In all the excitement for both Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame trailers, you may have missed the news about Shang-Chi. According to Deadline, Marvel’s resident Master of Kung-Fu could be Kevin Feige’s latest film franchise. But for Marvel to replicate the success of Black Panther (2018) or even, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), they must bring in the masters of Hong Kong martial arts cinema.
The first film would be titled Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu and Chinese-American writer Dave Callaham will handle the film’s screenplay. Callaham is best known for helping to write the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984.
What We Know About Shang-Chi
Shang-Chi debuted in Special Marvel Edition #15 in 1973. The character became the primary antagonist of Dr. Fu Manchu, who was created by pulp writer Sax Rohmer. Marvel was originally trying to secure the rights to the Kung Fu television series but settled for Rohmer’s titles. Shang-Chi became the greatest threat to Fu Manchu’s plans for world domination and was revealed to be the villain’s son. Shang-Chi was raised to be the world’s ultimate assassin and trained in a variety of martial arts by his father’s minions. After learning of his father’s evil ways, Shang-Chi became a force for good, vowing to destroy Fu Manchu’s criminal empire.
Does He Kick-Ass?
Traditionally, Shang-Chi is portrayed as a highly-trained fighter without superhuman abilities. Even though he’s not enhanced, Shang-Chi is widely acknowledged as the best hand-to-hand fighter in the Marvel Universe. He’s skilled in several forms of armed and unarmed combat and has trained Spider-Man and Captain America, among others. Shang-Chi has mastered control of his chi so well, he’s strong enough to shatter metal and fast enough to dodge bullets.
The modern incarnation of Shang-Chi received a superhuman upgrade. He can currently create numerous copies of himself, like Multiple Man. Each copy is just as skilled in the combat arts as the original. So the answer is yes. Shang-Chi is a total badass.
Who Could Direct?
These type of films can go one of two ways, critically-acclaimed blockbusters or disastrous titles you can buy for 99 cents at the bodega. See Iron Man versus The Phantom. For Shang-Chi to avoid Razzie fame, Marvel Studios must tap into the Hong Kong film industry to bring this character to the big screen.
From its peak in the early 90s, the Hollywood of the Far East has gone from producing 400 films a year to about 60 in more recent times. Hong Kong is not what it once was, but the talent to make a dynamic martial-arts film still exist. Enter Director Wilson Yip and his bad-ass collaborator, actor Donnie Yen.
Who’s the Lead?
If you’re a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan you’ve heard of classic wuxia films like Master of the Flying Guillotine, The Five Venoms, and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Fast forward to 80s and 90s and Hong Kong produced stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung. Since that era, wuxia martial arts films have reached new heights led by the team of actor Donnie Yen and Director Wilson Yip. Don’t believe me, watch Ip Man (2008) and it’s 2010 sequel and witness to the kickassery.
They must be involved in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi film. Before you troll us with complaints that Yen is too old for the lead, Yen should be cast as Fu Manchu. Martial artist and actor Kwok-Kwan Chan (Danny) should portray Shang-Chi.
Chan is a legitimate practitioner of Jeet Kune Do, the martial art discipline created by Bruce Lee, and could easily play Marvel’s best hand-to-hand combatant on film. Here’s a clip of Chan from the outstanding Lee-biopic series, The Legend of Bruce Lee. He speaks multiple languages and has a significant international following. He’s even a pop star in Asia. Considering that Bruce Lee was the original inspiration of Shang-Chi, an actor that looks and can mimic the moves of the “Little Dragon” should happen.
What’s At Stake?
Hollywood has a checkered past adapting Asian properties into U.S. feature films. Remember Speed Racer? Plus recent films 21, Aloha, Dragonball: Evolution, Dr. Strange that “whitewashed” Asian roles were met with protests from activists. In many of these cases, filmmakers make economic arguments for their casting decisions. Ridley Scott said about his film Exodus: “I can’t mount a film of this budget” and announce that “my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
Marvel Studios is staking its reputation and dollars on a Shang-Chi franchise. It’s also opened its door to protests and rebuke if they don’t cast Asians in this film’s lead roles and miss the mark on Shang-Chi’s fight choreography and action sequences.
But Hollywood’s argument is getting harder to believe. A New York Times opinion piece by Keith Chow correctly referenced a study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California. The study found that films with diverse leads not only resulted in higher box office numbers but also higher returns of investment for studios and producers.
Hollywood never learns
In 2017 the English-language adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell hit theaters with mixed reviews and anger for its whitewashing of Asian roles. Fans protested the filmmakers’ decision to cast Marvel Studios’ Black Widow Scarlett Johansson’s as the Japanese protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. Time magazine wrote in March 2017, soon after Johansson’s casting was confirmed…fans launched a petition for the role to be recast: “The original film is set in Japan, and the major cast members are Japanese. So why would the American remake star a white actress?”
The casting controversy preceded Ghost in the Shell for two years and torpedoed its debut. When the film finally premiered, it scored 51% on Rotten Tomatoes and bombed at the box office. Ghost in the Shell lost an estimated $60 to $110 million at the box office.
Avoiding past mistakes
Closer to home, Marvel Studios must also avoid a repeat of its Iron Fist experience. Not only is the Danny Rand character a Western man finds enlightenment in Asia trope, the fight scenes in the Netflix series sucked. Consistently the best fighting sequences in the series were by Jessica Yu Li Henwick, who played Colleen Wing. Wing’s parents hail from Singapore and Zambia. For this film, Shang-Chi is a better martial artist than the Immortal Iron Fist, so the fight scenes must be superior.
The success of the Shang-Chi franchise will rely on its global appeal. Yes, the U.S. market likes A-list talent, but domestic moviegoers are sophisticated enough to watch unknown stars in a film if the story is compelling and its action excites the audience. To succeed, Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu needs to focus on its Chinese roots, cast Asian actors and produce some of the best fighting sequences ever seen on film. Only the Far East can produce this movie.