Throughout my childhood, I wanted to play a superhero. I went through that same process many young, Asian, aspiring actors do; I researched what was possible for me. I googled “Asian superheroes” and found little to nothing.
The search leads one to mostly side characters or less-than-impressive villains. Many of them would sport Fu Manchus, or do things with dragons; cool, but awfully typical, and not representative of Asians and Asian Americans that I knew. I wanted to be the Flash, or Nightwing — someone who, at the very least, had a more broad market appeal than simply being a bastion of typified Asian iconography.
We all know what happened with Iron Fist at this point: yes, Danny Rand has always been a white character, but Marvel refused to reimagine the character as being of Asian heritage despite growing movements for diversity in media. And it’s feasible that this lack of cultural awareness helped lead the show to its doom; granted, the show itself was vastly panned for being boring and poorly made, but perhaps incorporating Asian characters and creatives into a show essentially driven by Asian culture would have saved it some of the trouble.
A few months less than two years after Iron Fist debuted on Netflix, and here it is, according to Deadline: a movie franchise about an Asian superhero. The character is Shang-Chi, a martial arts-based hero who eventually joins the Avengers in the comics. Reports indicate that Marvel wants to consult Asian filmmakers to craft the project, much like Black Panther. So yes, this is momentous news and should certainly garner excitement within Asian communities.
But in order for our dreams of proper, impactful representation in these realms to come to fruition, much more is needed. And it’s possible that “Shang-Chi” will do less for these dreams than we anticipate.
First and foremost, “Shang-Chi” indicates we are still working within familiarly stereotypical confines. One of the reasons Black Panther as a character and as a franchise has seen so much success with audiences is his unique novelty; audiences were not familiar with African superheroes, or African culture (which Black Panther’s writers blend into the homogenized supernation of Wakanda). There are no other characters quite like Black Panther; a Black man empowered by Black excellence manifested into the highest level of technology and culture, surrounded by powerful, brilliant women, playing a major part in fighting the same fight as Captain America and Iron Man without an ounce of hand-holding from the writers.
Though Black Panther is not a perfect movie, it creates a perfect entrance through which Black culture can enter the realm of superhero films — and blockbuster motion pictures in general — in part through subverting stereotypes. But an Asian martial arts master? We’ve seen this before.
In fact, the martial arts movie is perhaps the prototypical martial arts movie with which, for better or worse, American audiences most readily associate Asians with. The film tradition most definably traces back to Bruce Lee, and Shang-Chi’s appearance is even modeled after the legendary actor, spawning in 1973 at the height of the martial arts film craze. Where Black Panther as a character subverts archetypal Black film characters in creating a unique hero, Shang-Chi as a character is, problematically, a by-the-numbers callback to the most archetypal Asian film characters — even if they are beloved ones.
This leads to another important point; the creators of the original Shang-Chi characters were, still, white people, as were the creators of Black Panther; as are the people who run Marvel and Disney and the people who ultimately seek to disseminate and profit from this art. While the “Shang-Chi” film is likely to be written, directed by and starring Asian people, it will still be kept within those white American confines. Shang-Chi is a character created by a white American lens with a limited view of Asian cultures, to be machinated by a white American lens and platformed by white American dollars.
White corporate America is an eminent part of our lives, and I would never advocate for people to try and isolate themselves from it. But it’s important to temper our expectations of “Shang-Chi” before the hype machine kicks in at full blast. This movie, if done correctly, will serve as a step forward for Asian Americans in cinema; but not yet the arrival we need.