When Marvel Studios cast actress Tilda Swinton (a white woman) as The Ancient One (a historically Asian male character) in 2016’s Doctor Strange, the studio immediately came under fire. At the time, director Scott Derrickson attempted to apologize and explain the casting choice away, telling The Daily Beast, “I really felt like I was going to be contributing to a bad stereotype,” elaborating that he initially made the choice to make the character female, but when he envisioned her played by an Asian woman she “was a straight-up Dragon Lady.” The decision still stands out as a sore thumb among the MCU five years later. And now, the head of Marvel Studios is officially acknowledging that things could have been handled better.
“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” Kevin Feige told Men’s Health in a new cover story on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu.“We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
Feige acknowledges that previoous wrong, while still believing there’s a clear path toward better future that prioritizes more respectful on-screen adaptations and representation. In the story, he reveals that the story of Shang-Chi comes from a binder that’s existed since Marvel Studios’ inception filled with “great characters who could make great movies regardless of how famous they were.” And now that a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is basically equivalent to a Disney-owned branch of the U.S. Mint, those are chances the studio is now more comfortable taking.
Feige realized early on that the popularity of Marvel characters didn’t really play a huge role in determining the success of their film adaptation. The studio had two early hits with X-Men, which had been the company’s most popular comic for a long time, and Blade, which most people didn’t even realize was based on a comic.
“That sort of proved early on that it wasn’t about how famous the character was, but about how great their potential was for becoming a cool movie, or series of movies,” he said. “And Shang-Chi has had that potential for so long.”
Feige also added that while Shang-Chi has been on their radar as a story with big cinema potential for a long time, there was limited space to fit in characters needed during the lead-up to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
“Once we finished what we call now The Infinity Saga, we rolled up our sleeves and said, ‘OK, what’s next?’ What are we going to kick off the next?” he said. “The next sort of evolution of the MCU post- our first big saga, and that’s why Shang-Chi was at the very top of that list.”
And because Shang-Chi is a fairly obscure character, the studio can rewrite and modernize his story in ways that would be far less noticeable than updating more widely known stories like those of Captain America, Spider-Man, or The Incredible Hulk. And Feige believes that Liu is the perfect man for that updated story.
“It’s about having a foot in both worlds,” he says. “In the North American world and in China. And Simu fits that quite well.”
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