Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige addressed Chinese fans’ most pressing concerns about the upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in a recent interview.
Feige held an exclusive 14-minute-long interview in English with the well-regarded veteran Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou on the day of the film’s U.S. red carpet premiere (it’s out widely on Sept. 3), which shone a spotlight on China’s biggest gripes so far about the film.
“Shang-Chi” doesn’t yet have a China release date, and it’s unclear whether it has formally passed censorship. Past franchise successes prove that crossing that hurdle into the world’s largest film market will of course be key to the title’s global gross.
One of the last major overseas trips Feige took before COVID-19 shutdowns was to Shanghai in 2019 for an “Avengers: Endgame” promotional event, he told Zhou, calling it “one of the biggest MCU fan events I’ve ever been [to].” The film opened in China two days before the U.S., and grossed $629 million there to become the country’s highest grossing foreign film of all time, and its sixth largest earner overall.
Marvel is clearly hoping that the franchise’s first Asian superhero will have the same box office appeal, despite some strong local concerns that have been brewing since the project was first announced.
Many Chinese viewers insist that any film based on comics featuring the archetypically stereotyped character Fu Manchu — who is Shang-Chi’s father and nemesis in the original comics — will turn out to be a racist depiction. Feige, however, explained that the character is “just one of the truths about the early comic books” but is not in the movie “in any way, shape or form” and is not a Marvel character.
He emphasized and reiterated the point a number of times.
“[Fu Manchu] is not a character we own or would ever want to own. It was changed in the comics many, many, many years ago. We never had any intention of [having him] in this movie,” he said. Later: “Definitively, Fu Manchu is not in this movie, is not Shang-Chi’s father, and again, is not even a Marvel character, and hasn’t been for decades.”
A second concern in China is that in the comics, Shang-Chi is at times portrayed as abandoning his Chinese roots to embrace the West, and in one plot line even goes so far as to kill his father.
“That’s certainly one of the elements we’ve changed,” Feige reassured. “All of our comics go back 60, 70, 80 years. Almost everything has happened in almost every comic, and we chose the elements that we like to turn into an MCU feature. So that story is not what this is about.”
The film actually tells the opposite story, he explained, depicting how Shang-Chi returns to engage with his father’s legacy after running away from it in his youth. He stressed: “That sense of running away…is presented as one of his flaws. It is a flaw to run away to the West and to hide from his legacy and his family — that’s how the movie is presented. And how he will face that and overcome that is part of what the story’s about.”
The framing is well-aimed. Chinese audiences in recent years have been particularly drawn to emotional stories about family without black-and-white battles of good against evil, attributes that helped shoot films like local animation “Ne Zha” and sci-fi spectacle “The Wandering Earth” to unexpected box office heights.
“Shang-Chi” ticks all those boxes, Feige said, describing the film’s story as one centred on the love, conflict and misunderstandings between a father and son, and unique in that there is no true villain.
Feige said Tony Leung, who plays the film’s ambiguous, flawed bad guy, is “the heart of the movie,” calling the Hong Kong icon “one of the greatest actors in the world.”
At one point, Zhou posed a question about the uncomfortable but widespread criticism in China that Simu Liu is not attractive or charismatic enough by local standards to carry the role, making the casting choice racist. As Zhou delicately put it, the decision has “caused a lot of misunderstandings among Chinese fans.”
Feige explained that many of the MCU’s origin stories for new characters featured lesser known or unknown actors who were right for the part and went on to stardom, citing Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Holland, Chris Evans and even Robert Downey, Jr., whose casting sparked initial blowback.
The executive urged viewers to see the movie before making judgements.
“Let all the hard work that the performer does be the proof, and not just the announcement or the Google search when somebody learns their name,” he said.
The interview was seen locally as part successful charm offensive and part last-minute damage control. One film blogger deemed Feige “quite sincere,” with answers that had “basically no ambiguity or deliberate side-stepping.”
In a comment like over 3,000 times, a Weibo user wrote: “I was previously thinking about not seeing it, but this has finally dispelled my doubts; I feel like I can watch the film with ease.”
Others bristled that Feige only addressed the widespread Chinese concerns about “Shang-Chi” at the last minute, when its box office there appeared to potentially be in jeopardy.
As one Weibo user cynically commented: “To sum up: ‘We don’t want to lose the mainland China market.’”