ACTOR Simu Liu has discussed breaking new ground with his role in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, as he makes history with his portrayal of the first Asian superhero in the franchise.
Liu plays the title role of Shang-Chi, a martial arts master who is forced to confront his past after he is drawn into his grief-stricken father’s Ten Rings’ organisation.
Starring a predominately Asian cast, the film has garnered rave reviews for its exploration of Chinese and Asian-American culture, intricate martial-art fight scenes, and diverse representation.
Liu’s own superhero story began back in 2014 when he tweeted Marvel Studios asking them when they would be making a film about an Asian-American hero.
Seven years later, the 32-year-old is fronting the first superhero film with a predominantly Asian cast.
Although Liu revealed he was a fan of the superhero genre, the plea for an Asian superhero was down to his belief in the power of representation. The Chinese Canadian actor believes every community deserves to see itself reflected as a hero.
“[Everyone] should be able to see themselves as somebody who embodies hope and inspiration, and possibility and I think that it is the epiphany of what
representation can mean to somebody,” he told Eastern Eye during a Zoom call, prior to the film’s release.
It is also a big moment for the film’s director Destin Daniel Cretton – Shang Chi is the first Marvel Studios’ film directed by an Asian director. Cretton said it felt special to be able to introduce a superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that he could identify with.
“That’s something I didn’t have as a kid, so I am very excited to give that to a new generation,” said Cretton, who is of Japanese descent.
In previous interviews, Cretton said he signed up to the project because he wanted “to give [his] son a superhero to look up to”. While shooting the film, his wife (fashion designer Nicola Chapman) gave birth to a second child.
“Now, I have two boys and I honestly had them in my mind throughout the entire writing process,” the 42-year-old revealed to Eastern Eye. “I wanted to make sure that this was the hero that one day they would be able to look up to and inspire to be like.”
Actress Fala Chen, who plays Shang-Chi’s mother Ying-Li, also voiced her pride of starring in the film. Although an established actress in Asia, Shang-Chi marks her Hollywood cinema debut. “It means the world to me to be part of this film,” she told Eastern Eye. “I feel, hopefully, this film will influence not only the current but the whole next generation of kids growing up. Having their own superheroes who look like them is great.”
Growing up in Canada, Liu can rarely recall seeing other Asians on TV or in cinemas.
“I remember I could count on my hands all of the times when I saw Asian people on screen, and it was never in any kind of meaningful capacity,” he said. “So, I always felt like I didn’t quite belong.”
He loved superheroes, such as Iron Man and Spiderman as a child, although noting he preferred superheroes with masks so he could imagine himself in their shoes. “I knew I couldn’t be Superman for obvious reasons,” remarked Liu, who immigrated from China to Canada at the age of five.
Liu recalled searching on the internet for Asian superheroes and feeling disheartened by the results. “I was trying to figure out who they were and wondering when I would get to see them and then feeling disappointed as there weren’t many,” he said.
For children who may feel awkward or isolated from their peers, Liu believes the superhero genre is the perfect story for them.
“The idea that anybody anywhere can come upon extraordinary circumstances and can rise to the occasion and be this superhero who saves the world, that even the most insignificant people, even the dorkiest and most awkward kids somehow embrace the greater destiny,” he said. “I think that was the narrative that really sucked in me and that’s why I devoured superhero comic books, cartoons, and movies.”
The Marvel franchise has become a global phenomenon since the first MCU film Iron Man was released in 2008. As of August 2021, the MCU series was the highest-grossing film franchise with total worldwide box office revenue of $22.93 billion.
Did Cretton feel pressure to live up to Marvel fans expectations? “There is always pressure on a movie,” said Cretton, whose directorial credits include Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. “Marvel fans’ engagement is something very exciting for any filmmaker because that is what we want – audience’s engagement.
“There is really no fanbase that is more engaged with the material than Marvel fans. To be able to see fans pick out the things that we put on the walls, and to find all of the little Easter eggs that we sprinkle throughout the movie has been really the fun part of the process.”
The film’s release was delayed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic. At one point, Liu said he was unsure they would even be able to finish the movie after production was shut down for four months in 2020.
When they finally got the go-ahead to continue, Liu said the cast and crew knew “how important it was that we all do our parts”. “We followed every protocol, we made personal sacrifices and did not go out as much as we could have because we wanted to just protect the bubble and be as safe as we possibly could,” Liu said, adding, “and because of the hard work of hundreds of people, we were able to finish the movie without even a single positive case.”
Being able to showcase it to the world is a “huge relief”, the star added. “To finally be at a place, after so many delays with the release date, introducing it to the world is incredibly exciting.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently in cinemas.