Shang-Chi was a fairly obscure character created by Marvel Comics in the 1970s. When the Marvel creative team, led by producers Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz, delved into the over 40-year-old comics, they were both inspired and challenged. “While there’s incredible artwork and amazing action—things you’d expect from Marvel in the 1970s—Shang-Chi was also in need of a significant update,” says producer Jonathan Schwartz. “In 1973, Shang-Chi was brought to life by big fans of Kung Fu cinema who put the character at the center of a spy-espionage story, which was very much in vogue after the release earlier that year of the martial arts film ‘Enter the Dragon.’ Looking at it today, over 40 years later, and looking at how stories are told, Shang-Chi didn’t really feel right for modern audiences. We had to think about how we wanted that voice to be heard in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.”
In this origin story, the modern-day, re-imagined Shang-Chi has a close familial connection to the Ten Rings organization. The shadowy Ten Rings organization has been an underlying element of the MCU since 2008, when it surfaced to kidnap Tony Stark in the first “Iron Man” film. The person behind the Ten Rings organization was deceptively introduced in Marvel Studios’ 2013 film release, “Iron Man 3,” in the form of Iron Man’s archenemy The Mandarin, who had first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1964, a decade before Shang-Chi. In the film it was revealed that the person purporting to be the Mandarin was actually an actor named Trevor Slattery, played by Ben Kingsley, who was hired by the leader of the Ten Rings to impersonate him and promulgate his agenda. “We talked about when we do bring the person behind the Ten Rings organization to the screen, we wanted to do it when we felt we could do the character justice and really showcase the complexity of the character,” says producer Kevin Feige, “and that’s what fun about the MCU at this stage.
Finding a modern, cinematic identity for Shang-Chi was a fascinating and complex journey for the filmmakers. “The character of Shang-Chi from the comics didn’t feel like he would be directly relatable to either an Asian American audience or a broader audience, because he was so exoticized,” notes producer Jonathan Schwartz. “The character spoke mostly in wise Zen Koans, and it didn’t quite feel right. We wanted to make him feel more like a modern Asian character, and more like someone who inhabited the world that we see and know around us.” With that in mind, the creative team explored deeply who Shang-Chi could be, beyond his unofficial moniker, “the master of Kung Fu.” “Shaun is just a guy who’s trying to figure himself out in the world,” explains Cretton. “Hence, the actor we needed to find had to have the ability to learn incredible fighting skills, but had to also be highly relatable, who could compellingly go on this journey of self-discovery.”
The search was on, and eventually led to newcomer Simu Liu, the young actor who would come to be Shang-Chi. Liu’s path to becoming an actor began with an accounting job after college. When Liu later found himself unemployed, he applied as a movie extra on a whim. “That set everything else off and was the catalyst of this whole new life. From the moment that I stepped on a set for the first time, I knew that there was nothing else that I could do that would make me as happy or as fulfilled.” The film was “Pacific Rim,” shooting in Toronto and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Liu recalls, “From that point on, I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going do it, but I’m going find a way to get there.’ From every music video, every student film casting call, I assembled enough of a resume to get my first agent and from there, I started auditioning.” Liu eventually scored a lead on Canadian TV comedy “Kim’s Convenience,” but when the role of Shang-Chi came up, he never thought he would be in the running. “I didn’t know that I would get to play him,” says Liu, “but I was so encouraged by the fact that somebody would get to take up the mantle and would get to represent us in that way.”
However, he did get an initial audition and was called back. “After meeting Destin in the callback, I came to understand something not only about Shang-Chi but about all Marvel heroes,” says Liu. “There is an element of normalness to them. Deep down, they aren’t all six-foot-five Greek gods. They’re flawed. They’re ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances who make heroic decisions.”
So, Liu crafted the rest of his choices during callbacks, and an eventual screen test, with that in mind. Jonathan Schwartz admits that he and the other producers “kept going back to Simu’s read, as we auditioned more actors, realizing that there was just something there. We eventually flew him out to New York City in July 2019 for a screen test opposite Awkwafina, who had already been cast, and Simu just blew everyone else away.”
A few days later, Liu’s phone rang and “all of a sudden my life changed forever.” When a call came in from Burbank, California as an unknown number, Liu knew it was Kevin Feige. “In my heart, I knew. I picked up the phone and heard his voice,” recalls Liu. “His voice is so recognizable. Kevin said, ‘I’m here with [Casting Director] Sarah Finn and Destin, and we want to tell you something.’ Then I heard Destin’s voice in the back, ‘We want you to be Shang-Chi.’”
When Liu was given the opportunity to read the script, he was overwhelmed. “Destin did such a beautiful job of describing the story to me before I read it, then when I finally read it, I cried,” confesses Liu. “I cried because there is such an intimate relationship between Shang-Chi and the characters and his family. I realized that the movie is, at the end of the day, about family. I cried because we see an Asian superhero doing superhero things and saving the world. It was such a profound moment for me as a fan, as an actor, as an Asian person.”
Simu continued with four months of physical pre-training, then another month in Sydney, Australia, which is where the shoot would take place. Despite the training, Cretton reassured Liu that he wasn’t cast because he could be trained to perform the martial arts required. “Early on, Simu and I agreed that the access point to this character, what would really allow the audience to connect with Shaun is what he’s going through,” says Cretton. “Simu took the fighting aspect of this character seriously, he worked solidly for five months, but all the while understanding that it wasn’t because of his martial arts that he was here, but because of what he had created for this character.”
The film’s importance for Asian representation was a high point for Liu. “This is the first Asian American superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” comments Liu. “That’s an important distinction, an important milestone for us. We’ve waited a long time for a moment like this, to see ourselves portrayed in this way on screen. For many of us whose parents immigrated, we never really saw ourselves on screen meaningfully. We saw caricatures, stereotypes and erasure in a way. I’m encouraged by what’s been happening over the last two years, and I think ‘ShangChi’ will be an important part of that conversation.”
He adds, “I think this film will go a long way in normalizing Asian faces on screen outside of Asia, and recognizing that diaspora Asians have our own distinct identity that belongs both to the East and to the West, but at the same time to neither. In that way, I feel we are pioneering those voices and those stories. I feel very proud and honoured to be a part of that.
Read our review of Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings HERE