Marvel Comics was never a company willing to leave cash on the table. After the blaxploitation market exploded in the wake of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft in 1971, the publisher went to work creating their own P.I. hero for hire, Power Man Luke Cage. A few years later, when Bruce Lee became an American household name with Enter the Dragon, there was a new opportunity to take advantage of a growing fanbase. Shang-Chi first appeared in the December 1973 issue of Special Marvel Edition #15, just four months after the film’s release.
Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi is a master of wushu combat, skilled in the weaponry of nunchaku, jian, and firearms. The latter being an instrument his cinematic inspiration greatly detested. He has no use for costumes or capes, but eventually, he would find himself fighting alongside Captain America and the rest of The Avengers. The character became so popular that after three issues the title of the comic book was rebranded The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu.
Those early issues are filled with plenty of moments that range from cringe-worthy to straight up racism. The stories were birthed from the minds of creators with no real understanding of the culture they were mining. Similar to characters like Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Rocket Racer (um, yeah, that guy), Shang-Chi would take decades to develop beyond caricature. However, where other characters found their voice thanks to creative people of color, no Asian-American writers or artists have ever contributed to Shang-Chi’s narrative.
Until now. As reported by Deadline, Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton was recently hired to helm a Shang-Chi feature for Marvel Studios. He is joining Chinese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham on the project, and together they will revitalize the character for a modern audience. The recent success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel proved that championing representation does not only create new diverse avenues for storytelling, but it also satiates a massive audience that has been denied since the creation of the art form.
In some respects, this is the same maneuver the comic book division attempted back in the ’70s, but by including the appropriate points of view this time around, future generations will hopefully not look back and recoil. For that hopeful event to occur, Shang-Chi’s origins will need a massive overhaul. Originally constructed from the bones of Sax Rohmer‘s horrific Fu Manchu novel series, Shang-Chi was said to be the son of the villainous foreign invader. His mother was a white American hand selected by Fu Manchu to yield a superior genetic specimen. Trained to be the ultimate fighter, Shang-Chi rejected his father’s ways when he learned that dear old dad was not a benevolent businessman as he had been told but a diabolical mastermind hellbent on global domination.
Marvel Comics inevitably and thankfully lost the rights to Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character. Since then, writers have attempted to avoid mention of his father’s name or refer to him only in oblique terms. In 2012, writer Ed Brubaker (the guy who gifted us The Winter Soldier) did his best to rectify Shang-Chi’s questionable beginnings by unveiling in the pages of Secret Avengers that the Fu Manchu moniker was only an alias and that his true identity was that of an ancient immortal Chinese sorcerer named Zheng Zu. The problem being there that Zu was no better representation of the racist cliche.
There is no reason a Shang-Chi film could not be a kickass martial arts movie and still offer another deep breath of fresh air to the more than 10-year-old franchise as Black Panther did. Cretton and Callaham are here to steer the film away from its monotonous history and deliver a property free from simple Kung-Fu fetishization. Bruce Lee was more than just a man who could throw a punch. Shang-Chi should be too. Embrace the philosophy as well as the action.