‘Shang-Chi’ Screenwriter Dave Callaham on Keeping it Authentically Asian American

Marvel’s Shang-Chi premieres this week. As the first Asian-led Marvel film, there’s a lot of pressure to get this character and story right, given the comic book’s problematic history being rooted in stereotypical Asian tropes. Director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham did a lot of research on Shang-Chi’s comic book origins and knew what they wanted to do with him. 

“The process was, basically, we read the comics and Destin and I said, ‘Okay, so we don’t want to do these,’” said Callaham in a Zoom call from his home last week. “We were both really excited about the opportunity and what this movie could mean.”

Granted, the comic book series was developed in the ’70s by two white men — Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin — after watching an episode of the television series, Kung Fu, starring David Carrandine in yellowface. Although they decided to model the character after martial arts legend Bruce Lee, the storylines and villains in Shang-Chi were filled with stereotypes of Asian culture.

“I don’t believe it was done maliciously,” said Callaham. “It was just a very different era of comic books created by two white men about Asian people. It doesn’t reflect any sort of reality that we currently live in and it’s not stories that should be told or presented as truth. So, to their credit, Marvel understood that. So, they invited us to create anything we wanted inside of the world of [Shang-Chi].”

The prolific screenwriter, who is of Chinese descent, has worked on huge franchises like Godzilla, Mortal Kombat, and Wonder Woman, but felt a close connection with Shang-Chi.  

“I’ve written a lot of big movies, and I love doing it,” Callaham explained. “It’s a lot of fun, but I’ve never had an experience like this.The moment I realized that was day three or four of writing the script on page five or six of this thing. I got very emotional and I couldn’t figure out why. I sat back from my chair and I really checked in with myself and I audited what was happening. I realized, holy shit. I’ve never in my 19 years of writing actually been asked to write anything even resembling my experience.”

He was always used to writing for white voices and was finally asked to write from his perspective as an Asian American. He was ready for the challenge and succeeded in telling this story of Shang-Chi, a slacker living in San Francisco after running away from his home ten years ago. He is forced to confront the past he thought he left behind. 

It was cathartic for Callaham to tell this story since he knows a thing or two about hiding from your past and who you are. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Northern California, he spent the majority of his youth trying not to be seen or noticed for his ethnicity. 

“I thought that it was uncool,” Callaham revealed. “I don’t want to say ‘shameful,’ but I wasn’t seeing any sort of representation in the things that I was watching. I was thinking and being told, I don’t belong or I’m ‘other.’ So, the story of Shang-Chi literally hiding from his upbringing — from his ancestry — to me was like a really nice metaphor that I could pour some of my experience into.”

After several controversies from the Asian American community, Marvel knew they had to do better. Callaham commends them for wanting to change and allowing the film to address some of their past errors. “There wasn’t a lot of conversation about it because Marvel understood from day one that there hadn’t been a tremendous amount of representation in the MCU,” he said. “Specifically, there had been a couple of missteps that they have owned [up to] in terms of casting and choices that were made outside of me or outside of our project. And, they were very honest that they were looking to sort of change the way that people looked at Asian characters inside of the Marvel Universe. As I keep saying, to their credit, they knew when to get out of the way, and they knew that it was not their story to tell.”

(L-R): Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Callaham wants to make it clear that this is still a Marvel film. It just happens to have Asian elements to it, which he said is important for representation. Cretton and Callaham made sure to add the subtle Asian traits that many from the Asian diaspora will recognize — taking off the shoes before entering the home, the term “ABC,” being asked when you’re getting married, and so forth. 

“They really allowed Destin to walk in and say, ‘This is what’s important to us. If you don’t get it. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s because you haven’t had the experience that we’ve had and you haven’t lived your whole life not seeing these faces on screen. Let us tell you what we care about and what’s important, and they said ‘great, we trust you. Do whatever you want.’ It’s amazing,” explained Callaham. 

(L-R): Director Destin Daniel Cretton and Simu Liu on the set of Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Of course, when it comes to the worldwide Marvel audience — China is a global market power. Callaham understands the importance of the global market, but didn’t allow that to affect his story. He wanted to tell the best story he could and what it was like from an Asian American point of view. 

“I think we were all very nervous about how do we do this — how do we do a thing that won’t piss off this guy [or] won’t pick up that place,” he said. “And, ultimately, what we decided to do is just tell the best story we could; have it be as relatable; make it clear that we were coming from the heart; and, not trying to cash in on it. We were just going to tell our story. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but at least we were honest about it.”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theaters this Friday, September 3.

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