Marvel eyes China with Shang-Chi, but will audience buy it?

Los Angeles – In Hollywood’s latest attempt to score in the huge but highly restrictive – Chinese market, a Chinese actor has been cast as a leading Marvel superhero for the first time.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, out on Sept 2 in cinemas here, takes the 25th instalment in the wildly popular Marvel film series into mythical China, where enormous beasts, mysticism and gongfu collide for a tale about the difficult relationship between a son and his father.

The titular son – played by relatively unknown Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu – fled his controlling dad as a teenager after being sculpted into a deadly assassin, and washes up in the US.

There he lives anonymously, until his father - portrayed by Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung – sends a sinister gang to chase him home.

Yet despite a predominantly Asian cast and huge swathes of dialogue in Mandarin, success for Shang-Chi in China is far from guaranteed.

Like the previous Marvel film Black Widow, it still doesn’t have a release date in China, where movie theatres reopening this summer are stocked largely with patriotic domestic features.

As well as protecting Chinese filmmaking, this could reflect growing discontent with Disney-owned Marvel, whose next big superhero outing Eternals is being directed by Beijing-born Chloe Zhao.

Zhao won two Oscars including an historic best director statuette this year for Nomadland, but her success has been censored in China after a nationalist backlash over years-old interviews in which she appeared to criticise her country of birth.

Excitement in China for Shang-Chi also appears to be lukewarm among some social media users.

“This movie will only deepen the world’s stereotype of us,” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like messaging service.

“Marvel may not want to insult China, but it is a fact that in terms of casting, it has to cater to the American social aesthetic of humiliating China.” 

Another user called it “a poor attempt to mint money from Chinese audiences”.

On popular review site Duoban – similar to Rotten Tomatoes – one user bemoaned the notion of an Americanised Chinese man returning to his homeland to do battle with his traditionally-minded father.

“Marvel do you really want to enter China with such a plot?” the user wrote.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, in a recent interview with a Chinese film journalist, sought to tamp down that criticism, insisting the narrative is actually one of Shang-Chi returning to his roots.

“That sense of running away... is presented as one of his flaws,” he said, according to Variety.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton said the filmmakers had worked hard to overcome “some very clear stereotypes that were created in life and society, and that were also part of the original comics”. - AFP