‘Shang-Chi’ Director Destin Daniel Cretton on Battling Stereotypes and the ‘Exciting’ Challenge of Casting the Lead Role

·13-min read

When director Destin Daniel Cretton took his first meeting with Marvel Studios roughly two and a half years ago to discuss “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” he never actually expected to be handed the reins of the latest film in the biggest movie franchise in cinema history. Up to that point, Cretton had directed a series of small-scale independent dramas — “Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle” — that were exceptional in the all-inclusive empathy the filmmaker deployed for all of his characters. As the child of a Japanese-American mother and a white father who grew up in a small town on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Cretton had made it his mission to tell stories that allowed for people who hadn’t had much time in the spotlight to step beyond snap judgments and show the fullness of who they are.

That’s why Cretton met with Marvel: He wanted to discuss how the studio was planning to address the problematic comic book origins of the Shang-Chi character, who debuted amid the 1970s kung fu craze that glorified Asian martial arts without much bothering to center Asian people beyond an ability to kick and punch. Shang-Chi was written as the son of the racist stereotype Dr. Fu Manchu; later, Marvel re-named the character as “the Mandarin” without bothering to get rid of the pernicious Orientalist tropes that defined him.

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“I think it’s hard to imagine who the Mandarin is — this mysterious, really evil Asian dude somewhere out there — and not have some type of stereotype in your brain,” Cretton says.

At the time, Cretton had no notion that he would actually direct “Shang-Chi,” but his interest in bringing the same empathy from his previous work into the first modern superhero movie with a predominantly Asian cast landed him the job anyway. He now steps into a fellowship of indie-bred filmmakers — Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, Cate Shortland — who’ve found themselves suddenly steeped within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Cretton, working with Chinese-American screenwriter David Callaham (“Mortal Kombat”), filled out the world of “Shang-Chi” with a storytelling canvas that stretched from modern fight clubs in Macau to ancient Chinese mythology. Cretton cast Hong Kong cinema legends Tony Leung (“Hero”) and Michelle Yeoh (“Crazy Rich Asians”) alongside rising star Awkwafina and, as Shang-Chi, Simu Liu, from the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” who had no previous experience starring in a feature film.

In an interview with Variety, Cretton discussed the challenges of finding his cast, how the character of the Mandarin evolved in the film, and what sign he thinks Marvel Studios should hang on its walls.

Tony Leung in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” - Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Tony Leung in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” - Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

At Comic-Con in 2019, Kevin Feige introduced Tony Leung’s character as “the Mandarin,” but at some point after that, he was renamed Wenwu, and I think it’s fair to say the movie is dismissive of the whole idea of “the Mandarin” as a trope. How did that evolution happen?

A lot of that evolution did happen after Tony came on board. When I was talking to Tony about this character, he didn’t know who the Mandarin is and didn’t care. We weren’t using the name Wenwu, but we’re definitely not talking about “the Mandarin.” There were elements of the Mandarin, of that character, that remained, but we were talking about a dad who experienced a major loss in his life and has spiraled into despair and psychosis, and trying to desperately get back the thing that he lost. That was the character we’re talking about.

There was a point when it was just weird in the writing process avoiding that name, because nobody would call him that. It just never felt right for someone to say, “Oh yes, Mr. Mandarin.” And so we knew we had to give him a name. Even in the script, he would be called “the Mandarin,” but when people would talk about him to his face, it was Wenwu, which was the name that we gave him. That was the name that Tony clung to, and eventually it found its way into that scene where Tony explains that Mandarin is one of his many names, but that his one true love of his life was the only one who called him by his actual name.

You, David Callaham, and Simu Liu have all said that you helped steer this movie away from other harmful Asian stereotypes. What specifically did you do?

We’re obviously working within the context of multiple genres — the martial arts genre, the superhero genre. But from a character standpoint, I feel like the process of breaking stereotypes is really just trying to humanize the characters as much as possible, give them as many sides as we could, make sure that each character had something clearly human about them that they are dealing with, that we can all connect to, whether you are of a similar ethnic background or not. To me, that is when stereotypes are broken, when you see yourself in a character.

Our biggest, I guess, hurdle to tackle was Wenwu, but it also was the first hurdle we had to tackle, because we had the convince an actor like Tony to play Wenwu. The only way to do that would be to pitch him a character that was breaking those stereotypes by just being a person that people can relate to. We tried to do that for every one of the characters in our movie. I also think that there is a way to break stereotypes just through casting. One big reason why we chose the people that we chose was because they were playing these characters differently, and they weren’t playing the cliché version of them or the expected version of them. So these are all little attempts of breaking stereotypes, but we’re also just like trying to give people something different that they haven’t seen in these characters before.

How does it feel to be able to make a movie about the experience of being an Asian immigrant in the United States and being an Asian person in the world in a way that you hadn’t had an opportunity to in your career until now?

I found myself to be quite emotional at various points, just just being on set, looking around and seeing all these faces that I’ve never really seen collectively on screen before, particularly in Western cinema. These were characters who were dressing like me, talking like me, listening to music that my friends listen to. That was just something that I never experienced as a filmmaker before. Also, specifically in the context of a superhero movie, we’re able to tell the immigrant story through an emotional lens that I think anybody can relate to. I love that Shang-Chi’s journey as a superhero who is out of place and living in another country — and having to learn how to fit in because he’s basically an undercover assassin — does reflect the emotions that we feel when our parents or grandparents have immigrated from another country. We are trying to be American, but we also have deep ties to the country that we came from. That feeling of in-between-ness is something that I think is singular to the immigrant experience, but I think when people watch this movie, I’d be surprised if it’s something that anybody can’t relate to in some way or another.

The film opens with a lovely extended prologue that is entirely in Mandarin, with subtitles, which is not something that one is accustomed to seeing in a superhero movie, let alone a giant tentpole studio film. Did you get any pushback on on that decision?

Surprisingly, no. At Marvel, I feel like they should put up a big poster up on their wall that just says, “Try it” — that seems to be what the mantra is there when there is a risk-taking idea. There may be other studios that before we even get a chance to put it in front of an audience, they’d say, “No, we can’t do that.” But they let us put it in front of an audience, and from the very beginning, audiences didn’t only not complain about it, they actually talked about it as a positive, as like a really exciting way to enter into this world.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, crew camera operator, and Simu Liu on the set of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” - Credit: Jasin Boland / Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, crew camera operator, and Simu Liu on the set of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” - Credit: Jasin Boland / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Jasin Boland / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

I don’t need to tell you this, but Hollywood has never really made the space for Asian male actors to get the kinds of leading roles that actors like Chadwick Boseman or Brie Larson had before they joined the MCU. And the list of actors who are roughly the right age for Shang-Chi is just so short: John Cho, Henry Golding, Steven Yeun, maybe? What kind of challenge did that present for you?

Yeah, it’s hard. I mean, casting was not easy in this movie because there wasn’t just a list of incredible actors that we could choose from. We also knew it was equally as important to choose an actor who wasn’t just an Asian American, but was Chinese American, and we wanted an actor who could convincingly speak Mandarin and be caught in between those two cultures. That list just got way smaller with those attributes. I kept telling myself, that’s what makes this exciting. Like, this is so hard, but that’s what makes this exciting, because our movie will introduce new people to this industry, and maybe the next movie will have a couple of choices that they can choose from, instead of just having to cast a wide net. I also hope that a movie like this will, whether they were in our movie or not, will elevate some other talents to go for it and try. Because we need more talent from this ethnic representation for sure.

What did you get back from agencies when you sent them that list of requirements?

The options are so small that even when the agencies know what is required for this character, it doesn’t stop them from sending 20 people who clearly did not meet the requirements of this character.

I’m realizing that no one on that list of Asian actors that I just threw out there would qualify, because none of them are Chinese Americans.

Yeah, that was one problem for sure. I’m definitely not somebody who thinks that you cannot, as an actor, play a role that is not your ethnicity. But specifically for this role, we needed someone who could convincingly speak two languages. Simu happens to be fluent in both, and can speak Mandarin Chinese very well. And that was a huge plus for us, combined with the emotional element of him fully understanding what it’s like to be caught in between two cultures.

I could definitely see your empathic approach to storytelling throughout the movie, but there’s an expansive visual scope to this movie, especially in the third act, that is unlike anything you’ve done before. How did you approach that aspect of it?

As a filmmaker, I don’t want to do a Marvel movie and not get to explore a bunch of new things I’ve never done before. So having a kind of bonkers third act was really exciting to me, and not only from being able to explore pushing things to that level. It was really important for me to make sure that Shang-Chi didn’t end this movie as just a master of kung fu. We wanted Shang-Chi and the movie to reach a clearly Marvel level by the end. That was something that was philosophically a part of my pitch from the very beginning: To start grounded and intimate, but by the end, we don’t want our first Asian superhero to just be able to kick and punch. We want him to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with everybody else in the MCU.

So what did you learn about filmmaking at the scale that you didn’t know beforehand?

It was like being in film school every day. I learned so much. I would say that maybe the biggest thing that I learned is that the core of every aspect of doing a movie of this size still comes down to simple narrative storytelling. I didn’t really realize how involved I would be in every aspect of this. I think there’s an assumption by a lot of people outside of the Marvel world that, like, Marvel knows what they’re doing with these things, and they get me just to come in and do, like, a dramatic scene, and then they have people that do everything else. And that was so far from the case. I quickly realized that storytelling needed to happen in every action sequence, in every giant creature battle — nothing just happened on its own if I just let it go. And to be able to wrangle all of that and keep it cohesive and thematically connected to the emotional through lines of these characters was definitely something I would’ve just jumped into way earlier.

But the whole process was really fun. I happen to be working with department heads who have not only been doing this for ages and have so much wisdom, but somehow they also are ego-less. I mean, of course everyone has enough ego to share what their ideas are, but there was no there was no competition among teammates. There was an openness. Every question was accepted and gladly explained. It was a really positive place to work.

Do you know what you’re making next? Do you think you’d work more with Marvel?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, there’s a number of other things that I have that I would like to jump into. But I would also very much like to do something else with Marvel. I had a very positive time.

You’ve said that prior to getting “Shang-Chi,” directing a giant Marvel movie just seemed like something you’d never want to do. Now that you’ve been through that process, is working films at this scale something you’d like to continue?

I have no idea. I still have no strategy for myself, for my future career, except to choose the next one carefully and choose a project that I feel like has the potential to be personally fulfilling. If by some chance, because of a pandemic or whatever new circumstances, I end up working on it for another two years, I want to look back and not feel like I wasted my time. Even if the movie doesn’t ever see the light of day and the world ends before I finish it, I want to make sure that I’m working on something that is worth my time.

Regardless of what anybody thinks of this movie, it was completely worth my time. I enjoyed every second I had meeting childhood legends that meant so much to me — just seeing their faces on the screen, playing different characters, being cocky, being strong, being handsome and wise and funny and weird. To be able to be on set with legends and new performers and they’re all somewhat connected to how I look, or what my cultural background is, was such a special experience for me. That’s what I’m chasing. Whatever I’m going to do next, I’m chasing another experience that can fulfill me or can make me a little better of a person, somehow.

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