Marvel Studios has been making its heroes funny for years, even the ones, like Iron Man and Thor, who were never all that funny in the original comics. But Shang-Chi, one of the very few Asian characters in the Marvel universe, cinematic or otherwise, has always been remarkably humorless even by superhero standards — yet another stereotype the creators set out to overcome. “There’s been this assumption in America until fairly recently that Asians and Asian Americans can’t be funny,” said Gene Luen Yang, writer of the latest run of Shang-Chi comics. “I think that’s why they had Eddie Murphy play Mushu in the animated ‘Mulan.’”
The creators were so conscious of all the preconceptions they were up against that they even made a list of Hollywood stereotypes about Asians that they hoped to dispel. In their movie, the comedy would come from the Asian characters, not be directed at them. “We were also very interested in portraying Shang-Chi as romantically viable, as an Asian man,” Callaham said, “and simultaneously also very cognizant of the opposite stereotype of Asian women, where they’re oversexualized or fetishized.”
To prepare, the creators caught up on martial arts films like the 1978 classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” considered to be one of the greatest kung fu films of all time, as well as ’80s action movies like “Big Trouble in Little China.”
“I’m also a huge fan of ‘Kung Fu Hustle,’” said Callaham, a movie that, like “Shang-Chi,” includes flying bracelets, wuxia-inspired action sequences and, yes, lots of comedy.
“Shang-Chi” also features mystical creatures; a sly swipe at the racist pasts of both Fu Manchu and Marvel’s Fu Manchu-like character, the Mandarin; and martial arts heroines galore. But for Callaham, one of the most memorable moments in creating the movie had nothing to do with monster-filled mayhem or martial arts stunts.
“I was writing a sequence where Shang-Chi’s in San Francisco, and he’s hanging out with his friends, living a lifestyle that is not entirely dissimilar from what I have lived in the past,” he said.
“I suddenly felt myself overwhelmed with emotion,” he continued. “Generally I’m hired to write a movie-star role so that we can attract a movie star, and typically those have not been Asian faces. It’s usually a beautiful white man named Chris or something. And all power to those guys, but I’ve always had to put myself in a position of imagining what it would be like to be somebody else. This was the first time in my life I’ve been able to sit back and not have to imagine it anymore.”