Boris Karloff in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932).
Culture

Marvel wants to do an Asian superhero movie, but it has to reckon with his racist past

Dec 10, 2018

An Asian superhero is finally going to kick some ass in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The latest news that Marvel Studios is fast-tracking a film centered on Shang-Chi, a Bruce Lee-inspired kung fu master, comes on the heels of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians blowing up at the box office.

It also comes as China has grown to become Marvel’s No. 1 overseas market.

But before the studio can make cinematic history with Shang-Chi, it must reckon with the character’s origin story—and tackle an Asian supervillain first.

That’s because in the old comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu.

Yes, that Fu Manchu, the supervillain with squinty eyes and a tentacle-like mustache whose name is synonymous with racism, orientalism, and pretty awful facial hair.

A poster for “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu” (1929).
A poster for “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu” (1929). / Photo: Paramount Pictures

The fictional character was created by an English novelist in the early 20th century against the backdrop of yellow peril, a racist ideology that casts Asians as real-life villains in the Western world.

In fact, this is how the novelist, Sax Rohmer, described Fu Manchu:

“Imagine a person tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan...invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race...imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man.”

It’s no wonder that Chinese commentators are already up in arms, questioning whether Marvel’s move is a “suicidal” one.

Other online comments also point out how Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu’s backstory mirrors a white savior narrative.

The kung fu warrior was raised by an evil Asian overlord to become an assassin, only to be “shown the way” by white people.

No longer evil, Shang-Chi returned to kill his father for the greater good.

In the old comics, Shang-Chi turns on his father, Fu Manchu.
In the old comics, Shang-Chi turns on his father, Fu Manchu. / Photo: Marvel Comics

Putting the original Fu Manchu on the big screen in this day and age would be unimaginable without provoking outcry. Marvel would either have to scrub him out or reinvent the character.

And Hollywood is no stranger to altering scripts that could “hurt the feelings of Chinese people,” to cite a common refrain in Chinese state media.

This is especially the case when Chinese money increasingly helps finance big productions, including Marvel’s Venom, which has already grossed more in China than in the United States and Canada combined.

Marvel had experience with this when it made Doctor Strange (2016).

In the original comics, Doctor Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, is a Tibetan sorcerer who is said to be 500 years old.

Instead of casting an Asian or Tibetan actor to play the role, the movie reinvented the character and gave it to Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” (2016).
Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” (2016). / Photo: Disney/Marvel Studios

Director Scott Derrickson said he didn’t want to reinforce “a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like,” but added that the film couldn’t afford to weigh in on Tibet and risk getting banned by one of the biggest markets in the world. (He later backtracked on his comments.)

Fu Manchu’s reinvention could prove to be much more difficult than the Ancient One, given the size of his baggage.

Even Shang-Chi himself will probably need some updating. The character is an American invention born out of the 1970s kung fu movie craze, which is arguably out of date.

There are signs that Marvel is already working on it. Shang-Chi used to have no superpowers beyond his kung fu prowess, but in recent years, he’s gained the ability to replicate himself.

Both Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu are products of their time, but as a globalized world grapples with more sensitive approaches to cultural nuances, what do you do with one-sided, stereotypical characters who do not age well with time?

This essay was originally published in the Goldthread newsletter. To get this and other great content first, subscribe here.

Asian AmericaFilmAmerican filmsMarvelFu ManchuShang-Chi