'Shang-Chi' is the Ultimate Relatable Superhero for Director Destin Daniel Cretton [Interview]

Destin Daniel Cretton didn’t expect to be helming a Marvel movie, let alone one with this much riding on it. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu as the titular superhero, who will make his debut as Marvel’s first solo Asian superhero — something that comes after 24 films and 13 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a movie that couldn’t come sooner, but for Cretton, it came at the absolute perfect time.

“For me, I just really connect with Shang-Chi,” Cretton told me over Zoom in an interview ahead of the release of Shang-Chi. “And that journey of self-discovery is something that I find myself in currently in the state of the world that we’re in, and in a lot of the things that we’ve all gone through, the ups and downs we’ve gone through over the past couple of years.”

That relatability is what drew Cretton to the project, but the character’s martial arts skills is what makes him a superhero. And Cretton, who comes from the indie world with acclaimed films like Short Term 12, made sure to bring the big guns to help him make a martial arts action flick out of Shang-Chi. Hong Kong actor and international superstar Tony Leung played the film’s “villain” and Shang-Chi’s estranged father, Wenwu. Renowned martial arts choreographer Brad Allan, a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, was the stunt coordinator. And the film is lensed by William Pope, who did cinematography for The Matrix and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. That all comes together for a film that Cretton hopes not only speaks to the Asian and Asian-American experience, but is super cool to watch, too.

I chatted with Cretton about Shang-Chi, the Asian-American experience, and how he separated the film from the cultural stereotypes that the characters were rooted in.

During the press conference for Shang-Chi, you said what drew you to the film was Shang-Chi’s journey of self-discovery. Would you distinguish this story from a typical superhero origin story, and is it important for you to make this distinction?

For me, I just really connect with Shang-Chi. And that journey of self-discovery is something that I find myself in currently in the state of the world that we’re in, and in a lot of the things that we’ve all gone through, the ups and downs we’ve gone through over the past couple of years. I find myself looking into my past and trying to understand how I can use this pain or these struggles and flip them around and turn them into something positive that I can move forward with optimism. And to me, that’s the journey that Shang-Chi is on and I find it extremely relatable and I find it much more relatable than if he was just magically hit by an asteroid and got his super powers that way.

Obviously there’s a lot of pressure from all sides while you were making Shang-Chi. It’s important culturally, it’s important franchise-wise as one of the first big films of the MCU’s Phase Four, and it’s important as a martial arts-heavy film. Were there any pitfalls that you specifically wanted to avoid in making this movie?

I think as Asians and Asian-Americans in cinema, there have been a lot of stereotypes that have been introduced in the past and continually revisited over the course of film history and we wanted to try to break a lot of those stereotypes. We wanted to show our characters in ways that we have not seen before and have characters with Asian backgrounds and Chinese backgrounds who have personalities unlike we have typically seen in movies before, who act like my friends and my family, and listen to the same type of music that I do, and dress like us.

And these are all ways that we were just trying to humanize every one of our characters, including our villain — “villain” — who was potentially one of the biggest stereotypes that we were trying to work against. And hiring an actor like Tony Leung to play Wenwu was one of the biggest moments of understanding what we were trying to do in this movie. Because as soon as Tony came on, we knew the type of movie we were making and the type of character that we had to create in order to make that character worthy of an actor like Tony.

Was it ever troubling because so many of these characters are rooted in stereotypes from when they were created — those Fu Manchu stereotypes — or did that just give you so much creative freedom to do as you wished with these characters and divorce them completely from the troubling origins from which they came?

I think it’s very empowering to take things that were not done correctly to represent our community and take that and flip it and make it something that we can be proud of. I found that process creatively to be very fulfilling and I hope that when people watch this movie, regardless of what your cultural background is, I hope that you see the love and respect that we poured into each of these characters so that they are relatable to anybody.

So speaking of Tony Leung, he is an international superstar, but one that maybe less known Stateside. I mean, that’s on them, of course, yet you shaped the majority of your film around him and give him a lot of heavy-lifting emotionally, but also narratively. I even argue that he’s the co-lead of this movie in a lot of ways.

Sure.

Were there any reservations to go as hard on Tony Leung as you did or were you just like, “I have Tony Leung in my movie. I’m going to cast him as that romantic hero that he’s been known to play so many times”?

I mean, the truth, we weren’t purposely creating more scenes just because we had Tony, but this movie was always going to be a movie about a very complicated relationship between a father and a son and watching characters who have had a very tragic experience shatter their family apart and watching how each character of this family deals with that pain differently, runs away from it differently, puts up walls, puts back on rings and tries to get revenge, and then watch them slowly learn how to look back at these painful memories and redefine them in a way that they can move forward in their life.

With that in mind, it really only made sense to tell the story of Wenwu with a lot of facets, so we can really understand who he is and why he is making the decisions that we probably wouldn’t make on our own.

You embed this film in so many pieces of the Asian-American experience: taking off shoes before going inside, the “ABC” line, karaoke. Do you think that the theme of family that this film is so heavily centered on is also something that’s very much part of not only the Asian-American experience, but the Asian experience?

Yeah. I mean, my great-grandparents moved to Hawaii from Okinawa in Japan, and they moved there to work in the sugar cane plantations. Our co-writer, Dave Callaham, is Chinese-American so we have different cultural backgrounds, but when we talk about our family unit and the emphasis on respect, the emphasis on the dedication to that family unit, it was a very shared experience and the generational respect and understanding. That I’m only sitting in this chair because of the choices that my grandparents made and my great-grandparents made. And telling that story, I think, was universal for Dave and I to share.

And I do think it’s universal even beyond Asian culture. I think that is something that makes this movie relatable to anybody who is in a family. We all know that dynamic when you love somebody so deeply, and you also know that there is pain and conflict that sometimes it’s really hard to work around, but that love is always there.

So the late Brad Allan was the supervising stunt coordinator for this film and received a lovely tribute in the credits. Can you speak about how much Allan brought to the film, especially as a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, famously?

When I first met with Brad Allan, he came into the office in LA to talk about this movie and I just instantly saw the deep respect he held for Chinese martial arts, for the history of kung fu and cinema, and how much he wanted to get it right in this movie. He really held the weight of that pressure from the very beginning and went above and beyond with hiring the right choreographers from mainland China, from Hong Kong, to create these really beautiful and funny sequences that are so surprising, and how much story is being told through the choreography. It was really such a joy and a learning experience to watch him create these sequences that were very integral and woven into the fabric of the character development that we were sending our characters on in this journey.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on September 3, 2021.

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