Destin Daniel Cretton never wanted to make a Marvel movie. The 42-year-old director built his career on quiet, introspective dramas like Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, and Just Mercy — not exactly your typical superhero spectacle. He remembers telling friends that he had no desire to join the world of capes and comic book heroes — until he read a 2018 news report that Marvel was developing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, its first film with an Asian protagonist.
“When that announcement came out, I just went instantly back to my childhood,” Cretton explains. “[Growing up] all I had was Spider-Man. Because he had the mask on, I could dress up like Spider-Man for Halloween. I had a handful of other characters that looked like me on screen, but there were maybe two or three that I could choose from, and superheroes were not a part of that.”
Cretton — who was born in Hawaii and is of Japanese descent — kept thinking about how his younger self would’ve reacted to a superhero movie with a predominantly Asian cast. So, he set a meeting with Marvel. “That’s usually not the way director meetings start, by saying, ‘You know, I was never interested in doing one of these,'” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige says with a laugh. That Marvel meeting turned into another, then another, until before long, Cretton was standing in front of thousands of fans at 2019’s San Diego Comic-Con, introducing the world to the kind of hero his childhood self had only dreamed of.
The result is Shang-Chi (in theaters Sept. 3), a sweeping superhero epic that combines emotional family drama with gravity-defying martial arts action. Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu stars as the young hero, who spent the first part of his life training to become an assassin under his father’s strict tutelage. He’s since walked away and tried to build a somewhat normal life in America, only to find himself sucked back into his father’s sinister domain.
“The most exciting thing about stepping into this character was that his backstory has never been told before,” Liu says. “We know so many different versions of Batman’s origin story, how his parents were murdered when he was very young. We know Peter Parker, who was bitten by a radioactive spider, and he loses his uncle. Shang-Chi’s story is very much unknown to most of the world, so we had a lot of freedom and creative liberty to make it the way that we wanted to.”
He may not be a household name yet like his fellow heroes Iron Man or Captain America, but the idea of making a Shang-Chi movie is older than the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, the kung fu master made his comics debut in 1973 as a way for Marvel to capitalize on martial arts stories’ popularity with American audiences. Stan Lee reportedly tried to develop a Shang-Chi film starring Brandon Lee as early as the 1980s, but the project never materialized. In the early 2000s, the then-nascent Marvel Studios started to assemble a notebook of comic characters who could potentially headline their own films — a notebook that included Shang-Chi.
Now, after a history of false starts, the martial arts master is finally getting his turn in the spotlight.
“The core of Shang-Chi’s arc in the comics is really a family drama,” says producer Jonathan Schwartz. “That was something that Destin keyed into really early on in our conversations, the idea of taking this broken family and this really dark, even abusive family background and seeing what that does to a child over time.”
Bringing Shang-Chi into the MCU also meant updating some of his dated origins. The character’s comic backstory has shifted through the years, and Cretton and writer Dave Callaham were eager to dispense with some of the early issues’ racially insensitive cliches.
“When you look at the character of Shang-Chi through the comic books going back to the ’70s and ’80s, the fact that he existed and the fact that he was an Asian character was amazing,” Liu says. “But at the same time, there are aspects of that portrayal of him that maybe could feel a little stereotypical. So when we first started to map out who this character was and what his journey was going to be over the course of this film, we were all very sensitive to not have it go into stereotypical territory.”
Cretton says he wanted to tell a story about Asian identity that felt as lived-in and authentic as possible — part of which involved making sure Shang-Chi had Asian voices both in front of and behind the camera.
“Remember, the Asian culture is so diverse,” he says. “I grew up in Hawaii, [and] Hawaiian food is like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Filipino, all mixed together. That is kind of what our crew was: It’s like this big mix of Asian cultures coming together and responding to the script and [saying things] like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel quite right.’ All of that helped contribute to what I think is a really beautiful update to what started in the comics a few decades ago.”
“It was a level of Asian representation that I haven’t seen, and I thought it was cool as an Asian American to watch,” adds Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s close friend Katy. “It definitely explores different levels of identity.”
When it came time to cast the charming hero, Marvel launched a global search for an actor of Chinese descent. They found him in the 31-year-old Liu, best known for his role as Jung Kim on the beloved Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. The actor had long dreamed of suiting up as a superhero — to the point where he was tweeting at Marvel as early as 2014, hoping to see an Asian-American hero join the franchise. When Shang-Chi was actually announced, he followed up with another tweet: “OK Marvel, are we gonna talk or what?“
“What was definitely not going through my head was, ‘Hey, I’m going to tweet Marvel and they’re going to get back to me, and I’m going to get this role,'” he says now, laughing. To his surprise, he actually received an invite to audition — and after officially landing the role in July 2019, he was on a plane just a few days later, headed to San Diego to join Cretton at Comic-Con.
When the film starts, Shang-Chi (pronounced like “song,” not “sang”) is living in San Francisco as a seemingly ordinary twentysomething. He’s a bit directionless, and he spends most of his time hanging out with friends, like Awkwafina’s Katy. She’s one of his closest confidants, but she doesn’t know much about his history or why he’s no longer in touch with his parents. And she’s definitely unfamiliar with the action-packed world of assassins and kung fu masters.
“She doesn’t do a lot of the heavy lifting,” Awkwafina says. “But at the end of the day, she has a real heart, and she has a loyalty and dedication to her friendship with Shang-Chi. She’s super brave.”
Shang-Chi’s current life may seem average, but his past is anything but: His father Wenwu is a powerful, ancient figure who trained his son to follow in his criminal footsteps. It’s been about 10 years since Shang-Chi learned of his dad’s misdeeds and walked away. “This is not a ‘Luke, I am your father’ twist,” Feige adds. “He knows who his father is, and he’s decided to leave that world behind before he’s pulled back into it.”
To play the master villain, the filmmakers tapped legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, known for films like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express. “A character like Wenwu could have easily been a one-dimensional villain with no heart,” Cretton says. “Tony opened this character up [so] this is an antagonist who has a deep ability to love.” Wenwu and Shang-Chi’s onscreen relationship is complicated, but off camera, Leung and Liu became fast friends, bonding over snowboarding. “He’s a huge adrenaline junkie,” Liu says of his cinematic dad.
Wenwu is a new character, created entirely for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He has ties to the Ten Rings, the mysterious terrorist organization first name-dropped in 2008’s Iron Man. As Schwartz and Feige put it, Wenwu has “gone by many names” throughout the decades — and one of those titles is “the Mandarin,” one of Marvel Comics’ most infamous villains. That name previously popped up in 2013’s Iron Man 3, only for that version of the character (played by Ben Kingsley) to be revealed as a fraud, an out-of-work actor named Trevor Slattery. Leung’s Wenwu is something new — and far more dangerous.
“I think people hear ‘the Mandarin’ and expect a very specific kind of thing, and that may not be the thing they’re getting,” Schwartz teases. “They’re hopefully getting a more complex and layered take on the character than that name would lead you to.”
Of course, you can’t make a movie about the most skilled fighter in the world without choreographing some pretty elaborate fights. “I think this is the best action [Marvel has] ever done,” Schwartz says. “Every punch is meaningful, every fighting style is meaningful, and the story is told visually in such a great way.” Because Shang-Chi is a master at several different types of martial arts, Cretton drew inspiration from various sources, from the elegant, almost ethereal wushu style of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the more kinetic choreography of Jackie Chan’s action-comedies. Supervising stunt coordinator Brad Allan was tapped to help unify Shang-Chi’s various styles and schools of expertise.
For Liu, that meant throwing himself into training: The actor jokes that unlike some of his Marvel cohorts, Shang-Chi’s face is never obscured by a mask, so he had to learn to do as many of his own stunts as possible. Almost as soon as he walked off the stage at Comic-Con in 2019, he began practicing different forms of martial arts and trying to bulk up without losing Shang-Chi’s flexibility and agility. “I want to sit here and tell you that I was pretty good at martial arts before,” Liu admits. “I had maybe worked a few days as a stuntman in Toronto. But really, my martial arts experience was like backflipping in my backyard when I was a teenager and doing parkour with my friends.”
But even with all the high-flying kung fu action, Cretton always wanted to keep Shang-Chi grounded — and make a superhero movie his younger self would’ve loved.
“We wanted to make sure that Shang-Chi was just like any of us,” Cretton explains. “I want to watch this movie and say, ‘Yes, that’s how I feel. I feel out of place sometimes, and I cover it up with humor.’ He’s a kid who is out of his element and a fish out of water here in the U.S., and he’s covering it up with this charisma that I find very relatable.”
This post has been updated to add the Shang-Chi teaser trailer.