LOS ANGELES, Sept 2 ― In Hollywood's latest attempt to score in the huge ― but highly restrictive ― Chinese market, an Asian actor has been cast as a leading Marvel superhero for the first time.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, out on Friday, takes the 25th installment in the wildly popular Marvel film series into mythical China, where enormous beasts, mysticism and kung fu collide for a tale about the difficult relationship between a son and his father.
The titular son ― played by relatively unknown Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu ― fled his controlling dad as a teenager, after being sculpted into a deadly assassin, and washes up in the United States.
There he lives anonymously, palling around with the underachieving Katy, played by Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), until his father ― Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung ― sends a sinister gang to chase him home.
Shang-Chi locates itself firmly in the record-grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe series of movies, with an amusing reprisal of Ben Kingsley's washed-up actor Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3.
Its value for Marvel Studios, and owner Disney, however, was expected to be as a vehicle for expanding into the Chinese market.
“It's very moving because it's been a long time coming to have an Asian superhero, and a movie that celebrates not only our culture but our humanity,” Asian-American actress Jodi Long told AFP at the film's world premiere in Los Angeles.
“And I think that's really important in this time of Covid and xenophobia.”
Yet despite a predominantly Asian cast, and huge swathes of dialogue in Mandarin ― both predicted to be popular among China's cinemagoers ― success for Shang-Chi is far from guaranteed.
Like the previous Marvel film Black Widow, the film still doesn't have a release date in China, where movie theaters reopening this summer are stocked largely with domestic, patriotic features.
As well as protecting Chinese filmmaking, this could reflect growing discontent with Disney-owned Marvel, whose next big superhero outing Eternals is being directed by Beijing-born Chloe Zhao.
Zhao won two Oscars including an historic best director statuette this year for Nomadland, but her success has been censored in China after a nationalist backlash over years-old interviews in which she appeared to criticise her country of birth.
Excitement in China for Shang-Chi also appears to be lukewarm among some social media users.
“This movie will only deepen the world's stereotype of us,” wrote one user on Weibo, China's Twitter-like messaging service.
“Marvel may not want to insult China, but it is a fact that in terms of casting, it has to cater to the American social aesthetic of humiliating China.”
Another user called it “a poor attempt to mint money from Chinese audiences.”
On popular review site Duoban ― similar to Rotten Tomatoes ― one user bemoaned the notion of an Americanised Chinese man returning to his homeland to do battle with his traditionally minded father.
“Marvel do you really want to enter China with such a plot?” the user wrote.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, in a recent interview with a Chinese film journalist, sought to tamp down that criticism, insisting the narrative is actually one of Shang-Chi returning to his roots.
“That sense of running away... is presented as one of his flaws,” he said, according to Variety.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton told AFP that filmmakers had worked hard to overcome “some very clear stereotypes that were created in life and society, and that were also part of the original comics.”
“So for me the most important thing to get right in this movie were the characters ― that they are relatable, that they are multi-dimensional, whether they are the hero Shang-Chi or whether they are the quote-unquote villain.” ― ETX Studio