This segment was rebroadcast on Dec. 21, 2021. Click here for that audio.
The world will soon meet a new superhero — one actor Simu Liu spent years yearning to play.
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Liu stars as the hero, the son of the head of a mystical terrorist organization centered in China called the Ten Rings.
Trained by his father to be an assassin, Shang-Chi turns his back on the expectations his father set before him and attempts to make a new life for himself before understanding his true purpose.
Ahead of the film opening in theaters this week, Liu’s face is plastered on billboards all around major cities like Los Angeles. The actor says he dreamed about starring in a film like this when he began his career eight years ago but seeing his likeness all over town induces anxiety — especially the massive billboard on Sunset Boulevard.
“I think I'm really aware of just how few faces I've seen over my life that have looked like me on movie posters,” he says. “Representation, of course, is important and meaningful. I just can't get used to it.”
Back in 2014, Liu tweeted Marvel and asked when the MCU will include an Asian American superhero. Marvel studio executives didn’t read the tweet he sent out to around 27 followers, he says, but it marked Liu vocalizing his dreams as an actor.
Liu encourages people to speak their ambitions aloud and give themselves permission to chase dreams.
“I feel like so often we have these dreams and ambitions within us and we kill them before we ever get to say them out loud because we judge them,” he says. “But I do feel like everyone has something within them that they've always wanted to try and pursue.”
"Shang-Chi” includes subtle but powerful messages about identity and the choices people make to assimilate. The hero is forced to come to terms with his heritage and through that, a superhero is born.
Growing up, Liu says he wanted to “hide his Asianness” at times like when kids made fun of his “smelly” lunch. Microaggressions and more overt racism made him feel inferior and like he didn’t belong.
When he got involved with the arts, Liu started talking more about representation and realized the way the media furthers stereotypes about Asian people. Seeing these depictions as a kid impacted his self-worth and confidence, he says.
“When I used to turn on the TV when I was little, the Asian characters that I saw reflected back at me were very stereotyped,” he says. “They were characters created through a predominantly white gaze, and that meant that oftentimes they were caricatures.”
The original “Shang-Chi” comics contain a number of stereotypes, including the hero’s father, Fu Manchu.
When Liu first joined the project, he inquired about how the film would handle the stereotypes in the comics. Director Destin Daniel Cretton explained the plan to build a new story and father figure around what holds up in the comics, Liu says.
Something as simple as seeing an Asian American man play a lead role in a film like “Shang-Chi” allows society to see Asian men as powerful, desirable and an aspiration of possibility.
Liu never saw himself as a desirable person growing up. And Asian women face a series of connected problems such as hypersexualization and fetishization, he says.
“On the surface, it might seem like they're opposite problems [but] they are really rooted in the same thing,” he says, “which is that our narratives have not been under our control.”
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Under a recent Instagram caption about his training, Liu wrote that “Asian actors don't just do kung fu; but Shang-Chi does. It's one of the many things that flesh out his personality, but it's easily the most challenging from a physical perspective.”
The martial arts stereotype stems from when Bruce Lee’s action scenes captivated Western audiences in the 1970s. Lee empowered Asian men — but his work also unintentionally created an enduring stereotype that all Asian men know martial arts, Liu says.
When he first started as an actor, Liu recalls auditioning for countless characters who were martial artists.
“As much as I think [‘Shang-Chi’] is an incredibly empowering movie for Asian people and Asian Americans everywhere,” he says, “I also hope that the idea that Asians and martial arts are always linked together will eventually be challenged and overthrown.”
Now that he’s gone from tweeting at Marvel as a fan to joining the MCU, Liu says he can sense he’s in a period of transformation. The constant shifts bring a sense of unpreparedness for the coming chapters in his life — but that’s just one aspect of manifesting his dreams.
“I am taking the day at a time,” he says. “I'm keeping mindful and staying very, very in touch with feelings of gratitude and joy and excitement.”
This segment aired on September 1, 2021.