are now expecting more. Not more in terms of action, special effects or powers, but more in terms of driving representation.

Let’s face it – representation is good as it gives us something different. That’s why audiences have received and embraced movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel – they mean something to someone. Not because it addresses some deep-rooted need for super-powered individuals in costumes taking down bad guys, but because these movies address some deficiency, of race and feminism, in a positive and inspiring manner. It helps that some of the ideas the movies have stemmed from the 80 year legacy of Marvel Comics, in that the mistakes made in the comic books’ early history have been corrected and made for the better, to be adapted into films.

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And that’s what makes Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings so special, especially since the lead character himself, Shang-Chi, isn’t all that famous or popular amongst fans. Just as how Black Panther stood for the Black community, and Captain Marvel tackled the individual power of a woman, Shang-Chi is more than a movie about a superhero of colour – it’s about addressing the origins of a character that was created to feed on the then cultural popularity of martial arts, or as the Americans called it – kung-fu – in the 1970s.

The term ‘representation’ has been thrown around alot in recent years, especially with woke culture dominating Twitter, now with the expanded 280 character limit instead of 140. In the simplest, most non-painful way, representation can be understood as the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way. And when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and Asian representation, there is much left to be desired. 

While it has led in having heroes of colour and various sex and gender identities, the MCU has an Asian problem and it doesn’t take a genius to see that. Whilst much of it’s main issues lie in the franchise’s sprawling treasure chest of comics that often based Asian characters on stereotypes, the MCU did very little to improve the way Asian superheroes have been portrayed. 

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If you think about it, the MCU introduced its first major Asian character in Iron Man 3 (2013) and instead of embracing and elevating the villainous Mandarin (who in the comics have been traditionally stereotyped), Marvel openly discarded the legacy of the character by making a mockery out of it.

Ben Kinglsey in Iron Man 3 as The Mandarin

First, they cast Ben Kingsley in the role that was Chinese in the comics. Kingsley isn’t East Asian as per the character’s profile. Kingsley is of Gujarati Indian descent, making him South Asian, and no, Asians are not interchangeable. Three years later, Doctor Strange was released and taking on the role of The Ancient One, who is Asian in the comics, is Scottish actress, Tilda Swinton. 

And that’s where the second issue arises. On top of discarding the legacy of Asian characters and depicting Asians as homogenous, the studios just had to pull the race-swap card.

Fast forward, it’s 2021 and Marvel is finally debuting its first Asian superhero who isn’t only played by East Asian actor Simu Liu but also boasts a leading cast of predominantly East Asian talents such as Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Ronny Chieng and more. 

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Shang-Chi cast at the world premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Ever since being cast as Shang-Chi, Liu has been pretty loud about his role and why it means a great deal to him. Liu, if you’ve been following him for a while now, has always used his social media platforms to advocate for anti-racism. Amongst the memes and jokes he tweets and shares, Liu often opens up about his lived experience as an Immigrant in America, celebrates his culture by teaching others how to accurately pronounce Mandarin names, as well as uplift and support other Asians by celebrating the accomplishments of athletes and fellow actors. 

As joyous and funny Liu is, there are times where his posts come off stern and rightfully angry. When approaching far more serious and important matters, Liu is far more cutting with his expression, either outrightly calling the perpetrator out or putting his foot down, hard. 

Most recently, CEO Bob Chapek called Shang-Chi’s release strategy “an experiment”. Liu was quick to give a response to express his anger at being referred to as an experiment. Of course, given the nature of social media, it’s never a one way street. Debates soon sparked. Some folks expressed support for Liu whilst others felt like he had taken the comment out of context. 

Looking at the situation objectively, it seems clear that Chapek was referring to the choice to release Shang-Chi in theatres only, like Disney did with Free Guy. Is this Disney’s way of avoiding another lawsuit from a Marvel star ala Scarlett Johansson with the Black Widow theatrical and Disney+ same-day release? Maybe. Does Disney genuinely believe that Free Guy’s box office success means that audiences are likely to come to cinemas for Shang-Chi too (regardless of the new Delta variant)? Who knows. Was the statement racially charged? Some will argue no, but Chapek could’ve picked a better word to explain Shang-Chi’s release strategy.

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In Liu’s response, the actor said, “We are not an experiment. 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.”

And truthfully, Liu is right. Asian-Americans have had a really difficult year. Hate crimes against Asians spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, and still continue to rise. Shang-Chi is not just another movie, it’s a movie that given the poor representation within the MCU is a necessity and could potentially be a beacon of hope and celebration after a heartbreaking year. To casually call it an experiment seems like an insult to the work Liu and his fellow co-stars have put into the movie – all the acting, stunt performances and promotions for a major movie whilst navigating racism everyday and mourning the deaths of those who fall victim to hate crimes. Functioning in society as a person of colour isn’t the same as someone who isn’t. Racism and trauma runs deep for many of us regardless of where we’re living (thanks to colonisation), and functioning in a predominantly white society amplifies these emotions and experiences. 

Chapek’s comment, whilst seemingly without ill-intentions, sheds light on how Hollywood has historically treated movies that starred people of colour in which these projects are of less importance and are worth taking risks and gambles with. Think about Black Widow and how it has been delayed for years due to the pandemic. Starring Johansson and newcomer Florence Pugh, Black Widow has been highly anticipated for years and despite Disney+ premier access, the movie was too important and profitable to release until cinemas all over the world could safely reopen.

Disney’s Mulan live-action film

Disney changed their tune eventually after seeing sales for Raya and the Last Dragon and Mulan, which at the time, were experiments to see if sales goals can still be achieved with a combined theatre and Disney+ release. Both of which were movies featuring people of colour. That said, the experimentation of Shang-Chi’s release is no different from the way Disney experimented with Raya and the Last Dragon and Mulan. All of which, a stark contrast to how the House of Mouse treated Black Widow. 

So, does Simu have the right to be this upset? 

Absolutely. 

If this is the way Disney chooses to treat the first-ever superhero movie that gives Asians the dire, overdue, respectable representation after a total of 80 years of Marvel history, we’d be fuming too.

Unfortunately, as fiercely passionate as Liu is about his role, one must face the fact that having a movie like Shang-Chi isn’t enough when it comes to representation.

For starters, representation is more than just having faces of minorities plastered on giant posters and frolicking across the screens. It’s about having minorities behind the cameras too. Although Shang-Chi is directed by Asian director Destin Daniel Cretton, Hollywood in overall needs more minority directors, producers, writers, production designers and more. Minorities aren’t short of talent, but Hollywood sure is stingy with handing out opportunities. Once that changes, not only are stories and the act of filmmaking a whole lot more diverse, Hollywood will be able to achieve the representation communities have been campaigning for. PS. that includes having Asian creators behind films that aren’t just about Asian characters too, e.g. Malaysian director James Wan working on numerous horror films that have white leads. 

Circling back to our earlier point, the Asian race isn’t a homogenous group. ‘Asian’ is a big word encompassing a myriad of different people and cultures. Shang-Chi and our dear Liu are aiming for representation – but what exactly are they representing? East Asians, specifically Chinese-Americans. 

Behind the scenes of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi is a story about Chinese-American and Chinese characters.This is seen in the wide variety of elements present in the film’s trailer that are adopted from Chinese culture. Whilst the recognisable elements are praiseworthy, we mustn’t forget that whilst Chinese people across the globe share cultural similarities, they don’t always share the same identities, values and experiences. Shang-Chi places emphasis on the superhero’s struggle with identity and his feeling out of place in the US – this alone applies a Chinese-American lens and immediately alienates the experiences of mainland Chinese people, or Chinese people in different parts of the globe including multi-racial Singapore where Chinese people are the majority population. 

Given the focus on Chinese culture and characters, Shang-Chi isn’t representative of other Asian cultures and experiences of Indian, Thai, Malay or even Burmese folks either (all of which are unique in their own right). 

In all, whilst Shang-Chi can potentially be seen as a right step towards getting some form of representation, it isn’t enough to encompass the Asian representation required that is still missing from the wider MCU. So here’s the thing – is it Marvel Studios’ job to do this though? Will we not be happy until we see a Shah Rukh Khan-looking superhero taking the spotlight? 

simu liu

While SRK might be a stretch we do have Iman Vellani who is expanding the MCU with Ms. Marvel on Disney+. As the Kamala Khan portrayal sticks close to her comic book roots, we see that Disney is making an effort, but how do they seem to get it both right and wrong inconsistently?

There may be no right answer at this time, not when Chapek isn’t clear on how his company can and should treat Asian-led content, and not when the lead of the movie is only appealing to one aspect of Asian (American) culture. Here’s to hoping Eternals would have a much diverse form of representation. 

Else, we’ve waited 80 years. What’s 80 more til someone gets it right? 


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