Simu Liu is hitting new heights with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Simu Liu remembers every detail about the phone call that changed his destiny two years ago. The actor was coming off a grueling day on the Toronto set of the hit CBC sitcom Kim's Convenience, where he'd gotten into an argument over one of his lines — a play on words on his character's name: "Egg Foo Jung." Liu had refused to say the line as written. And the disagreement ended up halting production for nearly an hour. "I didn't want audiences to see this character playing into that joke," the 32-year-old actor recalls during our conversation in a conference room on the Walt Disney Studios lot in late May. "It was terrifying. I was on the verge of tears. It was actually a really, really rough day."
Back in his apartment, Liu was sitting around in his underwear and eating shrimp crackers when he got the call from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, director Destin Daniel Cretton, and casting director Sarah Finn. They were inviting him to become a part of the biggest megafranchise in movie history. They wanted him to be Shang-Chi, Marvel's first Asian leading superhero. Four days later, Liu was in the fabled Hall H during 2019's San Diego Comic-Con, announcing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (out Sept. 3) and posing for a group photo alongside the stars of Marvel Studios' Phase 4 — Angelina! Scarlett! One of the Chrises! "I found myself on stage with some of the most famous people in the world, wearing my $20 Zara sweater and skinny jeans," Liu says, still seemingly shell-shocked. "It was insane."
It felt like the fulfillment of a dream that he had partially willed into existence. You see, back in 2014, the still-unknown Liu tweeted: "Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian American hero?" It was like casting a 72-character prayer into the void. Fast-forward to 2018, when it was reported that Marvel was fast-tracking development of a movie based on Shang-Chi, a comic-book character who first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 in 1973. Liu saw this as a sign and decided to tweet at the studio a second time: "OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi."
Indeed, they talked. Says Feige: "Simu is so charismatic, so talented." And more than a decade after Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with two dozen movies replete with civil wars and Infinity Stones and many incarnations of superheroes (including a tree and a raccoon), the studio was finally putting an Asian superhero front and center. Shang-Chi wasn't about to become some token supporting-player nod to diversity, he wasn't about to be part of a bigger blockbuster show. Shang-Chi was the show.
For the uninitiated, Shang-Chi is Marvel Comics' "Master of Kung Fu." Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, the character made his debut the same year that Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon hit theaters. The character's resemblance to the late martial-arts superstar was not a coincidence. Attempting to capitalize on the martial-arts craze of the era, Marvel wanted to publish a comic book inspired by the hit ABC series Kung Fu starring the decidedly un-Asian David Carradine. Unable to license the show, the company acquired the rights to novelist Sax Rohmer's pulp villain Dr. Fu-Manchu. Originally conceived as the son of Rohmer's criminal mastermind, Shang-Chi turns his back on his father's evil ways. And yes, his superpower is being really good at martial arts.
For Liu's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel kept the name and the conceit, but reinvented everything else. Cretton — the Hawaiian-born, Japanese American director of 2013's indie sensation Short Term 12 and 2019's Just Mercy — and Chinese American screenwriter David Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984) revised some of the more problematic, Yellow Peril-adjacent origins of the '70s source material. In their version, Shang-Chi is the son of Wenwu (played by legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung), who has ties to the mysterious Ten Rings organization. (Marvel faithful will recognize the Ten Rings as the organization responsible for Tony Stark's abduction at the start of Iron Man.) Years after abandoning his father's criminal enterprise and living a relatively normal existence in San Francisco with friends, including best pal Katy (played by Awkwafina), Shang-Chi is drawn back into the family business. Mayhem ensues.
But before we spill any more plot details, let's pause for a moment and go back to the part where the MCU's first leading Asian American superhero is a martial-arts master. It's compli- cated. Many Asian Americans, particularly Asian American men (this writer included), have had a fraught relationship with martial arts. More specifically, Hollywood's appropriation of martial arts, and how it's too often wielded as a form of mockery directly to our faces: Any Asian who's felt the shame of hearing faux karate noises and the cartoonish tones of Carl Douglas' 1974 disco hit "Kung Fu Fighting" when they walk by knows what I'm talking about.
A recent survey by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change asked Americans to name a well-known Asian American. Nearly half of the respondents answered: "Don't know." The next most popular responses were "Jackie Chan" (who is not actually Asian American) and "Bruce Lee" (who is not actually alive). This certainly reflects my own experience growing up Asian in America — where representation was (and is) so inconsequential that some of those same people who can't name a single Asian American of note would hiss "Bruce" or "Jackie" as insults.
Liu, who grew up in the Toronto suburbs and is the only child of aerospace engineers, understands this as well as anyone. And he recognizes the potential pitfalls of playing a kung fu fighting superhero who will be seen by millions.
"There are two paradigms that are completely at odds with each other," he says. "One being, as a progressive Asian American man, I've always wanted to shatter barriers and expectations of what Asian men are and be very aware of the boxes that we're put into — martial artists, sidekicks, exotic, or Orientalist. And then the other paradigm is, like, kung fu is objectively super f---ing cool. There is a reason why kung fu caught fire and the world became obsessed with it, because it's incredible to watch." In Shang-Chi, Liu sees an opportunity "to reclaim that s---": "There was a time [as an Asian actor], I didn't want anybody to see me doing martial arts... but I grew up watching Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and I remember the immense amount of pride that I felt watching them kick ass. I think Shang-Chi can absolutely be that for Asian Americans. It means that kids growing up today will have what we never did — the ability to watch the screen and to really feel seen."
That's why it was crucial for the filmmakers to show more dimensionality to the Asian experience than moviegoers have gotten in the past. Says Awkwafina: "When you tell these stories, there has to be a level of transparency, authenticity, and just, like, a non-corny way to approach the Asian experience." Callaham, the 43-year-old screenwriter behind The Expendables and this year's Mortal Kombat, found himself unexpectedly emotional when he started on the script for Shang-Chi. "I stepped back and I thought, Why do I feel this way? And I know this sounds like a pat answer, but I realized this is the first time I've ever been asked to write from my own experience, from my own perspective."
He and Cretton certainly felt the weight of expectations while building Shang-Chi's world. "There's no single Asian American voice. So how do we create something that speaks to the wider Asian diaspora? How do we make something that will be exciting and entertaining, but also personal to all these people? What [Destin and I] landed on was the very simple reality of just putting this character on screen, at the level that Marvel does. Because when we turned on our televisions, neither of us were seeing Asian people. And we were excited to be able to change that."
Before Liu was cast, he may not have been the most obvious candidate to play Marvel's master martial artist. Sure, he has a handful of stunt credits and can perform a standing backflip on command (he did one, unprompted, in his Shang-Chi audition tape; Cretton was unimpressed). But while the film's producers looked at hundreds of actors from around the world, they weren't necessarily searching for the next Jet Li. Cretton, whose résumé leans more toward films about nuance and character than flashy action, had actors read a monologue from 1997's Good Will Hunting. "The character of Will represents this mixture of masculinity and vulnerability," says Cretton, 42, drawing parallels between Shang-Chi and Matt Damon's Southie math genius. "He also has a secret and a superpower that he doesn't quite understand and has not stepped into." Liu, who before acting earned a business degree and became an accountant to please his parents, agrees: "That movie is all about a guy going to extreme lengths to hide who he is. He's a genius hiding in plain clothes. Shang-Chi is also somebody who is kind of putting on a mask day to day. It's about Shang-Chi learning that even though there is a prescribed destiny that his dad has bestowed on him, he can also carve out his own path. It's pretty Asian American."
This is an important point. Like 2018's Black Panther, which became a touchstone for African Americans who were finally allowed to gaze at the silver screen and see a proud, powerful version of themselves reflected back in a big-budget popcorn tentpole, Marvel's first Asian-led movie arrives at an equally unique and pivotal moment in our culture, both pop and otherwise. Asian Americans are at a crossroads of representation and hostility. And while it would be naive to think that the current climate has anything to do with why Hollywood makes movies, it's worth pointing out that Shang-Chi was fast-tracked after Crazy Rich Asians became a huge hit. Finally, here was unignorable proof that movies with Asian leads could sell tickets — and that the Marvel Universe was indeed big enough to include more diverse voices and faces and names besides Chris. But 2021 also finds Asian Americans at a point of crisis. Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and an onslaught of xenophobic political invective, the community has experienced a surge in reported hate crimes. Racial slurs, Asian-owned businesses vandalized, the elderly assaulted on the street. Can a superhero address Asian America's real-life ills?
"When the world is telling us, 'We hate you because you're Asian, we hate you because we think you brought this virus to the world'... we need to kind of meet that with an equal and opposing force," says Liu. "That is celebration. That is joy. That is pride. It's hard enough to celebrate being Asian in normal times. But now, when the whole world is kind of coming down, with all this rhetoric and people getting attacked on the street, you really need to deliberately try to celebrate Asian-ness. And that's what I think this movie is — a celebration of our culture."
Simu Liu is ready to be the superhero he never got to see, on screen and beyond. But he's not trying to be the One. One is not enough. "Just because there's one Asian American superhero in the MCU, it does not by any means imply that our fight is finished right there," Liu says. "When we don't have to celebrate every single win, I think we'll be a little bit closer to our goal, but until then, there's just so much left to do. I'm ready to be in a position where I can effect real change, amplify voices, and put people in positions to get stories told that wouldn't ordinarily get that opportunity. So, yes, all of that stuff I'm ready for. It couldn't come fast enough, actually."
Sept. 3 will have to do.
—Additional reporting by Devan Coggan
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