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Simu Liu was not always excited to play Shang-Chi, Marvel's Master of Kung Fu. These days, Liu is beginning to make the promotional rounds on his first Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure as the character, stepping up to be the megafranchise's first Asian lead at a time when Asian and Asian American representation is arguably more important than it's ever been.
But in a new interview, the star explained why it wasn't always that way.
Speaking to Men's Health about his journey to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, both in terms of his emotional understanding of it and his physical preparation, Liu explained that back when the film was first announced as an upcoming Marvel Studios property, he immediately dove into research mode to see if the role could be right for him. What he found was the character's roots in 1970s exploitation storytelling as an outgrowth of the American kung fu movie craze. At first, even for a longtime superhero fan like Liu, it didn't seem like a good fit.
“I was like, how many opportunities do we have for Asian superheroes, and this one guy is, like, just a kung fu master? It just felt kind of reductive and, you know, not true to life and not anything that I could relate to," Liu said.
Fortunately for Liu, Marvel Studios seemed to have other ideas for their big-screen reinvention of the character. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi is still a kung fu master, and he's still the son of a villain (the MCU's "real" version of The Mandarin, in this case) who is eventually forced to confront his past, but director Destin Daniel Cretton and producer Kevin Feige also wanted to emphasize the Asian American experience on the big-screen.
“We wanted to show people a character who is distinctly Asian American right off the bat,” Cretton said. “Before you even know anything about his past, his upbringing, his martial-arts skills, we wanted people to know that this is an Asian American.”
That meant that Cretton, Liu, and the rest of the Shang-Chi cast were able to put a lot of personality into the film based on their own experience, including one memorable moment when the production hurriedly printed out custom labels to get a version of boba tea added to the film. It's also why the film's trailer features quite a bit of Shang-Chi's life outside of the kung fu fury.
“It’s about having a foot in both worlds,” Feige said, “in the North American world and in China. And Simu fits that quite well.”
But of course, kung fu is still a key part of Shang-Chi's story, and that meant Liu went deep into the Marvel superhero training machine to master fight choreography, hone his flexibility, and get into kung fu master shape after years of being "a self-taught guy who likes to do flips in his backyard." Still, even though he has the fighting skills down now, and considers kung fu, "objectively, really cool," Liu isn't out to make himself into a martial arts star. Outside of his Marvel work, he's got other big plans.
“On the shoulders of all that’s come before me, with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and Jet Li, to finally be in an opportunity where we can explore uncharted territory for Asian faces, to then stay in the martial-arts realm, it wouldn’t be a good move,” he says. “I think you’ll see me in something that’s not distinctly Asian. And pretty soon you’re going to start seeing my name pop up in projects I’m not acting in.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters September 3.